Free Inquiry
Appeared in Free Inquiry, vol 35 issue 2

Why Secularism Is Necessary for Women

Taslima Nasrin

Secularism is necessary for women’s freedom simply because religions—all religions—are opposed to women’s freedom. No woman can have the rights and freedoms she deserves under any religion’s laws. Women have greater rights in those countries where laws are not based on religion and where the state is separated from religion. Women are more sorely oppressed in those countries where the state and religion are not strictly separated, where laws are based on religion, where societies are not secular, and where the people follow religious tenets and are not educated about women’s equality.

The state must be separated from religion so that laws can be religion-free.

The definition of secularism is different in different countries. To me, secularism means unrelated to any religion. In some supposedly enlightened countries, secularism not only means respecting all religions equally, it also means respecting the barbarisms of all religions equally. I support the rights of all people to practice their religious beliefs privately, but I oppose the idea of respecting religions. In truth, I have no respect for any religion. I believe religion is not compatible with human rights, women’s rights, or freedom of expression.

Tragedy and Hope in Bangladesh

I am Bengali, and I have witnessed how my people created a secular state and how it was quickly ruined. We fought against the then-new Islamic Republic of Pakistan in order to save our Bengali language and secular culture—to replace Islamism with secularism. We had a revolution and ultimately a war against Pakistan. We were victorious in December 1971, and a new, secular country called Bangladesh was born. But after only a few years, the wrong people came to power and slowly destroyed the country. They changed the constitution and made the country Islamic and non-Muslim people second-class citizens. Now, Bangladesh is completely under the control of Islamists who revile democracy. They seek to establish a theocracy and to bury democracy and secularism forever. Once a thriving community of vibrant, affectionate, creative people, unfortunate Bangladesh is now drowning in Islamism.

I continue to encourage the people of Bangladesh to transform their country back into a secular nation so that they can fight against poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, superstition, fascism, and barbarism.

Recently, a new secular movement called Shahbag has arisen in Bangladesh. It deserves the support of all sane and secular people. It has dared to challenge Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist political party, even demanding that that party be proscribed. (Though I support democracy, I also support a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami because in Bangladesh it is nothing but a terrorist organization.) Reformers have faced terrible opposition. Islamists killed two atheist bloggers associated with Shahbag: Asif Mohiuddin, twenty-nine, and Ahmed Rajib, thirty-five. Powerful Islamists continue to demand the execution of eighty-four other atheist bloggers on the grounds that they have insulted religion.

The label “atheist” is sometimes imposed by Islamists inappropriately to further their own aims. Many Shahbag members consider themselves Muslims. Alarmingly, atheist has come to be seen as an obscene word in Bangladesh. It is tragic that even liberal people, inside and outside of the country, do so little to support of the freedom of expression of atheists—whether they be those who are simply labeled as atheists by their powerful enemies or a significant number of activists who genuinely are atheists.

Islam must not be exempt from critical scrutiny; neither must any other religion. Islam in particular needs to undergo a process of enlightenment and reformation similar to what other religions have experienced. If the secular movement in Bangladesh can’t make people understand this simple but necessary concept, then real change can never occur. I know that even the atheists in the Shahbag secular movement would say that the time for this idea has not yet come. However, I earnestly hope that people will soon be motivated by the realization that there is no real difference between the Islam of the seventh century and the Islam that Islamic terrorist organizations practice today.

I also hope that, if the present-day Shahbag movement fails to achieve its goals, the brave and enlightened people associated with it will not become permanently disillusioned or disheartened. I hope they will renew their efforts until their dreams come true.

People like to believe that Islam is a religion of peace. Since my childhood, I have witnessed the opposite.

The Need for Anger and Resistance

People need to get angry. I am painfully aware that evil powers once sought my death and with the pro-Islamist government of Bangladesh conspired to throw me out of my own country twenty years ago, never to allow me back. Therefore, I know how much I would love to see hundreds of thousands of angry, passionate young people with a secular vision rise against the insanity of Islamists and offer guideposts toward real change, toward a new era.

Instead, crowds in the hundreds of thousands support the Islamists. Last year, half a million Islamists gathered in the city of Dhaka. Mobilized by an organization called Hefazat-e-Islam, they set fire to shops and vehicles and killed both police and civilians. These were their demands:

• Restore the call for “absolute trust and faith in Allah” in the constitution of Bangladesh and repeal all laws that conflict with the values of the Qur’an and Sunnah (the normative Muslim way of life).

