Sikivu Hutchinson on Radical Humanism, Race, and Gender

Black NonBelievers (Mandisa Thomas, President) and Judith Moore recently sponsored an event in Atlanta where Sikivu Huchinson spoke on atheism, race, gender, and a plethora of additional cultural and historical influences that shape our society.  The talk was a well integrated and an astoundingly complex weaving of the everyday, the academic, and the lived experiences of people of color as they related to religion, non-belief, education, humanism, prison, and more.  Kim Rippere had the pleasure of attending, meeting Sikivu and others, enjoying the post event dinner, and asking Sikivu a few follow up questions:


SW: You said the established secular organizations are fetishistically attached to the separation of church of state.  What is your understanding of how this limits the movement both in terms of membership and impact?

SH: Focusing on the separation of church and state limits the range of issues and communities that the “movement” can effectively address.  For example, one of the major factors in religious allegiance in communities of color is economic injustice driven by capitalist disparities in access to wealth, jobs, education and housing.  If there is no engagement with how economic injustice and capitalist exploitation shape hyper-religiosity in communities of color, then humanist/atheist critiques will be irrelevant for the majority of people of color.  


The domino effect of de facto segregation, job discrimination, unemployment, foreclosure, mass incarceration, and educational apartheid has bolstered the influence of religious institutions in many black and Latino neighborhoods where storefront churches line every block.  Certainly the experience of surviving racism and racial terrorism has greatly affirmed the role of religious observance in the lives of many African Americans.  For example, in the absence of equitable government programs, the Black Church has traditionally been a social welfare resource in African American communities.  Social welfare programs such as funding assistance to poor families, food supplies, housing and utilities services, prisoner reentry programs, and day care provision are among the many resources that community-based churches offer… By contrast, relatively low levels of religiosity in Western Europe correlate with the fact that citizens of these countries enjoy a comprehensive social welfare safety net.  


On average, Western European health care, child care, unemployment compensation, job security, job benefits, and affordable housing subsidies provide a far higher quality of life and standard of living than that in the U.S.  Western European cities generally offer more accessible pedestrian and recreational green space than the car dominated sprawl of most American cities.  Miles of undeveloped brown zones and vacant lots are symptomatic of dead commercial development and so-called “park poor” urban neighborhoods of color.  In South Los Angeles there are multiple storefront churches for every park.  In predominantly white West Los Angeles storefront churches don’t exist and the parks are the most richly appointed and resourced in the city.  As in most arenas, racial politics and segregation determine available park space in the U.S.  Having the ability to use a clean, safe, accessible park is a luxury that white middle class families take for granted.


SW: Additionally, you stated that this attachment will drive these organizations the way of the GOP and the dodo.  Why is intersectionality the growth standpoint and demographic?


SH: We’ve seen numerous instances where a focus on the supposed “ultimate” outsider status of atheists has become a rallying cry for white New Atheists who are staggeringly ignorant of their privilege in a white supremacist culture.  I work in school-communities where atheist and agnostic youth of color are disenfranchised not only by their atheism but by criminalization, low academic expectations, lack of college preparation, sexual harassment and homophobic/hetero-normative policing, to name but a few.  


This environment severely limits their life prospects and opportunities.  Yet, with all of the lip service given to “critical thinking” in the movement there is zero attention to the devastating impact prison pipe-lining has on preventing youth of color from having basic access to college preparation, advanced placement classes (so-called inner city schools have fewer AP math and science classes than do more affluent, predominantly white schools), financial aid and mentoring resources.  There is no attention to the narrowing of curriculum caused by high stakes testing, “charterization” and the neo-liberal corporate agenda (brought to you by the Obama administration and billionaire philanthropist allies like the Gates, Walmart and Broad foundations) to gut public education.


As a result of this regime many high school students simply don’t know how to construct a coherent essay, place contemporary events in historical context and analyze texts based on critical literacy.  This, and racist/sexist low expectations of teachers and administrators towards students of color, are the primary reasons why so few black and Latino youth go into STEM fields.  


However, the movement isn’t focused on these intersectional issues because they don’t directly affect middle class white children.  Conversely, progressive atheists of color are interested in building institutions that support culturally responsive humanist curricula, instruction and youth leadership development programs which will facilitate college access, activism and critical literacy amongst youth of color.


SW: One of the concepts you addressed was the secular community’s fascination with charismatic men as leaders and how this mirrors religious culture.  What do you see as the negative aspects of this continued patriarchal cultural outcome?  


SH: Part of the global success of New Atheism has been best-selling white atheist rock star authors and the popularization of cults of personality like the Four Horsemen. Unfortunately this kind of idolatry has eclipsed recognition of and attention to the ground work being laid by grassroots humanist organizations in their local communities. 


SW: What do you see are some concrete steps that secular social justice individuals and organizations can take to increase the diversity of voices that are seen as secular leaders?


SH: Progressive atheists organize around issues that go far beyond the usual church/state separation and “science and reason” agenda.  You can’t fight for economic justice in communities of color without advocating for reproductive justice, unrestricted abortion rights and access to universal health care.  You can’t preach “equality” of genders without redressing the heterosexist lack of representation of queer and trans people of color in K-12 curricula.  You can’t advocate for LGBTQQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning) enfranchisement without confronting all of the mechanisms that criminalize queer and trans youth of color and make them at greater risk for being incarcerated, placed in foster care and/or becoming homeless.


Coalitions that form around these intersectional issues should be actively promoted—especially those that cultivate ties with progressive believers and non-atheist secular community-based organizations.  Further, non-believers who write about and organize around these issues should be tapped for leadership positions in humanist and atheist organizations.  There are currently little to no people of color in executive management positions in the major secular/humanist/atheist organizations (i.e., CFI, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, etc.).  As a result, it is precisely because of the lack of culturally responsive humanist organizations and institutions that the vast majority of non-believers of color do not feel comfortable openly identifying as atheist.  


Where are the humanist institutions that support the realities of our lived experiences in a “Christian nation” based on capitalist, racist, sexist, heterosexist class power?  When atheism is primarily associated with academic elites patronizingly condemning believers as primitive and backward—while systematically profiting from racial segregation and straight white male privilege—then many people of color will see no compelling reason to ally with atheist causes and organizations by coughing up hundreds of dollars to attend navel-gazing conferences.


