• Women
  • September 28, 2009
  • 14 minutes read

Rethinking Secularism … Rethinking Feminism By Dr. Heba Raouf Ezzat

Rethinking Secularism … Rethinking Feminism By Dr. Heba Raouf Ezzat

This is not an attempt to re-invent the wheel, but rather to place the concepts within their paradigmatic context. This is to highlight the origin of dispute between the secularists and those who see Islam as an all encompassing religion that represents a different view to that of Christianity-and to that of secularism for that matter. With the absence of the Church as an institution in the first place in the faith of Islam, the idea of separation between church and state is thus meaningless.

The core question is the difference in the frame of reference.

Defining Secularism

Secularism, in theory, and secularization, as a historical process, do not mean the mere separation between church and state, for this supposes that secularizing processes are confined to the political and economic realm. Yet an increasing number of scholars are arguing that secularism is a comprehensive world outlook that operates on all levels of reality through a large number of explicit and implicit mechanisms.

The secularist outlook is basically one that starts by marginalizing God, or sometimes even announcing His death, placing the human at the centre of the universe as its logo. The complex duality of transcendental monotheism is replaced by a sharp dualism between the human being and nature, which manifests itself through a conflict between the two; while at the same time attempting to explain human nature by focusing solely on its physical or material dimension. The problem, however, is eventually resolved in favor of the natural, and the category of the human is thereby absorbed in and reduced to the category of nature.

The initial enlightenment humanism is replaced in the course of the secularization process by a naturalistic anti-humanism. And the initial dualism of the human being and nature is replaced by a thoroughly naturalistic monism: that is, the reduction of reality to one natural law, imminent in all matters. This is the epistemological basis for a process of deconstructionism and desanctification that became not only the perspective through which nature was seen, but of the human being itself and all its transcendental criteria.

Feminism: A Stage of Secularism

Trying to contextualize feminism and to understand its archaeology is very much linked to the history of secularization of the European mind and of all sciences. The mentality of generations of women’s liberation activists and theoreticians has also been shaped by Marxist notions of patriarchy and position towards family. Those ideas are related as well to the Marxist stance towards religion as a male-made set of oppressive ideas, especially when it comes to women. These ideas infiltrated even non-Marxist circles and became embedded in the majority of feminist writings and discourse.

It is interesting to see how the analysis of the social construction of reality in the sociology of the sixties was taken further by feminists to focus-by the nineties-on the sexual construction of reality instead. The social contract on which the humanist enlightenment liberal approach based its equality notions was deconstructed, as well and an alternative sexual contract that has been at the centre of debate.

Forms of lesbian and bisexual feminism can be given as examples of this self-referential or self-contained discourse; where the body has become the logo of a Weltanschauung (worldview), pushing the naturalization of the human being as far as one can imagine and achieving full lucidity in questions of morals. Now the shift from the human being as the center of the world to the body becomes clear. This sort of analysis can be applied at the level of political theory in order to understand the shift from the modern concern about the political body, to the feminist and post-modern enthusiastic interest in body politics. This too, is a historic secular moment.

Though feminism has, and with lots of insight, criticized many social circumstances that are hindering and restricting women in the Third World, very little has been done from the other side of the globe to contextualize feminism, its sociology of knowledge, and paradigmatic limitations. More attention should be given to re-examine its declared universality as an answer to women’s problems, an answer that almost implicitly claims in this regard is the end of history.

The Legal Leviathan

Since 1945, more than twenty different international legal instruments that deal specifically with women’s issues have been drafted.

Starting with the United Nations Charter, which was the first multilateral treaty in that regard, it clearly enunciated a norm of non-discrimination on the basis of sex. There were also the conventions concerning the protection of women from exploitation, the improvement of their conditions of employment-finally arriving at the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

It is important to analyze the assumptions made within these documents concerning the role of women in society and which identify some basic patterns that have emerged in this process of codification. Three analytic categories can be applied to the provisions of the treaties regarding the status of women. They seek to establish or maintain protective, corrective, and non-discriminatory causes.

