By Jennie Ruby
Whether it is Hindu fundamentalism fueling violence against Muslims and others in India, Muslim fundamentalism taking away women’s rights in Afghanistan, Algeria or Iran, Catholic fundamentalism in Austria, or fundamentalist Christians unduly influencing the federal government in the United States, fundamentalist movements worldwide are an active and imminent threat to women’s rights—and women’s lives—right now.
There are two levels at which fundamentalist religions are a problem for women:
1. Fundamentalist religions are patriarchal and so codify social systems in which men generally dominate women and control reproductive decisions.
2. When a religion is taken up as a fundamental identity for a group or state, issues of women’s rights and position in society become the battlefield on which power struggles over national or cultural identity are played out—to the extreme detriment of women’s rights and lives.
Of these two levels, it is the fundamentalist movements—not the religions themselves—that are the primary threat.
While it is true that many religions reify male domination and the subordination of women in their founding documents and in their historic traditions, many women are working within religions to liberalize male-female relations in practice while salvaging the spiritual and uplifting messages that religions also contain. In practice, religions can and do change to reflect the society they are embedded in, and feminist advances in society are often reflected in religion. Furthermore, religions have often been key factors in progressives struggles such as the U.S. Civil Rights movement and other liberation struggles and are thus not always conservative. What is a problem for women is the rise of fundamentalisms worldwide. What makes the fundamentalist versions of religions so dangerous is that they are being used as a means of reasserting male dominance and evolving into tools for civic repression, state control and violence.
What is fundamentalism? It can be defined as a religious movement that demands a strict adherence to a set of basic principles. Amrita Chhachhi1 says that “fundamentalism constructs a particular version of Islam/Hinduism/Shiksm/Christianity as the only valid representation of that religion.”
For feminists, it is important to see that repressive fundamentalist movements exist in many different cultures using many different religions—and/or ethnicities—as their base. In their introduction to Warning Signs of Fundamen-talisms, Ayesha Imam and Nira Uval-Davis emphasize the importance of recognizing “fundamentalisms” rather than just one kind of fundamentalism.
What is important to watch out for in fundamentalist movements is when they begin to gain power to enforce adherence to their strictly interpreted version of a religion. What begins as social pressure graduates into attempts to influence or control media and education, violent coercion and, ultimately, legal sanctions through control of the government.
For example, in Baghdad Burning, [see review in this issue] Riverbend describes the social pressure of receiving “critical stares” when she went to a shopping area in central Baghdad and found herself one of the few women not wearing a hijab (headscarf). At the more extreme end, in Algeria numbers of women have been killed for refusing to wear the hijab. The establishment of hudud laws in two states in Malaysia means, for example, that women who report rapes must prove the charge through the testimony of four male Muslim eyewitnesses or face 80 lashes. The institution of shari’a law in Nigeria and other countries severely restricts women’s rights.
In the United States, right-wing fundamentalist groups have harassed, threatened, bombed, and murdered abortion providers; used their media ownership and influence to forward spurious claims such as “postabortion syndrome”; limited the teaching of evolution in science classrooms and pushed the fundamentalist-backed notion of “intelligent design” or creationism; and pressured legislators and rallied voters to institute state constitutional amendments to prevent gay and lesbian citizens from gaining marriage rights.
Across religions and across ethnicities, fundamentalist movements re-assert male dominance in the family and put control of women’s bodies, sexuality and reproductive choices into the hands of men. In the process, they restrict women’s freedom of movement, access to resources and civil rights. In their more extreme forms, they deliberately perpetrate violence against women. Repression of women is one of the key characteristics of fundamentalist movements, and it is the reason feminists must counter these movements at all costs.
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