SW: You talked about the Christian fascists and their agenda to undermine progressive efforts for social justice.  What are your thoughts about those within the secular movement that are opposed to involvement in social justice issues?


SH: Again, the absence of historical and sociological context in atheist politics, and its disconnection from social justice activism, will keep it in the lily white 1 percent column.  In my book Moral Combat I address the lived experiences of some of the most religious communities on the planet in one of the richest nations on the planet.  What is the sociological context for faith traditions and hyper-religiosity in American communities of color?  I say, come to Los Angeles, to Milwaukee, Oakland, Baltimore or Newark where brilliant students of color are disproportionately denied access to college prep courses, suspended, placed in special education and pipelined into prisons instead of being given a decent shot at a science and humanities-based education.


These are not conditions that confront white families and white children—atheist, evangelical, working class, middle class or otherwise. Brilliant white youth who want to be oncologists, like my former student Karly Jeter, who identifies as Christian, are not told that they come from a dysfunctional culture that only excels at sports and making babies.   They are also  not included  from gatekeeping Advanced Placement science courses because their counselors didn’t believe they were capable or the classes weren’t offered on their campuses.  


Because of the pervasiveness of 21st century-style mass incarceration many youth of color will not be able to get jobs or housing.  They will not be able to vote or pursue a college education.  For this generation the promise of upward mobility and the American dream is a sham. Progressive community-based religious organizations grasp the complexities of this reality. The best ones actively seek to redress it.  And that is where the gap between the so-called New Atheism and radical or culturally relevant humanism lies.


SW: Can you explain what you mean by “radical humanism?”


SH: Radical humanism holds that religious hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, and class are harmful to universal human rights and the self-determination of oppressed peoples.  Radical humanism in communities of color seeks to allow people of color cultural legitimacy, visibility, and self-determination in the midst of a system that privileges whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, cis-gendered and able-bodied status as the universal norms upon which all human potential is implicitly based on and judged by.  


Radical humanism recognizes the inalienable human rights of all people to an equitable education, shelter, food, affordable health care, a clean, violence-free environment and a living wage job.  It recognizes women’s inalienable right to self-determination vis-à-vis reproductive choice, abortion and family planning free of state/religious intervention, authority and control.


 It recognizes the inherent morality of love between consenting adults of all sexual orientations and genders as well as the primacy of LGBTQQ identities, families, children and communities in a dominant culture that indoctrinates hetero-normativity and heterosexism as modes of power, authority and control.


“Is this some kind of post-Apocalyptic, dystopian free for all?” A Conversation With Zinnia Jones


A well-known writer and videoblogger with a focus on LGBTQ rights and secularism, Zinnia Jones was on CNN last month to discuss Chelsea Manning’s need for––and right to––transition care while in prison. She joined Secular Woman as a member this month and took time to talk with Julia Burke about Manning’s case and what it’s taught us about mainstream misconceptions about the trans* community, as well as misconceptions about the rights of inmates. She also discussed her path to atheism, the most common misunderstandings she encounters regarding trans* people, and what she’d like to see for the secular movement.

SW: The media coverage of Chelsea Manning’s case has brought to light so much transphobia and general ignorance in our culture. What has it been like, speaking to the media on behalf of the trans* community as this story unfolds, and what can those who want to be allies do to help?

ZJ: Well there has been so much incomprehension that it’s really made clear to me that so many people in mainstream culture have no idea of what it means to be trans*, what it’s like to be trans*, really what any of these things even are––any treatments, the importance of access to care, anything like that. So in many ways I’ve been explaining this from scratch to people who are largely clueless, and it’s almost insulting sometimes because it makes me feel like I have to explain our basic humanity, and that we require treatment like anyone else, we’re entitled to care in prison like anyone else, we’re entitled to our own genders like anyone else.

So it’s been difficult at times, trying to convey this in a way that’s understandable and in a way that brings people up to speed on this, on what should be basic issues of humanity and how being trans* is being understood, when they’re so far behind on all this and completely outside of it.

It’s important to be informed on this. It’s important to know the basics on this: things like the established standards of care for transitioning, things like position statements by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, and other medical authorities on how transitioning is the only treatment, it’s a necessary treatment, and it’s an effective treatment. It would also be important to get up to speed on the case law surrounding this. In civilian courts it’s repeatedly been established that access to hormone therapy, for instance, is something trans* people in prison cannot be deprived of without it constituting cruel and unusual punishment. There have been rulings on this pertaining to surgeries as well. So knowing the precedent on that would be helpful, and really just basic things about access to care in prisons for trans* people––and really, for everyone.

When I talk to people about this they seem to be under the impression that no one in prison should be entitled to any medical care at all. And it’s like, what exactly do you think happens in prisons? Is this some kind of post-Apocalyptic, dystopian free for all? The government becomes responsible for caring for people it incarcerates. That includes medical care. Transitioning is necessary care according to medical authorities, ergo, transitioning is part of the care the government must provide. It’s very important for people to understand that transition care is crucial and necessary and not some sort of luxury that can be omitted. That’s the angle that people really need to internalize here. This should be provided––yes, at taxpayer expense, like everything else in prisons. If [this taxpayer expense issue] is a concern for you, you might want to start worrying about how many people this country incarcerates in general, for goodness sake.

The way that they play this up in the media, too, seems so uninformed. Being a trans woman sitting in the studio, having someone on CNN tell me this treatment costs a hundred dollars a month when the government pays for it––it costs $13 a month when I pay for it, without any discounts or deal. The ignorance as though it’s authoritative, when speaking to someone who actually knows about this, is what makes it really important to actually listen to trans* people first rather than people promoting their own misconceptions and then having trans* people come on to correct them after the fact.

SW: How would you characterize understanding of these issues in the secular movement, specifically?

ZJ: While some people are uninformed about it, there’s really not so much overt hostility. Once you tell them what it’s all about they understand and they’re willing to listen. People in general in the secular community show a willingness to learn, especially when presented with the facts on this. And that is something to our advantage: the science is incredibly clear, the facts are incredibly clear. And the secular community is largely familiar with facing that mindset of actually showing someone facts, and either they accept them or they dig in and reject them.

SW: How would you describe the way women are welcomed––or not––in the atheist/secular community, both online and in real life?

