The secular state: protector of women's rights?

By relying on the secular state as the answer to the religious right and entrusting the Left with the protection of women's rights, feminists in Latin America may have overlooked the root causes of attraction to the religious right: the state's failure to deliver social services to all

Ana Abelenda
23 October 2010

What’s so dangerous about religious conservatism as far as women are concerned? Are we not supposed to embrace pluralism of opinion and creeds? The answer to that question is simple: politics and power. The way political parties and therefore public policies are being influenced by the conservative religious lobby (be it Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindu) is undermining women’s rights and their advancement across the world.

The term “fundamentalisms” has long been used within the feminist movement to describe the reactionary religious groups that attack women’s human rights. However the term is a controversial one, especially when used in racist or xenophobic narratives against Muslims, particularly post-9/11. After all, anyone of faith who believes in the fundamentals of the faith could be considered a fundamentalist and that only depends on who is defining them.

Perhaps feminists would do better to recognize that many people who believe in the fundamentals of their religion are not conservative or right wing and therefore labeling ‘fundamentalist’ could alienate the religious as a whole and in fact reinforce negative stereotyping. Maybe using religious ‘conservatives’ or ‘religious right’ rather than fundamentalist is a more appropriate term and one that opens the way to more not less dialogue encouraging people to reflect critically on their beliefs.

Is the secular State the only answer? Or should women's rights activists focus on what makes religious extremism so attractive and thus aim at its root causes and its political influence?

The experience in some Latin American countries suggests that change does take place even in contexts were religious conservative forces - particularly the Catholic Church in Mexico and Argentina - have had a historic influence in government spheres.

In Mexico, even if separation between Church and State is guaranteed by the Constitution since the XIX century, conservative Catholic groups are still economically and culturally powerful and in the last ten years have been pushing for a greater influence within state institutions.

A study by Catholics for Choice-Mexico shows that since the National Action Party (PAN) that holds the majority in Congress and the Presidency won elections in 2000, a series of reforms have been taking place allowing the Catholic hierarchy and extreme right conservative groups to increase their power in determining the country's political agenda. In 2004 one legislator diverted public funds earmarked for HIV/AIDS prevention to the ultra right-wing organization Pro-Vida, and recently the Governor of Jalisco has donated money to build a temple. Right-wing groups such as the Legion of Christ and Opus Dei hold positions in public office and decision making posts in the federal government, parliament and the judicial power.

Furthermore, right-wing conservative businessmen have sought to influence mass media content with their positions against women's rights and by promoting a single family model based on heterosexual marriage. Such is the case of Lorenzo Servitje, founder and honorary president of the Bimbo Group, a company that has threatened to withdraw its advertising on TV channels that report on cases of pedophilia committed by Catholic priests, such as the abuses committed by Father Maciel against seminaristas. Other executives from Televisa, the country’s main broadcaster, also followed the advertising boycott.

Nonetheless, Mexico City’s left-wing government has recently passed a wave of liberal policies including recognition of same-sex marriage and legalizing abortion during the first twelve weeks for women over eighteen. And these were landmark decisions that took place in a country that is 90% Catholic.

In Argentina the example is of a similar nature, where the Catholic hierarchy has historically managed to exert enormous power over government decisions. The Church opposes artificial contraception and has placed conditions on its acceptance of sex education in schools ever since the first attempt to introduce a nationwide curriculum in 1995. However since 2005, the Argentinean Parliament began to take steps to pass a Sex Education Law that would encompass the whole school system - including confessional schools, forcing educational establishments to teach students about gender roles and contraception.

Argentina has also become the first country in Latin America to recognize same-sex marriage. Javier Corrales and Mario Pecheny have noted that one of the reasons was that “the agenda of the LGBT movement was cast as part of the country’s broader agenda on behalf of feminism, gender, reproduction, health, and sexuality”. Even if some commentators have said this response was due to ex-president Néstor Kirchner’s willingness to play the liberal card before next year’s elections, the fact is there was growing consensus among citizens and political parties in favor of same-sex marriage in spite of the right-wing Catholics and several Opus Dei bishops sponsoring protests all over the country. And while a few priests from the provinces courageously broke ranks, the major opposition sprang from Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires who referred to the pending legislation as a “destructive attack on God’s plan.”

So what happened? Is it possible that the separation between church and political party may be more important than separation between church and State when it comes to defending human rights? And is the Left the natural ally of the feminist movement? Unfortunately, experience has shown that gender equality has to be fought for even in this context, contrary to widely held assumptions. From the seemingly progressive Sandinista government in Nicaragua that banned abortion under any circumstances and persecutes women’s rights activists, to the left-wing president in Uruguay who vetoed legislation passed by Parliament decriminalizing abortion, the evidence is that the conservative religious lobby has the ability to win friends across the political spectrum.

