June 7, 2012 | Law and Justice
Woman of the Week: Karima Bennoune
Woman of the Week Karima Bennoune has argued passionately and persuasively on some of the most sensitive human rights issues of our time.
By Anna Louie Sussman
June 6, 2012
NEW YORK -- If international human rights lawyer Karima Bennoune learned one thing from her father, an Algerian activist and dissident who fought in his country’s War of Independence, it was “don’t give up.” He later went on to become a prominent critic of the country’s fundamentalists, an issue that Ms. Bennoune has since taken up.
“Even at the end of his life, he would give speeches,” recalled Ms. Bennoune. He was physically barely able to speak because of his health problems, but he just did not give up.”
A longtime women’s rights advocate and leading thinker on a range of human rights issues, Ms. Bennoune has been just as dogged in pushing her colleagues in the legal profession to think more broadly and humanely about some of the most sensitive issues of our time. For the past ten years, she has been a Professor of Law at Rutgers University. This fall, she will join the faculty at University of California-Davis’s School of Law. She contributes regularly to the Guardian’s comment pages, has received numerous awards, and made waves in 2008 with an influential paper, Terror/Torture, which introduced a gender analysis to the issues of terrorism and counter-terrorism. She is currently at work on a book, “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here,” about Muslims around the world who oppose fundamentalism. She spoke to the Women in the World Foundation about religion, women’s rights and activism within the Muslim world.
You’ve written that secularism and the separation of law and religion is fundamental to protecting women’s human rights. At the same time, there are groups who use progressive interpretations of religious texts to argue their points in their local context. What do you make of that strategy?
Well, I’m on the board of Network of Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML). One of the reasons why I really value my work with that organization is that it brings together women using a wide range of strategies: they use secular strategies, strategies based on universal human rights, and some of them also use the strategy of progressive interpretation and reinterpretation of religion.
I certainly don’t see those two things as inherently contradictory, but I am disappointed that increasingly we see at the international level what an Iranian once told me should be called “Islamic exceptionalism.” That tends to seem progressive, but it actually ends up undermining the people on the ground, who, whether they are personally religious or secular, are choosing to make secular- and human-rights-based arguments to do their work. I respect that people may have multiple strategies, but when I personally look at what’s happening in North Africa, I’m absolutely convinced, more and more and even more so than when I wrote the piece, “Secularism and Human Rights,” that secularism right now is the key for the achievement of human rights and the achievement of women’s human rights in particular in the region.
Who are the people you feature in your forthcoming book who are on the ground opposing fundamentalism?
The book begins with my father, who was receiving death threats in the 90’s from the fundamentalist armed groups, and who ultimately had to stop teaching at the university as a result. But he stayed in Algeria, moved out of his apartment because he one day found a note on his kitchen table that said,“Consider yourself dead.” So he had to move out of the apartment, but he stayed in the country and kept writing against the fundamentalists. One of the things that was really demoralizing to him was the lack of international solidarity, especially by progressive people, who somehow seemed to think that, in some ways, they should be sympathetic to the fundamentalists because allegedly they were anti-imperialist or something, when in fact, on the ground, the fundamentalists were targeting local progressive people. So the book really starts with trying to understand why these people are being ignored and trying to bring their stories to a bigger audience.
People ask, “Where are the Muslims that speak out against extremism?” They’re everywhere, but no one’s really paying attention. I’ve interviewed over 250 people from more than 20 countries, everywhere from Senegal and Nigeria and the Palestinian territories to Afghanistan, Pakistan, to some of the diasporas in France, and I’m on my way to Canada this weekend, and Algeria, and I went to Russia and talked to people from all over Central Asia and the Caucuses, so I’ve talked to a wide range of people. They’re very diverse. As I always say, they’re as diverse as people would be if you went to the Philippines and Italy to get diverse perspectives of people with Christian heritage.
One of the things that the Muslim fundamentalists, like the Christian fundamentalists, are really about is organizing internationally and networking and they have financial support and so on. The opponents of fundamentalism don’t have that support system. There are some networks like WLUML, for example, but you can’t begin to compare. I think part of the project is really to try to begin put many of these people in touch with each other, and to get them heard at the international level. They are everybody from the very progressive daughter of an imam to lawyers and doctors to ordinary rural people in Algeria who were victims of fundamentalist terrorism in the 90’s to community organizers to people who are doing this more full-time versus other people who are kind of doing this on the side.
Why do you think their voices have been ignored so far?
It’s the ignored-so-far part that made me want to write the book. I’m not sure why, but I think there are a couple of reasons. One, it’s very easy to be heard if you take an extreme position. If your position is reasonable, it’s very hard to be heard. Explosions reverberate, quite literally, but the people who are working in quiet ways against them have a much harder time making the front page of the newspaper, and I think that’s part of a bigger problem.
I think another one of the reasons why they’re not being heard goes back to our discussion about “Islamic exceptionalism,” because they’re somehow off-message. They’re standing up and defending either universal human rights, or very liberal interpretations of Islam that suggest, for example, that wearing a headscarf is an optional thing,or that suggests that gender-based violence is against the teachings of Islam. In some ways, they don’t fit the stereotypes that people on the right or on the left have of what people from Muslim heritage should be like and they’re sort of inconvenient. And I think part of the reason is that sometimes they are people who are very critical of the West, or of policies of the West towards their countries, and that may be part of the reason why they’re not being heard as well.
My view is that it is absolutely critical to listen to these people, to learn from their work and their experiences, and to find thoughtful ways of supporting what they’re doing, and at the very least not undermine what they’re doing. So I always want to be very careful about generalizing about these people. The interesting thing was that in almost every context, they identified rising fundamentalism as a major human rights issue of concern.
In the United States, there appears to be a backlash against women’s rights, some of which has a religious cast to it. What can women’s rights activists here learn from the people you’ve interviewed?
There is a lot to learn. One thing that really impressed me is that women in Tunisia in particular are absolutely refusing to give up on their demands. I went to Tunisia in March of 2011, so just a couple of months after Ben Ali fell. It was still the end of the euphoric moment, and the fundamentalists were just coming out and becoming more active. And yet the women that I interviewed were not “moderating” their demands. They were still very clear: they wanted a secular constitution. In fact, they wanted to move forward! They were pushing forward to lift Tunisia’s reservations to the CEDAW convention, which supposedly officially happened, although it’s never been officially filed with the Secretary-General of the UN.
That’s really critical: not losing the North, to borrow a French language expression, and not losing that because your argument is perhaps becoming less popular as more and more religious pressure is put on the political sphere.
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.