Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Women in Secularism: What a Time!

If it wasn't already obvious from my insanely active Twitter feed, I had the privilege (thanks to Center for Inquiry's $25 student tickets) to attend the Women in Secularism Conference last weekend. I drove down to Arlington with Victoria, our SSA's activism chair, in her faithful hoopty. This conference was certainly worth the 9-10 hours we spent on the road.

Jen McCreight already did a write up  of the conference, the bulk of which I agree with. But this being my first actual atheist conference after Reason Rally, I thought I might add a few of my own personal reflections on the event.

First of all, I was a bit worried when I first arrived for the reception because I noticed what a small group it was. This turned out to be a plus, however because it gave everyone the opportunity to get to know one another, including the speakers. I feel like I made some valuable connections that I may not have been able to at a larger conference.

The speaking line up was amazing. I was pleased to see that this conference not only had a special focus on women, but on minorities as well. Sikivu Hutchinson especially brought up some very important points about the communities under siege  that are especially vulnerable to religious indoctrination. She asked us to consider the fact that our movement, though we pay lip service to building a better society, lacks services for underprivileged groups that are provided by religious groups. I was very moved by the fact that she mentioned the inner city specifically as a place where we have a lot of work to do. That really made me want to do more service work with my SSA group in Detroit, perhaps even in the schools.

The other person who really touched me at the conference was Wafa Sultan. Her personal stories of the horrors she witnessed as a physician in Syria, a country saturated with Sharia Law moved me so to tears that the video I was shooting at the time is virtually unusable because I was shaking the camera. She reminded us in her talk to "never take anything for granted". This is not a lesson I will forget anytime soon.

This may sound like an obvious point, but I was very pleased to see so many charismatic women speaking at this conference. In a way, this appreciation ties into what Bernice Sandler spoke of in her talk about how men and women are expected to speak differently. When the majority of the great atheist movers and shakers are men, I find that I have difficulty finding people to model after when learning to rouse groups of people, a task I have often as an SSA leader. However, watching Susan Jacoby and Jamila Bey really inspired me. Even the quieter Annie Gaylor inspired me. I never fully realized just how rich of a history women have in this movement. How proud I was to sit in that audience with a new generation of freethinking women and realize that I and my secular sisters were now a part of that history.

As for the negative aspects of the conference, they were few, but present nonetheless. We were all curious about what Edwina Rodgers would have to say, especially following the walloping she received at the hands of the atheist blogosphere. Unfortunately, she didn't say much, speaking in an almost nervous fashion about the mission and working of the SCA before running off. If I were her, I would be nervous too, but she really needs to clean up her image in the movement if she wants to garner support. The other image that needs to be cleaned up is that of CFI Canada. This was obviously not in anyway a major issue at the conference, but the drama up north did surface more than once in my personal conversations with people from CFI. Michael told me himself that he wanted to send a representative, but the board apparently did not care enough to spend a little extra on sending someone down. As of now, they're still seen as supporting the "mens' rights" agenda, if only implicitly. I made sure to defend them as much as I could, but missing this conference was a huge missed opportunity to dispel that nasty association. That point is a little off-topic, but it's something I wanted to get off my chest. *phew*

My other small issue was the fact that some of the comments made might have seemed alienating to those who aren't particularly liberal in their political views on things like healthcare. I do not actually have strong opinions on that topic myself, but I do know people in my own SSA group who strongly identify with the libertarians and who are very turned off by the secularist movement because it seems so left-leaning to them. I think this is to be expected in any socially progressive movement, but I don't think it's a good idea to unthinkingly neglect potential allies over only slightly related political disagreements.

All-in-all, the Women in Secularism Conference was an excellent experience. On a personal level, the conversations had and presentations made rekindled my atheist fighting spirit and made me excited for the coming year with my SSA group. Thank you again, CFI, for an incredible event.

(Also, thank you to Monette Richards and her husband for letting Victoria and I crash with you. You're the bestest! :))