ZJ: Personally this isn’t something I’ve had much experience with, as opposed to other big-name women in the movement who have had much more experience, largely because they’re the ones who have been targets of such vicious and repeated attacks. I almost get the feeling I’m omitted from that not only because I haven’t been as outspoken about harassment but also because to all the people getting on their case I may seem to be new at being a woman.

SW: Can you tell us the story of how you became an atheist?

ZJ: That was a pretty early-on thing for me. I was brought to the Catholic church when I was 5 or 6 just as a family thing, because my mother felt that now that she had kids it’s time for religion, I guess. It was at least what she had been taught; it was ‘hereditary religion.’ I started going to CCD class, getting on track for communion, and everything I learned there was not really anything I was able to take seriously. A lot of it was just Bible stories and, while we opened and closed with prayer, I tended to see it as just a role-playing thing or like story time at school. I never really internalized it as something I was actually supposed to believe. I tried praying once or twice on the off chance that there was anything to it, and afterwards when nothing happened I was like, ‘I guess I was right, there’s nothing going on here.’

We switched to a WELS Lutheran church because that’s where my mom’s friends were going now. So we started going there and that was when I first got exposed to some really serious intensive religion. To take communion there children first had to go through a two-year-long confirmation class. Once a week I spent a couple hours there, every Wednesday night, and there were five or six of us in the class headed towards confirmation, and we learned a lot of interesting things there, studying whatever the pastor felt was relevant in the Bible. This was a Young Earth Creationist church, a homophobic church, an anti-science church, and very anti-Catholic. I learned that the Pope is the representative of the antichrist on Earth. I learned how radiometric dating is some sort of lie and how dinosaur bones aren’t actually real––they were placed in the ground as a test of our faith. Meanwhile, I was in high school biology learning about basic things like the history of Earth and how basic life sciences work, and it was very difficult to see how I could learn about actual science all week long and then be expected to turn that off and ignore it as if it meant nothing and pretend for a couple hours that we live in a world that’s 10,000 years old and the antichrist walks the earth. That was when religion really raised the stakes in terms of the extreme claims it was making and I was not at all able to accept that. They pit themselves against established science and, in my mind, they lost.

We ended up leaving that church because the pastor had told my mom that she should not divorce her abusive husband because the vows of marriage required that she stay with him; she wasn’t up for that and I can’t blame her. After that, I didn’t exactly state my non-belief explicitly; I might have nominally said I was a Christian because I didn’t know about any alternative, but I switched over to agnostic just because of that nagging fear: what if you’re wrong? Do you really want to risk that? And I was there for a little while, but eventually I fought my way out of it by just asking myself, am I afraid of Islam? Do I believe in that, just in case? I just realized there was no reason to treat Christianity as special either. Around 17 or 18 I became more comfortable just considering myself an atheist, and shortly around the 2008 election, when Prop 8 passed largely due to Mormon campaigning and Mormon funding, it struck me as the height of absurdity that this faith was now the basis for worshippers to spend millions of dollars to make sure that gay people in California could not get married anymore. It was outrageous to me, and that’s when I started my YouTube channel and I spent the next couple years just addressing the various things I encountered.

SW: Can you address your top three or four misconceptions that you encounter about trans* people?

ZJ: A lot of people seem to think that treatment in terms of transitioning is just an elective thing or a cosmetic thing. Some people tend to think of it in the same sense as breast augmentation or something. Major medical bodies state that this is not merely cosmetic thing. But people have come to associate anything that surgically alters your body as being associated with vanity. It’s really not in this case here; it’s just correcting something that’s unwanted and should not have happened biologically so your body simply works better. This is a very necessary thing.

Also, nobody seems to actually know what hormones do. I’m not even sure what people think they do. But it’s important to make clear that it’s effectively an antidepressant, antianxiety drug. Aside from arresting unwanted changes physically, it really is essential to mental health for those who need it.

Overall, people have very little sense of exactly how important this is in terms of having a fulfilling life. Gender is a pretty fundamental thing, and it’s something you need to be comfortable with in order to just make life worth living and pursue anything in life and have a sense of purpose. A lot of trans women share this experience of mine where until we started transitioning most things in life seemed pretty pointless. I just did videos for years to keep myself occupied and have something to do, and stave off depression for another day.

When you do get treated, things start to change. You start to see things differently within a week of getting started. I felt better than I ever have in my life. Over the past year, just in contrast to everything that came before, I got my first full-time real job; I got to speak at a secular rally; I’ve been able to appear on CNN; I’m engaged now; I’m writing a book. These are basic matters of just realizing your full potential and making life something we can actually be enthusiastic and productive about and something that has a point and a purpose to it. To act like that’s something unimportant is just not correct and contrary to the experience of many trans* people. It’s very important to listen to trans* people when they explain what their lives are like and when they explain why their treatment is necessary.

SW: What issues would you especially like to see the atheist/secular community more involved in?

ZJ: I think focusing on LGBT rights is a pressing issue right now, given that it’s the site of so much basic science opposition. So much of homophobia is religious in nature. So much of transphobia is anti-science. It’s rooted in this conservative belief system which by all rights we should stand opposed to. Focusing on LGBT issues in particular seems like something the secular movement should really be cut out for. It’s a really basic thing where there’s plenty of science; there are really no excuses for intolerance from an empirical perspective, but prejudice continues to flourish in that vacuum of information, and that’s something atheists should be a part of changing.


Interview: Sikivu Hutchinson on Race, Gender, and Humanism

On August 24 Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta will host Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (2011) and  Godless Americana: Race & Religious Rebels. She is also the founder of Los Angeles’s Black Skeptics. “"Black Nonbelievers is honored to host Sikivu in the Atlanta area,” said Black Nonbelievers president Mandisa Thomas. “She is a true inspiration and fantastic representative––not only to freethinkers of color, but also the secular community as a whole. We hope as many people as possible come out to hear her message." Secular Woman president Kim Rippere will attend the event; Rippere says, “It is important and vital to reach out and support to all secular women in their endeavors in the secular community and in the broader community.” Secular Woman had the chance to ask Dr. Hutchinson a few questions about supporting people of color in atheism and feminism, prior to her presentation.


