Fearless Voices: The Rise of Women Atheist Activists Shaping a Secular Future

By Johanna S. Browne

7 June, 2024

In the last decade, we’ve witnessed an inspiring rise in the number of women stepping away from their religious backgrounds to become prominent voices in the atheist and humanist movements. This trend is especially significant among ExMuslim women, who are taking on leadership roles and advocating for secular values and human rights. So, what’s driving this shift, and why are these women so compelled to use their lack of religious belief as a platform for activism?

I want to shine a light on some incredible organizations and the phenomenal women driving a movement that’s changing the world. Faithless Hijabi, ExMuslims of North America (EXMNA), and Council of ExMuslims of Britain (CEMB) are lifelines for those facing persecution for their beliefs. These groups offer community, safety, and a sense of belonging to those who dare to dissent from religious dogma.

Thanks to the global connectivity of the internet, these brave women can voice their dissent and advocate for secular values more openly. Online platforms are powerful tools, allowing them to share their stories, find support, and organize movements, amplifying their impact on a global scale. The influence of women atheists and humanist activists is profound. They’re not just standing up for the rights of non-believers; they’re pushing for broader societal changes that benefit everyone. By promoting secularism, they help ensure that public policies

are based on reason and human rights rather than religious dogma. Their work in human rights, gender equality, and social justice is creating a more inclusive and equitable world.

We’re seeing an increasing presence of women secular activists in public discourse and political arenas. This underscores the transformative impact of education, cultural shifts, and global connectivity. Their activism is a beacon of hope, promoting a world where everyone is free to believe—or not believe—as they choose.

Several factors unique to women’s experiences fuel this movement, underscoring its feminist core:

Many women seek autonomy over their lives and bodies, something religious doctrines often restrict. The desire for gender equality and freedom from patriarchal religious structures drives them toward secularism and humanism. By leaving religion, these women reclaim their autonomy and advocate for their rights.

The rise of religious conservatism and its impact on public policies, Particularly those affecting women’s rights, including Trans Women, has prompted many to leave their faiths. Women are increasingly rejecting conservative agendas that seek to control their reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and personal freedoms. In countries where religious conservatism heavily influences politics, Women find themselves at the forefront of fighting for secular governance and policies that respect individual freedoms.

Religious doctrines often impose restrictive views on sexual and reproductive health, limiting women’s autonomy over their own bodies. Women activists are pushing back against these constraints, advocating for access to contraception, safe abortion services, and comprehensive sexual education. Their secular stance allows them to champion these rights without the limitations imposed by religious dogma.

The availability of supportive networks and communities for ex-religious individuals has also played a crucial role. Organizations like Faithless Hijabi and EXMNA provide vital support, helping women navigate the challenges of leaving their faith and finding a new sense of belonging. These communities offer emotional support, resources, and a platform for activism, making it easier for women to voice their dissent and advocate for change.

Women who leave their religion often face severe repercussions, including honour-based crimes. These crimes, ranging from social ostracism to physical violence, are used to control and punish women who reject their faith. By stepping into the public sphere, these activists not only highlight the dangers faced by apostates but also work towards creating protective measures and legal frameworks to safeguard their rights.

Patriarchal religious structures perpetuate gender discrimination, restricting women’s roles and opportunities. Secular women activists challenge these norms, advocating for equal rights in all spheres of life, from education to employment. They also stand in solidarity with LGBTI+ individuals, pushing for their rights and inclusion. By advocating for secularism, they promote a society where individuals are free to express their identities without fear of religious persecution.

Due to growing up in a religious ideology which sees women as inferior I have used my voice to speak out against religiously sanctioned bigotry and unreason and to advocate for secularism.
I was particularly affected by a story my mother told me from her childhood about overhearing her grandfather, father and brother saying their first morning prayer. The first morning prayer a Jewish man recites, “Blessed are you Hashem, King of the Universe, for not having made me a woman.”
My mother stated repeatedly hearing this prayer made her feel she did not count, as if she was invisible to her god, he did not see her despite her prayers, her mitzvahs (commandments and good deeds) her work and her obedience…
The entirety of the Abrahamic trinity – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as well as other faiths
are steeped in misogyny, disgust for women’s bodies, and scripture sanctioned subjugation of
women. Such has led me to champion secularism and speak out against theological illiberalism to protect the rights of women.

– Rivka Goldstein

Women activists are dismantling patriarchal structures within their former religious communities, advocating for women’s rights, and pushing for gender equality. By promoting the separation of religion and state, they work towards policies that respect individual rights and freedoms, free from religious influence. Research from the Pew Research Center indicates a significant increase in the number of people identifying as religiously unaffiliated, with women playing a vital role in this shift. The Niskanen Center notes that this trend is partly a backlash against conservative religious agendas, prompting many, particularly women, to embrace secular activism.

