Fundamentalist strategy: the secular and the religious

In Latin America a close network of religious leaders from different traditions, political elites and civil organizations has formed to protect the traditional sexual order. Women's bodies continue to be a key battleground
Juan Marco Vaggione
17 September 2010

In July 2010, Argentina amended its Civil Code, making it the first Latin American country to establish the same marital rights for couples of different sexes as for those of the same sex. The process was not easy: it involved a series of debates, marches and counter-marches; at times the latter seemed to block all possibility of legal reform. As expected, many actors and organisations strongly identified with the religious establishment formed the main opposition to the law. Catholic and evangelical leaders, political leaders connected to Opus Dei and self-proclaimed pro-life and pro-family civil society organizations attempted various strategies to defend marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution.

The process reflected what local activists see as a change in the responses of local religious fundamentalist groups. Alejandra Sardá-Chandiramani from Argentina and formerly with Mulabi, a regional sexual rights organization, says that fundamentalists appear to have decided “to ‘take to the streets’ and demonstrate every time there is a controversy about sexual rights. This has been happening with increased intensity since 2000 and in bigger numbers. I think it has to do with the formal democratization processes in the region and the methods for expressing social demands, which the religious fundamentalists have also joined (and why shouldn’t they). But this has made it necessary to think about other ways of confronting an adversary that no longer operates as the ‘power behind the throne’ but defines itself as a social movement and questions meanings and spaces as such.”

The events in Argentina also illustrate a broader trend across Latin America, where the inclusion of women's rights in public agendas, particularly in relation to sexual and reproductive rights, has been accompanied by a re-vitalisation of religious actors with absolutist agendas. Although the majority of contemporary societies have also experienced a growing politicization of religion, the phenomenon in Latin America is closely associated with the growing influence of feminism and of the sexual diversity movement in their fight against patriarchy and heteronormativity. In this struggle over the traditional sexual order, women's bodies continue to be a key battleground.

Silvia Roxana Vásquez Sotelo, a member of Cladem (Comité de América Latina y El Caribe para la defensa de los derechos de las mujeres), writes: “The historical moments occurred after the United Nations world conferences, especially after the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, after which they evaluated the advances made by progressives, the ones they considered “dangerous,” and launched strategies to defend their positions”.

A report by AWID Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms was based on interviews with more than 1,600 activists worldwide and included 240 women’s rights activists from Latin America whose experiences provide a unique mapping of the fundamentalist phenomenon in this region. (The AWID initiative has also produced case studies, including eight from Latin America).

In the eyes of women’s rights activists, who are the main fundamentalist actors in Latin America? Responses to AWID’s survey reveal a complex picture. The list of actors includes individuals and institutions, local and global actors, as well as religious and secular leaders. Among the many actors mentioned by women’s rights activists, players associated with the Catholic hierarchy appear in first place. This was to be expected, not only because Catholicism has the largest number of adherents in the region, but also because the individuals and organisations identified with Catholicism have the most active presence in legal and political spaces. National representatives of the Church are mentioned, as well as the Vatican (specifically Pope Benedict XVI). Opus Dei is also high on the list, and is repeatedly mentioned as one of the most influential fundamentalist actors in the region. Other groups named by survey respondents include the Legion of Christ (a Catholic congregation) and the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (a Catholic Society of Apostolic Life) which, although originating from Mexico and Peru respectively, exert influence throughout the region.

Fundamentalist movements associated with Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are also mentioned by women’s rights activists, though less frequently. This reflects the growth of Evangelical churches in the region, particularly Pentecostal churches, which has changed the religious map. Although the Evangelical camp is highly heterogeneous, its conservative sectors are becoming significant political actors in opposing legal changes related to sexuality and reproduction. Without discounting the existence of evangelical groups that support women's rights, AWID's survey showed the growing presence of Evangelical church leaders, who, in alliance with the Catholic leadership, oppose demands put forward by feminist and sexual diversity movements. This presence takes many forms: from the participation in formal politics as members of parliament (Brazil is probably the best example of this), to the public manifestation of conservative Evangelical leaders calling followers to mobilize against legal reform on sexual and reproductive issues.

Two of the case studies from Brazil and Bolivia deal directly with this. Authors from the Centro Feminista de Estudos e Assessoria - CFEMEA report that fundamentalist influence has blocked approval of Bill 1135/1991, which would decriminalize abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The study traces how evangelical Deputies, Jorge Mudalen and Eduardo Cunha ( chairs of the Committee on Security and the Family) sought to scupper the Bill and how feminists responded, and the authors write: “It is likely that in the upcoming elections, opposition to women’s reproductive rights will continue to be important to conservative candidates".

Two features of the Latin American activists’ survey suggest a conceptual distance between academic definitions about the main fundamentalist actors on the one hand, and the ways in which local activists experience and construct the phenomenon on the other.

Firstly, the activists identify fundamentalists as elites in power. The responses focus on powerful actors who seek to influence public policies, rather than on adherents to fundamentalist movements. The political fight of Latin American activists is thus geared more toward resisting the power of the fundamentalist elite, and less towards identifying and combating the causes that lead the population to radicalize its religious posture. In contrast perhaps to other regions, fundamentalism in Latin America is considered as a characteristic of the elite in power, who seek to influence legislation and public policies in defence of patriarchy.

Secondly, the fundamentalist label is applied both to actors who can be considered religious, as well as to those who can be considered secular. In a forthcoming publication about religious fundamentalist strategies and based on the survey responses, (For a Future without Fundamentalisms: Analysing Religious Fundamentalist Strategies and Feminist Responses), Latin America is the only region where alliances with the secular Right are among the top five most significant fundamentalist strategies. Although the majority of activists identified actors who are openly "religious" (such as church leaders), a significant number of respondents included actors who could be considered "secular." There are frequent references to politicians with ties to religious sectors as well as to non-governmental organizations associated with the Catholic Church, as the role of self-proclaimed pro-life or pro-family ngos has intensified in the region in recent years. A displacement in religious activism has resulted in religious leaders and discourses being increasingly paired with civil society organizations, as well as scientific, legal or bioethical justifications in defence of dogmatic religious positions. Within the wide range of these organisations Human Life International is cited most frequently, as its influence extends to the majority of countries in the region. According to women’s rights activists, what characterizes a fundamentalist actor is thus not the religious status of the person, but rather their attempt to influence public policy in defence of a conservative religious and patriarchal agenda.

In a region where the Catholic Church once held hegemonic power over sexual morality, feminist and sexual diversity movements have changed the political landscape in most Latin America countries by including sexual and reproductive rights in public agendas. However, this has not signalled the retreat of political religious influences. On the contrary, new actors and more sophisticated discourses have emerged as part of the political arsenal deployed to protect patriarchal and homophobic legal content. Women’s right activists say that religious leaders from different traditions, political elites and civil organizations have formed a close network in order to resist legal reform and to politically defend dogmatic religious interpretations. However, as recent events in Argentina reveal, the expansion of rights related to gender and sexuality seems to be unstoppable in the region, despite the strong opposition forwarded by religious fundamentalist agendas.




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