Faith: know thy place

The feminist critique of religion should not appease the strident voices which label secularism as fundamentalist or militant by promoting a secularism that has had its teeth drawn. Feminists must continue to argue for a robust secularism and the right to stand against religion, argues Rahila Gupta

Rahila Gupta
10 March 2012
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Baroness Sayeeda Warsi set off a storm of comment in Britain with her recent article in the Daily Telegraph with her plea that faith should have a place at the table and that it is being edged out by militant secularism.

This is not borne out by the facts. The increasing role for faith based organisations in the provision of public services, the increasing number of faith schools, and religious groups applying to run the so-called Free Schools, the continued presence of Church of England Archbishops and bishops in the House of Lords are just some examples of a very dominant presence in the public square.  Baroness Warsi complains that "Secular fundamentalists are saying that people of faith shouldn't have a voice in the public sphere…" Of course, they should be part of the conversation, but religious voices are often raised in a bid to silence other voices, to quash the equalities agenda and other people’s rights. Archbishop Carey is campaigning against gay marriage, Christian groups such as Christian Concern for Our Nation are opposing adoption by gay couples, and Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, has been looking for ways of undermining women’s access to abortion by restricting provision of abortion. They do have a voice in the public sphere, the funds to make sure their concerns are aired in court, and access to put forward their views in Parliament. Those campaigning on sexual freedoms are making, and must make, a robust case for their rights.

It is particularly disturbing that Warsi should celebrate her visit to Pope Benedict XV1 on 14 February, a man who stands accused  of  covering-up child sexual abuse, as, ‘more than a Valentine’s Day “love in” with our Catholic neighbours’ and about recognising the ‘deep’ role of faith in Britain. Warsi argues that aggressive secularism is being introduced by stealth. Most of her examples, such as the ruling against Bideford Council starting its official meetings with prayers, are legal judgements openly issued and discussed in public – where is the stealth?

Some of the attacks on secularism are coming from Christian quarters worried that the haemorrhaging of the faithful from the churches undermines their legitimacy. But why has Warsi become the poster girl for a muscular Christianity? As co-chairman  of the Conservative Party, she might just be doing her job, toeing the party line. Sunny Hundal argues in the New Statesman journal that an influx of social conservatives into the party - some with links to the Christian new right - is exercising right wing pressure. As her past public statements have shown, she is also concerned about ‘islamaphobia’, in particular her comment that prejudice against Muslims has "passed the dinner-table test"  i.e. that it is socially acceptable to make anti-Muslim statements. By expanding the public space for Christianity, by condemning bigotry against religion, it allows other religions, especially minority religions, more freedom to flourish. This is a view that has been iterated by David Cameron himself, ‘It is actually easier for people to believe and practice other faiths when Britain has confidence in its Christian identity.’

The problem with opening up public space for the hegemonic religion is how do you perpetuate its hegemony without appearing to be Christian- centric or racist? How do you drown out competing claims from minority religions in the name of diversity and equality? Secularism is our only refuge from this cacophony. For a whole host of political, cultural and historical reasons, all religions do not have the same respect for human rights and equalities, and even within religions there are dissenting voices. The paradox is that it is the secular principles underpinning British institutions and the legal system which allow us to counter some of the more orthodox and retrogressive aspects of religion.

At some level, Warsi herself recognises the importance of secular institutions. Recently, away from the public gaze, she organised a high level meeting, at which the British Home Secretary, Theresa May, and the Attorney General, Rt Hon Dominic Grieve MP, were present with academics and women's groups to discuss the question of why vulnerable Muslim women who have religious marriages in Britain do not go on to have a civil marriage. The stated objective of the meeting was the need to protect those Muslim women who are only afforded the much weaker rights of cohabitees by virtue of their religious marriages. According to the participants, it transpired that Warsi’s real concern was the practice of polygamy within the Muslim community which had implications for the welfare benefits budget and immigration numbers. As a religious marriage contracted abroad is recognised for the purposes of immigration, Warsi was concerned that men were bringing in several wives and looking for ways to end this practice. As there is very little research or evidence to support the argument that polygamy is widely practised, or on the increase in the Muslim community, the general view was that any attempts to clamp down on it may be seen as discriminatory. The Conservatives turned out to be true to type – more concerned with cutting immigration and benefits than with the protection of Muslim women. There was very little appetite among them for giving religious authorities a greater say in family law issues, which seems to be in keeping with their support for religious claims so long as they fit in with the state’s agenda.

According to academics Steve Bruce and Tony Glendinning, ‘The absence of a state church in the USA, for example, owes far more to the fact that the early colonies had a variety of state churches and hence could not agree on which it should be than it does to secularism among the founding fathers.’ And that is why secularism should be welcomed by religionists – because it avoids religious discord by privileging none. In some quarters though, the defence of secularism, like that put forward by Julian Baggini, is so watered down (much like the general liberal response to Richard Dawkins) that it seems to exclude any criticism of religion. He asserts that neutrality is at the core of secularism and he defines neutrality as ‘neither standing for or against religion’. I would like to argue for a more robust secularism- as opposed to militant - and reclaim the right to stand against religion. Most religious books and practices are at the core, anti-woman: the creation myth of Christianity and the uncleanness of women in Islam and Hinduism to name a few examples.  The closer believers adhere to the Book, the more likely they are to be damned as fundamentalist. Whilst it is generally acceptable to critique fundamentalism, the same freedom is not available to critiques of religion itself. But the Book never goes away, it remains the guiding principle, the context which frames more or less conservative interpretations depending on the social context of the times. So a critique of religion from the point of view of women remains a valid one and the demand for keeping religion out of the state and public life, equally valid. Sheila Jeffreys’ new book, Man's Dominion.The Rise of Religion and the Eclipse of Women's Rights revives feminist criticism that religion is the founding ideology of patriarchy.

This is an important reminder at a time when feminists are shrinking away from their critique of religion because women’s rights have been used disingenuously to justify imperialist adventures into Afghanistan, or by the right wing in Europe to restrict immigration because of the illiberal traditions of religious minorities. Sukhwant Dhaliwal, in her PhD thesis, Religion, Moral Hegemony and Local Cartographies of Power: Feminist reflections on religion in local politics, points to the ‘growing consensus within feminist theory that seeks a distance from secularism, that emphasises solidarities with faith based mobilisations and seeks to defend religious minority struggles’.  In their understanding of the intersectionality between race, religion and sexual freedoms, academics like Judith Butler, argue  that the struggle for sexual freedoms has become a marker of modernity and secularism, and has been used to damn and exclude religious minorities. This is the old anti-racist argument being resurrected in more sophisticated dress, an argument that minority women thought they had laid to rest through their simultaneous struggles for greater freedoms within their communities, and against the racism of the wider society. It is possible to face both ways: to oppose imperialist adventures or racist immigration agendas and to fight illiberal traditions, whether in dominant or minority religions. That is the ground on which minority women stand.

We should not seek to appease these strident voices which label secularism as fundamentalist or militant by promoting a secularism which has had its teeth drawn. Their shrillness comes from the lack of substance in their arguments. Let’s not be intimidated by the noise they make and continue to develop our critique of religion.

A place at the dining table, yes. A place in the public square, jostling with other beliefs, yes. At the roundtable, no.



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