Feminist Dissent: why a new journal on gender and fundamentalism?

by Sukhwant Dhaliwal, Chitra Nagarajan and Rashmi Varma, July 14, 2016.

Seasons of Mud by Yousif Naser. Photo: Yousif Naser

A new journal, Feminist Dissent, aims to create a space to interrogate the multi-faceted links between
historical and resurgent religious fundamentalism and gender.

In the last two decades there has
been an exponential growth not only in fundamentalist movements around the
world, but also in systematic research and debate about the scope, strategies
and impacts of fundamentalist mobilisations. 

power of faith-based organisations, among which fundamentalist tendencies have
found fertile ground, has also been enhanced through their ability to work on multiple

– through international, nation state, and oppositional or civil society spaces
– to their own advantage.

new journal, Feminist Dissent, which is hosted by the
University of
Warwick, brings together innovative and critical insights to enhance our
understanding of the relationship between gender, fundamentalism and
socio-political issues. At a time of rising religious fundamentalism
which is accompanied by intensifying threats to civil liberties, freedom
of expression, dissent, and difference, we aim to create what we believe
need most – a space where contributors can say the things that we have
not been
able to say. We hope this will narrow the distance between dominant
thinking and lived experience, and give rise to new coalitions of
committed not just to writing about justice, but to fighting for it.

On a global scale, fundamentalist
movements seldom drop from the headlines, and their discourses and practices
have serious implications for gender relations and norms. 
During the genesis of
this journal, we have seen renewed attacks on reproductive rights, some as a
consequence of new alignments between governments, churches and clerical
authorities, including those with fundamentalist tendencies. 
These have led,
for instance, to convictions of women procuring abortions in Argentina,

and Papua New Guinea, and the lack of choice facing
pregnant Brazilian women affected by the Zika virus
within the context of restrictions on abortion propagated by the Catholic church. Girls have been prevented from accessing education. They have been abducted by
Islamists in Nigeria. And there are horrific accounts of the sexual enslavement of Yezidi girls and women captured by ISIS in
Iraq and Syria. 
Right wing Hindu forces in India and Christian evangelists in Nigeria have also been the driving force
behind anti-homosexuality campaigns and punitive gender identity measures. And
in the US, the close association between the Christian Right, Moral Majority
and Republican Party has led to campaigns against the teaching of evolution in
schools, a venomous attack on LGBTI rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights
and other so-called ‘negative
cultural trends
The Vatican, despite more recent reformist pronouncements,
continues to act as a key player in mobilizing coalitions against women’s rights at
the international level. Transnational alliance building among conservative
forces was most notable at the Commission on the Status of Women events; in
2012, a cross
regional alliance
between the Vatican, Iran, Syria and Russia obstructed agreement on women’s sexual and
reproductive rights, femicide, intimate partner violence, violence against
women human rights defenders, violence against women based on sexual
orientation or gender identity and early and forced marriage. 
As a result,
serious concessions continue to be made. Meanwhile, women’s human rights defenders are being
ridiculed, assaulted, and assassinated for daring to challenge religious authoritarianism.

A huge cross-section of people
worldwide bear the brunt of fundamentalist violence. Beyond the persistent
pre-occupation with women and sexual minorities, religious, ethnic and caste
minorities have also been targeted. 
The Hindu right in India has instigated
communal tensions along caste and religious lines leading, not least, to
massacres of Muslims in Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh and across Gujarat. Traditional projections of Buddhists as innately peace loving must
surely now be marred by Buddhist fundamentalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena that have been inciting violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar and Christians in Sri Lanka.  And Muslims across the world are being
murdered by the Islamic right – from attacks on Ahmadis in the UK and Pakistan, to killings of co-religionists 
in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Turkey, France and Belgium.
Seasons of Mud series by Yousif Naser. Photo: Yousif Naser
These excesses are also reminders of
the fact that the nature of faith has changed radically in many countries, with
indigenous forms of belief and worship being increasingly characterised as
pagan devil worship, attacked and driven underground, and more syncretic
practices and traditions being gradually or violently erased. 
Indeed the power and
strength of fundamentalist agendas fly in the face of research evidence that
suggests the numbers of non-believers or of those identifying as having no
religion has grown in many parts of the
world. Yet the most recent Freedom of Thought Report
shows that the space for religious
dissent is shrinking in many contexts. 
This may be the result of a fear
reprisals, including possible convictions for
apostasy, death threats and assassinations by non-state actors, and the
institutionalisation of the role of religion in national legislatures,
increasing societal pressures to profess piety. 
Linked to these
pressures on
so-called apostates and dissenting minorities are the specific instances
assault on creative freedoms and forms of artistic expression that we
saw so clearly during the Rushdie Affair, and have seen repeatedly over
time – such as in the damage caused by Hindu right activists to MF
Husain’s exhibition in London, the smashing up of
the Birmingham Rep theatre and threats to the life of playwright Gurpreet Bhatti by Sikh fundamentalists who 
intended to stop Bhatti from telling the story of rape within a gurdwara. 
Moreover, this extends to assaults on freedom of thought and freedom of
political association; for instance, the intersection of caste hierarchies, discriminatory
ideologies and British colonial sedition laws have been garnered by a Hindu
right government in India to curtail political dissent and allege
anti-nationalism against Indian student
and academics. Even in the UK, we have witnessed
the coalescence of Left, anti-racist and feminist forces prepared to support
Islamists in their attempts to stop anti-fundamentalist and ex-Muslim speakers
taking up speaking invitations at UK universities

