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The ‘religion or secularism’ debate on women’s equality obscures the real problem: patriarchy

Date:08 March 2017
Author:Roos Feringa
The ‘religion or secularism’ debate on women’s equality obscures the real problem: patriarchy
The ‘religion or secularism’ debate on women’s equality obscures the real problem: patriarchy

Is ‘religion’ patriarchal, antithetical to gender equality? This was a question posed last night during the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain #IWD2017 panel discussion on ‘ Gender and Sexual Equality in a Post-Truth Age’ . On International Women’s Day 2017,  Erin K. Wilson  explores this question, arguing that actually, this is the wrong question to be asking.

If anyone was wondering whether we still really needed International Women’s Day, the comments of Independent Polish MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke in the European Parliament last week highlight the prejudices that still exist towards women, as well as the ongoing inequalities in terms of pay and work.

This is not the first time that Korwin-Mikke has been in trouble with the European Parliament. He has previously stated that women should not be allowed to vote, and was investigated for incitement to rape in 2014. In 2016, he was suspended for remarks comparing the high numbers of displaced people entering Europe to ‘excrement’, and in 2015 was suspended for making the Nazi salute in the European Parliament.

Korwin-Mikke’s comments demonstrate, if there were any doubt, that sexism, misogyny and patriarchy are alive and well, even amongst the more so-called ‘developed’, ‘secular’, ‘liberal’ parts of the world. Some readers may be tempted at this point to highlight that Korwin-Mikke comes from Poland, a strong Catholic country, and Korwin-Mikke himself his affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. But focusing on whether religion oppresses women or whether secularism provides more emancipation is in many ways a distraction from the actual problem. Whether religion was part of Korwin-Mikke’s reasoning, or the reasoning of others who engage in similar kinds of comments and behaviours for that matter, misses the point. The problem is not religion, and nor is it secularism. Sexism, misogyny and patriarchy are the problem in and of themselves. These problems and attitudes exist in all contexts, though they are arguably more subtle and insidious in some contexts than others. They are often entangled with other social and political factors and ways of thinking, including religion, but they cut across the artificial distinction of ‘religion’ and ‘secular’.

It’s important to be clear about the meaning of patriarchy, although, like most such terms, it can have a multiplicity of meanings and can manifest in different ways. I use it here to refer to systems of power relations between men and women, in which both men and women are complicit and agential, and which privilege particular kinds of gender and sexual identities (usually heterosexual men) over others. In other words, patriarchy, broadly defined, describes different formations of gender-based power that privileges certain kinds of men and masculinities over different kinds of men, masculinities, women, femininities, LGBTIQ and other gender and sexual identities. These power relations can be part of what we describe as religious and secular worldviews and institutions as well, and are also entangled with other forms of discrimination including race, class and education, but they are distinct and should be analysed as such.

Let’s take just a few brief examples of the kinds of inequalities that manifest in these kinds of power relations. In May of 2016, a secretary was sent home without pay from Price Waterhouse Coopers in London because she had worn flat shoes to work and, when her employer told her she had to go out and buy a pair of high heels to wear instead, she refused. In a 2013 European Commission report, the number of women who held full professorships in Europe ranged from 28.4% in the humanities (the highest) to just 7.9% in engineering and technology. Even at lower levels within academia, women’s participation falls well below that of men from PhD student onwards. Despite significant advances, women in the corporate world still earn on average 85% of their male counterpartsUNWomen reports that the global average of female parliamentarians in June 2016 was just 22.8%. According to a 2013 World Health Organisation report, as many as 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners. 35% of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence. A breakdown of this figure by region reveals that only 14.5 percentage points separate the regions of highest rates from the regions of lowest rates. This is clearly a global problem, not one confined to only certain parts of the world.

