Attending the Center for Inquiry (CFI)’s “Women in Secularism” conference in Arlington, Virginia, May 18–20, 2012, was an inspiring experience. Having worked for CFI for six years, I have become used to the male-dominated culture that is prevalent in secularism. It was therefore refreshing to hear so many women speaking one after the other on why more women are not involved in the secular movement. The subject has felt like the elephant in the room for years—talked about among feminists in the movement, sure, but not at major meetings. The website for the event so succinctly hit the nail on the head: “until now.” CFI’s “Women in Secularism” conference was the very first national one dedicated to the subject—a historic event. As Ronald A. Lindsay, CFI president and CEO, put it during his opening remarks, “Some say it’s about time that we have a secular conference dedicated to women. I say it’s past time.”
One of the highlights of the conference was the very first talk, given by Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, on Saturday morning bright and early at 8:30 A.M. Jacoby was funny, passionate, and engaging right out of the gate. “Richard Dawkins is not the pope, Sam Harris is not a cardinal, and the late Christopher Hitchens is not the Holy Ghost!” she quipped after noting that some women seem to be turned off by the idea of trading in religious patriarchy for a secular one.
Another highlight on Saturday was a lively panel discussion on the intersection between nontheism and feminism moderated by Annie Laurie Gaylor, cofounder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, with FREE INQUIRY columnist Ophelia Benson, Blackfemlens.org editor Sikivu Hutchinson, Blag Hag blogger Jennifer McCreight, and Skepchick.org founder Rebecca Watson. The general discussion seemed to focus on the observation that both religious belief and sexism are so entrenched in our society that people take them completely for granted for the most part. Noted McCreight, rather astutely, “religious belief and sexist belief are alike in a lot of ways: it’s the little things that matter.” While people may realize that the big things, say the murder of someone for their lack of religious belief or the rape of a woman, are definitely bad, they’re less likely to think that smaller infractions, such as posting the Ten Commandments on public school grounds or saying “ran away like a little girl” as an insult, are a big deal. But it is the little stuff that adds up and keeps sexist and religious beliefs so pervasive in our society.
Gaylor presented an appealing and informative PowerPoint on “The History of Women in Freethought.” Her presentation spanned from Anne Hutchinson in the seventeenth century to high-school activist Jessica Ahlquist today and dozens of women in between. It really brought home the point that women have always made contributions, big and small, to the secular movement. It’s just that they haven’t been recognized in the same way that many men’s contributions have been.
Another very memorable moment of the conference came during the “Why Women Need Freedom from Religion” panel, moderated by Jacoby with FREE INQUIRY columnist Greta Christina, human rights activist Wafa Sultan, Gaylor, and executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science U.S., Elisabeth Cornwell. During the Q and A portion of the session, an audience member asked the panelists how they respond to the claim that spreading secularism among oppressed religious women, like those under sharia law in Islamic countries, is being imperialist. Christina responded, “Tell that to the girl who had her clitoris cut off, or to the girl with the acid thrown in her face. And all I have to say to them [those who say we shouldn’t spread secularism because it’s not respectful of that culture] is fuck you!,” which she accentuated with a double flip of the bird. What I loved about that moment was it seemed to embody a lot of what the “Women in Secularism” conference was about. Women are passionate about secularism and the rights of our fellow human beings, and that passion does not need to be expressed in a demure and “ladylike” fashion. The harm that religious oppression can do really pisses us off.
Sunday was dedicated to the future of women in secularism. The highlight of the day was the panel discussion on the topic moderated by Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt: A History, and featuring journalist and activist Jamila Bey, Christina, McCreight, and Debbie Goddard, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism’s African Americans for Humanism. The general consensus seemed to be that the future of women’s involvement in the movement lies with students, Internet activism, and creating a secular humanist community that is welcoming to women as well as men. Goddard mentioned that in order to get more women in secularism and skepticism, we need to broaden our focus to practical matters that will appeal to women: “As the scope of the movement expands, we can influence people a lot by looking at things like inner-city education.” She continued, “People who have three kids and two jobs don’t have the luxury of sitting around for two hours listening to forty-seven reasons God doesn’t exist.”
I’d dare to say that the high point of the conference was Wafa Sultan’s Saturday afternoon address on women in Islam. Powerful is the best word I can think of to sum it up. On her earlier panel, she said of herself, “I was once introduced as the only female Muslim to tell an imam on TV to be quiet. I did not tell him to be quiet. I told him to shut up!” Sultan recounted some of the atrocities she witnessed during her thirty-two years in Syria under sharia law, including her niece’s marriage at age eleven to a man well into his forties who abused her horribly. When Sultan’s niece went to her family for help, her own father turned her away so that she would not bring dishonor to her household. When Sultan told her rapt audience that her niece committed suicide when she was twenty-eight, there was hardly a dry eye in the entire room.
Sultan attributes much of Islamic oppression to the vicious cycle perpetuated generation to generation: “A child who sees his mother abused his entire life, how could he have any other view of how things are supposed to be?” But Sultan holds hope that the cycle can be broken from an unlikely quarter: ten years ago, when the Internet came to her country of Syria, she said to her husband, “this is the beginning of the end of Islam.” The Internet may also be instrumental in getting women in Islamic countries to recognize the oppression under which they live. “The worst form of slavery is when the slave believes he is free. This is how women under Islam feel,” Sultan explained. Once they see how people in free countries live—something that is impossible to keep from happening with the Internet around—women will begin to reject sharia law.
Sultan ended her talk by asserting that “a culture that doesn’t respect half its population will never prosper,” and she received the only standing ovation of the conference. That is a sentiment that everyone in the secular movement—man, woman, or genderqueer—can agree with. In one sound bite, Sultan captured what CFI’s “Women in Secularism” conference was all about.
Julia Lavarnway is assistant editor at FREE INQUIRY, a columnist for the Secular Humanist Bulletin, and the managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.