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Feminist Dissent: why a new journal on gender and fundamentalism?

The journal Feminist Dissent creates a space to interrogate the multi-faceted links between historical and resurgent religious fundamentalism and gender.


Seasons of Mud by Yousif Naser. Photo: Yousif NaserIn the last two decades there has been an exponential growth not only in fundamentalist movements around the world, but also in systematic research and debate about the scope, strategies and impacts of fundamentalist mobilisations. The power of faith-based organisations, among which fundamentalist tendencies have found fertile ground, has also been enhanced through their ability to work on multiple levels - through international, nation state, and oppositional or civil society spaces - to their own advantage.

The new journal, Feminist Dissent, which is hosted by the University of Warwick, brings together innovative and critical insights to enhance our understanding of the relationship between gender, fundamentalism and related socio-political issues. At a time of rising religious fundamentalism which is accompanied by intensifying threats to civil liberties, freedom of expression, dissent, and difference, we aim to create what we believe we need most – a space where contributors can say the things that we have not been able to say. We hope this will narrow the distance between dominant feminist thinking and lived experience, and give rise to new coalitions of feminists committed not just to writing about justice, but to fighting for it.

On a global scale, fundamentalist movements seldom drop from the headlines, and their discourses and practices have serious implications for gender relations and norms. During the genesis of this journal, we have seen renewed attacks on reproductive rights, some as a consequence of new alignments between governments, churches and clerical authorities, including those with fundamentalist tendencies. These have led, for instance, to convictions of women procuring abortions in Argentina, Northern Ireland and Papua New Guinea, and the lack of choice facing pregnant Brazilian women affected by the Zika virus within the context of restrictions on abortion propagated by the Catholic church. Girls have been prevented from accessing education. They have been abducted by Islamists in Nigeria. And there are horrific accounts of the sexual enslavement of Yezidi girls and women captured by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Right wing Hindu forces in India and Christian evangelists in Nigeria have also been the driving force behind anti-homosexuality campaigns and punitive gender identity measures. And in the US, the close association between the Christian Right, Moral Majority and Republican Party has led to campaigns against the teaching of evolution in schools, a venomous attack on LGBTI rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights and other so-called ‘negative cultural trends’.

The Vatican, despite more recent reformist pronouncements, continues to act as a key player in mobilizing coalitions against women’s rights at the international level. Transnational alliance building among conservative forces was most notable at the Commission on the Status of Women events; in 2012, a cross regional alliance between the Vatican, Iran, Syria and Russia obstructed agreement on women’s sexual and reproductive rights, femicide, intimate partner violence, violence against women human rights defenders, violence against women based on sexual orientation or gender identity and early and forced marriage. As a result, serious concessions continue to be made. Meanwhile, women’s human rights defenders are being ridiculed, assaulted, and assassinated for daring to challenge religious authoritarianism.

A huge cross-section of people worldwide bear the brunt of fundamentalist violence. Beyond the persistent pre-occupation with women and sexual minorities, religious, ethnic and caste minorities have also been targeted. The Hindu right in India has instigated communal tensions along caste and religious lines leading, not least, to massacres of Muslims in Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh and across Gujarat. Traditional projections of Buddhists as innately peace loving must surely now be marred by Buddhist fundamentalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena that have been inciting violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar and Christians in Sri Lanka.  And Muslims across the world are being murdered by the Islamic right – from attacks on Ahmadis in the UK and Pakistan, to killings of co-religionists  in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Turkey, France and Belgium.

Seasons of Mud series by Yousif Naser. Photo: Yousif Naser

These excesses are also reminders of the fact that the nature of faith has changed radically in many countries, with indigenous forms of belief and worship being increasingly characterised as pagan devil worship, attacked and driven underground, and more syncretic practices and traditions being gradually or violently erased. Indeed the power and strength of fundamentalist agendas fly in the face of research evidence that suggests the numbers of non-believers or of those identifying as having no religion has grown in many parts of the world. Yet the most recent Freedom of Thought Report shows that the space for religious dissent is shrinking in many contexts. This may be the result of a fear of reprisals, including possible convictions for apostasy, death threats and assassinations by non-state actors, and the institutionalisation of the role of religion in national legislatures, or increasing societal pressures to profess piety. Linked to these pressures on so-called apostates and dissenting minorities are the specific instances of assault on creative freedoms and forms of artistic expression that we saw so clearly during the Rushdie Affair, and have seen repeatedly over time - such as in the damage caused by Hindu right activists to MF Husain’s exhibition in London, the smashing up of the Birmingham Rep theatre and threats to the life of playwright Gurpreet Bhatti by Sikh fundamentalists who  intended to stop Bhatti from telling the story of rape within a gurdwara. Moreover, this extends to assaults on freedom of thought and freedom of political association; for instance, the intersection of caste hierarchies, discriminatory ideologies and British colonial sedition laws have been garnered by a Hindu right government in India to curtail political dissent and allege anti-nationalism against Indian student activists and academics. Even in the UK, we have witnessed the coalescence of Left, anti-racist and feminist forces prepared to support Islamists in their attempts to stop anti-fundamentalist and ex-Muslim speakers taking up speaking invitations at UK universities

