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Fighting Religious Fundamentalism in the US: an Interview with Frances Kissling


Frances, as President of the US-based Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) you have been a leading voice internationally in the fight against religious fundamentalism. How did you get involved in this line of work?

In 1970, when the law on abortion changed in the state of New York, I was an activist. I actually started by being the director of an abortion clinic. Then in the late seventies, Catholics for a Free Choice came to me and asked me if I would serve on the board of directors. Reproductive health issues, and particularly abortion law, are very serious moral questions. I want everybody to have the right to make their own moral decision, but these are moral questions. As I got more deeply into the questions of Catholicism and abortion, I began to understand that it was not primarily a question of fetuses; it was a question of the way the Church looked at women, that the Church had great difficulty accepting women as moral agents who could be allowed to make difficult moral decisions. And so that was, in a nutshell, my personal transformation. I went from looking at a narrow issue to a broader transformation of looking at reproductive health questions in the context of religion’s inability to recognize the personhood of women.

Is this, religion’s inability to recognize the personhood of women, what unites Christian and Islamic Fundamentalisms?

In essence, every kind of religious fundamentalism incorporates a desire to control women. In every one of them, the role of women—within the family and within the state—is a central part of their ideology; it’s a transnational phenomenon of religious fundamentalism. The other aspect of religious fundamentalism that intrigues me is why it is that governments seem to be more afraid and more responsive to fundamentalist religious trends than they are to progressive religious trends. The state in essence ignores progressive religious thinking and acts in concert with or in fear of religious fundamentalism. So it is the political power of fundamentalism as well as its intense interest in controlling women’s lives, identities, roles, sexuality, etc., that fascinate me.

Nevertheless, in our times, religious fundamentalism is almost exclusively associated with Islamism – why do you think this is the case?

First of all, in the United States, we are living in a post-9/11 climate where everybody in this society is focused on Islam. Secondly, in an Islamic context, you seem to have more visible symbols of fundamentalist ideology: You do have women in burqas, you do have fatwaahs, you see the angry demonstrations on television. So it is an easy target.

The other thing is that we Americans in particular have this view of ourselves as tolerant, easygoing people, so we often don’t see fundamentalist tendencies within our own culture. Yet, people here should know that the term fundamentalism is a US protestant term. The first “fundamentalists” were the conservative Christians in the United States who attempted to separate themselves from society by getting out of politics and leading more private lives. Much of the impetus for the fundamentalists in the United States to become political revolved around issues that relate to women’s sexuality. As the women’s movement began to have an impact on society and the notion of equality within marriage, in the family, within society, these American Christian fundamentalists saw that they needed to get into politics to stop this advance of women.

Why is it always women’s rights that are at the center of and threatened by religious fundamentalism?

First of all—speaking as a religious feminist who looks at the history of religion and who lives with the tension between those things within my religious tradition and other religious traditions that are enormously positive in the world and those that are problematic—you have to acknowledge that in the three Abrahamic religions–Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, from the earliest days, the question of women and women’s sexuality, the domination of women by men, these things have always been a tendency throughout these religions. Look for example at the way in which, from a religious perspective, law is imaged by men: God is a man, and women’s sexuality is very scary, as is the notion that men might not be the dominant representative of God, whether it is in the family or the church. And this is a very wide phenomenon. In reaction to attempts to change that paradigm of domination to a paradigm of equality, you have an enormous backlash in modern times, up to right here and now. Ultimately, the dominant emotion behind fundamentalism is fear: fear of women and fear of the big change in the twentieth century.

Is this also the case for Europe?

There is the growth of Christian and Catholic fundamentalism in Europe, and of course, it is an issue with the growing Muslim population in Europe as well. For example, the World Alliance for Youth has opened an office in Europe and is active in the European Parliament. This group was started in the US as an anti-UN, anti-Beijing and anti-Cairo [world conferences] group. In a number of the Eastern and Central European countries, fundamentalist Christian groups are working against reproductive health. There are very active groups in Lithuania who have worked to eliminate sexuality education from the schools. In Slovakia, efforts were made to enable Catholic doctors, nurses and hospitals to deny any service they deem immoral –this actually led to fall of the current government.

Muslim fundamentalists in France and Germany have focused on convincing families and young women to wear the head scarf, leading to crises in the secular school systems. While this problem has attracted a lot of attention, a number of problems for women’s rights that have emerged in other context are not given enough attention such as forced marriages of very young girls, female genital mutilation (not a true Muslim issue, but often misunderstood by Muslims themselves) and violence against women and girls. The question of what is a legitimate cultural difference and expression of religious belief and what practices violate women’s human rights needs greater attention.

Does this also concern the new Pope?