Many of these examples come from what are often characterised as ‘secular’ environments – and yet gender inequality persists. This suggests that assuming that religion is ‘bad for women’ and secularism is ‘good for women’ may obscure some important dynamics. It can lead to the marginalization of religious leaders who are actually working hard to promote gender equality, and can blind us to persistent gender inequalities in secular contexts. It is important to remember that the secular political forms and institutions that have come to dominate the global political landscape largely emerged in early modern Europe and were designed by and for white, propertied, educated men. Other people have only been gradually included in these structures and institutions over the last 100-odd years, and then frequently after long, hard, painful and often violent struggle. Actors who identified as religious have often been at the forefront of such movements for inclusion – Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi being perhaps the most famous examples, but others include Jane Addams, a pioneer of social work and early suffragette, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, numerous religious actors and agencies involved in advocacy and sanctuary movements for refugees and asylum seekers, not to mention the multiple faith-based organisations (FBOs) involved in the development and humanitarianism sector.

The capacity for religious actors to contribute to gender equality is a frequent discussion within development studies and policy and NGO circles. Donor agencies are often sceptical of the capacity of religious organisations to promote gender equality. Conversely, some religious development organisations are eager to demonstrate their credentials in this area. World Vision International and Tearfund UK, for example, have developed training programs aimed at promoting gender equality and reducing gender based violence that explicitly utilise scripture and theology.

This debate about whether it is possible for religion to contribute to the pursuit of gender equality or not is not just confined to the development sector though. Arguably, it was at the heart of the whole discussion about the burkini that emerged in Europe last summer, as it has been at the heart of discussions about the wearing of headscarves and burkas in public spaces over the last decade or so. The headscarf, so the argument goes, is a symbol of women’s oppression. It is antithetical to the values of secularism that include gender equality and emancipation. This argument can be found in previous rulings by the European Court of Human Rights on wearing headscarves in public (see, for example, Dahlab v Switzerland 2001), as well as statements from politicians in countries such as Australiathe NetherlandsGermany and France, and were aired in relation to the burkini ban. Women were issued with fines for not wearing an ‘outfit respecting good morals and secularism’, while French Prime Minister Manuel Valls claimed that naked breasts were more representative of French freedom and values than a headscarf.

There are multiple issues that emerge in these debates – a general bias against or suspicion of religion (though particularly Islam), within many Euro-American contexts; the shift in how Muslim women are perceived, from objects of pity in need of salvation by Western saviours, to objects of fear and potential threat, symbolizing extreme versions of Islam; and secularism’s assumed monopoly on gender equality and female emancipation. Frequently – in gender studies, feminism, development, humanitarianism – secularism is assumed, implicitly or explicitly, to be the best way to achieve the equality and emancipation of women. Yet, to paraphrase Judith Butler, secularism arguably has its own kind of ‘gender trouble’.

After all, it is not just Muslim women who experience public scrutiny and risk negative consequences for what they are or are not wearing. Female sports stars are often judged on their appearance first, their performance second. Female politicians are frequently scrutinised for how they look and dress, from Theresa May’s shoes to Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits to Angela Merkel’s plain style and ‘frumpy power suits’ to Julia Gillard’s hair. They are also frequently judged by how they speak, not the contents of what they actually say. Female academics constantly try to balance competing expectations of how they should look – not too dowdy otherwise their students will think they’re boring and out of touch, but not too pretty or feminine, because then their colleagues will think they are not proper scholars and not take them seriously.

Both Joan Wallach Scott and Wendy Brown have highlighted that the process of establishing the modern secular nation-state by no means heralded a new era of freedom, emancipation and autonomous agency for women. In her 2006 book  Regulation Aversion , Brown argues the feminine became even more privatized and sexualised as part of the process of secularisation and the establishment of the modern state. Discussing the difference between how the ‘Jewish Question’ and the ‘Woman Question’ were dealt with in the 19th century, Brown notes that while Jews were increasingly racialized in order to clearly distinguish them from ‘native’ citizens, women were overly sexualized in order to emphasize their differences from men.