First, some writings argue that the protective category describes those provisions which reflect a societal conceptualization of women as a group which either should not or can not engage in specified activities. The protection normally takes the form of exclusionary provisions, articles which stipulate certain activities from which women are prohibited.

Second, the corrective category also identifies women as a separate group that needs special treatment, but their aim is to alter and improve them, without making any overt comparison with the treatment of men in these areas.

Third, the non-discriminatory, sex-neutral category that includes provisions which reject a conceptualization of women as a separate group and rather reflect on men and women as entitled to equal treatment. The idea here is that biological differences should not be a basis for the social and political allocation of benefits and burdens within a society.

One can argue that these categories represent a historical evolution, as previously mentioned, of feminism as a subtext of the process of secularization. Such secular laws are considered unjust and patriarchal, and their process of legislation have become the target in themselves in order to gain a feminist-style equality; hence the recent preoccupation with power and political power.

Having the legislative power in its hand, the state became an important actor in this process. The state also played a very important role in the secularization process that led to the disappearance of many social bonds and the dominance of contractual relations. The state became the major actor on all scenes, and many functions were transferred to it as a result of the decline of extended family values and the new reality of the increasingly shaky nuclear one. The state also took over most of the activities once performed by the religious institutions and became the guardian of all aspects such as education and health care. Even morality-a secular morality without ethics-became the order of the day.

The feminist thought and movement evolved then around the search for power, trying to become more and more empowered; looking to law as a mere tool to obtain equal rights in accordance with the feminist understanding of equality, especially in the political sphere. Little attention was given to the announced “death of the family.” Seeing the situation, many started to defend family values, even those who worked for causes like individualism and independence.

With the “coming out” of the lesbian and gay movements and the powerful theorization on lesbian epistemology, many women became intimidated, nay, confused. Within the same line of thinking, in the last (secular) analysis, one should not define the family according to some fixed, biased, pre-modern measures! The classical family structure, according to gay and lesbian discourse, is to be renegotiated; a new form and understanding of “a family” must be given.

Against that, if one expresses a different perspective from that of the gay movement, the mildest accusation would be homophobia, the strongest would be fundamentalism.

Islam Feminized: Parenting the State

The feminist discourse in the Arab and Muslim world also witnessed a qualitative change, moving from general demands of equality to adopting more or less the broad international agenda of the feminists; though not criticizing religion, as such, but rather the male, or to be more correct, the patriarchal interpretation of it. Demands of lesbianism were not openly discussed due to the cultural circumstances of the Arab and Islamic societies.

The movement increasingly used a legal approach to women’s problems. The crisis of family values in modernizing societies did not seem to be of much concern. The recent campaign led by feminists, mainly professional lawyers, to change the personal status law, the one that concern family cases, in Egypt, Lebanon, and Morocco, and their ongoing effort to change the marriage contract to guarantee greater equality, are indicative examples.

How equality can be guaranteed within social structures that are facing increasing poverty and deteriorating conditions for basic life under the Structural Adjustment Programs dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank is not a question asked by the majority of feminist activists. The answer would lead to a deeper discussion of state social and economic policies, and as they are desperate to have the state’s approval of their agenda to translate it into legal changes, they would not wish to upset the regimes.

The political conditions related to the feminist legitimate presence are, in general, restrictive. Until now, the law, working as a bargaining instrument, has been successfully abused by the state as well as by the feminists. Within that balance of power, the feminist movement has become one of the allies of the regimes against the fundamentalist threat. In the discourse of Arab feminist movements, the direct discussion of the question of full implementation of Shari`ah (Islamic law) had to be marginalized, in order not to lose the support of the masses of women who would not tolerate a direct attack on Islamic principles.

The epistemological and the political approach are therefore very important in understanding the real dilemmas of feminism in the Islamic world, especially regarding the question of equality and the legal rights of women. No profound understanding can be achieved unless this analysis is also done on the international level-namely addressing international law, as well as international networking of NGOs and their role in dealing with the relations between the North and South as agents of the New World Order, or at least facilitators of its structural mechanisms.

