Although any given fundamentalist movement may not result in all of these effects, fundamentalist movements are characterized by these kinds of efforts to control women and worsen the conditions of women’s lives:
- Deny women freedom of movement [e.g., by forcing women to be accompanied by a man]
- Restrict women to the household by denying women free access to public space
- Prevent women from being able to earn a living independent from a man
- Deny women full access to education
- Deny women political positions and power
- Pressure women to have lots of children
- Deny women access to abortion and birth control
- Expect or require girls to marry at an extremely young age
- Expect abstinence/virginity until marriage
- Deliver severe punishment to women who violate sexual norms/laws
- Restrict women’s clothing choices more than men’s
- Verbally or physically attack women not dressed in required attire
- Inflict female genital mutilation on girls, causing women severe health issues throughout their lives
- Rape and kill women in episodes of genocidal violence
How to Recognize a Fundamentalist Movement
In order to fight the rise of fundamentalisms, feminists must be able to recognize the signs when a religion is taking a dangerous fundamentalist turn—and when a fundamentalist movement is attempting to gain political power. The following signs may be present, in whole or in part. Obsession with Sexual “Morality”
Because a key component of fundamentalist movements is control over women’s reproductive choices, a near obsession with sexual “morality” is frequently present. Often fundamentalist religions prescribe strict sexual observances—the Christian “missionary position,” the Unification Church’s prescribed sexual positions, the Mormon demand for a specific type of restrictive underwear. Many of the clothing requirements for women stem from efforts to control sexuality. Other efforts include violent repression of gay and lesbian behavior; oppression and violence toward people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender; and attempts to codify sexual morality into law. Perhaps the most extreme effort at control is the horrendous practice of female genital mutilation.
Characteristic Rhetoric and Beliefs
Here are some typical beliefs and types of arguments used by fundamentalist groups.
- Asserting that the fundamentalist view is the only true one
- Creating an impression of returning to an (illusory) older time when things were better
- Creating a homogenous identity—erasing or glossing over differences within a religious or ethnic group [e.g., Hindu fundamentalists in India assert a particular brand of Brahminical Hinduism, denying the history of the Shramanic tradition; Islamists during the Iranian revolution put down and attempted to erase the existence of an active feminist movement]
- Defining the cultural identity through strict interpretations of ancient or revered texts
- Seeing the fundamentalist group as embattled by opposing forces—which in reality are oppressed minorities [e.g., Hindu fundamentalists in Gujarat in India cultivated fear of the Muslim minority]
- Denouncing opponents as evil or immoral (rather than arguing the points or using logic) [e.g., Bush labeling countries an “axis of evil.”]
- Believing in authoritarianism/obedience to one leader
- Pillorying critics—by exaggerating, repeating and magnifying their critical statements against the fundamentalist group and expressing outrage that they said them [e.g., treatment of Taslima Nasreen in Bangladesh for her comments critical of Islamic fundamentalism; treatment of Rosie O’Donnell in U.S. press when she remarked that “radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam in a country like America.” ]
- Cracking down on individual criminals rather than focus on social justice
- Emphasizing faith over facts
- Obsessing over sexual “morality” while ignoring killing, lying, unjust war, and torture [religious right in the United States]
- Destruction of knowledge by, for example, banning books
- Insisting that scientific findings be in accord with religious texts
- Denial of education to women [e.g., Taliban in Afghanistan]
- Control of educational materials by fundamentalist groups
- Erosion of secular schooling
- Funding/enabling/establishment by law of religious schools
- Undue influence over media by religious right
- Control of media by religious right groups
- Restricted access to all women and to minority religious or ethnic groups
- Establishment of a state religion
- Adoption of religious laws
- Legislating a restrictive and repressive version of sexual “morality” [e.g. outlawing adultery and imposing severe penalties; passing constitutional amendments against gay rights]
- Undue effect on government by fundamentalist groups
- Increased membership in fundamentalist religious organizations
- The accrual of massive wealth by fundamentalist religious groups
- Control of government by fundamentalist organizations/groups
Three important principles for working against fundamentalist movements are separation of church and state; secular, social justice values; and feminism.
Keeping the civil state or government separate from religion is key. Allowing a religion to dominate a government means religious oppression for the diverse members of today’s societies. The law must remain secular—and take precedence over any lesser authority religions have over their members. The government should also ensure that people’s participation in any religion is strictly voluntary—not coerced. Without this key separation, human freedoms—and women’s rights and lives—are severely threatened.
Governments must remain secular. A government’s legitimacy must come from people’s collective consent, not from any kind of supposed divine right. The government should be responsive to people’s material needs, not focus on the precepts of a god or religion. Since fundamentalism often arises in response to social and economic crises, governments should work to ensure that human needs are met and that such crises do not disrupt people’s lives. Feminism is the final key principle for countering fundamentalist movements. In order to stave off fundamen-talist takeovers, civil government must be dedicated to the concept of women’s equality. Women’s civil rights under government must be strongly defended against the precepts of patriarchal religions. When women participate in religion, that participation must be freely chosen, not coerced.
Commitment to these three principles is the only way to guarantee that women’s human rights are not curtailed by religious and cultural traditions that have a history of controlling, oppressing and even physically harming women.
1Chhachhi, Amrita. “Religious Fundamentalism and Women” Dossier 4, September 1988. Combaillaux, France: Women Living Under Muslim Laws. Reprinted online at http://waf.gn.apc.org
Imam, Ayesha, Jenny Morgan & Nira Yuval-Davis (eds.). Warning Signs of Fundamentalisms. UK: Women Living Under Muslim Laws. December 2004. Available online at www.whrnet.org/fundamentalisms/docs/doc-wsfmeeting-2002.html
Riverbend, Baghdad Burning, New York: The Feminist Press, 2005.
Morgan, Robin. Fighting Words. New York: Nation Books, 2006.