As noted in my article “Women in Secularism 4: Complex Issues, Respectful Discourse,” I attended the Women in Secularism 4 conference weekend before last. While there were several memorable moments, one that especially sticks out for me is the talk given by Soraya Chemaly, a writer and activist whose work focuses on the role of gender in culture, politics, religion, and media. In this interview, we delve a bit deeper into some of the ideas Chemaly explored at this event.
Sincere Kirabo: I’ve been following your work for a while, so I really looked forward to meeting you at Women In Secularism 4. Your presentation was an excellent, data-driven examination of various ways women experience marginalization in a male-dominated world.
For those who missed your important message, how would you summarize your presentation’s key points?
Soraya Chemaly: One of the key messages of my presentation is that we have a very narrow and limited view of what constitutes “speech” and what makes it “free.”
That narrow understanding is very much based on the experiences of the elites that created the basis of our mainstream understanding. In other words, this narrow understanding is calibrated to the benefit of the culturally powerful. In the case of the subaltern, speech is constrained by hierarchies: gender, race and class status, gender socialization, patriarchal norms about what constitutes obscenity, and how we think about dignity and who is fully human.
Dehumanization of women and of people of color is part and parcel to using speech norms to oppress certain members of society and elevate others. So, for example, many people think poorly of demands for “safe spaces” on college campuses but don’t care to think about the fact that the institutions themselves are safe spaces already.
Kirabo: A point you stressed in your presentation was the influence of “male-centeredness,” a term you have used before in your writing to describe the way society is riddled with preferences for men over women/femmes. Could you please explain the relevance and implications of this concept?
Chemaly: I think that it’s vitally important that we talk about androcentrism—the presumption that male human experiences can be universalized to “include” women’s, which is a rank untruth. We see the deleterious effects in our sociotechnical systems (i.e. the Internet and artificial intelligence), in our ideas about healthcare, the economy and notably, how we think about freedom of speech and expression.
In the United States and in many places around the world, that male-centeredness works hand-in-hand with white supremacy. Without an honest and thorough examination of what that means, the types of marginalization that we know exist that are profoundly consequential will not only be perpetuated but amplified.
Kirabo: In what ways do you see your feminist activism informed by and intersecting with your secular humanism?
Chemaly: For me, personally, these are indivisible. My feminist activism and secularism all developed simultaneously, when I was relatively young, maybe thirteen or fourteen. I don’t think I’m alone in this. It is, for example, notable that the most gender egalitarian countries in the world are the most secular and also the most open to scientific inquiry.
Soraya Chemaly is Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, which is involved in curbing online abuse, media and tech diversity, and expanding women’s freedom of expression. Her writing can be found on Verge, TIME, The Huffington Post, Role Reboot, Nation, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Salon, and Rolling Stone.