A strong civil society that operates within an environment in which human rights are supported by legislation, and which is both globally connected and domestically entrenched, is critical to the ability to counter the political influence of the religious right. A rights-based approach that takes advantage of international human rights charters that enforce women’s rights - particularly sexual and reproductive rights - is an intelligent move for success. For example, a common assumption that has proved to have disastrous consequences is that of submitting minority rights - and women’s rights in this case - to popular vote. Javier Corrales and Mario Pecheny noted that “perhaps the most important victory by pro-LGBT groups in Argentina was to avoid the referendum trap. Enemies of Argentina’s gay marriage legislation, including the Catholic Church, offered a populist compromise: submit the issue to a popular vote. Submitting to a majority vote questions of minority rights is inherently a biased process—against the minority group, naturally—and this makes it undemocratic despite its reliance on the popular vote.”

It is usually in the context of Muslim societies that we talk about religious conservatism as a threat to women’s rights, but here - as elsewhere - we see that what lies beneath this conservative resurgence is politics and power. Moroccan feminist and sociologist Fatema Mernissi, in her book Beyond the Veil argues "the fundamentalist wave is a statement about male identity" confronted with "the politicization of Muslim women and the new perception they have gained of their problems”. The increase in urbanization and women’s education means Muslim women are coming to diagnose their problems as being essentially political - a disturbing claim for those that hold power. As Mernissi simply puts it, "If fundamentalists are calling for the return to the veil, it must be because women have been taking off the veil". This conservative resurgence in many parts of the Muslim world can be understood as a backlash against the failure of secularized states to effectively develop and maintain “cultural” integrity – the issue of women’s sudden inclusion in public spaces being at the forefront.

There is also an economic basis for the attraction of conservative religious and political approaches, one which is based on the reaction to the lack of provision of basic social services, rampant corruption and the growing gap between rich and poor. Feminist researcher for Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era, Anita Nayar reflects on this very issue: “Feminists response to the religious right has been to insist on a secular state that is responsible for guaranteeing the human rights of all peoples. But is this a sufficient response given the complexities in some situations where the religious right is providing basic social services which the secular state is failing to deliver? We cannot just fight for a secular state without intentionally developing ways of addressing the economic basis for the growing attraction to religious extremism. We therefore need to ask, other than being secular or not, what does the State need to do economically?”

Conservative religious forces hold political power over communities by providing social services, such as health care and education where the secular state fails to deliver. And this is the case in Lebanon where Hezbollah “currently operates at least four hospitals, 12 clinics, 12 schools and two agricultural centers that provide farmers with technical assistance and training. It also has an environmental department and an extensive social assistance programme. Medical care is also cheaper than in most of the country’s private hospitals and free for Hezbollah members. Most of these institutions are located in the country’s more marginalized areas, such as Beirut’s southern suburbs, in South Lebanon and in the Bekaa Valley” as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs noted in 2006.

This is also the case in many Latin American countries where faith-based organizations are often granted permission by the State and even receive public funds to run social programs. For example in Peru, activists from the Center for the Promotion and Defense of Sexual and Reproductive Rights PROMSEX have identified religious conservative organisations such as the Opus Dei's Condoray rural project that "aims to train people in the assimilation of Christian human values, customs and culture of work in order to promote a positive impact on the families from the valley of Nazca".

In Africa, critical changes have taken place in international development policy, resulting in a smaller role for the state and a greater role for non-state agencies, including religious NGOs. A paper by Julie Hearn on the influence of US evangelical missions in Kenya notes that religious conservatives driven to convert the continent dominate social services, run orphanages, schools and universities, and provide loans. Focusing on five organizations based in Kenya, she examines the impact these missions have in implementing the agenda of policies regarding matters such as health care, AIDS, family planning, homophobia and food security.

In the process of challenging religious conservatism and its political consequences for women, lessons can be learned from these few examples above. First, the importance of recognizing that we might fall into a trap when we label ‘fundamentalism’ in relation only to religion (particularly in the Muslim context) because it tends to exclude other religious groups that are not necessarily opposed to the women’s rights agenda. Second, placing too much faith in left wing governments and the secular State has proved to be a mistake in many cases. The root causes of attraction to religious extremism must be sought in the economic and social power it has gained by filling the void left by the rollback in the State’s provision of basic social services such as education and health. A strong civil society movement that is globally connected and works within a human and women’s rights framework has better chance of combatting the religious-right attempts to dismantle hard won rights.




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