Paradoxically, the worldwide resurgence of fundamentalisms, and the contradictory pressures of growing surveillance technologies, tightening of immigration controls, the global financial crisis and ‘austerity’ programmes, has exposed a deep chasm in progressives’ thinking about gender and fundamentalism. The Left’s anti-imperialist traditions have been exploited by fundamentalist tendencies that present themselves as radical, anti-Western, anti-imperialists alternatives. Critiques of fundamentalism and authoritarian communal and patriarchal practices have been muted in the name of cultural relativism and “respect” for difference by the Left and liberals, who have, on occasion forged alliances with fundamentalists on allegedly anti-racist and anti-imperialist platforms. The dominance of cultural relativism, a critique of the Enlightenment as a racist and imperialist project, and a concomitant valorization of the popular and the subaltern has led, ironically, to a retreat from a critique of religious fundamentalism and patriarchy. This is the consequence of what Chetan Bhatt has referred to as the absence of an ethical compass when faced with the ‘cultural episteme’. This conjuncture has been utilised to undermine the legitimacy of the voices of minority women who seek to challenge fundamentalist politics within their own communities.

The privileged focus of fundamentalist movements on women, girls, sexuality, reproduction, gender relations and gender norms, has rarely been addressed by mainstream feminism. Indeed, some feminists have found it all too easy to ally with fundamentalists who present secularism as an imposition of Enlightenment ideals, and thus as an idea to be discarded as imperialist and racist. For recent examples of these debates, read some of the exchanges by feminist academics such as Deepa Kumar and Saadia Toor on Islamophobia, Saba Mahmood on women’s agency and religious piety, Joan Scott on the politics of the veil, and the ongoing discussions that utilise Jasbir Puar’s sense of homonationalism to counter concerns raised by anti-fundamentalists. This highly visible academic work seeks to disparage secularism, defend religious mobilisations irrespective of their ideological persuasion, valorize women’s “piety” as a form of agency and subaltern resistance, and undercut intersectional feminist analyses that flag religion as an axis of power.

The exclusive focus of critical engagement has been on the instrumentalisation of rights-based frameworks by western governments to perpetuate their own imperialist agendas, the hypocrisy of nation states, and a critique of the civilizational, imperialist and racist presumptions at the heart of these developments. But we are a very long way from what Karima Bennoune articulated so well - the need for a simultaneous critique of imperial hegemonic power and state abuses on the one hand, and a much needed critique of the power of fundamentalist movements, their perpetuation of terror, violence and the assault on the human rights and civil liberties of a wide cross section of society. Instead, anti-fundamentalist voices have been de-authenticated and de-legitimised, accused of co-option and collusion.

It is on this troubled terrain of growing contradictions which are shaping politics on the ground, and in academic work today, that Feminist Dissent seeks to intervene by offering new modes of critique and trenchant analyses of the contemporary conjuncture.  This new journal is designed to create space for feminists who believe that certain approaches currently dominant in academic, activist and popular discourses (including, but not confined to, feminist theory, anti-racism, postcolonialism, postmodernism and poststructuralism) have occluded the challenges that women and other dissenters face, as fundamentalist movements threaten their rights, their prospects and their very being.

The authors are some of the founding members of the Editorial Collective of Feminist Dissent.

Feminist Dissent will be launched on 22 July at an event hosted by the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective at Rich Mix community arts venue in east London. More information about Feminist Dissent can be found on our website.

About the authors

Sukhwant Dhaliwal is one of the founders and editorial collective members of Feminist Dissent, a new journal on gender and fundamentalism. With Nira Yuval Davis, she is co-editor of Women Against Fundamentalism: Stories of Dissent and Solidarity (Lawrence & Wishart).

Chitra Nagarajan is an activist who has worked to promote and protect human rights, particularly those of women, in China, the United Kingdom, the United States and west Africa. She currently works to build peace in Nigeria. She blogs here and tweets here.

Rashmi Varma teaches English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. She is the author of The Postcolonial City and its Subjects (2011) and of the forthcoming Modern Tribal: Representing Indigeneity in Postcolonial India.


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