International Perspectives on Gender

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International Perspectives on Gender

Week 13: Gender and Religious Fundamentalism


Aims: introduce the concept and practice of religious fundamentalism and take a look at some of the gender issues it raises.

look at the rise of Hindu nationalism, the role of gender within it and the debate about whether this is a form of religious fundamentalism
introduce our next topic, gender and Islam

1. What is Religious Fundamentalism?

Gita Sahgal and Nira Yuval-Davis: all fundamentalist religious movements:

  1. claim theirs is the only true version of the religion

  • orthodox (maintaining tradition)

  • revivalist (returning to the ‘truth’)

  1. use political means to impose their version on all members of the religion

- attempts to merge religion and state

  1. are patriarchal

Islam has no monopoly on fundamentalism - fundamentalist movements in Christianity, Hinduism and Judaism can be readily identified.

2. Gender and Religious Fundamentalism

Fundamentalist movements are patriarchal and seek to control women and maintain the patriarchal family

Women’s bodies become a key site for the articulation of religious fundamentalism.

Examples from Israel in 2011-12:
Haradim, ultra-orthodox Jewish sect, claiming that Jewish religious teachings demand modest dress, segregation of men and women in public, prohibition on women singing.
Opponents claiming that Haredi trying to ‘erase’ women from public life.
Haredi actions: pressure on advertisers not to use women on billboards

Gender segregation in shop queues, ‘women at the back’ on buses

Long sleeves dress code for women workers, Haredi or not

Boycott of women singing

No women on the stage at awards ceremony
Resistance: Women should be seen and heard photos

Female ‘singalongs’

3. The Rise of the Hindu Right in India

BJP, the Bharatiya Janata Party and affiliated organizations.

  • formed government 1998-2004

  • lost election to Congress in 2004

  • further loss of seats in 2009 election

a) Ayodyha – in December 1992 a Muslim mosque at Ayodyha was destroyed and communal violence followed

Hindu belief that Ayodyha was the birthplace of Lord Ram (the seventh incarnation of Vishnu) and that the mosque was built on top of a temple to Ram destroyed in medieval times.

Mobilization in late 1980s by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) culminating in destruction of mosque on 6 December 1992.

  1. Right-wing mobilization against Deepa Mehta’s 1998 film Fire

c) Gujerati rights, sparked by burning alive of 50 Hindu pilgrims in a train, saw over 1000 people killed

Discourse of Hindutva: history is 1000 years of struggle between an indigenous Hindu people and Muslim invaders and rulers (the Moghuls).

Post-independence appeasement of minority groups by Congress has perpetuated oppression of Hindus.

A Hindu state (rashtra) must be established in India

But there are 154 million Muslim people in India, 13% of the population.

After independence Nehruvian nationalism dominated and militant Hindu nationalism went underground.

Economic crises of 1980s provided conditions for re-emergence of Hindu nationalism

  • defined in opposition to Islam: Muslims are represented as the ‘other’ and blamed for all ills in society

  • Shiv Sena in Bombay claiming Muslims were hogging jobs and opportunities

4. Communalism or Fundamentalism?

Is the rise of the Hindu right religious fundamentalism or Communalism?

Ratna Kapur and Brenda Cossman: Communalism is the discourse that

  • a group following a particular religion have common social, political and economic interests

  • the most important difference between people is that of religious belief and the world is based on conflict between religious groups.

Arguments against Hindu nationalism as religious fundamentalism:

  1. It’s not obsessed with controlling Hindu women’s sexuality and fertility and supports the economic independence of women where expedient;

  2. It’s not based on scripture or led by religious leaders;

  1. It sees its main enemies as internal (Indian Muslims) not as the West;

  1. It has no coherent strategy for government, no agenda to make the law follow religious codes.

  1. It understands itself as the direct opposite of fundamentalism, which it associates with Muslims.

Arguments for Hindu nationalism as religious fundamentalism:

  1. A preoccupation with and anxiety about moral corruption, especially by and from the west;

  1. Dissemination of patriarchal ideas about how women and men should behave. Eg this advice to a wife being beaten by her husband: ‘The wife should think that she is paying her debt of her previous life and thus her sins are being destroyed and she is becoming pure’ (Ramsukhdas, cited in Basu, 1998, p. 175).

  1. The claims of the BJP for a Hindu nation-state and the representation of Indian Muslims as anti-national;

  1. The use of gendered images of Hindu motherhood to symbolize the movement and the negative representation of ‘enemy’ women. In 1992 13 Muslim women in Gujerat were gang-raped, led by a BJP politician, an atrocity that BJP women were conspicuous in their silence about;

  1. A critique of western feminist ideals as imperialist and destructive of the family.

Pro Hindu:
Pro Muslim:

5. Gender and Hindutva

  1. Patriarchal controls over women;

  1. Positive gendered representations of Hinduism in relation to negative gendered representations of Islam.

  1. Recognizing the active participation of many Hindu women in the Hindutva movement.

Sadhvi Rithambara and Uma Bharati are prominent female leaders of Hindutva.

Participation of Hindu women in violence undermines assumptions that women are ‘natural’ pacifists or refuse to engage in violence as recognise have most to lose (‘social’ pacifists)

Explaining women’s prominence:

Offers women a legitimate, if limited, space in the public sphere, an escape from domestic drudgery and hardship?

Women re-enact their private roles in the public arena?

Seek new rights?

6. Gender and Islam: An Introduction

Map of the world: Islam concentrated in North Africa, Middle East and parts of Asia but significant minorities elsewhere.

The Prophet of Islam is Mohammed, the holy book is the Qur'an.

Key Questions: Does Islam oppress women or does it empower them?

Is the hijab (‘veil’) an impingement on women’s freedom or does it protect them?

It’s crucial not to generalise across all Islamic countries. Disaggregation is essential.

Islamic fundamentalism
A revival of the Islamic religion along strict patriarchal lines

Dates from the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah.

Characterised by conflict between fundamentalists and modernisers about merging of religion and state

Turkey - still secular but in struggle

Afghanistan - fundamentalist Taliban-ruled government, overthrown following western invasion

Perceptions of Gender and Islam
Generally homogeneous and negative.
Haleh Afshar describes the: ‘imaginative and misleading literature... that in the past century has been presented in the West in lieu of research’ (p. 3).

Afshar criticises the representations of Muslim women as ‘backward’, passive, unsuitable for emancipation in some Western feminist writing

Moghissi argues that the gaze of the West on Islam has been both inferiorizing – women’s subordination taken as symptomatic of the degeneracy of the whole – and imbued with European male sexual fantasies.

Lord Cromer: condemned women’s treatment in Egypt

Founder member and one-time President of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage in the UK
Afshar: Muslim women have for too long been the known about, not the knowers.

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