“As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”
For Women’s Equality Day, 26 August 2021
In recent days, the world has been shocked by the downfall of Afghanistan and the abandonment of millions of Afghan lives by the USA and its military allies – a betrayal of human rights that is a bad omen in particular for women, LGBT people and atheists. The invisibility of women under the Taliban, and the callousness with which the secular or Christian west has turned its back on these women, should be a cause for despair by any person of good will. The world needs a better standard of leaders and a better future to which we can aspire. That future starts closer to home, in our own lives and attitudes.
In 2012, the Global Atheist Convention attracted two sets of protesters who chose to partition themselves in separate doorways to the convention centre. At one door, a group of Christians (led by a dominant woman) warned of the fires of hell for atheists, drunkards, gays, dominant women, and others who mocked their narrow interpretation of their biblical deity. Outside the other doorway, a group of Muslim men waved placards warning us of similar fates in the afterlife. It was this second group that attracted the most attention due to their complete absence of women. A chant went up from the assembled atheist audience: “Where are your women? Where are your women?” It seemed a reasonable – if somewhat diversionary – question: how are women treated by your religion?
Well may we criticize their lack of female representation, as a reflection of their ideological misogyny. But are collective atheists any better? In the public new atheist discourse, where are our women? At atheist and skeptic and freethought conventions, how many women feature alongside public speakers Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett or Laurence Krauss? How are women treated in atheist groups and committees and social media platforms? In the traditional Australian Humanist of the Year Awards, what proportion over the last four decades have comprised women? In worldwide atheist and secular publications, do women get equal representation? Let’s be honest, how many popular lists of atheists, agnostics, secularists, skeptics, rationalists, humanists or freethinkers includes a fair and healthy proportion of women? Perhaps worst of all, various prominent men within the global atheist movement have, in recent years, been accused of personal behaviours that demean, belittle or objectify women. Unless we set a better example, we cannot criticise others for their failures.
Amanda Marcotte summarises the problem in the atheist movement:
“At first blush, it would seem that an atheist movement would be exactly the sort of thing that would attract many women. After all, much of the oppression of women—from forced veiling to restricting abortion rights—is a direct result of religion… But despite the natural and cozy fit of atheism and feminism, the much-ballyhooed “New Atheism” that was supposed to be a more aggressive, political form of atheism has instead been surprisingly male-dominated.”
More widely, secularism has traditionally had an unhealthy gender ratio amongst its membership and activities. Is there hope for a better future?
We have strong grounds for being optimistic. If we look at atheism past, present and emerging, we find an increasing number of women becoming prominent in the ranks, and we need to recognise and acknowledge their leadership. Past leaders include Henrietta Dugdale, Rachel Carson, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and Olive Zakharov. They helped to shape the world in which we live.
Today, women are emerging within atheist communities across the world, including as leaders within traditionally oppressed communities. Mandisa Thomas, leader of Black Non-Believers, blogs about Christianity, White Supremacy, and True Liberation and thereby challenges us all to consider the intersectional nature of this oppression:
“It really is time for us to have serious discussions about whether the belief systems we have been raised with … aids and abets a system of white supremacy, and are also a hindrance to our liberation.”
In Australia, secular, atheist and freethought organisations that feature females in strong leadership roles include the long-standing Rationalist Society of Australia and the fledgling Humanists Australia; the CEO of this latter organisation, Heidi Nicholl, presents to The Guardian a positive and inclusive Humanist perspective:
Nicholl says that humanists are not “anti-religion and we’re not against religion, we’re actually pro-values, meaning and fulfilment”.
“It is time to unite, to take stock of the challenges and to build serious organisation from the diffuse community and broad radical milieu. We’re living in tough times with immense potential and real risks.”
Hence we might see the connection between our own attitudes and those of others who more pointedly burn witches (as do some Christians in Africa and PNG today) or who enslave women (as per the Taliban or some other Islamic cultures). To evoke the sentiment of humanist Virginia Woolf’s quote (above), the betrayal of women in Afghanistan does not stop at the national border – it is a betrayal of women’s rights everywhere: in Syria, Lebanon, Kenya, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, India, China, redneck towns in the USA and Australia, every UNHCR refugee camp in the world, and everywhere else that women are oppressed, ignored, demeaned, or subjected to violence or discrimination. We see it in every workplace where women are denied equal pay or opportunity, or are subjected to sexual harassment. The betrayal of women can also be found in the halls of Australian Parliament whenever allegations of rape are ignored or downplayed, and in western culture whenever the humanity of trans women is denied. I have written elsewhere that the downfall of Kabul is the moral downfall of us all.
Surely, if we want to improve the world, we must start with ourselves, and our own attitudes and behaviours. We need to build up those in our world who have been traditionally disempowered and ignored. The emergence of female leaders in secularism points towards one such possible, optimistic future. Kayley Whalen, a queer transgender Latinx Humanist, epitomises the rise of millennial women embracing atheism:
“We believe in social justice, that we can live a life with meaning, purpose, and dedication to social justice without the need for supernatural guidance.”
We cannot help but ponder how many millions of women in Afghanistan share that same perspective – today, tomorrow, next week and forever. And what will we do about it? To reclaim the humanity from the ancient Genesis myth, and to challenge the gender bias that it has engendered for millennia, we must consider: are we our sister’s keeper?
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” — Audre Lorde.
© 2021 Geoff Allshorn