Interview With Maryam Namazie #SSAWeek

Welcome to Hour Eighteen of the Token Skeptic Sunday Sessions!

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Maryam Namazie is a political activist, campaigner and blogger, and the spokesperson for Fitnah - Movement for Women’s Liberation, and also the Equal Rights NowOne Law for All Campaign against Sharia Law in Britain and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.

The official site for Fitnah: Movement for Women’s Liberation can be found at http://fitnahmovement.blogspot.co.uk, and is described as a protest movement demanding freedom, equality, and secularism and calling for an end to misogynist cultural, religious and moral laws and customs, compulsory veiling, sex apartheid, sex trafficking, and violence against women. It aims to remind the Islamic regime of Iran and Islamists everywhere that the women’s liberation movement is a source of fitnah for their rule alone.

The petition for supporting Fitnah can be found at https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/fitnah

Maryam works closely with Iran Solidarity, which she founded, and the International Committee against Stoning. She has spoken and written numerous articles on women’s rights issues, free expression, political Islam, and secularism and been interviewed by all the major international news outlets. She has co-authored Sharia Law in Britain: A Threat to One Law for All and Equal Rights (One Law for All, June 2010) and Enemies Not Allies: The Far-Right (One Law for All, August 2011), and has an essay entitled ‘When the Hezbollah came to my School’ in 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (Wiley-Blackwell, October 2009) amongst others.

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Kylie Sturgess:  Firstly, my experience with the word fitnah is that it means chaos, disaster, and sexual desire for women, often referring to the woman herself. What led you to choose this word for your group?

Maryam Namazie:  Actually, there is a hadith, a saying of Mohammad, Islam’s prophet, which says that he’s left no greater fitnah or harm for men than women. This is a recurring theme in all religions, obviously, but particularly Islam. Women are seen to be a source of harm, affliction, and discord.

If you follow the news recently there’s, in Iran, some young men who were deemed to be criminals were actually paraded around town wearing women’s clothing and a hijab, because nothing could be more humiliating than being a woman.

There’s this theme and Fitnah describes it. A lot of women have come to me after we’ve announced this movement saying that they can’t count the amount of times that they have been called fitnah. Yes, you’re right. It has been used negatively. It is a negative term about women. But, in a sense, if you look at the women who are called fitnah, it’s women who are disobedient, who transgress the norms, who refuse, who resist, who revolt, who won’t submit.

In that sense, I think, it’s a very good name to give a women’s liberation movement, particularly since what we’re saying is that if we are fitnah, we’re fitnah against Islamists and they need to watch out for us, because we are the movement that will bring Islamism to its knees in a sense.

Kylie:  What are the exact goals for Fitnah, for this movement?

Maryam:  In a sense, I think Fitnah represents a new era that we’re living in. It may not seem very new and it may seem very much like it’s the same old same old, but it’s not. I think we are entering a new era, no longer one of unbridled Islamic terrorism, US‑led militarism, and unbridled free market reign.

We’re now in a new era of revolutions and revolts. The 99 percent movement, the hour of spring, uprisings in various countries in the Middle East to North Africa, much of it, female‑led, women‑led. In that sense, I think, what this movement does is herald this new era, announcing it and going on the offensive.

I think, very much, in the past, women’s liberation movements were on the defensive, because of this unbridled barbarity against women and violence against women. But I think this era is really our time, in a sense, to shine and to go on the offensive against religion and religious misogyny.

That’s the aim of this protest movement. It’s announcing that era, saying we’re going on the offensive, and warning the Islamists that their end is near and obviously nothing is guaranteed. Everything depends on human will and intervention.

But I think a period in our lives when people are intervening and have come to the floor, particularly women and women’s liberation movements, I include men in this. I think it’s a very hopeful time and there are great possibilities ahead of us.

Kylie:  I’ve noticed that the Facebook group has several items in Farsi, I believe, in Arabic writing. Who is the target audience for Fitnah’s message? How are you getting the word out there?

Maryam:  I think Fitnah is an international movement, but very much centered or sparked from women’s rights movements in Iran because it is a leading women’s liberation movement in the region. In a sense, it’s a reflection of that movement, of the movement that is rearing its wonderful head in the Middle East and North Africa, and also very much linked internationally.

In a sense, it is an international movement, because one of the things that we’re so tired of hearing, and that is very much remnants of the old era, is this whole idea of cultural relativism and the fact that people have rights depending on their culture.

This always seems to look at Islamism’s culture rather than realize that there is no one homogenous culture. Whilst the dominant culture might be the culture of the ruling elite, Islamists, it might include stonings and amputations. That is not people’s culture.

As the women’s rights campaigners shouted on the streets of Tehran 30 years ago when they were faced with compulsory veiling, they said that freedom is my culture and rights are neither eastern or western, they’re universal.

I think, in a sense, the fact that this movement is linked globally is indicative of a protest movement that demands freedom and equality and secularism, not just for people in the west, but people everywhere and sees this as a demand for people everywhere.

In a sense, I think, while it’s rooted in the movements in Iran in particular, in the Middle East and North Africa, I think it’s hugely relevant for women’s liberation movements elsewhere as well.

Kylie:  What’s been your experience of religious subjugation for women? What have you faced, personally, that has led you in this direction?

Maryam: For me, too, it was personal in the sense that religion was really not very much an important part of my life until the Islamic regime was established in Iran. The fact that I became this thing that had to be covered up and segregated in the schoolyard from my friends who were boys, walking the streets of Tehran and seeing women’s bodies on magazines being completely blacked out, or on billboards, before they were able to change things.

