Women under Religious Fundamentalisms

Kaberi Gayen's picture

This is the second installment of a six-part series, orignally posted at e-BangladeshThe next episode will be posted tomorrow.

Episode - Two

Fundamentalism has for long been associated with greater or lesser degrees of oppression of women. WAF felt that women were the main targets of fundamentalism. Its founding statement claimed that, “At the heart of the fundamentalists’ agenda is the control of women’s minds and bodies. [All] support the patriarchal family as a central agent of such control. They view women as embodying the morals and traditional values of the family and the whole community.” (WAF, 1990). Similar views were being developed in other places. For example, Hammami and Jad (1992:17-21), two Palestinian feminists, wrote, “The commonality between movements profoundly lies in their obsessive focus on the rights, rules and behaviour of women as pivotal to both their strategy of rule and as an aim in itself.”

The attempt of contemporary fundamentalist movements to control women can be seen not just as an idiosyncrasy but rather as a typical characteristic of authoritarian regimes and political movements, which have placed the regulation of women’s reproductive capacities and sexuality at the forefront of their agendas. The 18th century Enlightenment in Europe, with its emphasis on civil liberty, individual rights and political democracy, contributed the first great challenge to women’s subjugation. Throughout the 20th century, social change and ‘modernisation’ have had a significant impact on sex roles and gender relations, often giving rise to actual or perceived threats to traditional male supremacy. (Feldman and Clark, 1996). Industrialisation and the spread of capitalism have in many places opened new economic opportunities for women. Though women’s opportunities are still limited, population growth, land shortage and unemployment have weakened kinship solidarities, and men’s power in the family. Hence, the relative position of men and women may have changed, at least as much through the weakening of controls which men had, as because of real gains by women.

In 1930s Europe, economic depression and declining birth rates were frequently perceived in terms of ‘degenerate’ moral codes and cultural trends which justified the reassertion of strict regulation of the family and of sexuality, in order to promote fertility (Feldman and Clark, 1996).  In terms of effective state control this view found its most notorious expression in Nazi Germany but the subordination of women as a form of pressure to produce children has also occurred in the Soviet Union as well as in democratic states such as Britain and France.

Parallels are also found in more recent nationalisms, where the link with the fundamentalist religion is also clear. Both the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Croatian Church have called for women to serve the nation by giving birth to more children. Reproduction is also a pressing concern for the Croatian government. The President, Franjo Tudjman, blamed the tragedy of the Croatian nation on women, pornography and abortion. The Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle described the low birth rate among Serbs as a plague upon the nation. He claimed that women were more interested in enjoying themselves than bearing and raising children and that if the birth rate does not change significantly, in ten years time, the Serbs will be a national minority in their own country who will have nothing to say about their fate. (Kajosevic, 1995)

Although religious fundamentalists do not exercise political power in countries like the US or Britain, they may nevertheless use the institutions of the state to promote similar goals. Protestant and Catholic fundamentalists in the US have mainly focused on anti-abortion crusades, but also try to restrict access to contraception and other reproductive rights through careful use of such secular institutions as the courts and the legislature. US fundamentalists have succeeded in weakening women’s access to abortion through harassment of clinics and pressure on government to cut funding, despite its legality being protected by the constitutional right to privacy. Fundamentalist groups have            attacked abortion rights by spreading false information, opening fake hotlines and by other efforts, in order to disseminate anti-abortion propaganda and misinformation. (Article 19, 1995). This exploitation of secular processes by religious groups has also affected sex education in the US. Many schools now emphasise abstinence rather than giving factual information about reproduction and contraception because of fear of litigation. Article 19 (1995) reports that teenagers in the US may be less knowledgeable about abortion now than they were 20 years ago because of this misinformation and a lack of genuine discussion. The US has the lowest level of contraceptive use among teenagers of all industrialised countries.

In Britain, Christian fundamentalists have also made use of secular institutions, particularly the legislature, to try to restrict women’s access to abortion, and have been successful in marginalising sex education within the school curriculum by introducing restrictive amendments to legislation passing through Parliament.

After the collapse of Communism in Poland, the Polish Church’s political campaigns against abortion, contraception and sex education were supported by Catholic women’s groups, and they used to participate in meetings where instruments for implementing gender inequality were discussed and promoted. (Nowicka, 1996). In 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt, The Holy See, the governing body of the Catholic Church (which enjoys voting privileges at United Nations conferences due to Vatican City’s nation status) joined forces with other fundamentalist movements to oppose all women’s reproductive rights. Asserting that the conference’s draft recommendations promoted promiscuity, abortion, homosexual unions, and that it also imposed birth control on poorer nations, The Holy See aligned itself with the Islamic states of Iran and Libya, which shared The Holy See‘s views. In 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) in Beijing, The Holy See issued official reservations to the entire chapter of the Platform for Action regarding women and health (Chapter 4, Section C) for similar reasons. (Kissling and Sippel, 2002).

In India, Hindutva uses religious imagery, glorifies the ‘golden past’ of rule of Hindu kings, sees women primarily under patriarchal control dictating their way of life, dress code, etc. (Ram, 2001: 115). The Hindu right seeks to reconstitute women in and through the image of the Hindu nation, and of reconstituting the nation in and through the image of Hindu women. (Stanislaus, 2001).  This assertion of the greater dignity, even the concept of chaste and good Hindu women covertly substitutes for, and ultimately displaces a demand for equal rights. Mridula Sinha, ex-president of BJP Mahila Morcha, in an interview in 1993 stated: a) A woman should not work outside the home unless her family is financially very deprived; b) Give dowry and receive dowry; c) We oppose women’s liberation, as it is another name for ‘loose morals’; d) We oppose equal rights for both sexes; e) There is nothing wrong with domestic violence against women; very often it is women’s fault, we advice women to try and adjust, as her non-adjustment creates the problem; f) Women’s future lies in perpetuating the present, because no where else women are worshipped as we are in India; g) Women’s liberation means liberation from atrocities, it does not mean they should be relieved of their duties as wives and mothers. (Prakash, 2000:88). Another ex-President, Vijaya Raje Scindia led a group of women in protest march against ‘anti-sati’ legislation, asserting that “it is the fundamental right of Hindu women to commit sati, as it is in preservation of our past glory and culture.” (Prakash, 2000:88).

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Bamdav promoted male polygamy and the abolition of divorce among Hindus (Sarkar, 2000). It portrays that women must forget about gender rights to ensure community supremacy over others. In Pune, the Rashtriya Swayamsevika Samiti (Women’s wing of the RSS) is disciplining Hindu women into being good mothers, and good wives.

Anandhi (1995: 37-38) notes, “the important agenda of Hindutva has been of projecting in the public the militantly communal woman as a new women by reversing the roles and image of Hindu womanhood. This reversal of roles seems to have equipped the communal woman with a new and empowering self-image”. Yet, women’s right wing organisation, Surakhsa does not want a revival of Ram Rajya because they feel that Ram Rajya will subjugate women and it would only boost the erstwhile patriarchal norms (The Times of India, 24 January, 2000).        



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