Gita Sahgal is an Indian writer, journalist, film-maker and human rights activist. During Celebrating Dissent Festival she discusses the oppression of women, in particular by religious fundamentalists. Beforehand we asked her some questions about the importance of the festival, what religion means to her personally and if women’s rights and religion can go together.
What’s the importance of a Celebrating Festival, especially in today’s world?
These are grim times. The forces of fundamentalism and racism are on the rise and benefiting from each other. In Britain, there is a campaign backed by SPUC, the anti-abortion group, but fronted by Muslim fundamentalists who are protesting about the teaching of inclusive values at primary schools. They are protesting the ‘No Outsiders’ programme which consists of teaching materials designed to make children understand simple concepts such as when classmates might have ‘two mummies’ or ‘two daddies’. In this case you can see that nearly all the forces of the religious right are allied – Catholics, Christian evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and Muslims.
But there are also movements and individuals who are standing against these trends. It is really important to know they exist and to celebrate them. Celebrating Dissent Festival does just that!
What do you hope Celebrating Dissent Festival will achieve?
I hope that the Festival of Dissent will be a moving and enjoyable event which will help people understand what universal values mean in practice. And that we combine criticism of religion with an absolute defense of the rights of all people to fight against religion in countries with fundamentalist governments such as Iran or India, whilst also opposing Trump and European racists who want to prevent Muslims fleeing persecution from coming to Europe.
Women and men from various countries and backgrounds come together in Amsterdam to celebrate freedom through theatre, talks, poetry, film and stand-up comedy. Women, non-believers and LGBT+ are often the victims of the strictest cultural and religious dogmas. The festival Celebrating Dissent honours their freedom. Freedom to think differently, freedom not to believe, and freedom to be yourself. A shout-out to everyone who fights for universal rights and freedom of speech.
What is your personal experience with religion? And do you believe women’s rights can be incorporated into religion?
My personal experience of religion is a very happy one, because I was surrounded by irreligious people and those who were religious treated their beliefs as a personal concern and were very critical about organised religion. So I was never coerced or terrorised by religion or religious people as many of my friends have been.
On the question of women’s rights and religion. I think that it is clear that religions can accommodate change, but only if there is a process of secularisation which allows progressive ideas to exist. So I disagree with the idea that religion can reform and then women will benefit. Universal values cannot wait for religious reform. The women who worked on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – including Indian and Pakistani women understood this very well. And in fact they understood much better than many Western women, that women needed to be specifically mentioned in this declaration and needed protections like the right of choose to marry at full age.
Gita Sahgal participates during event Women Against Gods. An event to about the history and practice of the oppression of women.