Women and Muslim fundamentalists’ entryist policies in Europe and North America

McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women
Report back of the Muriel V. Roscoe Annual lecture given by Marieme Hélie-Lucas in November 2005.
Feminist activist Marieme Hélie-Lucas, an Algerian sociologist who is a key founding member of the women’s rights solidarity network “Women Living Under Muslim Laws” (WLUML), addressed a packed audience on the secular response to fundamentalist claims.
She acknowledged that the Recent decision in Ontario against allowing religious arbitration in family matters was “wonderful.” However, although the secularists had “won that battle against fundamentalist forces, the war has still not been won.”

Hélie-Lucas said that fundamentalists uphold only their interpretation of Islam and believe those who don’t ascribe to their version of religion should not be tolerated and may be even killed, as happened in Algeria. Marieme Hélie-Lucas mentioned that fundamentalists promote the seclusion of women, rejection of democracy and enforcement of Sharia law. They promote Sharia law as a monolithic Islamic law. However, there are a variety of legal opinions and thus a variety of laws across the Muslim world. The point is that all these laws are man-made; there are laws ranging from mutual consent in divorce in Tunisia to financial compensation for domestic work to the wife at the time of divorce in Iran (a law Hélie-Lucas thinks is progressive, even by Western standards).

Hélie-Lucas emphasized that fundamentalism is a political movement of an extreme right-wing nature that is on the rise all over the world. Globally, it takes the form of discrimination, marginalization and exclusion of immigrants. In the Muslim context, she feels that there is a rise in fundamentalist entryist policies all over Europe,and especially in France, that are asking for all kinds of ‘specifi cities’ that range from segregated private schools to asking that female doctors treat female patients. She defended the French government’s stance on secularism -- even as it banned the hijab for girls in public schools and public officials representing the state.

While it is good to tolerate differences and diversity, Hélie-Lucas emphasized that not everything should be accepted in the name of difference. She fi nds problematic any practice, such as religious arbitration in family matters, that leads to the privatization of social problems. What ends up happening in such cases, she explained, is that there is a communalization of interests. Only Muslims end up helping Muslims; only Jews help Jews. “Why are marginalization and attacks in a country not everyone’s problem?” she demanded, “Why shouldn’t the Republic take care of all its citizens?”

Hélie-Lucas did note certain positive developments such as multiple complementary strategies that are being adopted across the world in defense of women’s rights. She cited the entry of women into theology, changes in discriminatory laws, and secular strategies that promote human and women’s rights.

However, when it comes to fundamentalists Hélie-Lucas lamented, there seems to be an ‘unholy’ alliance across religions. Right-wing Muslims in France are supported by other Right-wing parties such as Le Pen’s National Front, and there is what she called an “unholy alliance” between the Vatican and Muslim religious authorities over issues such as contraception. However on the other end of the spectrum, secularists are scared of banding together at the cost of appearing racist or “anti-Islam”.

Thus, Hélie-Lucas believes that it is absolutely crucial to build solidarity across religious and national boundaries on secular terms. People shouldn’t be afraid to be labeled Islamophobic when they are speaking out against the extreme Right, because, in her opinion, that is not Islam.

Furthermore, the media should also give visibility to these secular forces and not just to the protestors in favor of entryist policies. For example, when Sharia laws were being opposed, none of the women who publicly supported secularism were represented in the media. Solidarity is a two-way process, Hélie-Lucas said, from which all women benefit because Right-wing forces ultimately and indirectly affect the lives of all women and must be combated collectively.