SW: Did you follow the #solidarityisforwhitewomen conversation on twitter last week? What do you think is the most important thing mainstream feminism needs to change to ensure an intersectional approach?


SH: I did not follow it closely but I saw a few tweets that spoke to the polarizing effect white privilege and white supremacy have on mainstream feminism. When there is no acknowledgment of white female privilege vis-a-vis cultural representation, political visibility, residential segregation, employment opportunities, and basic class mobility, then many feminists of color grow weary of claims of ally-building. For example, many feminists of color are deeply invested in seeking to redress the regime of mass incarceration, prison pipelining, and misogynist/homophobic violence that directly impacts the lives of straight and queer youth of color. Black women who have been convicted of nonviolent drug offenses compose the largest segment of the female prison population. The criminalization of Black women begins long before they are incarcerated in adult prisons. For example, Black girls have the highest rates of suspension/expulsion in the country and are more likely to have experienced sexual assault and domestic violence. The majority of female prisoners have experienced violence, abuse and assault. These are "intersectional" issues that are not typically focused on in the mainstream women's movement and are certainly not on the agenda of white secularist feminists.


SW: How can the atheist movement be better at community, serving those who come from particularly religious backgrounds?


SH: There are many "closeted" atheists in religious communities of color who identify with the social justice values and activist work of progressive community-based faith organizations. Unfortunately there are very few atheist/humanist organizations that explicitly align with and pursue social justice work. Radical and progressive humanist organizations that espouse alternatives to religion must be steeped in critical consciousness about how interlocking issues of racist, sexist, heterosexist, capitalist disenfranchisement specifically limit and impact people of color in traditionally religious communities. As I have argued in both Moral Combat and Godless Americana, it's problematic when white nonbelievers give lip service to being "down" with (what they deem to be) "oppressed" "hyper-religious" people of color while remaining willfully ignorant of how all whites benefit from overarching structures of white supremacy, racial apartheid, and patriarchy, which both inform and supersede religious hierarchies.


This year, Black Skeptics Los Angeles spearheaded its First in the Family Humanist scholarship program for undocumented, homeless, foster care and LGBTQ youth. These youth populations are at the epicenter of the school-to-prison pipeline and are the least likely to gain admittance to college, much less successfully graduate from college. Foster care youth are especially vulnerable to becoming homeless and incarcerated; while LGBTQ youth of color are overrepresented in both the foster care and homeless populations and are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement and school officials for detention and imprisonment. These youth are also the most likely to be victimized by homophobic religious persecution from their families, schools and churches. Why aren't any atheist or humanist organizations on the frontlines addressing this crisis?  Because these are "invisible" issues that do not directly affect the predominantly white middle class constituencies of mainstream New Atheism or humanism. It is a privilege to wake up every day and "breathe while white", i.e., not have to worry about being criminalized, racially profiled or new Jim-Crowed in heavily policed racially segregated transit-dependent communities with no living wage jobs.


SW: What can Secular Woman do to better address and support the needs of women of color?


SH: Secular Woman can help foreground the importance of these issues for humanist movement building, especially if it is truly invested in building a social and gender justice-based "inclusive" secular/humanist/atheist movement.  It can continue to support programming (like the Women's Leadership Project feminist mentoring program, BSLA's First in the Family scholarship program, and similar initiatives that don't expressly come from the secular community) that is specifically geared toward creating humanist educational avenues and opportunities for youth of color. It can also advocate for these initiatives within the broader atheist/humanist/secular community by taking an active stand on anti-racist feminist discourse.  Finally, it can help promote our forthcoming Women of Color Beyond Faith anthology––which will be the first collection of critical essays on the subject by a multiracial group of American women.


“My Work Is ahead of Me”: a conversation with ex-Muslim activist Iman Willoughby

Iman Willoughby is an ex-Muslim atheist dedicated to speaking out about the misogyny in her home country, Saudi Arabia, and supporting women who have suffered sexual assault. (For more resources for ex-Muslims, be sure to check out the Council of Ex-Muslims.) An assault survivor herself, Willoughby hopes to bring her assailant to justice in an upcoming trial in Canada in January. She has written about her experience in two blogs, Time for Me to Talk and Time for Me to Live; she also has an Indiegogo campaign to help pay for her legal costs (donate here to support her!). Secular Woman welcomed Willoughby last week as a new member; she tells her story here. 


SW: You studied medicine in Saudi Arabia before coming to Canada. What was that like for you as a woman?

IW: Surprisingly, it’s not forbidden for women to study medicine, but the interview process and process we have to go through to get into practicing medicine is extremely hard. The seven years of schooling we go through are brutal. I was kicked out of numerous lectures because my face or hair were showing; they’d fail us for silly things. At the end of the program there  were 14 girls for 300 or 400 boys, so that demonstrates the disparity.


There’s a strange pattern back home where the majority of physicians, the people of science, are very religious. Once you go into the private sector it seems hard for women but I can tell you from living there that it’s very difficult to get a job and stay in that job because then you have to face harassment by male consultants, by male seniors––you have to face a lot of issues and in the end it wears you down. There are other sectors where women are completely forbidden: government, for example; there are some female lawyers but I don’t know where they’re getting their education; many scientific fields are no-nos for women; you can’t be police officer. 


Most assaults are not reported, and those that are are not advertised. Out of ten women in my medical school, maybe seven were assaulted or there was incest.


SW: You came to work in Canada and were assaulted during your second year of training, by a Saudi man. What happened at that point?

IW: I did go to the police but I hadn’t immigrated at that point. Being here on a worker’s permit, yes, I’m on Canadian soil, yes, there are freedoms here, laws here, but my existence in Canada was given to me by the Saudis. Because I was being funded, and funding is huge (Canada wouldn’t have me here if Saudi wasn’t paying my salary), my primary concern was the reaction I was going to get from the Saudis. A normal human being would immediately go to the police, but when you come from a place like where I come from you have to sit and think, and that’s what I did. I tried to figure out how I could prevent a crisis from leading me into another crisis. Because I did that, I was ridiculed. When I finally reached a point where I was near-suicidal I went to the police, and within two weeks of me going to the police and contacting the cultural attache in Ottawa I was mailed a letter terminating me.


SW: On what grounds?

IW: There was just a letter saying they were given orders from the Ministry of Higher Education in Riyadh and thus I owed them $200,000.