With Pope Benedict, we have a history – not as pope, but a strong enough record of him as a cardinal, as the defender of the faith. And in the period of time in which he was in charge of dogma, many issues related to women in the church were going backward. This is a man who basically participated in the issuance of the order that there should be no discussion within the Catholic Church about ordaining women as priests. In an institution where all power is concentrated in the priesthood, to say that a woman cannot be a priest is to say that she cannot have power. We had asked before he was elected if he would meet with a number of constituencies within the Church. As pope, the first thing he did was to meet with Jewish and Muslim leaders. He met with everybody, but he did not meet with any women. What about us? We are invisible or a problem. This view of women is shared by most of the leaders of the Catholic Church.

A lot has been written and said about the “unholy alliance” of religious fundamentalists across the religions, particularly in the UN context.

It is very disturbing. One of the things that is interesting is the extent to which fundamentalist Christians, especially the Roman Catholic Church, and some Islamic states (not all) converged in their interest around the time of the Cairo Conference in the mid-90s. These were not groups that had paid enormous attention to UN Conferences before this time. I found myself wondering about why these groups are so engaged and worried about the UN. To some extent, it is the same reason that we see the emergence of fundamentalism in other contexts: it is a backlash. Whenever progress is made in terms of women, gender, sexuality and reproduction—whenever progress is made in the world—these groups coalesce together. As the Vatican in particular saw that the UN was beginning to speak on the question of reproduction and women’s rights in a way that acknowledged these rights, it became necessary for them to enter this arena.

…which the Catholic Church does with an advantage over other religions.

Indeed, since they have a special status. They are the only religion that is recognized as a non-member state permanent observer. So they have rights that other NGOs do not have and therefore the ability to organize people to get involved. Beyond the Vatican, it is quite fascinating, really. These conservative Christians have always been for the abolition for the UN. They hate the UN, they hate the idea of a world government, and suddenly, they are all converging on the United Nations to have their say about UN documents – which are actually quite moderate from a women’s rights’ perspective – that are seen by these conservatives as radical recognition of women’s rights and the right to reproductive health. When it came to controlling women’s lives, these religions could overcome historic differences to unite to prevent the mildest rights for women being acknowledged. In the Beijing Conference, the Vatican argued even against the notion that women’s rights are human rights, which is very non-controversial for most people.

What could be good strategies for fighting this unholy alliance?

Certainly for those of us working in the US within a religious feminist construct, one of our major concerns, if not the major concern, has to be paying attention to the Bush Administration. We do have to work very strongly, both in the US and internationally, to build alliances between women of faith and secular feminists. This is very, very, very important. In the US, I am part of one dialogue group here in Washington, DC that is working to bring together religious and secular feminists. First, we have to see that there is a link between religious fundamentalism and political fundamentalism, with these two tendencies working hand in glove. There is an unholy alliance between the religion of Islam and the religion of Catholicism, but there is an equally unholy alliance between conservative governments and religious conservatives or fundamentalists. The most visible one is of course the US, but it is not the only one.

How could women and civil society organizations confront this constructively?

We should not just look at the UN context. Take other multilateral processes like the EU, for example. Groups of organized women working within religious traditions have to get accredited, they have to attend the meetings, they have to put out statements, they have to write to their governments, they have to get funding, they have to do all the things that other women and women’s groups do. For the special Millennium Review Summit last September, we put together a religious leaders’ statement where we contacted a couple of hundred religious leaders around the world. We talked about the third Millennium Development Goal on gender equality, and the relationship of that MDG to sexual and reproductive rights, which is not mentioned, but inferred – I am sure they know that you cannot have gender equality if you don’t have reproductive rights – circulated it to our own governments, circulated it to ministries of heath, circulated it to parliaments, in an effort to basically make sure that the religious voice is heard. We cannot just let the fundamentalists run amok in all things concerning the UN.

Which are the most progressive values, besides reproductive rights of women, that are threatedned by religious fundamentalism? Are we doing enough to defend them?

As I have worked in the UN and at various conferences such as Beijing and Cairo, I have seen these groups object to any number of well settled women’s rights, not just reproductive health. In the Muslim countries there has been a call to modify UN documents to permit exceptions on the bases of Shari’a or Muslim law. This would permit denial of parental rights for women, death sentences for adultery as well as discriminatory labor and inheritance laws. Fundamentalist Christian groups have refused to recognize women’s rights as human rights, saying that the UN cannot declare any “new” human rights. They have worked against provisions in the International Criminal Court that would declare forced pregnancy a crime and their position on sex workers safety has been far behind that of progressive feminist groups.

Those of us who support women’s full equality and rights, especially religious women who are in favor of these rights, need to take our space and place at the UN and in our countries to ensure that fundamentalists do not speak for all women of faith.

Liane Schalatek, deputy director of the Washington office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, spoke with Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling has been president of the NGO Catholics for a Free Choice since 1982. Kissling has briefed parliamentarians and development professionals on reproductive health and rights, religion and public policy in a number of countries including Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Germany, Ireland, the UK, Poland and the United States. She was a prominent participant in the United Nations Conferences on Population and Development and on Women. Publication: “Is There Life after Roe?”

This article courtesy of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

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