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Is secularism bad for women?

Gender equality should not be pitted against religious freedom, so what kind of political arrangements could guarantee religious women’s rights and full social inclusion? 

Protests against the French veil ban. Credit: http://www.barenakedislam.com. All rights reserved.

The 1970s feminist movement asked ‘Is religion bad for women?’ In the 1990s, political theorist Susan Moller Okin asked ‘Is multiculturalism bad for women?’ To both questions, many people answered ‘yes.’

Feminist activists argued that religion was irrevocably oppressive to women by divinely sanctioning male dominance, imposing a ‘stained-glass ceiling’ on women’s leadership, restricting women to motherhood and domesticity, and denigrating their bodies as impure or purely sexual.

Many also concurred that multiculturalism was at fault—a political approach adopted from the 1970s in countries including Canada, Britain, Germany, Australia and Sweden to celebrate ethnic and religious diversity. Multiculturalism encouraged the celebration of ethnic and religious differences and turned a blind eye to cases where these ‘cultural practices’ disadvantaged women by, for example, banning abortion and allowing polygamy or female genital mutilation. 

These arguments were welcome, and in many ways correct. But they don’t tell the whole story. For one thing, they don’t appreciate the diversity of religion, nor the complex ways in which women—feminists included—have gained power through religion or spirituality, including positions of spiritual authority and leadership. Feminists and critics of multiculturalism have also found it hard to accept that women sometimes choose to participate in groups that see human agency or freedom not as rational, autonomous individualism, but as ‘relational’—located in the collective and often expressed through religious practices and communities.

It’s true that religion has not historically been on the side of women’s rights and equality, but neither has secularism. The historian Joan Scott argues that the history of secular democracy was profoundly gender-unequal, in which both women and religion were pushed to the private sphere in order to make way for masculine rationality. It was only in the 20th century that women’s challenge to patriarchal secularism succeeded in winning for them suffrage and eventual entry into political institutions.

So it’s useful to reverse the order of the question by asking whether ‘secularism is bad for women?’  This question allows us to think afresh about how societies can best secure the freedom and flourishing of all women, whether religious or not, at a time when migration and displacement are making many countries increasingly diverse in terms of religion.

This entails asking what secularism means. ‘Secularism’ has three main connotations. First, political secularism refers to the political project of separation between religion and the state, which has taken many different forms. In French laïcité, the state can intervene in religion but not vice versa. In American secularism, neither the state nor religion can intervene in each other’s domains. In India, the state keeps a ‘principled distance’ from religious institutions but supports and respects religious diversity, at least in theory.

Second, secularism refers to social phenomena, particularly the purported declining influence of religious groups on the public sphere. Third, secularism can focus on the transformation of religious practices and beliefs, as when people are less influenced by religion and religion becomes increasingly individualized.

Because secularism means different things and looks different in different places,  the question is not whether secularism is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for women in the abstract, but which forms of secularism, in which places, and in which ways? Take the contrasting cases of France and England.

As Maurice Barbier observes, there’s no consistent understanding of secularism in France, but the different strands are all ‘defined by the negation of religion within the state and its exclusion from the public sphere.’ French laïcité means that the state does not support or fund any religious organisations, though there are some religious associations to whom it grants legal recognition and limited tax exemption. From 2015 a ‘National Secularity Day’ will be instituted on which schools will lead pupils in affirming support for France’s ‘secular values.’ For France, secularism bonds its citizens together, and encourages migrants to assimilate.  

But this also means that French secularism is ill-equipped to deal with the rise of Islam or other religious configurations domestically. France doesn’t even collect statistics on religious affiliation, so it’s hard to know exactly how many Muslims there are in the country.

However, it’s clear that France’s 2004 ‘visible religious symbol’ ban in public schools and its 2011 ‘face veil’ ban in public have imposed significant restrictions on Muslim girls and women. Six hundred women have already been fined for flouting the ruling. The bans have made it difficult for Muslim women who wear the veil to participate in paid employment, since veils are illegal in public sector workplaces and frowned on in private ones. Those who are persuaded by religious teachings that wearing such coverings constitutes a religious duty feel they cannot compromise their religion for the secular state.

Legal cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights have met with a range of responses, but a 2014 judgement in the SAS vs France case  upheld the face veil ban, saying that it did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights. The court concluded that “respect for the minimum requirements of life in society” legitimized the ban.

However, from the viewpoint of human rights, the idea that ‘living together’ requires assimilation is concerning, because it prioritises the presumed needs of French society over the individual rights of women. “What little remained of the right to manifest religion may just have been eroded” wrote legal scholar Stephanie Berry at the time.

These bans demonstrate that at least in this respect, French secularism is bad for women who wear the veil. Moreover, in France, 80 per cent of Islamophobic attacks are against Muslim women. These attacks rose sharply in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders. French secularism may also bear some responsibility for the comparatively high numbers of Syrian-bound extremists who have left its borders.

The harassment of women over religious dress is also an issue elsewhere in Europe. According to the Pew Research Center, women were harassed for wearing religious dress or for violations of religious dress codes in 19 out of 45 countries in Europe—roughly the same proportion of countries as in the Middle East and North Africa but double the global rate.

In contrast to France, England is not an officially secular society. Instead it espouses what the sociologist Veit Bader calls “weak establishment”, involving “constitutional or legal establishment of one state-church”—the Church of England—“that has to be compatible with de jure and de facto religious freedoms and religious pluralism.” England has had legislation prohibiting discrimination at work or in the provision of goods and services on grounds of religion since 2003. Since 2001 it has also collected statistics on religion in order to monitor whether this legislation is working.

Under successive Labour and Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition governments, England has sought to accommodate the demands of religious groups as much as possible. Schools and welfare providers run by faith groups have been embraced and generously funded to provide services previously delivered by the state. For women who prefer to use faith-based services this is welcome. But not all do.

This faith-friendly approach has been criticised for obstructing gender equality, and there have been high profile debates about enforced gender segregation in some faith schools and the transfer of funding from secular women’s organisations that provide domestic violence services to faith-based groups. Concerns have also been raised that public officials at times fail to intervene when girls and women are subject to sexual violence or female genital mutilation because they fear being accused of racial or religious discrimination.

These concerns have led to attempts to curtail the power of religious groups to determine women’s fortunes. In 2011, life peer Baroness Caroline Cox, supported by a coalition of women’s groups (including some representing Muslim women) and the National Secular Society, introduced the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, a private members bill to make it a punishable offence for religious arbitration panels to falsely claim that religious rulings are legally binding.

This bill, which is now languishing due to lack of support from the House of Lords, is important because it would limit the powers of UK-based ‘sharia’ (Islamic) and ‘Beth Din’ (Jewish) courts to rule on family law in a gender-discriminatory way—for example by permitting multiple religious marriages for men and restricting women’s rights to divorce.

As these examples from France and England illustrate, the key question is how to promote both gender equality and religious freedom. What kind of political arrangements can guarantee religious women’s rights and full social inclusion? If both secular and faith-friendly approaches fail to deliver this goal for religious women, how can a better, democratically-negotiated balance be achieved?

Gender equality should not be pitted against religious freedom. Societies should not have to choose whether to grant the wishes of either religious groups or of women, especially since at least half of those who are religious are women, and more than half of all women across the world are also religious.

If asking whether secularism is bad for women helps to ensure the freedom and equality of women who are religious, then it will be another step forward in the global women’s movement.  

About the author

Kristin Aune is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University. With colleagues from Uppsala University, the University of Helsinki and the Centre for Social Studies, Lisbon, she is running the Women, Religion and Secularism workshop series, funded by the International Society for the Sociology of Religion. 


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