The International Conference on Secularism

On 7th March 2009 an international conference organised by Organisation for Women’s Liberation (OWL) was held successfully in Gothenburg, Sweden. The conference heard speeches from many invited speakers and ended with the showing of the film “Maria’s Grotto” about honour killings in Palestine. Many organisations supported and sponsored the event, including: European Feminist Initiative, Network against Honour Crimes, Women for Peace in Sweden, Centre for Research which is a secular and academic institution.

More than 20 speakers were invited to the conference. Many activists from Ghana, Uganda, Pakistan and Bangladesh had shown interest to attend the conference but could not get entry visa. Also 3 of the speakers from Iraq, Jordan and Syria could not come due to visa difficulties.

The speakers who attended the conference were: Layla Al Ali, a secularist activist of women’s rights in Lebanon who lives in Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon; Hugo Esterla from Argentine living in Italy; Imma Barbarossa from Italy; Soad Baba Aissa from Algeria living in France; Malene Busk from Denmark; Susana Tampieri from Argentine; Frances Raday from Israel; Boriana Jonsson from Bulgaria living in Sweden; Lia Nadaraia from Georgia; Maria Hagberg from Sweden; Karim Noori from Iran living in Sweden; Lilian Halls-French from France; and Azar Majedi the Chair person of OWL. Buthina Canaan Khoury, a Palestinian film maker showed her film at the end of the conference. Buthina talked about her film and the audience shared their views with her.

The conference started by the opening speech of Azar Majedi. She focused on the necessity of an international secularist movement in defense of women’s rights. The conference was divided into 4 paneled sessions during which the speakers delivered their talks followed by questions from the audience and discussions. Imma Barbarossa and Susana Tampieri talked about the Catholic Church in Italy and Argentina and the devastating situation of women under the control of the church. Lia Nadaraia talked about the role of Orthodox Church in Georgia and the situation of women after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She explained how the collapse of the former Soviet Union and building of democracy gave some hope to women only to find out later that their situation has worsened. She noted that Orthodox Church has massive powers which make the necessity of secularism even more desirable.

Layla Al Ali talked about the situation of women in Palestine and the degree of insecurity and violence imposed on them. Maria Hagberg showed a slide show about violence against women and honour crimes. Hugo Estrella talked about multiculturalism, cultural relativism and the regress of the international community on the issue in past decades. Karim Noori talked about the corruptive role of religion on children’s rights and the necessity of banning faith schools. His speech led to a lively debate in the hall. Soad Baba Aissa talked about individual rights and women’s rights. Azar Majedi talked about the obstacles and challenges facing secularism. She focused on the fact that unlike the general belief that considers religion as a moral and spiritual phenomenon, religion is a political institution. She mentioned the role of mass media and engineering of public opinion especially in the Middle East as obstacles for secularism.

Frances Raday talked about monolithic religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity and their common aspects in suppressing women. Boriana Jonsson delivered her speech on the issue of militarism and its close relation to religion and suppression of women. She explained how during war, women’s suppression is used as a weapon against the enemy and how women are tortured and raped. Malene Busk’s speech was titled “Women’s Rights and why God should not have a role in them”. Lilian Halls-French talked about building a bridge between Feminists and Secularists. She emphasized the fact that secularism is a universal phenomenon and hence the best obstacle against fundamentalism and the apparatus of religion.


After the speeches and discussions, Azar Majedi read out the resolutions submitted to the conference.

OWL had 3 resolutions:

  • Condemning Islamic Republic of Iran for suppression of women;
  • Condemning Gender Apartheid in Iran;
  • The necessity of building an international secularist movement for women’s liberation.

Resolution submitted by Susana Tampieri and Hugo Esterla:

Condemning the Catholic Church; and recognition of the right to retract one’s baptism and leaving the church.

Resolution submitted by Frances Raday:

Criticizing all religions.

It was decided to make some alterations in the resolutions before publication.

Maria Hagberg, the coordinator of the Network against Honour related Crimes, Lilian Halls-French the chairperson of European Feminist Initiative and Azar Majedi the chair of OWL delivered their closing speeches. They all emphasized on the necessity of struggle for women’s equality, secularism and building of an international secularist movement. A music video given to the conference by Soad Baba Aissa was played at the end of the conference. The music video was a performance by a few Algerian women singers about women’s rights. The video is dedicated to women’s movement. The music video invoked warm applauds from the audience. Soad then talked about the gains of women’s movement in Algeria in changing the laws in that country which was warmly received by the conference.

The conference ended by showing the film Maria’s Grotto made by Buthina Canaan Khoury. This film is beautifully made and is extremely moving. It depicts honour killing and the role of religion and the ruling ideology in maintaining the horrendous statuesque. Heated discussion followed the showing.

The conference thanked Shahla Noori who had a major role in organizing it. OWL book stall was visited through out the conference. Azar Majedi’s book on women’s rights in opposition to political Islam was displayed and sold. Maria Hagberg’s book It starts to rot at 20, about honour killing, was also on sale.

The conference was widely advertized internationally. Its announcement was published in various secular and women’s rights websites. The organizers and some of the speakers were interviewed by different radio and TV stations before, during and after the conference: Swedish National Radio Farsi section interviewed Azar Majedi and Esmail Owji, Radio Sepehr and For a Better World, Radio LoRa a Swiss radio and Hambastegi TV in Pars TV interviewed Azar Majedi, For a Better World TV interviewed Shahla Noori and Azar Majedi and Danish Radio 1 talked with Malene Busk. A public local TV recorded the whole programme and a French film maker, also recorded the whole conference and interviewed some of the speakers for a documentary on the conference. Maria Hagberg and Azar Majedi wrote an article about the conference for Fria Tidningen Journal. Those interested to find out more about the conference can visit our website for the films of the speeches and photos of the conference.

This was a very successful conference. Although it went on for seven hours the participants wanted it to continue. It was decided that a similar conference will be held in six months over a period of two days to meet this demand. Those interested to participate please visit our website where we will announce the details shortly.

For more information please contact

Organization for Women’s Liberation
10 March 2009

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