When all this happened I went to the Human Rights Commission, went to the police; it was such a big mess. I filed a complaint to the Saudi cultural attache here; because the police dropped my case and because the man was let go, my case got dismissed. The Human Rights Commission tried to contact the Saudi attache and they got hung up on. Eventually they stopped answering any of their phone calls.


My entire case with the HRC was dismissed, around 2009 or 2010, and I moved on with my life. Then, this year, I got a call from the police telling me that the man who assaulted me has applied for a visa to re-enter Canada. They asked, “Do you want us to proceed with your case and press charges?” They said, “You don’t have to, but we felt that we should contact you.” I said yes, of course. So he was arrested, but because of the fact that no charges were ever brought up against him they had to let him go, so he went back to Saudi, he has a Canadian lawyer here, and we have court dates set for January where he’s supposed to show up. He’s already pled not guilty. 


SW: At what point did you begin to identify as an atheist?

IW: I called myself a closet atheist for a long time––ever since I was beaten to pray. I was like 10. Being forced into everything, it’s too much. They push and push and there’s no choice. You can’t say no, I don’t want this, this is not me. 


Iman Willoughby

SW: Did you meet people who were also angry or questioning, or did no one talk about it?


IW: The brainwashing is there. Unfortunately a lot of it is women, because they’re so controlled by men––they aren’t allowed to travel. Their world is what’s being taught to them. I have seen an incredible number of Saudi atheists who are very vocal and loud on Twitter, but they cannot mention their real names. The punishment by law is immediate death. 


The younger population doesn’t like this situation––they’re educated, they travel, they’re pushing. The biggest push in the majority of the developed world is the separation of religion from law, from society, the separation of religion, period. But we’re talking about Saudi Arabia. It controls a lot of oil. I can tell you the U.S. will never challenge anything Saudi does because they depend on their oil. 


SW: Do you believe Islam is uniquely hospitable to misogyny?

IW: I was taught the Koran ever since I can remember; there’s the Koran, there’s the prophet’s sayings, the hadith––70 percent of my schooling was religious. It is misogynistic, yes, very anti-woman; a woman is an object. There is a lot of hate and anger: women are filthy, we can’t touch the Koran if we’re bleeding; there is constantly negativity towards women. Add to this the culture, which is a dry, harsh, very traditional Bedouin culture. It’s catastrophic. The results are severely damaging, not even just for women: child abuse, animal abuse. We had dogs where I lived and it was a villa and we had walls around our villa. Our dogs would bark when the prayer call began, because it was loud, and the police would start throwing rocks over the wall, not even knowing who they’re hitting, trying to kill our dogs. I was frequently playing in the yard at the time! 


SW: Though you’ve had massive support on social media, you’ve said your family has disowned you. Will you ever return to Saudi?

IW: I can pretty much guarantee you I’m not only blacklisted but the minute I step foot in Saudi they will kill me. I never got an agreement from the Saudis to marry my husband; I publicly have denounced Islam. And even if I could… I think I’m done.


SW: Have other oppressed women reached out to you since you began sharing your story?

IW: Most of these women are under a significant amount of fear and I cannot mention names, but I have spoken to, helped, guided many––I call myself the quiet helper because I’m not very loud about it but they know who I am and they know when to contact me. My work is ahead of me. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.


Follow Willoughby on Twitter or donate to her campaign here.


An Interview with a Secular Mother on Drunk Driving

Interview by Kim Rippere, President of Secular Woman

Angela Champaneria is secular mother who is battling her family and community regarding teenage drunk driving.  Her daughter was recently in a car accident. Angela’s decision to have her daughter take responsibility for her actions was not universally well received.  Adults were supportive, but not all the kids! Here is a recent interview:

How is your daughter? And the other teenagers? Is everyone ok?

My daughter is physically ok now. She had the worse of injuries. All the other kids are fine.

What do you have to say about teenage drinking? Teenage driving? Teenage drinking and driving?

I personally feel that drinking before the legal age is wrong, period. I feel parents need to take more precautions to prevent this. I feel teenagers should not be allowed to drive till age 18. I have always felt this way. Aside from alcohol, teenagers just don't make good choices.

Do you see any roll in this for peer-pressure or bullying?

I feel peer pressure exists, for the good and for the bad. There are good role models and there are bad. When we are around people we like and look up to, we tend to follow them, even if it's not right.

What has been the most surprising thing in the wake of the accident and the position you have taken?

The most surprising thing in general is the lack of lessons learned. My daughter for example has learned not to get in a car with someone who is drunk. She has not learned that drinking as a minor is wrong and dangerous, period!

What are three things you want teenagers and parents to know about teenage drinking?

Teenage drinking is a major problem that affects us all in the end. Just because your child says he or she is not drinking, does not mean they are not! take away opportunities by taking away communication at night (cell phone, electronics etc). As a parent you need to be firm because these kids will find a way to do it if you as a parent are not on top of it. Trust me, it was a lesson for me personally.

What three resources do you recommend regarding teenage drinking? Why do you recommend them?

I recommend getting involved with MADD. They have support and resources for everyone involved. It is by far one of the best organizations out there and I don't know where I would be without their support. Establishing your own network of friends and family to have gatherings with and to be involved with regularly would help in the sense that you can pull together as a village to help a teen who is going on the wrong path. Get involved with whatever spiritual outlet you have or non spiritual network, in assistance with the teens inner being.

How can a community “pull together and do something?” How are you leading this in your community?

By pulling together as a community, we as parents need to start in our own homes. If the parents take firm action in their homes, this will cut the issue in half, I guarantee! We also need to have stricter laws in Montana in order to wake these kids and some parents up. Start fining the parents if the teen is caught drinking underage. Allow law enforcement more mobility when it comes to catching minors. Make harsher consequences for minors so that they really think before doing it again. Laws need to be changed, this is a fact. I have started the ball rolling by speaking up and taking action. I am far from done. I plan on assisting in legal changes as well.

What are the next steps for you? Your family? Your community?

The next steps for me are getting involved with changing laws. I will continue to express the importance of parenting in every way possible. My family will be getting involved in support of fundraisers for victims of Auto related accidents. The community has been very supportive minus the kids involved/ indirectly involved.