• Enact an anti-defamation law that retains the death penalty for such crimes as defaming Allah, Muhammad, or Islam and “spreading hate” against Muslims.

• Immediately prohibit antireligious writings by atheist bloggers holding leading positions in the so-called Shahbag movement; make their punishment exemplary.

• End all alien cultural practices: immodesty, obscenity, misconduct, free mixing of the sexes, and candle-lighting in the name of personal freedom and free speech.

• Abolish the anti-Islamic inheritance law (which ignores Islam’s requirement that women inherit half as much as men) and “ungodly” education policy. Make Islamic education compulsory.

As we read this list, one thing is unmistakably clear: “almighty” Allah must be very weak and unable to protect himself and his religion. The government and some Islamic organizations must protect Allah, not to mention Islam itself, from atheists, who must be powerful indeed. What is implied if such radical steps are necessary? Almost all political parties in Bangladesh already support Islam and Islamists. The Bangladeshi government frequently takes action against critics of Islam. Yet that is not enough. Bangladesh’s radical Islamists desperately seek to protect Islam by any means, never realizing that this portrays Islam as a hobbled faith that is unable to survive without artificial supports.

Atheism under Attack

Atheists are under attack, not only in Bangladesh but in many other countries (though especially in Muslim countries). Why must we protect a charlatan called Muhammad for centuries? Why must we defend Allah, who does not exist? Why do Muslims in the twenty-first century think it is their right to violate people’s human rights, including their right to freedom of expression? Most of all, why do so many in the international community think they should refrain from speaking out when enlightened atheists are jailed, banned, or even mutilated and slaughtered for the sake of seventh-century myths that reek of inhumanity?

“Atheism shouldn’t be a crime,” cried one secularist. “Blasphemy should be celebrated, not outlawed.” These bold words remind us of the obvious yet vital point that atheism must not be criminalized. Those subversive individuals who have the bad manners to remind us that no idea is sacred—that governmental defense of any theology necessarily weakens the legitimacy of both the government and the theology—should be thanked. They are making us think, reminding us what it means to live in a free and open society.

In the final analysis, ideas (including religious ideas) cannot be defamed—only people can.

Reading the Qur’an in . . . Name the Place

We all know what happened at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. We recognize the names of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged perpetrators of the attack. Yet did you know that members of the Tsarnaev family have been embroiled in political struggles since the 1940s? Josef Stalin was their first enemy. They were uprooted from their native Chechnya and forced into exile in Kyrgyzstan. Wherever they went, they faced ethnic discrimination. Despite it all, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were good boys—at first. They were sent to good schools to become better boys. They called themselves Muslims, though they barely practiced the faith. Then, radical Islamism claimed their thinking and destroyed everything. It brought blindness, veils, unreason. Good boys became bad boys. Very bad boys: they became terrorists.

Religion is such a powerful evil! Good boys needed religion to become bad boys.

The Qur’an is powerful but unpredictable. After reading the Qur’an, Boston’s Tsarnaev brothers became religious terrorists. After reading the Qur’an, I became an atheist. Can we draw any conclusion from this? The Qur’an is a very dangerous book. Some who revere it become harmless; some become extremists; some become terrorists. You never know what you may become—good or bad—if you read it. It is better not to believe the words of any holy books because there is no evidence that Allah—or any other gods—exist.

Religions are all made up of lies. And lies are always harmful.

Some Islamists brainwashed Tamerlan Tsarnaev to become a terrorist. Religion stunted his thinking mind. During my childhood, many people tried to brainwash me to become religious. I refused. I never prayed. Instead, I was a curious child. I always asked questions if I did not understand something.

My Story

Even at age twelve, I knew I was an atheist. It came easily to me. I had studied science and taken it to heart, so it was hard for me to accept Qur’anic assertions that the sun moves around the earth, the moon shines by its own light, and mountains exist to support the earth so that it will not fall down. I came to suspect—eventually, to be sure—that the Qur’an was not written by someone with any knowledge of science.

As I grew up, I observed the women around me. My mother was oppressed: she had been given into marriage as a child. At first a good student, she was not allowed to continue her studies. My grandfather forbade it. He wanted her to be a good housewife, a good mother, a good caretaker. That’s all. Education was for boys.

