International Humanist News 2003

Bringing it all Back Home

It may be true that "the issue of women's emancipation has become a buzz word the world over" ( 'Humanism and Women's Rights in Nigeria' Dr C.O. Isiramen IHN July 2002), and we are reading many articles about the extremes of oppression and cruelty meted out to women in Muslim countries, beatings, stonings and mutilation and death for infringing rigid, sexist, religious and sexual doctrines of Islam. (or at least we were during the action in Afghanistan!)

Be it the rape and pillage of war, or the maiming, and enslaving of women in the name of religion, it is women and children who are the victims, and it is men who carry it out (Note: This is not to say that all men rape and pillage). It has always been so and at last the media including the secularist press, is excited enough about it to devote print space to describing the detail and the horror stories; more or less luridly depending upon the status of a country as 'friend or foe' in the case of the tabloids, or its usefulness to, and compliance with US/UK interests, to the British Media especially the BBC. And I am not complaining about this, since the credit for the current exposure of such treatment, must go to the courageous women activists and resistors of oppression, as well as women reporters and journalists who have travelled to see for themselves, and exposed the worst situations in Muslim countries.

However, it should not be supposed that should Muslim women gain the freedom of British women, that will be the end of the story. For at the present rate, they will find that many British men have found more subtle ways of suppressing the troublesome women who keep trying to get in on the act (of participating in serious matters of the day)! Ways that do not involve cruelty, or attract attention, but are non-the-less effective in keeping women's views off the agenda.

We in the West pride ourselves on our liberated state, though many sisters deride what they call feminism, as no longer relevant, and for clever, educated young women with qualifications and careers that enable them to be economically independent it may well be true. Yet for most women Dr Isiramen's description of women's status in Nigeria (IHN July 2002 Humanism and Women's Rights in Nigeria p20-21)) could, excepting the extremes of Sharia Law in the North, equally apply to Britain today. Women who want to participate in the discussions and decision making process, and be treated as equals by men in many fields of activity, will find themselves not only under a glass ceiling, but in a glass box.

In drawing our attention to the violent content and expression of our everyday language, Professor Hardman in her fascinating article Language and War (IHN July2002) demonstrated the dominant machismo that is so ingrained in it that we do not even recognise it. Much the same can be said of other aspects of sexism, shaped by centuries of male military and religious domination.

We should not forget how recent women's emancipation is in the UK. It is still within living memory that women were 'given' the vote, and the last witch was hanged. Even after that, women were forced to give up their jobs on marriage and could not get a mortgage or a loan without the permission of a man. Even at the beginning of the last century women were hobbled in long skirts and corsets, refused entry to higher education, university or medical school; they were not even allowed onto the stage until well after Shakespeare's time! Still today women are barred from golf clubs, and male social clubs, and secret societies, but more importantly suffer the continued discrimination in the workplace, in pay and pensions provision, and suffer the effects of exclusion from the old boy networks and democratic representation in government and parliament.

This may be nothing in comparison to the Burkha and all it represents, but relative to the position of western men compared to men in Muslim countries the relative status is not so far ahead in some respects! Much is being made of the gradual forging ahead of girls in our school system, with journalists and commentators 'worried about it'! This illustration of the ability of women and girls to learn, perform and participate in some respects better than men and boys, makes one wonder where our civilisation could have been had they not been 'excluded' for all those centuries past.

From an atheist point of view, much of the development of sexism stems from the position of inferiority assigned to women by the 'great' monotheistic male dominated religions. Their conservatism and relegation of women, non-white and disabled people to a subservient position along with the children, by clerics of all kinds, has had the effect of stifling human progress in almost every field. Imagine where we would be now if women had been accorded equal value, equal status, educated and allowed to contribute to the march of progress? Women were further encumbered, by the institutional suppression of women by the influence of religion on the supposedly secular organisations of government and state, education, business and commerce, science and technology.

Instead of the skewed values and thinking, the divisiveness and violence that disfigures human affairs, we may well have developed with a more balanced and humane civilisation.

Today in the UK the churches still treat religious women as inferior, and exclude them from higher paid jobs and continue to promote a limited role for women in the family for others not of their religion. They still try to limit women's freedom to control their own fertility In our secular society, there is still discrimination in many fields, politics, business and work.