What was the role of social media in supporting (or not) you and your decisions?

The media has been super supportive. Many people have contacted the Shelby Promoter and myself expressing their gratitude that the Promoter took action and did something. I have had been contacted by many sources wanting the story for their paper as well. People feel it's a Nationwide issue and that no ones ever stands up and addresses the issues. They feel this story will benefit everyone everywhere and give strength to parents who are feeling weak with no outlet or support.

How has this changed you?

1My being has changed in so many ways. I have become stronger and more active due to almost losing my baby. I have realized that this has happened to so many people and that they need assistance. I've learned that addressing the issue publicly has given so many people relief and comfort. We can now as a community move forward…together!

Angela’s Biography:

The Majority of people find their support and guidance from a Church. Given that I don't belong to any particular Religious group I have found it very hard to find a support group. I have morals and values and a sense of right from wrong without a book. I feel like our voices, as secular woman, are not heard unless there is a religion to thank for saving us. I have been an example to my children, family and friends that non religious woman are just as moral as any woman who follows rules from a book. So many people have mistaken me as being very religious due to my lifestyle and beliefs. I have found that they end up respecting and trusting me more due to that. I feel that secular woman also should be given credit for being good moral Mothers, wives, sisters and friends. We are good people, there is nothing to fear of us

Interview with Secular Woman Carli R.- Aurora Shooting Survivor

Stand your ground, be assertive, treat others as you would want to be treated, and be gracious ~ Carli R., Secular Woman

For Carli, it was a night she'll never forget: July 20, 2012. That night an armed gunman, dressed in tactical clothing, set off tear gas in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater before shooting and killing 12 and injuring 58. Carli was one of those survivors. She credits her survival to quick thinking, her Navy training and especially the talented medical personnel on duty that night.

In the days after the incident Carli wrote about her experience from a secular point of view — only to find her words taken out of context and pictures used without her permission all over the Internet. Secular Woman (SW) wanted to give Carli the opportunity to set the record straight. This interview was conducted via email and is unedited aside from one bracketed word. What you are about to read is Carli, in her own words and in context:

SW: Tell us a little bit about yourself. 

Carli: I was born and raised in northeastern Ohio, and was raised by my mother and father. Though they sent me to catholic school for most of my primary school years, they always encouraged me to be the unique person that I was, and helped me the best they could as I dabbled in modeling and music. The city I lived in did not seem to have much going on when I graduated from a public high school, so I joined the military right after graduation. I served in the US Navy until October 2011. Soon after, I came to Denver, Colorado, to pursue music, modeling, and attend college, with my boyfriend, Chris. Right now, I'm finding work as an "alternative model" and playing with my new band, where I play bass guitar and sing lead vocals. It's all been pretty amazing until the incident at the theater. It seems it's really turned my life upside-down, at least for the time being.

SW: Tell us your most vivid memories of the night you were shot in Aurora. 

Since the full text of the article will be printed here, I won't go too far into detail about that night. I feel that the need to write about it was triggered by a few things. Firstly, a lot of people were asking me questions about it. I felt the need to sort of give an account of what happened, so that I could refer people to it instead of having to relive the event over and over again. However, writing about it was amazingly therapeutic for me. I kind of needed to do it to sort of sort through everything and really face it, in my mind. It definitely helped a lot, in that aspect.

The main thing that got me out of harm's way was the immediate rush of adrenaline that I felt, upon recognizing the smell of tear gas, which had landed at my feet. I learned in Navy boot camp to recognize the unique, acrid smell, and that it is not something you want to stay around for a long period of time. What saved me, after that, was my boyfriend's ability to handle a tough situation, and the medical staff who took care of me. Though my upbringing was religious- my parents sent me to catholic school for all of my elementary school years- my mother and father both worked in the medical field, and they have always seemed to be very fond of both faith and science.

I almost gave thought to praying in the ambulance that night, because that was when the real seriousness of the situation hit me- however, the medical staff whose care I was placed under took such good care of me. I was under the care of such competent, caring beings, that there was no need to do such a thing. I remember being in so much pain and shock that I was delirious, but at some point I was thanking them profusely. It wasn't a higher power that got me out of my seat- it was the smell of the tear gas that landed at my feet. It was my boyfriend, Chris, who got me to the police officer who flagged down an ambulance for me. And it was the amazing medical staff who took care of me to ensure that I left the hospital in the best possible condition. I don't want to put down the power of positivity, and that's what I feel prayer is- positive vibes being sent your way- but I do like to give credit where it is due, and express my extreme gratitude towards all of these people, and also to my parents for bringing me up "right".

SW: Why did you choose write about your experience? 

Carli: Well, since the main reason for writing my account of what happened was because I knew it would be therapeutic for me, I didn't really anticipate that it would attract any attention. I was still in shock (and I still am, to a degree), and I wanted to just "sort everything out" in my head. Getting it onto a screen or into a notebook really helps. Also, a lot of my loved ones were asking me "what happened?" and I hoped that my account of what happened would clear it up so that I would not have to relive it every single time someone asked. Who wants to relive something like that? So I suppose that being able to just refer them to the article was a positive outcome of writing said article.

Anyhow, a friend of mine was just so moved by the story that she wanted to post it on her blog. Apparently it became a hot topic. Last time I checked, it had over 150,000 hits in the United States alone. That was about a week ago. Being able to publicly thank those who helped me through that awful time was a big positive for me- I want people to know that, yes, it is kind of offensive and putting certain people down to tell me that the only reason I survived was because "someone was watching over [me]" that night. I've even had doctors, whom I've never met or heard of before in my entire life, message me on facebook to thank me for thanking them. They said that they went to school for eight to ten years to help people and it really bums them out when they make a very difficult diagnoses or something to save a life and the person they helped immediately thanks their higher power for the hard work that they did.

I can only imagine what that's like, and now I am getting a taste of it, firsthand. The positive outcommes outweigh the negatives so greatly that I'll only mention one more, which was the generosity of others. A woman who I met through a friend, on facebook, was also so moved by the story, set up a fundraiser for my boyfriend and I. I had told her how he and I were college students, how I was already struggling with debt and living paycheck to paycheck, and how I didn't know how I would pay the medical bills- or any other bills for that matter- while I'm out of work. We exceeded the set goal of $2,000.00 (she suggested a much higher amount, but I have never had to ask for such a thing before so I decided upon a much more modest amount), and I'm able to get the care I need- for now.