Every aspect of my upbringing reinforced that girls were inferior to boys. Boys could play outdoors, in the fields; girls had to play with their dolls in a corner of the house. My brothers could go anywhere they wanted and watch or play any games they wished; I could not. My sister could not. I was told that girls were not made for such activities, that their role was to stay home and learn how to cook, make beds, and clean the house. My mother was not the only woman who was oppressed; I saw that my aunts and my female neighbors and other acquaintances were trapped in the same roles and oppressed as well. But, in all of our minds, torture of women was not oppression but rather tradition. We had become accustomed to tradition.

Moving into adulthood, I realized that I was a part of that tradition but also that I was being oppressed, just as my female classmates and, later, my female patients were. (I first studied medicine and became a medical doctor. Becoming a writer came later.)

Women under Islam

Women’s rights are human rights. But Islam does not consider woman to be a separate human being. It teaches that the male was the original creation; womankind was created secondarily and solely for man’s pleasure. Islam treats women as intellectual, moral, and physical inferiors. In marriage, Islam protects the rights of men only. The Qur’an gives men total freedom within marriage, saying: “Your women are as your field, go unto them as you will” (2.223). The Hadith says that two prayers never reach the heavens: first, those of escaping slaves and, second, those of reluctant women who frustrate their husbands at night.

Islam considers women psychologically inferior, too. They are not allowed to testify in divorce cases. If a woman is raped, she must produce four male witnesses for the court. If she cannot, no charge will be brought. In Islamic law, the testimony of two women is worth that of one man. If a man suspects his wife of adultery or denies the legitimacy of the offspring, his testimony is worth that of four witnesses. A wife has no right to charge her husband in a similar manner. Nor can women inherit property on equal terms with their brothers; Allah proclaims that when an estate is settled, a male shall inherit twice as much as a female (4.11–12). (And yes, as we saw above, this reactionary principle is one of the traditional standards that Bangladesh’s Hefazat-e-Islam seeks to restore.)

And after men have enjoyed all their rights and freedoms, after they have obtained all possible sexual pleasure in addition to the pleasure of having been masters, after death men will be rewarded with exquisite wine and food and seventy-two virgins in Paradise, including whatever wives they had on Earth. And what is the reward in the afterlife for the pious woman? Nothing. Nothing but the same old husband, the same man who caused her suffering during this physical life.

A Woman without a Country

In Bangladesh in the beginning of the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Islamists burned my books publicly and marched to demand my execution. Fatwas, Islamic religious edicts, were issued against me; a price was set on my head. Instead of resisting the Islamists, the government took action against me. I was accused of blasphemy and, finally, thrown out of my country. My crime was writing these words: “It is dangerous to follow the religious scriptures in this modern world. Not only the Qu’ran, but all the religious scriptures are out of time, out of place. And they are all anti-women.”

In all the world, I have no country to call my own. I am left with memories of a land and people intrinsic to my being, whose language and culture molded me. It has been twenty years since my country abandoned me, and I have never been allowed back. When my mother lay on her deathbed, the Bangladeshi government told me I could not return. A few years later when my father was dying, I begged, pleaded, and cried to be allowed to visit him, if only for two days. Once again, the government refused to permit me to enter my country.

After living my exile life in Europe and America for a decade, I moved to India. In India, too, fatwas were issued against me. I was physically attacked by Muslim fundamentalists, received numerous death threats, and witnessed violent protests against my writings by bloodthirsty mobs in city after city. The threats did not always come from Islamist fanatics. Sometimes, disturbingly, they came from leftist intellectuals who felt that they must defend Islam because it is India’s minority’s religion. They consider themselves defenders of human rights—yet they do not object when the human rights of Muslim women are continually violated.

Should Islam continue to be untouchable, immune to criticism by outsiders? In the West, too, intellectuals enjoying the comforts of secularism quail from criticizing the Islamic oppression of women for fear it might hurt the religious sensibilities of Muslims. Some fear reprisals by Muslim radicals. Most do not want to be seen taking a critical stand that might make them appear racist or “anti-Muslim.” Many fear being called Islamophobes. It’s amazing to see the amount of energy the civilized world expends to protect Muslims from questioning the unethical social practices of Islam.

Yet if no one speaks out, the status quo will continue. Should women continue to suffer for the sake of religious sentiments?

Without criticism of Islam, it will never be possible for Islamic countries to separate state and religion, never possible for women and men to have a secular education instead of a Qur’anic education, never possible to stop Islam-based politics. If those things never happen, Islamic states will remain in darkness forever. Their women will never enjoy the right to live as human beings.

