Why do women turn religious fundamentalists on?

The more I work on projects to research religious fundamentalisms and advocate for resistance and challenge to their absolutist and intolerant world vision, the fewer answers and the more questions I have

Cassandra Balchin
19 April 2010

Top of the list is this: what is it about women that turns religious fundamentalists on? Why is it that the only thing that seems to interest Catholic fundamentalists is obstructing women’s access to contraception and abortion? Muslim fundamentalists seem to spend more time thinking about women’s sexual activity and ways of concealing their divinely-shaped bodies than can be good for the soul. The Evangelicals, Pentecostalists and Charismatics all get in on the act too: they expect a woman congregant to keep that top button tightly done, get married quick and perish the thought that she might prefer girls.

Maybe women activists are just blind to the damage religious fundamentalisms do to men: expect them to be bullying heterosexual patriarchs, cannon fodder in holy wars?

We could be forgiven for a slight bias in our approach since religious fundamentalisms really aren’t good for women. I am currently working as a research consultant for AWID (Association for Women’s Rights in Development)’s initiative Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms and one of the things we found when we surveyed women’s rights activists was that 8 out of 10 think fundamentalists have a negative impact on women’s rights. That’s an overwhelming majority. Only 4% of the over 1,600 people survey thought fundamentalisms have no impact on women. In case you’re wondering: just 9% thought they have a positive impact, and their reasons were almost always ironic—that shared opposition to fundamentalisms has created solidarity among local women’s groups or driven women to abandon religion altogether.

I wonder if we’d get the same response for a question about the impact on men? I doubt it. Religious fundamentalists really do seem to have a particular thing about women and especially women’s bodies.

There are several possible explanations. In the fundamentalist drive to control public policy and society, women are easy targets for rules and regulations: first, they have less social, economic and political power so they are less able to stand up for their rights; second, encouraging the more powerful – i.e., men in general – to keep on kicking the weak gives the powerful a nice buzz and makes them less inclined to want to resist fundamentalisms. As my Malaysia rights activist friend Zainah Anwar succinctly pointed out when we interviewed her for AWID: “It’s women’s lives that are at stake; men are more privileged.”

But in analysing women as ‘weak’ perhaps we’re missing a trick. The reasons religious fundamentalists obsess about us as women is precisely because of our power: the power to give life, to socialise the next generation, and to cause complete chaos in the apparently smooth running of patriarchy. As the old joke goes: a person’s mother is a matter of fact; a person’s father is a matter of opinion. If women’s bodies were no longer limited to the confines of monogamy, the social order as we know it—and fundamentalists love it—would end. Islam seems rather prescient in this regard because it states that people entering heaven are known by their mother’s name—something the fundamentalists tend to forget in all their WebPages on motherhood. Maybe men need a little reassurance that, although we women are incredibly powerful, we’d quite like to share the world equally with them.

Another possible reason is that religious fundamentalists, far from being the morally upstanding force they claim to be, are actually a bunch of sex-obsessed men (and some women). Otherwise why talk about sex the whole time? People have more important things to do, like feeding our families, ensuring our children or loved ones don’t die or get killed, having some time to do that quintessentially human thing called laughing, having a say in how our lives are run. Sure, sex is nice and important but not 24/7, as in the fundamentalist focus: purity rings, virginity testing, veiling, female genital mutilation, persecution of lesbians and gays, death for sex outside of marriage, abortion bans and yet more abortion bans. My Argentinian sociologist friend Juan Marco Vaggione, explains it as the fundamentalists’ ‘pelvic orthodoxy’. So they’re the ones with the pelvic obsession, not us.

But all this doesn’t answer my second question: if religious fundamentalists are so clearly obsessed with controlling women and especially women’s bodies, and this is so clearly not good for the majority of the world’s population, why don’t more human rights and more development rights activists—women as well as men—get more steamed up about religious fundamentalisms?

But that’s a question for another day.

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