So what of the secular humanist movement, is it in the vanguard of equal rights for women? I think not. No doubt there is a verbal commitment sincerely meant, but if you look at its structures, organisation, journals, membership and culture, you will find a very uneven picture. While some would come out of such an exercise quite well, you would find that other individuals, while paying lip service, will show disturbing similarities with church and secular institutions. You will find discrepancies between the commitment and the actuality. You will find 'the statutory woman', the 'woman on a pedestal', journals with almost all male writers, content and appeal. And if you question, you will hear the same excuses as are always made by people blind to discrimination, "women are not interested", "their language is too bland", and most ironically since they are largely confined by editors in what they can get into print: "they do not write about things that atheists are interested in" ! Laterly I have also heard "we commission more writing now", "we publish to a theme" all of which increases the already tight control of atheist opinion even within the movement. Expressions of reluctance to publish articles written under pseudonyms also hit women writers more than men, since research shows that women feel a greater need to protect themselves from violent reaction if they are outspoken in their opinions2.

There are many questions too relating to the more inclusive and open acceptance of lifestyles, traditionally opposed by the churches same-sex relationships, single parent families. Does the fact that more children grow up outside the traditional male dominated home increase women's role and status? Do homosexual men take on the same cultural conditioning as heterosexual men?

The spur to this article came from reading several interesting and informative articles in the 2002 Commemorative Issue of International Humanist News. Although female contributions were in a substantial minority, (and it is not easy to distinguish from names that we do not recognise as male or female) it compared favourably with a Centenary issue of another magazine a few years ago, that out of 30 contributions, included only one from a woman. Among 57 Honorary Associates, there are I believe currently only five women, which presumably reflects the past fifty or so years of professional and academic progress of women.

Some Secular and Humanist journals are using more women writers than in the past, but they are still grossly underrepresented. It is notable how often female writers only get into print on women's issues, are highly qualified Doctors or Professors, have a first name that does not reveal their gender, or use initials instead of a female first name. Some years ago, when challenged on its dearth of material by women, a previous editor of an atheist magazine, listed several of the most famous writers of the last century who had at one time or another had items published in that journal. The fact of their eminence, and lack of comparisons with male contributions, rather confirmed the point. Male writers can get into print, on any subject, regardless of 'qualification' even if their name is plain Tom Smith, while a women has to have a special reason, either academic or professional qualification or by dint of being a woman. These journals are of course not alone in this, if you compare them with the major broad sheet newspapers you will find the same phenomenon. Be that as it may, I think we should expect better from the Secular Humanist movement. For an Editor of any national journal to write "I have tried really hard to get female writers on board, with very scant success. This, I believe, is because few of them have the stomach to use the forthright, uncompromising language .......we require, and choose to pussyfoot around with subjects that are of little interest to ...our readers" is deplorable.

For any woman to attempt to challenge the status quo on sexism always attracts indignation from some who consider themselves free of prejudice. Even people who would argue most strongly against prejudice, and are themselves members of minorities that are discriminated against, and when faced with the evidence, can be blind to this most subtle form of discrimination, so deep seated is it. Many men in particular, (and I have to exclude those who do not, as this is a usual diversion to detract from the criticism) feel affronted that their dominant position should be challenged at all, least of all by an unremarkable, white, English, middle-aged, middle class woman who may be intelligent and educated, but is not a university professor or well known journalist or personality. And support will usually not be forthcoming from women who have managed to attain 'pedestal', 'statutory' or professional status, since they may be easily persuaded that they have attained their positions entirely and only as a result of their own qualities and efforts. That they may be part of the process of exclusion of other women may be never have occurred to them.

The religions will only change in response to demand, their doctrines and practice are rigid, but they will as they always have done, accommodate changes in society when they are forced to. They will not however promote change. They will drag their heels, slowing it down as best they can until they have to give way The Freethought movement will eventually have to change too. There can be no excuse for people who would campaign vigorously for people's rights, against sectarianism and discrimination against people who are black or brown, foreign or homosexual to discriminate against women.

Anne Shaw