The negative is that, if I do need to get pellets removed from my body, I'll be out of work for even longer. I have a feeling people aren't going to be so generous after some of the attention I have gotten from dirty media lately. Though I thought it was very nice that many secularists were messaging me on facebook and the like to tell me how strong and smart I seemed in the article, this also triggered a lot of backlash from non-secularists, who think it is perfectly logical that their god would let two "non-believers" escape the theater while a 6-year-old girl died. These are the same people who have been messaging me because there was an internet meme made of me where I am quoted, saying "I wasn't touched by an angel. I wasn't blessed. I had a good head on my shoulders and I used it".

Apparently some people took this as an attack on some of the less fortunate victims of the shooting that night. I've been accused of being "cocky" and feeling that the others must have "deserved it" or something. This is odd, because I have never said anything of the sort, and I can't find any justification for triviliazing what ANY of us went through that night, so what would possibly compell a person to think that I would say or think such a thing, especially about those who weren't as fortunate as I? What kind of a person would think such a thing? Furthermore, what kind of person would think that I could think such a thing? Apparently they missed the part where I also said that "…no matter how they reacted to it, the event itself was nobody’s fault but that of the criminal who did this."

However, that is only one of the many instances where the media or public have tried to demonize one of the victims of the shooting, but I felt it to be a good example of the cruelty and ridiculousness in which some of us have been portrayed/treated. I think (and this is just a generalization) that people will typically believe what they want to hear- and today's society seems, to me, to only want to hear gorey, dark, destructive things.  Therefore, I should not be surprised, but I sincerely feel that anyone who would treat a survivor of such a heinous, traumatic experience that way, is just about a cowardly as the person who did it. And "person" is almost a compliment for our attacker.

However, though the "crazies" and the "media whores" have made it a point to demonize me, I have found myself with at least a dozen kind, compassionate souls, giving me their support, for every one bad egg. Most importantly, though, I'm recovering. Slowly, but surely, I'm recovering, and I have the best support system that anyone could possibly ask for. My family, and that includes my boyfriend and my "therapy dog", are my rock when I need them. They give me hope for humankind and they make every day amazing. I love and appreciate them in a way that no words could possible explain.

Am I rambling?

As I said before, when I originally wrote my account of what happened that night, I had only written it for myself and my loved ones. I did not say anything with the intent of stirring up controversy. I did not expect such an overwhelming amount of supportive responses either. I wrote exactly what was in my head, because it needed to get out- I wrote what I was feeling, truthfully, because it is all I know how to do. I am far too socially inept to sugar-coat things or manipulate people into an angry frenzy, and I was in far too much shock and pain (both physical and mental/emotional) to have any alterior motives.

This is probably why I was so surprised when the article not only got so much attention, but why a good chunk of it was negative attention directed toward me. It wasn't just hurtful- it was incredibly confusing. It still confuses and shocks me, to this day, that someone could do something as horrible as the shooter did that night (I avoid saying his name, because at this point, it's just one of those "ugly words" I don't like to use), and furthermore that someone could attack me for writing my feelings on it. We are all human beings, we are all special and unique, and part of what makes us special and unique is that we have all kinds of different thoughts and feelings. However, if one of your emotions is "blind rage", I would think that perhaps one should seek help from a professional rather than attacking someone who was recently victimized in such a terrible way. I guess I'll never understand such people, and I'm okay with that.

I feel fortunate that, though I've been through very traumatic and horrific experiences in my life (from childhood to now), I haven't experienced enough anguish to pick on someone while they're down. I have had to make my facebook private and immediately delete all messages and comments on my website just to avoid the headache of dealing with some of these people. The amount of positive responses have been just as overwhelming, in their own way. Though I sincerely appreciate the kindness of strangers and have always preached that the kindness of strangers is just wonderful and gives me so much hope for this world and for society in general, there have been so many of them that I have not been able to keep up with responding to all of them. I hope that anyone who has tried to send me their kind words has not felt unappreciated or offended that I have had to make my private life, well, private, due to the multitude of responses I've received.

As I've probably mentioned before, I had a lot on my plate before this even happened; I am a passionate musician, a part time model, a college student, and I work a mediocre job as a sales associate at a department store. I also have my own psychiatric problems to deal with, and I was (well, still am) working very hard to make my life the best it could be. After this happened, I've been overwhelmed with trying to get physically and mentally healthy again, therefore it has been difficult to respond to everyone and some will not be able to even reach out to me because of the privacy settings I have had to implicate. I do hope that none of the positive, supportive, people are offended by this and that they understand that, due to the things I've previously mentioned, it is just something that had to be done. Then again, I supposed I shouldn't care much for what others think of me if I'm a tattooed model and a lead singer in a rock band, right?

SW: Do you think you'll approach your recovery in a different way than a religious woman might? If so, how?

Carli: I feel that most people, religious or not, understand the importance of modern medical science, and that they understand these basic things are very important and that utilizing them can lead to our recovery, both mentally and physically. For instance, my mother, who wanted me to go to a private school and sometimes took me to church as a child, is a nurse. I have no doubt in my mind that she prayed for me the night of the incident, however, since she is a nurse, she has been monitoring my recovery closely and helped me out to ensure that I get the best possible medical care for myself. She fully supported me thanking the people who needed to be thanked, and is aware that I respect her beliefs as she respects mine (or lack of). I think that any person with common sense, whether they worship a deity or not, would handle the situation in the same way. The only difference is, I'm not praying.

Don't get me wrong, I have already acknowledged that someone can also act if they are praying (but just wait until someone makes another meme), however, I have supplemented my actions with positive thoughts rather than praying to a higher power and expecting them to intervene. Perhaps I am naive to think this, but I don't think our actions are that much different, a religious person and I. Obviously if someone is shot with buckshot from a shotgun and receives twenty-two holes in their body, as well as the other injuries that I mentioned earlier, and they just go home and pray about it (and I was in far too much pain to just go home, as you know if you read the story), it's not because they're religious- it's because they're batshit crazy, in my opinion. To me, it is just common sense that a bullet hole needs medical treatment. The kind of craziness that would let someone ignore such an obvious fact is the same kind of craziness that, I think, accompanies someone walking into an enclosed space with guns and teargas and shooting dozens of people like fish in a barrel- it's just absolutely crazy and beyond my comprehension. There aren't people who do stuff like that, are there?

