Is secularism bad for women?

- 04 April 2015 - From Kristin Aune

Gender equality should not be pitted against religious freedom, so what kind of political arrangements could guarantee religious women’s rights and full social inclusion?

The 1970s feminist movement asked ‘Is religion bad for women?’ In the 1990s, political theorist Susan Moller Okin asked ‘Is multiculturalism bad for women?’ To both questions, many people answered ‘yes.’

Feminist activists argued that religion was irrevocably oppressive to women by divinely sanctioning male dominance, imposing a ‘stained-glass ceiling’ on women’s leadership, restricting women to motherhood and domesticity, and denigrating their bodies as impure or purely sexual.

Many also concurred that multiculturalism was at fault—a political approach adopted from the 1970s in countries including Canada, Britain, Germany, Australia and Sweden to celebrate ethnic and religious diversity. Multiculturalism encouraged the celebration of ethnic and religious differences and turned a blind eye to cases where these ‘cultural practices’ disadvantaged women by, for example, banning abortion and allowing polygamy or female genital mutilation.

These arguments were welcome, and in many ways correct. But they don’t tell the whole story. For one thing, they don’t appreciate the diversity of religion, nor the complex ways in which women—feminists included—have gained power through religion or spirituality, including positions of spiritual authority and leadership. Feminists and critics of multiculturalism have also found it hard to accept that women sometimes choose to participate in groups that see human agency or freedom not as rational, autonomous individualism, but as ‘relational’—located in the collective and often expressed through religious practices and communities. (continue reading...)