The unhappy marriage of religion and politics

Subtle and overt forms of resistance notwithstanding, it is clear that women’s rights advocates need to be vigilant when those who claim to have “divine truth” behind them start asserting their vision of “the good society” from positions of power and authority.
Anne Jenichen Shahra Razavi
30 November 2010

The past three decades have witnessed the rising political prominence of religious actors and movements. While religious attachments and practices may have weakened in some countries (most notably in Western Europe), they seem to have persisted if not intensified on a worldwide basis. Religious arguments continue to be actively invoked in politics across a wide range of countries. This alleged ‘de-privatisation’ of religion has raised fundamental questions about earlier predictions of sweeping secularisation as the inevitable companion to development.

The assertiveness of public religion has coincided with a number of other transformations. The rise to hegemony of a highly contested economic model (neo-liberalism) introduced in the mid-1970s under conditions of stabilization and structural adjustment. A second development has been the greater emphasis on democracy and rights in the post-Cold War era, which has given more prominence to human rights, including women’s rights as well as religious liberties. In much of the world, however, advances in political and legal rights have not been matched by improvements in social justice, as income inequalities both within and between countries have increased. Some argue that the failed promises of the modern, secular state to deliver democracy and development have prompted the search for alternative discourses of power and authenticity in many regions, to challenge the dominant Western agenda. In addition to widespread discontent with the social fall-out of neo-liberal policies, the role of transnational networks of finance and the proliferation of diaspora communities over the past three decades have also contributed to the growing influence of religious actors and movements in many contexts.

Feminists wonder where this leaves gender equality. To put it crudely, has the presence of religion within the political arena made it harder for women to pursue equality with men?

In his critique of theories of secularisation, José Casanova introduced a useful distinction between secularisation as institutional differentiation, secularisation as the decline of religiosity, and secularisation as the privatisation of religion. One of the key arguments emerging from his influential analysis was that the ‘de-privatisation’ of modern religion was empirically irrefutable and morally defensible. He further argued that only the presence of religion in the public sphere of civil society, where religious actors engage in open public debate on a range of common public concerns and issues, would be compatible with democratic principles. In his later work, he questions whether ‘the secular separation of religion from political society or even from the state’ are necessary or sufficient conditions for democratic politics as long as both the state and religious institutions adhere to the rule of law and do not violate democratic rules - in line with Alfred Stepan’s concept of ‘twin tolerations’.

Was religion ever a purely ‘private’ matter, as the term ‘de-privatisation’ implies—cordoned off from the state by a wall of separation, and contained within the private sphere of personal belief? There is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Even in Western Europe, the stronghold of secularism, religions have contributed considerably to the shaping of welfare and abortion regimes. The secularisms that took hold in the twentieth century are themselves highly diverse and religion is seldom absent from the polity. Secularisms have been shaped by critical historical conditions and developed in relation to particular religious formations (be it Protestantism in the USA, Hinduism in India, or Sunni Islam in Turkey). Modernist and secularist pretensions notwithstanding, many ‘secularist’ states were not willing to risk their political survival by radically interfering in matters of the family, marriage and personal laws which were widely seen as the domain of religious authorities. The price paid for this pragmatic accommodation was state endorsement of gender inequality in family/personal status, and sometimes also criminal, laws. Hence in many nominally ’secular’ states, such as Israel and India, religious precepts continued to hold sway.

Is the notion of ‘twin tolerations’ sufficient to protect the rights and needs of women and men, believers and non-believers against discrimination? As Anne Phillips rightly argues, viewing the relationship between religion and the state in quasi-corporatist terms — as a relationship between democratic political institutions, on the one hand, and religious communities and authorities, on the other — pays far too little attention to the ways in which each of these may misrepresent or coerce their individual members women, non-believers and believers. Hence the relationship also needs to be viewed through the lens of individual rights and needs, rather than assuming that the interests of individuals are un-problematically represented by the principles and practices defined by religious authorities and political leaders.

Since women are often treated as bearers of culture - including religion and tradition, their deportment, dress code, and sexuality serve as markers of diverse visions of the ‘good society’. Religious authorities commonly insist on regulating relationships in the private domain, including sexuality, biological and social reproduction, conjugal roles, and definitions of what constitutes a ‘proper’ family. Such regulations, premised on some transcendental principles, are steeped in patriarchal and hetero-normative assumptions that often work to women’s disadvantage. ‘Private’ issues, such as the right to divorce, permissible forms of sexuality, access to contraception and abortion, have become sites of intense contestation between conservative religious actors who see religious moral principles as timeless, absolute and non-negotiable, and feminists and other human rights advocates who argue for democratic, pluralist and rights-based alternatives ‘The private’ is indeed political, and has become increasingly politicised as a result of the growing prominence of religions in public life.

Beyond the state an important arena is that of political parties. In countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Israel, political parties are openly religious in name as well as their ideological and policy orientation, while in others such as India and the USA, religious interests are channelled into political parties through alliances with religious interest groups or, as in Poland, Serbia, Chile, the Church. Religion can also have a more diffuse presence as prospective politicians demonstrate their political legitimacy by demonstrating their personal religiosity.

Outside the formal arena of politics lies the domain of civil society and associational life where people organise and mobilise. However, this is not a power-free zone where participants deliberate as equal peers. While in most countries counter-hegemonic discourses and contestatory movements are able to articulate new social visions, breaking taboos on gender roles, family forms and sexuality, their voices are often muffled, or violently suppressed in cases such as Nigeria and Pakistan, by conservative forces that command greater access to resources and state protection.

The interface between politics and religion is frequently examined from a perspective that privileges state power and formal political institutions. However, much of the ‘informal’ power of religion lies in the way religious ideas and norms are diffused outside of the formal political arena, through everyday effects that shape people’s attitudes and lives. As Iheoma Obibi and Blessing Oparaocha write, the indirect effects of state laws, for example on “public nudity” or “indecent dressing”, can be even more pernicious and difficult to challenge than the laws themselves, as they empower unauthorised actors to determine for themselves how women should be dressed.

Some of the more insidious and lasting changes that religious actors introduce concern practices and meanings that reshape mindsets and become unquestioned social norms—or ‘common sense’ in Gramscian terms. When such norms are discriminatory or constrain women’s opportunities they are of serious concern. However, religious impositions can also elicit resistance when they run counter to existing social practices— as manifested in the day-to-day defiance of the Islamic dress code by young women on the streets of Tehran, or by young couples in Chile and Poland defying Catholic dogma on sexual abstinence prior to marriage.

This is the first of three articles exploring how religion as a political force shapes and constrains the struggle for gender equality. The article draws on 11 country case studies brought together in a special issue of Third World Quarterly




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