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Conscience Magazine

Subordinated by Secularism?

By Julie Pernet November 30, 2018

PernetIn Sex and Secularism, Joan Wallach Scott challenges one of the main foundations of the “clash of civilizations” debate—that secularism has guaranteed women’s liberation and gender equality.

Scott proposes a refreshing and provocative take on the way the discourse surrounding secularism has been constructed and used politically since the word first entered the lexicon in the nineteenth century. She begins with a useful clarification—that her attempt was not to explain what secularism is but, rather, to analyse its place in political discourse. That is to say, a discourse of power that has had a specific purpose and that has produced a specific and changing vision of the world. What would be the objective of this discourse nowadays? Scott argues that the answer is both fuelling Islamophobia and distracting attention from the persistent gender inequalities present in Western democracies.

As she goes back to the very beginning of the history of secularism, she proposes to focus more specifically on the crucial role that gender equality has played in the discourse of secularism.

Scott claims that the emancipatory power of secularism on women has been wrongly taken for granted—that, on the contrary, secularism has been used throughout history to justify the subordination of women. Back in the nineteenth century, gender equality was never a preoccupation of secularists. Rather, she argues that the creation of modern secular nation-states was grounded on gender inequality, asymmetry of power and the exclusion of women from citizenship and politics. While religion was being pushed into the private sphere in a move towards modernity, women became increasingly associated with religion. As she sums it up, the world of markets and politics was the domain of the modern, reasoning, materialist male citizen, whereas the private, religious, familial and affective domain was dedicated to pious and vulnerable women.

She goes further: beyond religion, women were also associated with reproduction—“Man is the brain, woman the uterus.” In the discourse of secularism, the sexual division of labor was attributed to biology and nature, whereas before the US and French revolutions, it was the consequence of the hand of God. Reproduction in the traditional framework of faithful marriage was the new guarantee of immortality in a more and more secularized West. And women’s subordination to their husband’s rule would play a key role in this rhetorical construction. At the time, this association of women with religion and reproduction in the discourse of secularism had one main purpose—to exclude women from politics and public life and, by extension, to secure the superiority of the white male citizen.

The author then moves to the twentieth century, when a new discourse on secularism developed in opposition to the Soviet Union and, later, to Islam. The Cold War context ensured a strong interconnection between the concepts of “Western democracy,” “liberty” and “religion” (Christianity) in opposition to the “barbaric,” “communist” and “atheist” regime on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Religious freedom was brandished as the common ground of the secular Western powers. So was women’s newfound “freedom of choice” that was, in fact, the freedom to choose to remain good housekeepers, wives and mothers. It was not until the late 1960s that an emphasis on sexual freedom and women’s sexual pleasure developed as a result of second-wave feminist movements in the United States and Western Europe—always with the objective of exporting the Western liberal idea of women’s rights as a way of undermining the communist model of society. In the late 1990s, two major concepts were added to the discourse of secularism and strengthened the vision of a modern, liberal and advanced Western civilization: sexual and reproductive rights and violence against women that allowed a strange alliance between Christian and secular feminist movements in an increased demonization of the underdeveloped world in the East.

These discursive elements paved the way for what Scott sees as the current discourse of secularism that developed in the late twentieth century: a discourse in which secular Western women are emancipated, sexually liberated and, most importantly, bodily uncovered. This, in contrast to Muslim women supposedly subordinated to sharia and strict religious and social norms.

Today, this discourse around the “Muslim question,” Scott argues, has two strong aims: one is to fuel Islamophobia and dismiss Muslims’ claims for recognition as full members of the Western nation-states. The other is to perpetuate gender inequality in the West and women’s subordination to men’s desire. In brief, by focusing on women’s bodies and sexuality as symbols of modernity and emancipation from religious doctrine, the discourse of secularism has only tried to hide the persistent violations of women’s rights in our Western democracies.

Scott’s demonstration and reasoning are powerful and convincing. She offers a welcome, nuanced understanding of the operations of the discourse of secularism, and highlights some of its inherent contradictions, including how this “not-so-anticlerical” discourse has often allied with religion and Christianity to secure a certain vision of the world.

Most importantly, she brilliantly shows how gender equality has been used to legitimate a discourse of power which, in return, has fixed an essentialist vision of men and women’s roles throughout history. Scott provocatively argues that it was secular patriotism—and not religious teaching—that made the case for women’s duty to the house and the family since the nineteenth century. Her analysis continues through present day, and proposes an interesting way to understand the continuation of gender inequalities in our societies. As she rightly highlights, sexual freedom does not equate to gender equality—there are other rights to be secured beyond the body.

Her focus on gender in the construction of the discourse around secularism is more than welcome. Edward Saïd has analysed at length the use of the binary opposition between East and West in the construction of Western cultural imperialism in his masterpiece Orientalism, and Joan Wallach Scott complements this analysis with a new and interesting angle.

However, the sole focus on Islam and the “East” in the last chapter of the book misses another piece of the story. Our Western democracies cannot be seen only as a monolithic block against Islam. They are in fact increasingly fragmented and challenged by rising Christian and political extremisms that threaten women’s rights with renewed force. In the United States, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Romania, Brazil and in the very heart of international secular institutions like the United Nations, an alliance of reactionary forces have hijacked secular fundamental rights—first among which is freedom of religion—to curtail not only gender equality and women’s rights, but also the fundamentals of democracy itself. Gender is also at the heart of this battle of values between reactionary religious forces and progressive secular ones. Scott’s analysis surprisingly ignores these developments. In a context of rising Christian extremism and the apparent ongoing campaign to dismantle and delegitimize democracy in the West, it would be interesting to continue her analysis by researching how the discourse of secularism has evolved and adapted to combat these trends. The “clash of civilizations,” it seems, is now a different conflict altogether.

Sex & Secularism
Joan Wallach Scott
(Princeton University Press, 2017, 240pp)
978-1400888580, $27.95


Julie Pernet
Julie Pernet

is is the advocacy and policy officer at the European Humanist Federation.