The rise of female voices is not just a trend; it’s a powerful movement toward secularism and gender equality. ExMuslim women are leading the way, but ExJewish, ExHindu, and ExChristian women are also making significant contributions. As these voices grow louder, they’re shaping a future where secular and humanist values are central to society.

ExMuslim women are at the forefront of this movement. Figures like Zara Kay, founder of Faithless Hijabi, Sarah Haider, co-founder of ExMuslims of North America, and Maryam Namazie, spokesperson for One Law for All and the Council of ExMuslims of Britain, have become influential leaders. Their activism is not just about leaving Islam; it’s about fighting for the rights of women and minorities, challenging oppressive practices, and advocating for the separation of religion and state.

  • Zara Kay: Founder of Faithless Hijabi, Zara Kay provides a critical support network for women leaving Islam, helping them navigate the challenges of ostracism and threats. Her work underscores the importance of community and solidarity in empowering women to take a stand.
  • Mariam Oyiza Aliyu: An influential advocate for women’s rights and social justice. As a committed activist, she works tirelessly to empower marginalized communities through education and legal reform. Mariam’s leadership at various NGOs has been pivotal in promoting gender equality and human rights in her region.
  • Khadija Khan: As a journalist and commentator, Khadija writes extensively on women’s rights, secularism, and the challenges faced by ExMuslims. Her insightful analysis and advocacy for a secular approach to human rights resonate deeply within and beyond the secular community.
  • Maryam Namazie: Known for her outspoken criticism of Islamic practices and Sharia law, Maryam Namazie’s advocacy is crucial in challenging the status quo and promoting a more inclusive society.
  • Sarah Haider: Co-founder of EXMNA, Sarah Haider’s efforts aim to normalize religious dissent and create safe spaces for ExMuslims. Her activism highlights the need for acceptance and understanding of religious skepticism in broader society.
  • Nuriyah Khan: Nuriyah Khan uses her platform on YouTube and social media to share her journey out of Islam and promote secular values. Her engaging content and personal stories provide support and resources for others questioning their faith, making her a relatable and influential figure in the movement.

Women from other religious backgrounds are also making significant strides. Ex-Jewish, ex-Christian, and ex-Hindu women are using their platforms to challenge traditional norms and promote progressive values. For instance, Julia Sweeney’s journey from Catholicism to atheism, detailed in her show “Letting Go of God,” has inspired many. Similarly, Nina Paley’s work in filmmaking and Elana Maryles Sztokman’s writings on gender issues within Judaism have made substantial impacts in their respective communities.

ExJewish Women Activists

Gender issues within Judaism have made substantial impacts in their respective communities.

  • Julia Sweeney: An actress and comedian, Julia’s transition from Catholicism to atheism is humorously and poignantly detailed in her one-woman show, “Letting Go of God.” Her story resonates deeply within the secular community.
  • Nina Paley: This filmmaker and artist uses her work to explore themes of religion and mythology. Nina’s outspoken atheism and unique perspective on Jewish identity are both thought-provoking and inspiring.
  • Elana Maryles Sztokman: An author and advocate, Elana writes about gender issues within the Jewish community. Her work challenges traditional norms and promotes feminist perspectives within Judaism.
  • Rivka Goldstein: Known for her work on secularism and women’s rights, Rivka is a prominent voice addressing religious oppression and advocating for inclusivity.

ExHindu Women Activists

Ex-Hindu women activists are tackling issues like caste discrimination and gender inequality, often intersecting with broader social justice movements.

  • Kavita Krishnan: An Indian activist and Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, Kavita is a fierce critic of religious and cultural practices that perpetuate gender discrimination and violence against women.
  • Gauri Lankesh: A journalist and outspoken critic of Hindu nationalism and religious extremism, Gauri’s work highlighted caste and gender oppression within Hindu society. Her legacy continues to inspire after her tragic assassination in 2017.

ExChristian Women Activists

In Western countries, many ex-Christian women are leading voices in the atheist movement, focusing on issues like reproductive rights and the separation of church and state.

  • Greta Christina: An author and blogger, Greta addresses atheism, sexuality, and social justice in her writings. Her insightful commentary often critiques the cultural and political influence of Christianity.
  • Annie Laurie Gaylor: As co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), Annie Laurie is a staunch advocate for the separation of church and state. Her work is instrumental in challenging the pervasive influence of Christianity in American public life.
  • Susanna McIntyre: The CEO of Atheist Republic and a leading voice in the atheist and humanist movements. She advocates for secular morality and the organization of atheist communities to provide support and services similar to religious groups. McIntyre is deeply involved in human rights activism, particularly against blasphemy laws, and has highlighted cases such as that of Soheil Arabi in Iran.
  • Janice Selbie: As a Registered Professional Counsellor with an interest in Religious Trauma Syndrome, Janice works with clients who come out of various fundamentalist religions and high-control groups. She helps clients understand their trauma, accept their losses, and embrace their new secular reality.Janice is also the President of KASHA

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