Fundamentalisms On the Rise
Introduction to the Issue on Women and Fundamentalisms
By Jennie Ruby
Whether it is Hindu fundamentalism fueling violence against Muslims and
others in India, Muslim fundamentalism taking away womens rights
in Afghanistan, Algeria or Iran, Catholic fundamentalism in Austria, or
fundamentalist Christians unduly influencing the federal government in
the United States, fundamentalist movements worldwide are an active and
imminent threat to womens rightsand womens livesright
There are two levels at which fundamentalist religions are a problem
1. Fundamentalist religions are patriarchal and so codify social systems
in which men generally dominate women and control reproductive decisions.
2. When a religion is taken up as a fundamental identity for a group
or state, issues of womens rights and position in society become
the battlefield on which power struggles over national or cultural identity
are played outto the extreme detriment of womens rights and
Of these two levels, it is the fundamentalist movementsnot the
religions themselvesthat are the primary threat.
While it is true that many religions reify male domination and the subordination
of women in their founding documents and in their historic traditions,
many women are working within religions to liberalize male-female relations
in practice while salvaging the spiritual and uplifting messages that
religions also contain. In practice, religions can and do change to reflect
the society they are embedded in, and feminist advances in society are
often reflected in religion. Furthermore, religions have often been key
factors in progressives struggles such as the U.S. Civil Rights movement
and other liberation struggles and are thus not always conservative.
What is a problem for women is the rise of fundamentalisms worldwide.
What makes the fundamentalist versions of religions so dangerous is that
they are being used as a means of reasserting male dominance and evolving
into tools for civic repression, state control and violence.
What is fundamentalism? It can be defined as a religious movement that
demands a strict adherence to a set of basic principles. Amrita Chhachhi1
says that fundamentalism constructs a particular version of Islam/Hinduism/Shiksm/Christianity
as the only valid representation of that religion.
For feminists, it is important to see that repressive fundamentalist
movements exist in many different cultures using many different religionsand/or
ethnicitiesas their base. In their introduction to Warning Signs
of Fundamen-talisms, Ayesha Imam and Nira Uval-Davis emphasize the importance
of recognizing fundamentalisms rather than
just one kind of fundamentalism.
What is important to watch out for in fundamentalist movements is when
they begin to gain power to enforce adherence to their strictly interpreted
version of a religion. What begins as social pressure graduates into attempts
to influence or control media and education, violent coercion and, ultimately,
legal sanctions through control of the government.
For example, in Baghdad Burning, [see review in this issue] Riverbend
describes the social pressure of receiving critical stares
when she went to a shopping area in central Baghdad and found herself
one of the few women not wearing a hijab (headscarf). At the more extreme
end, in Algeria numbers of women have been killed for refusing to wear
the hijab. The establishment of hudud laws in two states in Malaysia means,
for example, that women who report rapes must prove the charge through
the testimony of four male Muslim eyewitnesses or face 80 lashes. The
institution of sharia law in Nigeria and other countries severely
restricts womens rights.
In the United States, right-wing fundamentalist groups have harassed,
threatened, bombed, and murdered abortion providers; used their media
ownership and influence to forward spurious claims such as postabortion
syndrome; limited the teaching of evolution in science classrooms
and pushed the fundamentalist-backed notion of intelligent design
or creationism; and pressured legislators and rallied voters to institute
state constitutional amendments to prevent gay and lesbian citizens from
gaining marriage rights.
Across religions and across ethnicities, fundamentalist movements re-assert
male dominance in the family and put control of womens bodies, sexuality
and reproductive choices into the hands of men. In the process, they restrict
womens freedom of movement, access to resources and civil rights.
In their more extreme forms, they deliberately perpetrate violence against
women. Repression of women is one of the key characteristics of fundamentalist
movements, and it is the reason feminists must counter these movements
at all costs.
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