"Secularism isn’t about the absence of religion, it’s about the structure of the state"
Q&A with Yasmin Rehman, veteran campaigner recently named Secularist of the Year.
Yasmin Rehman is a veteran anti-racist and feminist activist. Over the course of her career, she has worked in local government, been a frontline caseworker on domestic violence, acted as director of partnerships and diversity at the Metropolitan police, and deputy national lead on forced marriage and honour based violence. She has researched and campaigned on issues as diverse as ritual abuse, polygamy, temporary marriage, and the persecution of religious minorities, and is part of the One Law For All campaign against parallel legal systems. In March 2017, Rehman was named Secularist of the Year by the National Secular Society. Here, she discusses her work.
When did you first become an activist?
I’ve been an anti-racist and feminist activist for as long as I can remember. I’m lucky that my late father was a communist and my mother, although a devout Muslim, is a staunch feminist, so I grew up in a household where I was able to ask questions and challenge belief systems, so it started from there. My dad made us aware from very early about the apartheid struggle so I went on marches about that. There were foundations. As I’ve got older I’ve realised there’s very few Muslim households where you’re allowed to have that level of open debate and question your parents’ beliefs – and not just Muslim households, I think it goes across the board.
Why is open debate limited?
When I’ve been out and interviewed people, and even with extended family and community circles, it’s often the case that if you question, you’re told you’re not a Muslim and you’re not practising properly. That happens more and more. Sometimes it’s difficult to find a space to challenge. If you openly challenge, it can cost you – people might ostracise you. That can have a real impact on someone’s mental health, sense of belonging and who they are. I don’t think we talk about that enough.
Have you received criticism for your work?
Surprisingly enough, I’ve received much more criticism for being part of the One Law For All campaign and sharing a platform with Maryam Namazie than for anything I actually say. I get accused of being Islamophobic and racist because I’ll stand on a platform with Maryam. In the past, she has said some really brutal things about Islam which, as someone who has a faith, can sometimes be difficult to hear, but she’s talking from her own experience and context. As a Muslim, part of my work has been confronting the real challenges within our community. It’s easy in these particular times – and I’m as guilty of it as anyone – to retreat and say, “this is not the Islam I know or understand or have ever experienced”. But Islam is being used, as are other faiths, to perpetrate violence and abuse.
When I did the work on forced marriage initially back in the late 1990s, I was accused of Paki-bashing by a journalist, who said I was washing dirty linen in public. But it was one person and it was pre-social media. I have shared a platform with Maryam for a number of years, and challenged her and she’s challenged me. It’s a very respectful relationship. But that has, in the past year, exposed me to horrendous, horrendous abuse. Which has made me think about the whole issue of apostasy, blasphemy, ex-Muslims, much more clearly than I had before.
In what way?
For me, if someone chooses to leave a faith, that’s a personal decision. It’s fine and it’s nobody else’s business. Despite having a communist father, it’s only as an adult that I’ve seen up front the real consequences of challenging religious and cultural norms or choosing to leave a faith. The death sentence of apostasy happens somewhere else – but the threats happen here too. They’re real in the UK and for Muslims living anywhere. That is probably because we’re more connected globally than we ever have been. Social media gives the platform to some people who really shouldn’t have one – it can leave you very exposed, which is frightening.
How do you square your personal faith with your secularism?
It’s never been a problem for me. Secularism isn’t about the absence of religion, it’s about the structure of the state. Where a state defends freedom of expression, however uncomfortable that may be, and defends freedom of religion and belief, or indeed freedom from religion. Where there isn’t a state religion and laws are based around universal human rights and not derived from god. I also do not want religious actors to be able to impose their will on public policy.
It’s not just about limiting religion. It’s ensuring the state ensures the right of religious freedom, but also protects minorities from attack and allows the space to challenge dominant religious interpretations. That’s crucial if we’re talking about the protection of human rights and protections for women and minorities. In the structure I see, the fundamentalists would still have a voice but we would be able to limit that voice and limit the harm they cause. That’s my understanding of secularism.
Why do you think faith and secularism are sometimes seen on a binary?
I think some of it is because some people from a secular perspective have been very anti-religion. That’s difficult to hear sometimes; that you’re somehow intellectually deficient if you still believe in a faith and in god. There’s a misunderstanding that if you have a faith then you believe in it literally, every word of it. But there were examples throughout history and time of people of faith challenging and questioning.
There was one conference I was at where a well-known public figure who is an atheist was speaking, and he was so critical of anyone of any faith background I had to get up and walk out. I wouldn’t sit there and listen to that sort of rhetoric against someone because of their sexuality or for their gender or any other reason, so why would I sit there and allow that to happen to people of faith?
Over the time you’ve been campaigning, how the position of women’s rights in the UK has changed?
We’ve made huge gains. But we’re at risk of rolling backwards. The attack on women’s reproductive rights from the religious right across the world is terrifying – look at what’s happening in the States. There is an increasing presence of religious and faith leaders in debates. For me it’s very much about controlling women. The whole campaign around parallel legal systems – in sharia courts or the Beth Din, it’s women who are in a less equal position. Their divorces are incumbent upon their husbands agreeing to the divorce and a panel of men agreeing, so they have a lesser voice. If we are equal in the eyes of god, which our religion states, then we must be equal before the law. Brexit is also a concern: what will happen to many of the rights women have gained through European law? With the human rights act under threat, we have to be very mindful.
When receiving the NSS award, you said it was difficult to get funding for secular work. Why?
There are millions being given to faith-based organisations. The fact we fund faith schools from state money shows how many millions are being given. If you say you’re secular, you’re immediately assumed to be anti-faith, anti-theist, and in this current climate Islamophobic. For some of the organisations I work for and with, it’s impossible. I’m so grateful for the NSS prize money, I cannot begin to tell you – my polygamy and temporary marriage work has all been self-funded.
We can’t get funding. Some people are afraid of challenging communities or damaging relationships. I understand the challenges of community engagement work really well, because I led on community engagement with women after 7/7 so I’ve been right in the thick of it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t at least hear the other side and the evidence. It’s really important we do. There’s violent extremism but we need to be so aware of the non-violent element because that feeds and leads to the violence.