The fact that being female was perceived to be so despicable, in a sense, that needed to be covered up, not heard from, not seen, had a huge impact on me.

Obviously, the Iranian revolution, which wasn’t an Islamic revolution, also had a huge impact, because there was this fight against dictatorship, for freedom, for equality. Women had a huge role to play in the revolution, as well as at the beginning when the Islamic regime was trying to impose compulsory veiling and so on and so forth. That was obviously suppressed.

The effects and the politicization of that revolution carries on today in Iranian society as well. So in a sense, I think, Iran is quite key in the fight against Islamism, because of this very politicized modern and secular movement against the Islamic regime of Iran.

I think for me or for anyone who’s lived under Islamic rule, I do strongly believe that the greatest opponents of Shari’a Law or Islamism are people who’ve lived under it. Though, oftentimes, this may seem a contradiction given all the propaganda of how this is people’s culture and you have to respect the right to wear the hijab…

It’s like saying people have a right to wear body bags and have a right to sexual apartheid. It’s just absurd and preposterous, the lengths at which the propaganda machinery here in the west has defended Islamism and its tools of oppressing women and portrayed it as something to do with women’s rights and equality.

In fact, most of the opponents you’ll find are people who’ve actually lived under it. To the extent where I gave you the example of, in Marivan, Iran right now, there’s a huge movement of women who are wearing red and they’re called The Red Clothed Women. They’re protesting the fact that men were paraded in the streets, dressed as women, as a form of humiliating them, saying that being a woman is not a form of humiliation, first off.

Second of all, defending men as well, and human dignity. So you’ve found, in this short period when this happened, since last Monday, you’ve got hundreds of men dressed in women’s clothing with slogans of gender equality.

You’re hearing about people in small villages and towns and cities in Iran gathering petitions against what happened and defending women’s equality. In that sense, what you see is that this is very much a demand for people everywhere.

Going back to the sorts of discrimination and inequality, it’s from the very fact that you’re a second class citizen, even your testimony, legally, is worth half that of a man’s. You get half what a boy does in inheritance, if you’re a girl. You have to be veiled if you’re a girl or woman.

There are certain fields of education or work are closed to you because you’re considered emotional and female. It’s similar to racial apartheid, during the apartheid era in South Africa, but with regard, sex. So you have separate entrances for women into government offices.

The Caspian Sea, for example, has a curtain, which separates men from women. It’s this oppressive and absurd level of segregation, because women are seen to be such sources of Fitnah. That’s why this movement is so important and the name is so important, even though it is perceived to be negative by some.

Kylie:  Some people might register the term “fitnah” as negative, but has the response to the group been positive? Have you had a lot of support from people?

Maryam:  I think the response has been wonderfully positive.

Kylie:  Oh good!

Maryam:  I think people are…In a sense, this is a protest movement that has already begun. We’re just naming it and trying to mobilize as much support as we can for it and to make the links both with Iran, the Middle East, and North Africa, but also internationally.

In that sense, I think this movement does represent a large segment of a very young population in the Middle East to North Africa, that are fed up with Islamism, that are fed up with Islamic morality as 19‑year old Amina Tyler, the Femen activist in Tunisia, said, My body is not the source of your honor.

She post a topless photo of herself with the slogan of fuck your morals, because it’s exactly the sort of morality, religious morality which is really immoral when you think about it, that people are so fed up of.

In that sense, the support has been great. It needs a lot more support, obviously, and it’s at the beginning of things, but it is building from a huge movement that is already in existence. In that sense, I think, it will move from strength to strength.

Kylie:  Excellent. How can people help? What are some of the things that people can do now and in the future, if they’re supportive?

Maryam:  Of course, there’s many things people can do at different levels, signing our petition is one. It’s just simple, saying that they support Fitnah. As men or as women, that they support women’s liberation, that they support freedom, equality, and secularism, and that they’re opposed to religious misogyny and inequality and so on and so forth.

There are also different campaigns that we’re organizing. Our first one is actually in support of the red clothed women of Marivan, Iran, which is in Iran in Kurdistan. There have been huge protests in Marivan in defense of the women. Some of them have given interviews to our organization, have talked about the impact they’re having. That information is on our blog, which is fitnahmovement.blogspot.com.

Of course, people can also find out more about it on my own blog, which is freethoughtblogs.com/maryamnamazie.

Of course, this is something that is ongoing, so we’ll be having more campaigns. We’ll be doing lobbying on specific issues and on cases that are relevant. We’ll be organizing rallies and events.

We’re having a huge conference in March of 2014 to mark International Women’s Day in London. It’ll be an international conference where we’re hoping to bring women’s rights campaigners, which include men as well, particularly from the Middle East to North Africa, but as well as internationally, to talk about issues of freedom, equality, and secularism.

There are loads of ways in which people can support this movement. I think the most important thing is to stand firmly for the fact that people everywhere deserve the same rights and equality. That just because someone is born in Iran doesn’t mean that they should have lesser rights.

In a sense, showing solidarity with people versus governments and distinguishing between people and government is hugely crucial here. I find, very often, solidarity can be labeled imperialism or Western… I don’t know, white colonialism and so on and so forth. Whereas, solidarity between people is never that.

People have to learn to distinguish between the two and stand firm with those who, in a sense, represent all of us. I think that there’s a lot of hesitation sometimes for solidarity and it’s hugely crucial if movements are going to succeed.

Other links:

About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.


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