In India, women have been victims of female feticide, dowry murder, bride-burning, gang rape, sexual slavery, and domestic violence. It is one of the most dangerous countries for women in the world. I am trying my best to fight all kinds of discrimination against women by raising awareness. At the same time, across India, Hindu fundamentalism is rising. Whether they be Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, or Buddhist, all religious fundamentalists oppose women’s rights and freedom of expression.

In supporting women’s rights everywhere, I have criticized any and all religions, traditions, cultures, and customs that are antiwoman. But to my surprise, I find myself labeled anti-Islam. Some people say I am a Muslim-hater. But they are wrong! I stand beside all oppressed people. I stood beside Muslims when they were oppressed in Gujarat in India, in Palestine, and in Bosnia. I defended their rights to live, just as I stood beside the Hindus who are oppressed in Bangladesh and the Christians in Pakistan. To me, their religious identity is not important. I consider them as human beings. No one should be oppressed because of her or his beliefs.

The criticism I make of religions, I make by writing. I do not go to harm the believers physically. I do not believe in violence. For their part, religious fanatics reject the idea of having a debate with me or writing articles or books opposing me. Instead, they try to kill me or march in great numbers demanding my death, for they are convinced by their religion that an apostate must be killed.

The Imperative of Women’s Rights as Human Rights

I believe that no country can become civilized without criticizing the dogmatic practices of its religions. Without separating state and religion, no state or society can become modern.

Democracy means nothing if it fails to provide equal rights to women. Ensuring women’s rights benefits not only women but also the men and children in their families and their societies as a whole. It also strengthens democracy and prosperity, enhances stability, and encourages tolerance. Protecting both the human and property rights of women and of all people is at the core of building a civil, law-abiding society. It is the foundation for true democracy. Empowering women through equal access to education and economic opportunity is essential for the eradication of poverty. It alone enables women to effectively participate in the decision-making processes that shape their communities and their lives. Education is increasingly essential if individuals are to succeed in a global and technologically advanced economy. Women’s integration into the mainstream of economic life leads not only to significant economic progress for the family but ultimately for the country as well.

In Muslim countries, a women’s rights movement is emerging, although timidly. It has the uphill task of fighting against religious laws and for the introduction of a uniform civil code that will treat citizens of all faiths—and none—equally. So far, this movement tends to consist of a few individual feminists who, too often, are forced to compromise with religionists.

For women’s status to change, we also need enlightened leaders who believe in equality. In countries such as mine, women with strong voices do not have the support of political leaders, whether they be men or women. Look at the countries in which women participate in politics, or are even heads of state. Does it follow that women in those countries are emancipated? Because of long-standing vested interests, such leaders continue to back measures that oppress women. They are not ideologically committed to changing these conditions. In South Asia, most of the women who become heads of state are religious or pretend to be religious to stay in power, and like men, they adhere to the religious objectives of the Establishment.

I am the victim of a country whose prime minister is a woman.

I have seen women oppose me when I talk about women’s rights. They say God does not want women to be equal. I know men who reject what is said in religious scriptures and support equality between men and women. Gender has nothing to do with this belief. It depends on one’s conscience. Muslim women who embrace the veil and glory in their subservience are obviously not going to better the lives of the oppressed.

Until a society is based on secularism and women are considered equal to men before the law, I do not think that the mere achievement of women’s participation in politics will automatically advance the cause of women.

My Convictions: Older than Feminism

After I started writing, critics charged that I was influenced by Western feminism. But I had formed my own ideas regarding women’s oppression long before I even heard of feminism, Western or otherwise. As I mentioned, I questioned the authoritative pronouncements of my family and society at large even as a child. When I wasn’t allowed to play outside, when I was called “impure” during my menstrual periods, or when I was told by some of my relatives and neighbors that I must cover myself completely in a burqa if I wanted to step out, I dared to question.

When strange boys would hurl abuses at me, snatch my scarf, or pinch my breasts as I walked past, I protested. I couldn’t stomach it when I saw husbands beating their wives or young mothers weeping in anxiety and fear because they had given birth to baby girls. Upon observing the shame on the faces of raped women, I felt their pain acutely; I broke down when I heard about women and children being trafficked from city to city, from one country to another, in order to be forced into prostitution. Nothing could make me accept the torture of women by men, by society, or by the state. But no one witnessed my pain, my tears, until I started writing.

