NSS awards Secularist of the Year prize to Yasmin Rehman

NSS awards Secularist of the Year prize to Yasmin Rehman March 19, 2017

The Irwin Prize of £5000 for Secularist of the Year 2017 was awarded in London yesterday by the National Secular Society to Yasmin Rehman, the secular campaigner for women’s rights. 
Rehman has spent much of the past two years to get the Government to recognise the dangers faced by ex-Muslims and Ahmadi Muslims from Islamic extremists. She has used her own home as a shelter for women at risk of domestic abuse. She and her family have received death threats from Muslim extremists because of her activities.

Accepting the prize, Rehman thanked the Society for recognising her work and said she was “incredibly humbled” to be nominated among other figures who were “personal heroines.”
She said there were two women, Maryman Namazie and Gita Sahgal, whom she couldn’t have campaigned without, and that she was honoured to stand beside them.
Secularism was not opposed to faith, she said, before describing how she had been shut down as “Islamophobic” and “racist” despite being a Muslim herself. There is anti-Muslim sentiment in society, she said, but “Islamophobia” was being used to silence and curtail speech.
Rehman said she didn’t know if she could ever go back to Pakistan because of her work in the UK, while in the UK it was “impossible” to get funding her secularist work. She asked where women could possibly turn if they faced religiously-justified abuse.
Muslim women were left with nothing but religious, sharia arbitration, while faith healing was spreading, with ill women being controlled by male relatives and religious leaders and told to pray instead of seeking medical treatment.
FGM and honour-based violence were being dismissed as “cultural”, while in fact polygamist and temporary marriages were Islamic practises, she said. There is a slippery road from this to child marriage, and there should be “no space” in the UK for these practises.
“Great powers within the community” were holding women back, and low rates of Muslim female employment could not be attributed entirely to discrimination by employers.
Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said:

I’m particularly pleased that this afternoon we have a secularist [Yasmin Alibhai-Brown] who is also a Muslim to present our prizes. She is living proof that secularism and Muslims can co-exist if given half a chance and co-founded British Muslims for Secular Democracy in 2006.

Sanderson described how secularism protected the rights of all and said it and democracy were “interdependent”.
Alibhai-Brown said:

The thing I find interesting and frightening at the moment is when I talk to young Muslims is how little they understand what secularism means.

She said the Society’s most important work was in explaining what secularism meant for young people, particularly Muslims, and demonstrate that secularism was not atheism.
She warned of the growth of Muslim “exceptionalism” and that:

Universalism needs to be promoted.

The Society was joined at the central London lunch event by previous winners of the prize including Maryam Namazie who was the inaugural Secularist of the Year back in 2005. Peter Tatchell, who won the prize on 2012 also attended.

Maryam Namazie pictured with Barry Duke, editor of the Freethinker, who was given a Lifetime Achievement Award for his commitment to free speech, LGBT rights and equality and resistance to censorship in apartheid South Africa. Namazie contributes a regular monthly column to the Freethinker.
Turkish parliamentarian and 2014 Secularist of the Year Safak Pavey was unable to join the Society, but sent a message to attendees:

I wish I could be with you but we have the critical referendum approaching and we are very busy with the campaign. Each and every one of your shortlisted nominees is a very distinguished members of the secular society without borders.
I wholeheartedly thank all of them for their courageous and precious contributions in defence and support of secularism and congratulate this year’s Secularist while looking forward to work together for our shared cause.

Sanderson praised her for working in “increasingly dangerous” circumstances to resist the Islamisation of Turkey.
Other campaigners were thanked for their work and Sanderson singled out Dr Steven Kettell, who was shortlisted for the prize, for his “excellent response” to the Commission on Religion and Belief in Public which had advocated expanding many religious privileges.
He thanked Dr Kettell for pointing out the many injustices that CORAB’s recommendations would have introduced, in his “excellent” report.
Scott Moore, the founder of Let Schools Choose, was thanked for his campaign work.

Scott Moore with Yasmin Rehman
He said that, as an 18 year old, he had been campaigning for his entire adult life to separate religion and state, after religion was forced on him and taught as “absolute fact” during his childhood. He said the education system in Northern Ireland “robbed” pupils of their religious freedom.

All belief systems should be treated equally, but they are not.

He was applauded for his hard-fought campaign work and Sanderson said Moore gave him:

Hope for the future.

Nominee Houzan Mahmoud of the Kurdish Culture Project, spoke powerfully about the important of universal rights and freedoms.
Houzan said:

For the work in activism that I have done for nearly two decades against Islamism and Sharia Law in Kurdistan, Iraq, the UK and beyond, to be recognised by the NSS is one of the greatest honours I could be conferred.

The Society’s volunteer of the year was named, Sven Klinge, and thanked for the many occasions in which he has photographed NSS events.

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  • Stuart H.

    A worthy winner – but then, any of the list of nominees deserve prizes and support from not just us but the wider community. As Terry S says, particularly great to see a teenage nominee in there too.
    And reading the comments by nominees and past winners really drives it home how much work there is to be done, despite all the whining from religionists in those few cases where we’ve succeeded in getting their privileges trimmed back.

  • CoastalMaineBird

    I can’t help but wonder if the award will make her a bigger target for those who are keen on protecting their all-powerful deity from dangerous ideas.

  • Three cheers

  • Angela_K

    A well deserved prize. It is brave women such as Ms Rehman who are slowly chipping away at male religious hegemony and doing her best – under some considerable personal risk – to publicise the oppression of women under Islam. Long may your good work continue.

  • Gui

    “I can’t help but wonder if the award will make her a bigger target for those who are keen on protecting their all-powerful deity from dangerous ideas.”
    It’s certainlly funny how for people so certain in beliving in a power beyond the natural world and the normal comprehension can have their feelings so easilly hurt.
    At last, why such supernatural and omnipotent deities should be hit by the actions perpetrated by mere humans?

  • barriejohn

    Yes – three cheers for these people who are actually making a difference in the world, though they must feel, to use one of my father’s favourite phrases, as if they are swimming through treacle most of the time! Coincidentally, there was a review on the BBC today of the biopic of Madalyn Murray O’Hair (The Most Hated Woman in America), which is to be released shortly, and which looks most interesting:

  • 1859

    Well done Barry and Ms Rehman – may this inspire others to go even further.
    @barriejohn: a hundred years ago the treacle was almost solid, but today at least we can swim in it and stay afloat.