In  The Politics of the Veil  and her later book  The Fantasy of Feminist History Scott points out that  laique  and secular efforts forcing Muslim women to ‘de-veil’ because of their belief that the veil is a symbol of women’s oppression are in fact just as oppressive and discriminatory as the practice of forced veiling itself, a point that was frequently made in the midst of the burkini saga. While neither Scott nor Brown mentions this, the demands placed on women regarding their appearance in many secular societies are hardly less oppressive. The example of the Price Waterhouse Coopers employee mentioned above is an obvious example. The scrutiny that female public figures receive with regard to their appearance, a level of scrutiny to which men are never subjected, is another. But there are far more insidious instances that place pressure on women to live up to idealized body types, such as the continual airbrushing of inches off waists and thighs and wrinkles off foreheads in magazine images and advertising, further perpetuating the idea that women must strive to be and remain young, thin and beautiful.

Even leaving aside these examples of how so-called secular societies pressure women to look and dress in particular ways, the history of secular societies in relation to women’s equality is not necessarily anything to feel superior about. In most secular democratic countries, it is less than 100 years – in some cases less than 50 years – since women received the right to vote. In most secular democracies, women still do not have equal pay. Domestic violence remains a significant problem – as of 2015 in Australia, a woman is killed by domestic violence each week, while every three hours a woman is hospitalised as a result of domestic violence. That the situation for women in secular democracies may be ‘better’ than in authoritarian regimes or countries where religion is particularly influential does not change the fact that secularism is not always the purveyor of women’s equality and emancipation, but can also be implicated in forms of oppression and marginalization. Further, the nature of the delineation between what is ‘secular’ and what is ‘religious’ is highly problematic.[1]Whether we can call Europe, North America, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Pacific clearly ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ at any one chronological point is questionable, because of the complicated entanglement of the two throughout recent history.[2] These observations arguably reinforce the futility of the debate about whether religion or secularism is better for women’s equality and emancipation.

The ‘religion or secularism’ debate with regard to women’s equality obscures the overarching problem of particular kinds of patriarchy, and the complex entanglement of patriarchy with certain variations of both secularism and religion. This does not make either religion or secularism inherently patriarchal or inherently emancipatory. Rather, certain kinds of patriarchy should be analysed as separate entities that frequently get mixed up with the problems of secularism and religion. Asking whether ‘religion’ can provide an avenue for gender equality that is ‘as good as’ the avenue provided by secularism, as the question is frequently phrased within policy discussions, makes power relations amongst men, women, heterosexual, homosexual, transgender and other gender and sexual identities a secondary consideration. In this construction, the primary problem is religion, and patriarchy is a characteristic of religion, when patriarchy should rather be an object of analysis in its own right. Since ‘religion’ can be both a help and a hindrance to gender equality, and since secularism has its own problematic relationship with gender, this suggests that we must bring patriarchy out more in its own right in this equation.

The question should not be whether ‘religion’ or ‘secularism’ offers a more effective avenue for the achievement of women’s equality, but rather what are the relationships that exist between patriarchy, religion and secularism? How can women, policymakers, practitioners and activists work together across societies – regardless of whether they are ‘religious’ or ‘secular’, ‘developed’ or ‘developing’, democratic or authoritarian – to support and encourage one another and implement policies and programs to support greater equality and emancipation for all. By emphasizing religious identity, placing more emphasis on ‘religion’ as a factor, there is a danger that we exacerbate problems rather than alleviate them, accentuate identity politics and difference, rather than find points of commonality and connection.

Gender inequality, gender-based violence, stigmatization, marginalization of sexual minorities and constrictive masculinities are problems experienced the world over, across contexts that could be described as either ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ (or neither, since these are inherently problematic categories anyway). Rather than point fingers or make accusations about who is more or less oppressive of women, we must work in partnership together. This seems to me to be a far more effective approach than claiming that secular frameworks are ‘better’ than religious approaches, or asking whether ‘religion’ is compatible with gender equality or not.

Erin K. Wilson  is the Director of the  Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies University of Groningen .

[1] T. Asad. 2003.  Formations of the Secular . Stanford: Stanford University Press; W.T. Cavanaugh. 2009.  The Myth of Religious Violence . Oxford: Oxford University Press

[2] S. Mahmood. 2016.  Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A minority report .


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