Society: Togetherness!

The bitter lessons we learned from modernity should not be repeated. We need to open up to new ideas, but we do not have to repeat the same mistakes, falling into the same traps that no one could have foreseen when the European enlightenment project started. We have the golden opportunity to construct our own renaissance by carefully looking into where and how things went wrong.

If sociologists in the West are carefully studying the changing nature of social relations in the late capitalist era, this analysis is highly important for us. We still have the chance to change our social structures, and work on issues like social equality and social justice in relation to the existing social bonds-without having to lose those relations or helplessly watch them decay. We do not have to settle down with a form of togetherness if we can liberate women and still keep the family.

There are many complex aspects of women’s lives and issues that we, as social scientists committed to political struggles for justice and human dignity, need to explore. Recent socio-anthropological studies carried out by Western researchers-native researchers are not usually permitted to undertake such studies-attempted to approach the life of the majority of poor (supposedly oppressed) women in a different way. Such studies found out how these women overcame their bitter reality by using the social and kinship ties around them in their survival strategies, and how these strategies succeeded in making their lives better, as well as their children’s. The importance of household economy as an informal sector for women to use to their benefit is also under focus now.

We do not have to turn the past of the West into a future for the East. Many educated women in the Islamic world are rediscovering the liberating potential of their religious traditions. They demand respect, they actively participate in economics and politics, but they also are proud of motherhood as a value and a role, they believe in the family as a social institution and regard themselves as the guardians of the culture. Increasing numbers of them choose, sometimes against the wish of their own families, to be within the wider Islamic resurgence. They suffer from restrictions and sometimes rigid discrimination and violation of their human rights by the political regimes.

Their life is also worth looking at and drawing lessons from, and what’s more, to show how simplistic approaches regarding their identity and consciousness need to be revised.

Further Readings:

* Ameena Wadud Muhsin, Women in the Qur’an: The Absence of Sex-Role Stereotyping in the Qur’an, Doctoral Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1988.
* Anis Ahmed, Women and Social Justice: Some legal and Social Issues in Contemporary Muslim Societies, Islamabad: Institute of Policy Studies, 1991.
* Abdel Haleem Abu Shucka, Liberating Women during the Time of the Prophet: Readings in the Qur’an and the Hadith, Kuwait: Dar Al Qalam, 6 Volumes, 1995 (Arabic).
* Heba Raouf Ezzat, Women and Politics: An Islamic Perspective, Washington: The International Institute for Islamic Thought, 1995 (Arabic).
* Peter Glasner, The Sociology of Secularisation: A Critique of a Concept, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977.
* Dr. Abdel Wahab Elmessiri, Towards a more Comprehensive and Explanatory Paradigm of Secularism, Encounters (Journal of Intercultural Perspectives, Vol. 2, No. 2, Sept. 1996.
* Michael Hill, A Sociology of Religion, London: Heinemann Books, 1973.
* Owen Chadwick, Secularisation of the European Mind in the 19th Century, London: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
* Natalie Kaufman Hevener, International Law and the Status of Women, Boulder: West view Press, 1983.
* Zygmunt Bauman, Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodern Morality, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
* Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.
* Charles Taylor, Ethics of Authenticity, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.
* Nadia Abdel Wahab and Amal Abdel Hadi (eds), The Feminist Movement in the Arab World, Cairo: New Woman Research Centre, 1995. (Arabic)
* Women, Law and Development, Cairo: New Woman Research Centre, 1997. (Arabic)
* Dawn Chatty and Annika Rabo, Organizing Women: Formal and Informal Women’s Groups in the Middle East, Oxford: Berg, 1997.
* Unni Wikan, Tomorrow-God Willing, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
* Diane Singermann, Avenues of Participation: Families, Politics and Networks in Urban Quarter of Cairo, N.Y.: Princeton University Press, 1995.
* Diane Singermann and Homa Hoodfar, Development, Change and Gender in Cairo; A View from the household, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996.