The right to have rights: resisting fundamentalist orders

While fundamentalist movements may vary according to the global context in which they operate, for women this diversity is outweighed by the core characteristics, strategies and impacts that they share.
Deepa Shankaran
10 May 2010


In a televised sermon on April 16, 2010, a senior Iranian cleric, Hojjat ol-eslam Kazem Sediqi, declared a need for a “general repentance,” warning of the “prevalence of degeneracy” in the country. He pointed to the real consequences of immodesty and promiscuity among women, noting that “many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray and spread adultery in society which increases earthquakes.”

Sediqi’s comments follow President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s forecast that Tehran will be the site of an imminent and devastating quake. In the last ten years, earthquakes in Iran have claimed tens of thousands of lives, and the country rests upon some of the most earthquake-prone land in the world. “What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble?” Sediqi asked. “There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam's moral codes.”

The proposal may seem far-fetched, but it is far from isolated. Disaster and salvation are often linked in far-right interpretations of religion. For instance, soon after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, Louisiana, Pat Robertson, a prominent voice for evangelical Christianity in the United States, broadcast a theory linking the wreckage to the endurance of legalized abortion in the country. Citing an interpretation of the Old Testament about “those who shed innocent blood,” he described the consequence: “the land will vomit you out.” This discourse can be applied to not only natural disasters, but political disasters as well. With slogans like, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” Pastor Fred Phelps and his followers in the Westboro Baptist Church have protested at more than 200 military funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, insisting that God is punishing the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality.

What we see in the press is the hard line face of religious fundamentalisms. This is a term that many women’s rights activists use to identify religious actors who are absolutist and intolerant, who seek to impose a dogmatic worldview in society and politics, and who oppose democratic values, pluralism and dissent. It can be tempting to dismiss these caricatures as an irrational element – somewhere out on the fringe. In reality, though, the fault-lines of this phenomenon are everywhere, and women across regions and religions bear the impact in very real ways.

AWID launched its Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms initiative four years ago, following conversations with women’s rights activists working on a range of issues – from reproductive rights and LGBTQI rights, to education, political participation and HIV/AIDS – that revealed the threat posed by fundamentalist movements to their work. Although they described very similar experiences, these activists felt isolated in their struggles, without a clear view of whether and how religious fundamentalisms were active in other contexts.

Responding to the call for more international dialogue on the issue, AWID’s initiative began as a research and advocacy program that sought to examine how the global rise of religious fundamentalisms was understood and experienced by women’s rights activists within different regional and religious contexts. In 2007, we launched a global survey in English, French, Spanish and Arabic, with responses from over 1,600 women’s rights activists, and conducted a series of in-depth interviews with more than 50 key experts.

We learned that while religious fundamentalisms may vary according to the global context in which they operate, this diversity is far outweighed by the core characteristics, strategies and impacts that they share. Across regions and religions, women’s rights activists experience the rising influence of these movements in very similar ways. In our study, a number of key defining characteristics of the phenomenon appeared to resonate across contexts. Among these, the most frequently mentioned by women’s rights activists was “absolutist and intolerant.” Throughout the world, fundamentalist movements are also experienced as “anti-women and patriarchal,” “about politics and power,” “anti-human rights and freedoms,” and “violent”.

Although the term often evokes particular and sensational imagery, women’s rights activists caution against presumptions about who is a “religious fundamentalist” and who is not. The main players in these movements may be active as political or religious leaders, charities and NGOs, religious organizations, missionaries, and ordinary members of communities and families. They can operate across local and global levels, within religious and secular institutions, and among the masses and the elite. Above all, the research affirms that there are no “typical fundamentalists,” and that these players are better identified by their politics rather than their pretence.

In these politics, the key platforms are grounded in “morality”, “the family” and gender roles, and fundamentalist campaigns often call for a return to “traditional” values, speaking to the fear of social upheaval brought about by women’s growing autonomy, sexual liberation and the increasing visibility of LGBTQI people. According to women’s rights activists, a major fundamentalist strategy in every region is the use of discourse that blames social problems on a “decline in morality” or the “disintegration of the family”; and that presents rigid gender roles within the family as “natural.” As Alejandra Sardá in Argentina notes, among the “three fundamentalist expressions that dominate the international debates: Islamists, Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians... the only issues on which they agree are those related to restricting the exercise of sexual rights on the part of women, but also of others with non-conventional identities and practices.”

