Three critical intersections between religion and politics that can be particularly detrimental to gender equality, occur when religious sentiment is mobilized in the context of nationalist and ethnic conflicts, when it is put in the service of authoritarian states claiming legitimacy on doctrinal grounds, and in contexts where processes of democratisation have simultaneously empowered feminist groups seeking reform of the ‘private sphere’ and religious institutions that are opposed to key elements of the feminist agenda.
Religion, as a powerful source of collective identity, is frequently utilised to promote intra-group cohesion, to heighten inter-group differences and conflict and as a source of legitimacy for national leaders in times of crisis. The exclusionary nature of religiously buttressed nationalism often feeds violent conflict between ethno-religious groups. Such conflicts have been evident in the former Yugoslavia, Israel, India, and also in Nigeria where politicians have consistently used ethno-religious mobilisation to fuel social exclusion and conflict.
Where does this leave women? The control of women often appears as an area of convergence between contending faiths in conflict situations. In Nigeria, for example, although Islam and Christianity are often represented in terms of a conflictual relationship, women’s bodies and sexuality and the need to control both are endorsed by both faiths. The bill on ‘Public Nudity, Sexual Intimidation and Other Related Matters’ proposed in 2008, which, across religious divides, aims at the ‘Restoration of Human Dignity’. However, the bill primarily targets women’s autonomy, allowing unauthorised individuals to determine for themselves how women should be dressed. In Israel and India where the conflict between majorities (Jewish and Hindu respectively) and the primarily Muslim minority populations has pitted feminist demands against the national cause and minority rights, feminist attempts to reform personal status laws have been muted. And as Rada Drezgić notes, in the nationalist wars in former Yugoslavia women’s bodies and reproductive rights became a major battlefield in the contest over ethno-national self-determination and leadership in the newly emerging nation-states.
In Iran and Pakistan, two self-defined Islamic states where conservative readings of Shari’a frame the legal domain, and where state power is exercised in the name of religion, defense of religion can be conflated with defense of the state, and critiques or challenges can be regarded and treated as heresy and apostasy. In both countries, Islamisation projects have used the state’s legal, coercive, administrative, and ideological instruments to impose an anti-democratic, discriminatory and misogynistic template on society. They have brutally closed down spaces for contestation and nurtured state-sponsored militias and foot soldiers – some of whom are women - such as the Al-Hafsa women in Pakistan and the female preachers trained by the Office of the Supreme Leader in Iran - to ‘guide’, ‘educate’ and proselytise the population. In principle Shari’a legislation in both countries could have tackled a number of redistributive issues in areas of economic and social development, such as provisions for the collection and distribution of zakat (the charity tithe), or the implementation of regulations prohibiting usury. Instead, the main emphasis in Iran and Pakistan, as well as other communities under Muslim law such as in northern Nigeria, has been on punishments for sexual offences and alcohol consumption, accompanied by the policing of public morality expressed through the restrictions and sanctions placed on women.
Paradoxically, the obsessive preoccupation with sexuality, gender and ‘the family’ and efforts at state regulation has given the ‘woman question’ an immediacy and urgency that has been historically unprecedented. Blatant discrimination has, in turn, incensed a wide spectrum of women activists and fuelled, at least in Iran, one of the most dynamic and innovative women’s movements in the country’s history.
However, pro-democracy movements have tended to sideline women’s claims for equality rather than making it a central part of their struggle for democracy. Contributing to this marginalization has been the fact that, with few notable exceptions, women have been absent from leadership positions even though they are present in the body of the movement, on the streets and in protests. Unless human rights and women’s rights advocates are able to present a credible social justice agenda that speaks to popular concerns about increasing inequality, unemployment and insecurity, there is a danger that this ground will be ceded to morally conservative elements who exploit such anxieties with their populist rhetoric of ‘Islamic justice’.
In contexts where feminist groups seeking reform have found support and patronage from the state, the same state can work to simultaneously strengthen religious institutions that are opposed to elements of the feminist agenda. In the context of electoral competition, religious constituencies and organisations are often seen as good alliance partners for contending political parties. The political coalition between conservative evangelical groups and secular neoliberals of the Republican Party in the USA, for instance, gave a major boost to conservative policies on issues of gender and sexuality both domestically and internationally. Even nominally secular political parties and politicians have not hesitated to use religion for political or electoral purposes, and in the process provided the necessary foundations for its continued life and growth, as the case of India illustrates.
In cases where religious groups and institutions have played an important role in contesting and overthrowing authoritarian regimes, it has been particularly difficult for women’s rights advocates to oppose them in successor regimes. Two poignant examples are illustrated by the cases of Chile and Poland: in both countries, the Catholic Church has reconfigured its alliances and adopted new strategies to oppose policies for sex education in schools and reproductive rights (emergency contraception in Chile, abortion in Poland), seeking to subvert feminist demands for the democratisation of the private sphere.
In Mexico and Turkey, the relations between religion and politics have been historically more conflictual and their secularisms more ‘assertive’. However, in the process of democratisation over the past decades, ruling parties in both countries have had to share power with political contestants, some of whom have strong religious roots: the ruling National Action Party (PAN) in Mexico, and Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. In this context, issues relating to women’s bodily integrity and deportment, and sexual and reproductive rights have become the arena of intense argument. The dominance of religious parties in government notwithstanding, women’s rights advocates and their allies have succeeded in pushing through some landmark pieces of legislation—the Reform of the Penal Code (2002-04) in Turkey, the inclusion of emergency contraception in public health services (2004) in Mexico, and the decriminalization of abortion in Mexico City (2008).
Yet the wave of re-criminalisation of abortion across Mexican federal states since 2008 is a stark reminder of the fragility of some of these gains. What is most disconcerting is the role played by the ‘secularist’ political party, the Institutionalised Revolutionary Party (PRI), in promoting this policy in an effort to win the support of the Catholic Church for short-term electoral purposes. In Turkey, meanwhile, the return of AKP to power in 2007 with an absolute majority and with the prospect of accession to the European Union looking increasingly dim, the Party’s incentives for responding to its socially conservative constituencies appears to have been bolstered.
Broad-brush explanations of the assertiveness of religions often miss the specific political junctures which provide fertile ground for their prominence. Nonetheless, above and beyond contextual specificities there is an unmistakable convergence across regions and religions in targeting the ‘private sphere’ and issues that impinge on women’s rights and autonomy most directly.