Paradoxically, the worldwide
resurgence of fundamentalisms, and the contradictory pressures of growing
surveillance technologies, tightening of immigration controls, the global financial crisis and ‘austerity’
programmes, has exposed
a deep chasm in progressives’ thinking about gender and fundamentalism. 
Left’s anti-imperialist traditions have been exploited by fundamentalist
tendencies that present themselves as radical, anti-Western, anti-imperialists
Critiques of fundamentalism and authoritarian communal and
patriarchal practices have been muted in the name of cultural relativism and “respect” for
difference by the Left and liberals, who have, on occasion forged alliances
with fundamentalists on allegedly anti-racist and anti-imperialist platforms.
The dominance of cultural relativism, a critique of the Enlightenment as a
racist and imperialist project, and a concomitant valorization of the popular
and the subaltern has led, ironically, to a retreat from a critique of
religious fundamentalism and patriarchy. 
This is the consequence of what Chetan
Bhatt has referred to as the absence of an ethical compass when faced with the ‘cultural episteme’. This conjuncture has been utilised
to undermine the legitimacy of the voices of minority women who seek to
challenge fundamentalist politics within their own communities.

The privileged focus of
fundamentalist movements on women, girls, sexuality, reproduction, gender
relations and gender norms, has rarely been addressed by mainstream feminism.
Indeed, some feminists have found it all too easy to ally with fundamentalists
who present secularism as an imposition of Enlightenment ideals, and thus as an
idea to be discarded as imperialist and racist. 
For recent examples of these
debates, read some of the exchanges by feminist academics such as Deepa Kumar and Saadia Toor on Islamophobia, Saba
women’s agency and religious piety, Joan Scott on the politics of the veil, and the ongoing discussions that utilise Jasbir Puar’s sense of homonationalism to counter concerns
raised by anti-fundamentalists. This highly visible academic work seeks to
disparage secularism, defend religious mobilisations irrespective of their
ideological persuasion, valorize women’s “piety” as a form of agency and subaltern
resistance, and undercut intersectional feminist analyses that flag religion as
an axis of power.
The exclusive focus of critical engagement has been
on the instrumentalisation of rights-based frameworks by western governments to
perpetuate their own imperialist agendas, the hypocrisy of nation states, and a
critique of the civilizational, imperialist and racist presumptions at the
heart of these developments. But we are a very long way from what Karima
articulated so well – the need for a simultaneous critique of imperial
hegemonic power and state abuses on the one hand, and a much needed critique of
the power of fundamentalist movements, their perpetuation of terror, violence
and the assault on the human rights and civil liberties of a wide cross section
of society. 
Instead, anti-fundamentalist voices have been de-authenticated and
de-legitimised, accused of co-option and collusion.

It is on this troubled terrain of
growing contradictions which are shaping politics on the
ground, and in academic work today, that Feminist Dissent seeks to intervene by offering new modes of critique and trenchant
analyses of the contemporary conjuncture.  
This new journal is designed to create space for feminists who believe that
certain approaches currently dominant in academic, activist and popular discourses
(including, but not confined to, feminist theory, anti-racism, postcolonialism,
postmodernism and poststructuralism) have occluded the challenges that women
and other dissenters face, as fundamentalist movements threaten their rights,
their prospects and their very being. 

The authors are some of the founding members of the Editorial Collective of Feminist

SOURCE: Open democracy