As these discourses translate into fundamentalist campaigning on specific laws, policies and practices, they give rise to concrete consequences for women’s human rights. Among Muslim fundamentalisms, the focus on “morality” and sexuality takes the form of campaigning on veiling, Hudood laws (which criminalize sex outside marriage), and restrictions on women’s movement; while Catholic and Christian fundamentalisms campaign for abstinence and against pre-marital sex, politicizing the bodies of young people. In Nigeria, for example, some Christian colleges have introduced virginity testing as a precondition to academic scholarships or graduation. And in the United States, Southern Baptists introduced a university-level mandatory “homemaking” course for women, “to prepare them for their proper role.” As they work to re-order notions of masculinity and femininity, fundamentalist movements also pressure men to control their women, as Gita Sahgal writes, “to push them back into the home, make them behave in ways that are acceptable – otherwise you’re not a man.”

In the experience of 8 out of 10 women’s rights activists surveyed from over 160 countries, religious fundamentalisms have a negative impact on women’s rights. The survey yielded over 600 such examples, including reduced health and reproductive rights, reduced sexual rights and freedoms, reduced autonomy and rights in the public sphere, and increased violence against women. More than three quarters of women’s rights activists say that “women in general” are frequently or sometimes targeted for verbal and physical attack - in short, that they are subject to fundamentalist violence simply because they are women.

Fundamentalist movements also exert a profound and long-lasting psychological impact – a reality that often goes unacknowledged. As Lucy Garrido in Uruguay remarks, “the most serious impact is that many women believe and feel that they don’t have the right to have rights, that decisions about themselves, their minds and bodies, are influenced by and can be made by others.” Describing the Indian context, one women’s rights activist notes how the freedoms that previous generations of women enjoyed are increasingly suppressed by fundamentalist influence: “Women were quite able to move freely in my childhood and youth. They would go to public parks on holidays and festivals, or to the two rivers to wash clothes. All of that has disappeared because of the growing influence of the fundamental reading of the holy book.” Susana Chiarotti in Argentina recalls the Cairo Plan of Action and the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995: “that’s when we noticed extremely strong obstacles to activism, and the participation of religious fundamentalist groups. Since then, we have seen a constant rise in fundamentalism, both nationally and internationally.”

No matter how strictly they refer to a “pure tradition” or “glorious past”, religious fundamentalist movements are very much part of today’s globalized world, shaping it and being shaped by it. For 76% of women’s rights activists surveyed by AWID, the strength of religious fundamentalisms has increased globally in the past ten years. Wanda Nowicka in Poland observes the paradoxical shift, “conservatism and religion are coming back as something in opposition to what has been for many years. So what is seen as conservative and traditional and old has now become a new, modern option.”

Fundamentalist agendas and strategies are to a degree built in reaction to global commitments to women’s rights, human rights and equality, but while this may be a sign of vehemence on their part, it is also a statement of weakness. There is no shortage of examples of rights advances in the face of religious fundamentalisms. For instance, in response to the spectacular extremism of the Westboro Baptist Church, there emerged a creative and collective counter-force, The Pastor Phelps Project: A Fundamentalist Cabaret. When the satirical production premiered at a 2008 Toronto theatre festival, it drew out a handful of Westboro members wielding hate-ridden picket signs, but it also mobilized the city’s gay community to stage a broad counter-protest. As the playwright Alistair Newton observed, “by them showing up to picket my show, they're empowering me. When they show up I get all this press. They have provided a platform for me to engage in these issues of fundamentalism and homophobia.” Across regions and religions, signs of resistance are visible everywhere along the spectrum from public demonstration to discrete defiance. Indeed, as many reports of the repressive climate of Iran also note, “many young Iranians sometimes push the boundaries of how they can dress, showing hair under their headscarves or wearing tight-fitting clothes.”

Over the last two years, AWID’s initiative has been working to document and share the broad range of feminist strategies to resist and challenge fundamentalist movements, and a series of case studies was recently launched. These cases shed light on the numerous actions that women take up on a daily basis, as they reject fundamentalist dictates through individual choices or collective organizing, and cast lines to groups in different regional or religious contexts.

In news coverage of his recent earthquake sermon, the senior Iranian cleric described the violence and mass protests that followed the disputed presidential election of 2009 as no less than a “political earthquake.” Just like the natural phenomenon, however, real solutions might begin from an understanding of why the ground shakes, and then move to mitigate the destructive potential, rather than wait with eyes shut until the end.





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