SW: What would you say to women without religious belief who are having trouble coming out? 

Carli: Well, firstly, I think it is extremely sad that we live in such a society that somebody would have to "come out" about being who they truly are, especially if it's not hurting anyone. But I could rant about that all day. I'm not even sure of what advice I could possibly give you, except that while you should not be constantly defensive or expecting people to give you trouble, you should be prepared for it. I went to catholic school during my K-6th years, and in that time, I did a lot of searching. I didn't feel that the way I was treated at school was right, and furthermore it really hurt me that if I questioned anything, I was treated with no respect, as if I was there to be seen and not heard. I explored every religion I could find, in fact, I even got into trouble once because I brought some book about Wicca to school because I was genuinely curious and wanted to learn more about it. "There has to be something out there," I thought. But I couldn't force myself to believe in a higher power, no matter how much I prayed and no matter how much I studied every religion and denomination that I could get my hands on. Eventually, as an adult, I had enough knowledge of science, history, and literature, to know that my feelings were justified, and that feelings are justified anyhow because, well, you can't help the way you feel.

I am not the kind of person who typically goes around looking for conflict ("tween" years excluded, because I don't even want to think about how scary it is when a girl goes through puberty, and kudos to my parents for being so tough), however, religion is sometimes an unavoidable topic of discussion. Eventually, I became sick of the sadistic people who only wanted to belittle me and then not listen to a word I had to say otherwise, because I am an adult, I am a woman, and I am a very respectable human being.

I got a scarlet "A" tattoo on my left arm to signify that I "wasn't going to take shit from anyone, anymore". Of course, society hasn't really evolved as much as I had hoped for, so people do ask about my tattoos often. I had no idea that I got my tattoos for other people rather than myself, nor did I know that someone with Borderline Personality Disorder should be forced into indulging in ridiculous social pleasantries with ignorant people, willful or not, but I have been dragged into some pretty ridiculous conversations as soon as someone asks about that specific tattoo. As soon as they ask what it means, I simply say "I'm an atheist", and brace for a eruption on the other end. Honestly, most people either won't think much of it, or they'll act as if you just stabbed their messiah in the throat with a javelin. Seriously, the ridiculousness of the response will be at that level.

In such negative cases, there is not much you can do, though I almost want to dare you to "try to talk some sense into them". They want to convert you just as much as you want them to leave you the hell alone so you can go about your day, so the only thing to do at this point is to diffuse the situation and walk away. Sometimes it's more complicated than that, but you can usually express the point that you respect their beliefs and that you'd appreciate it if they respected yours as well, or that you feel such beliefs are a private thing and are very taboo to be discussing in such a situation (i.e. a work situation, a group outing) and that perhaps we should talk about something more important than having a pissing match over something that both parties are never going to see eye-to-eye about.

Other than that, well, be proud of who you are. Self respect is something that has been a very important part of my own personal growth and development, as well as overcoming many big obstacles (that's quite an understatement for some things) in my life. Stand your ground, be assertive, treat others as you would want to be treated, and be gracious. Obviously, the one who is raving like a lunatic isn't going to be the one to be taken seriously in such an instance. Don't let them "get to you" and do not look down upon them either- some people are delusional, as if anyone needed me to tell them that, considering the circumstances under which I am undergoing this interview.

(If, however, physical violence is threatened against you, I seriously suggest calling the local authorities right away. There is no bible, that I've read, that says your personal safety and well-being should be threatened just because you don't follow another person's religion).

SW: What would you most like to say to people reading this interview? To other secular women specifically?

Carli: I suppose that when I'm thinking too hard about it, it's hard to think of a message that I'd very much like to convey here. So I'll just speak from the heart, I guess, just say how I'm feeling about all of this. I firstly want to thank everyone who has been gracious, kind, and supportive, in this time of need for me. I am typically not good at accepting sympathy and though I can take a compliment, some of your words have been kind beyond my comprehension. So thank you. I'm still in shock from that night at the theater and please forgive me if it is hard to process the overwhelming amount of not only responses, but of support, at the same time. This is going to be a long, complicated, emotional rollercoaster of a journey towards recovery for me, but I appreciate all of the support in this time.

To any secularist women who may be reading this, and seeking some food for thought, all I can offer is the following; As I've said before, it is nobody's fault but that of the attacker that people were murdered, injured, and traumatized- however, it is a fact that I did not sit idely by and let this monster take my life. I ran for my life, and though my physical injuries and mental trauma are taking their toll on my life, I'm not going to let them ruin my life- I am fighting it, even as I type this. I'm going to face them in the same fashion which I will face my attacker in court. When life knocks you down, sometimes this is easier said than done, but get back up and tell life that "you hit like a bitch". Do not let other monsters in your life take any part of your life, ever. Stand your ground. Be gracious, be kind, pick your battles, but always stand up for yourself.

Furthermore, at any opportunity you might have, I urge you to stand up for those who may not be able to stand up for themselves, because they appreciate it more than you know. I know I certainly do appreciate it that, despite the media blitz, there are still people standing up for me. Thank you,, for giving me a vessel with which to explain my true thoughts, not taken out of context and made into an internet meme or made into a poorly-written article about what a villain I am. Everyone I've met in representation of the [organization] seems to be logically-thinking beings who know a real villian when they see one, and thank you for supporting me- the survivor. Not the villian. Not the helpless victim who takes abuse, either- but the wounded survivor, with a long journey ahead of her, who needs a little support every now and then because whatever label you give her, she is human.


Secular Woman wants to again thank Carli for taking the time out to speak to us and other secular women about her experience. She didn't want any fanfare and when we referred to her as "an inspiration", she shrugged it off humbly. Few victims of tragedy will express such overwhelming gratitude for the real life people that helped them pull through, rather than crediting an imaginary being. Carli's reflections espouse one of Secular Woman's core values: the embrace of human-centered ethics informed by reason and science and the rejection of dogma and superstition. Carli's courage and goodwill shine through loud and clear — we couldn't be more honored to welcome her into the Secular Woman community. 

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