Gender and the vestigial state of religion

By Naomi Goldenberg
10 Apr 2012

This article is one of several introducing some of the themes the author will be addressing when she visits Scotland and England later in April 2012.

My interest in critical religion originates in my wish to restart the radical feminist work that used to be done in the subfield of “women and religion.” For years I had been attending academic meetings in which scholars who spoke about the topic saw themselves as representatives of their own traditions or as apologists for traditions that were the subjects of their research.

Far-ranging critiques of sexist ‘religious’ beliefs, policies and practices, such as that of Mary Daly, had fallen out of favour. In its place was a quieter, more respectful spirit of reform. ‘Religious’ history was searched and mined for accounts of women who could be seen as clever agents within their traditions, as heroines who made the best of what was at hand, and as creative interpreters who found sustenance and inspiration in the seemingly oppressive texts and rites of their ‘faiths.’

Although the field of women and religion was flourishing in both divinity schools and secular universities, I was losing interest in an enterprise that I thought had abandoned the objective of political critique and embraced what I consider to be an attitude of advocacy for traditional thought and behaviour.

I now think that feminist critical analysis in “women and religion” was blunted because the category of religion was not interrogated. While deconstruction of concepts and politics related to gender and sex continues to foster exciting theory with significant social impact, religion itself remains largely an under-theorised given. I believe that this tacit reification of ‘religion’ works both to undermine women’s recent political achievements and to hinder further advancement.

Consider just these two examples: First, from the US: Citing the right to ‘religious’ freedom, Republican candidate Rick Santorum proposed allowing states to ban women’s access to contraception, a right won by means of court decisions in the late 1950s. Similarly, both Santorum and Mitt Romney, the front-runner for the nomination, objected to the new US health care law’s funding of legal abortions on the grounds that it could cause employers’ to compromise their religious beliefs. Several newly-enacted state laws now restrict women’s access to health care related to reproduction on religious grounds.

And second, from Afghanistan: According to reports from the Guardian News Service, in March of this year, the Karzai government issued a statement asserting that women are subordinate to men, should not mix with men in work or education and must always have a male guardian when they travel. The statement thus suggests that the Afghan constitution that enshrines the equality of men and women is flawed from a religious perspective. Furthermore, violence against women as long as it is “sharia compliant” appears to be condoned. Such news supports the opinion of Fawzia Koofi, the brave woman campaigning to be Afghanistan’s first female president, who says that David Cameron and Barack Obama are supporting the Karzai government in talks with people who want to bribe the Taliban by limiting women’s freedom using ‘religious’ justifications.

By proposing that religions be considered vestigial states at least in regard to law and public policy, I hope to suggest one way of countering arguments that restrictions on women’s rights and freedoms for ‘religious’ purposes deserve more respect and attention than if such limits were to be put forward for merely ‘political’ reasons.

Throughout most of history, governmental organisations have been based on masculine hegemony. According to the argument I am advancing, when governments are displaced they can persist within contemporary states as ‘religions’ that maintain their patriarchal origins and character. Since women’s challenges to male domination have only met with some success in recent times within fairly contemporary forms of statecraft, if earlier states known as ‘religions’ are allowed too much authority over domains such as ‘the family’ or ‘the home,’ women will be the losers. The two examples from the US and Afghanistan provide support for this line of theory.

* Details of Professor Naomi Goldenberg's visit to Britain may be found here.

* The previous article, 'On thinking of religions as vestigial states' is located here.

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© Naomi Goldenbergis a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies. Her areas of specialisation, in addition to critical religion, are psychoanalytic theory, gender, and popular culture.


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