I didn’t learn defiance from a book. It is not necessary to read thick, heavy books to be aware; one only needs sharp eyes. In order to demand rights for women, one doesn’t need to internalize Simone de Beauvoir or Gloria Steinem; one’s own awareness and courage can be enough. If I’m hungry, I shall eat; if I am lashed, I shall wrest away the lash; if I am oppressed, I shall stand up—these sentiments are universal. Feminism is not a property of the West. It is the result of arduous struggle by abused, oppressed, tortured, disrespected, and ignored women coming together, even putting their lives at stake for the sake of their rights.

I have learned that women of the West have had no less than their share of suffering. Abused and bloodied, they have had their backs to the wall. For centuries, they have been victims of patriarchy, religion, misogynistic traditions, and the like, just like their Eastern counterparts. Religious fanatics have burned them alive; misogynistic traditions have imposed metallic cages on their bodies in the name of chastity; they have been turned into sex slaves. East or West, North or South, women still suffer for the “crime” of being women.

Human rights are universal. Those who speak of separate, lesser human rights for the people of the East and seek to distance themselves from the concept of universal human rights— thinking that this stance represents a victory over prolonged oppression by the West—actually end up harming the East more than the West.

The Necessity of Atheism

If one believes in women’s rights, one first has to cast away one’s religious identity. I have been free of that since early adolescence. I have chosen humanism as my “faith.” I should not be mistaken for a “Muslim reformer.” I am no reformer from within: I belong to no religious community. My community is that of humanists free from religion.

I strongly believe that no one can be a true feminist without being an atheist. All religions are antiwomen. No one can be pro-woman while supporting antiwoman dogmas. I stand with the British philosopher A. C. Grayling, who wrote that religion is “one of the biggest impediments to peace and human progress” and “one of the most destructive forces plaguing humanity.’’

I will close with one of my poems.

You Go Girl

They said—slowly
Said—calm down
Said—no talk
Said—shut up
They said—sit down
Said—bow your head
Said—cry on

Do you know what you should do?
You should stand up now
Should Stand up
Your back straight
Your head held high
You should speak
Speak your mind
Speak loudly
Speak so loud, they will cover their ears
They will say—you are shameless
Hear this, and laugh
They will say—you have a loose character
Hear this, and laugh louder
They will say—you are rotten
Laugh, laugh even louder
Hearing you laugh, they will shout, you are a whore
Put your hands on your waist, stand firm and say
—Yes, yes I am a whore
They will be shocked
They will stare
They will wait for you to say more
The men amongst them will sweat
The women amongst them will dream to be a whore like you.

Taslima Nasrin, an award-winning writer, physician, secular humanist, and human rights activist, is known for her powerful writings on the oppression of women and her unflinching criticism of religion, despite forced exile and multiple fatwas calling for her death. In India, Bangladesh, and abroad, Nasrin’s fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and memoir have topped best-seller’s lists.

Nasrin was born in Bangladesh. She started writing when she was thirteen, and her writings have resonated with people across borders. Her novel Lajja (Shame) was published in 1993. It sold fifty thousand copies in Bangladesh before it was banned by the government. To date, she has written thirty-five books in Bengali, including poetry, essays, novels, and an autobiography series. Her works have been translated in thirty different languages. Nasrin has been banned, blacklisted, and banished from Bengal, both from Bangladesh and West Bengal part of India. She has been prevented by the authorities from returning to her native country since 1994 and to West Bengal since 2007.

Her awards have included the prestigious literary award Ananda from India in 1992 and again in 2000; the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament in 1994; the Kurt Tucholsky Award from Swedish PEN; the Simone de Beauvoir Award and Human Rights Award; Le Prix de l’ Edit de Nantes; an award from the Royal Academy of Science, Literature, and Fine Arts Belgium; the Distinguished Humanist Award from the International Humanist and Ethical Union; the Freethought Heroine award from Freedom From Religion Foundation; the IBKA (International League of Non-Religious and Atheists) award in Germany; the Feminist Press Award in the United States; the UNESCO Madanjeet Singh prize for Promotion of the Tolerance and Non-violence; the Medal of Honor of Lyon; and the Condorcet-Aron Prize at the Parliament of the French Community of Belgium in Brussels.

Nasrin is a Laureate of the International Academy for Humanism, a program of the Council of Secular Humanism, publisher of Free Inquiry. She has been a senior editor of Free Inquiry for several years.

Several cities have given her honorary citizenship, and honorary doctorates have been bestowed by universities in Europe and the United States. She has been invited to address the European Parliament, the National Assembly of France, and gatherings at the universities of Sorbonne, Oxford, Harvard, Yale, and others. She obtained fellowships at Harvard and New York Universities. She was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in the United States in 2009.

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