Over the last two decades, debates on religious conservativisms have supplanted debates on feminisms in the public discourse. That is no coincidence; the old forms of social organisation represented in religio-conservative ideologies recognized themselves as under attack from the international movements of women for social and political freedom and have tried to reestablish themselves as the loci where women’s rights get negotiated in any given society. Why one may ask do matters of ‘faith’ have so much to do with the control of women? Why is the control of women so important to a belief in a god?
Nation-states unable to contain or incorporate the social/political advance of women have found synergy with the old customs and practices in order to suppress the claims of women. While it is more visible, apparent and pronounced in countries which call themselves Islamic states or allow a strong religious hand in the management of the state, it is also apparent in liberal democratic states where the ideology of any given ruling party incorporates religious precepts – as in the neo-conservative parties of Canada and North America and their use from time to time and with varying degrees of rabidity of something called ‘family values’. The last twenty years in North America feminists have withstood that rear guard action named ‘family values’ which sought to return women to tight social spaces. The 'family values' attack has also generally been mounted as a defense against the moral values of the metropolis, and rivetted with xenophobia for the others within as well as without.
Deeply and sometimes contradictorily enabled by capital the idea of re-relegating women to a subordinate place has been played out in mass media and popular culture. Reality shows abound where ‘acceptable’ forms of femininity are reiterated ad infinitum. It is as if women were children having to be fed daily, hourly, doses of moralising tales so as to emphasise what their role has to be. Oh the pussycat dolls, America’s top model, wife swap… all the talk shows with the bad uncontrollable girls and women… Not to mention the more benign ‘star’ watching which involves measurements of how thin, how fat, how uncomfortable, how never good enough, how needing of makeovers, how desired, how not desired… The fashion industry, the entertainment industry and Christian fundamentalisms of all kinds play in and hover over women’s sexuality in the 'western' modern just as monarchies, states, brotherhoods, mullahs and religious police play in and hover over women’s sexuality in the ‘eastern’ modern.
We all live in the modern and while it is convenient, for reasons of imperialism or paternalism, to think that somewhere in the world we don’t - with the exception of people with whom we have had absolutely no contact - the modern is similarly marked, east and west, by penetration of capital, urbanization and access and availability of technologies; by SUV’s, cell phones, cities, computers, Nike shoes, MacDonald’s, and migrancies. Only, the promises of this modernity – its transformatory promises, its ‘progress’ desires, are spread over and transforms every preceding social formation except the subjugation of women. The control of women’s bodies it seems cannot be surrendered to modernity. It can be surrendered to the market, the priests and the mullahs but it cannot be placed in the hands of women. This modernity can spread a bed of weaponry, nuclear missiles, m16’s, ak47’s, Glock 9's, to what it calls the far reaches of the globe but it cannot send food, or women’s equality. In all the moderns, the western and eastern modern, women’s bodies remain sites of male ownership, male consumption in effect – this is the commodity which must be consumed just like it was always consumed.
It seems to me that in all those states where there is a resurgence of religiousity as government, the religiousity only has governance of the female body; it cannot stem the liquidity of capital, but it holds female bodies as trophy to tradition and culture.
Religiousity then signifies a resurgence of oppressive masculinities - take the Pope (please) and his ridiculous announcements on women’s roles, birth control, women in the priesthood etc… take the various Ayatollahs, Imams, Sheiks, their obsessive preoccupations with women’s public appearances and citizenship; take the schisms in the Anglican churches over homosexuality - there is a crisis in masculinity in both the east modern and the west modern. That crisis has spawned an overproduction of masculinity and a re-production of femininity. These guys, (and they are all guys), all work in fact from an essentialist view of men as predatory, craven, uncivilised and uncivilisable. Male sexuality they surmise is some uncontrollable force and the very sight of the limbs of women is enough to incite sexual sin. Their view borders ( I'm being generous) on insanity. And even within that malicious view point it never occurs to any of these guys ( if they have such a low opinion of men) to set down practices for men to be redeemed, orders for men to change. The logical outcome if you believed these ideas would be for societies to find some way of curbing men’s movements and activities since they’re the ones with “uncontrollable natures.” Instead these priests and mullahs fixate on women’s bodies, women’s very existence, in effect, as the problem because even more pernicious is the view that women have no sovereign self, no human self with sovereign rights or rights unconnected to men.
This retrograde view of masculinity is busy at work producing acceptable femininities. In the last US election for example it gave us the right woman - a woman against all the rights of women – in the shape of poor Sarah Palin. The Republican Party rearranged or rather consumed the rights of women and regurgitated an anti-woman who appeared in a package of the rights of women. And many women on the right were a part of that creation, supported it. Or currently in Afghanistan the absence of women in the public space or the marking and regulation of their appearance in the public space to the point of murder is the sign of this kind of masculinity. The killings of Malalia Kakar, Sitara Achakzai, Bibi Hoor and Safia Ahmed-jan, all women who were either provincial officials or doing police work in Afghanistan tell us fatally what we need to know. So too the video of a young woman in the Swat Valley being beaten in public for some perceived sexual transgression. There was surely more than a whiff of the pornographic there – her abusers saw it as a moment of modernity deciding to make it cinematic, there was the rearrangement of her clothing so that she could be beaten on her buttocks, then there was the circle of silent men absorbing the spectacle while she is held down by two other men and flogged by yet another. And finally the law recently passed in Afghanistan compelling women to have sex with their husbands and legalizing rape, all these manifest this resurgent or rather insurgent patriarchy.
Patriarchal masculinity is at such constant work in the world one wonders why it is never exhausted. One can’t be hesitant at calling out these patterns of patriarchy in what is called religion and what is called culture. Culture and religion are the very structures in which women’s freedoms are caught in thrall. And it is imperative, I think, to distinguish between critiques of euro-imperialism and apologias for forms of patriarchy which anti-imperialism often gives succour. No orthodoxy should be safe from feminist analysis. All power to the young women demonstrating in the streets of Kabul risking stones from men and women.
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