Resisting Fundamentalisms

Author : Mahnaz Afkhami, Canadian Human Rights Foundation

Fundamentalism is a militant reaction to modernism; that is, to changes that have come about as a result of the development of science and technology, secular­ization of social relations, and movement from collective to indi­vidual forms of identity and moral valuation. Fundamentalists are found in all societies and reli­gions. Their approach to religion is basically political because it manipulates religion in order to achieve specific social, cultural, and economic ends.

The movement has exerted its influence in the West through­out the twentieth century, waxing and waning depending on the prevailing social and economic conditions. In recent years, for example, it has achieved renewed intensity in the United States. It has become particularly vocifer­ous in the Muslim world in the last quarter of a century partly because of the political, economic, and moral failure of the national­ist and socialist ideologies and partly because of the shortcomings of the ruling elite in these countries.

The Fundamentalist Assault on Women
Women have always borne the brunt of the fundamentalist assault. There are many reasons for this, most of which revolve around the following themes: 1) changes in women’s condition are the most visible evidence of trans­formation of the patriarchal social organization; 2) maintaining women’s traditional status is deemed to be essential to the preservation of the family structure as defined by patriarchal standards; 3) change in women’s status represents the most inti­mate and fundamental challenge to the male self-image and his domination of society; 4) because women’s full and equal participa­tion in society fundamentally changes the values that are assumed by male historiography, social science, and ethical norms to be the founda­tion of the ideal society.

In the same way that cul­tures and societies differ, funda­men­talisms differ – in modes of expression, in choice of weapons, in strategies of action, but not in their essential stance in relation to women or to history. In North America the early fundamentalists decided that they would no longer adapt to the changing circumstances, which, in their view, increasingly caused doubt in the minds of the believers; rather, they would reestablish the purity of the Christian faith. Their position differed significantly from that of the traditionalists, revivalists, or the rank and file of the orthodoxy in that they consciously and for­mally opposed any disruption of the traditions that to them signi­fied “good Christian life.”1 To them, the most apparent and unbearable of these disruptions were the changes produced by modernism in the lives of the women.

The new “fundamentals” were based on the theory of inerrancy of the Scrip­ture. Funda­mentalism in North America then passed through various stages. The important point, however, is that as mainstream religion moved with and adapted to the times, fundamentalists found themselves increasingly at the margin and conse­quently more inclined to radicalism. Fundamental­ism became an ideology for the outsiders who now con­sidered not only the secularists, but also the established reli­gion, as tinged with apostasy.

The Growing Influence of Fundamentalism in the West
Fundamentalism has become particularly powerful in the West in the last two decades. In the United States it has achieved sig­nificant hold on political power. Its focus has been women – their position, demeanor, and behavior inside and outside the family. An example is the position Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group, has taken on the Beijing Conference. In a letter sent in July 1995 to its 2 million members, the president of the group calls the conference “Satan’s trump card.” The first sign of the Conference’s “breathtaking wickedness” is that it will be held in China, where “people eat aborted fetuses and kill prisoners to harvest their organs for export… Most of what Christianity stands for will be challenged during this atheistic conference. Every good and perfect gift from the hand of the Creator will be mocked and vilified… [The conference] will undermine the family, promote abortion, teach immortal behavior to teenagers, incite anger and competition between men and women, advocate lesbian and homosexual behavior and vilify those with sincere religious faith… [It will portray marriage] the root of all evil for women… [it will portray] men as oppressors.”2

Specifically, fundamentalists have chosen women’s rights as the arena to wage their battle. By misrepresneting the abortion issue in the ethically charged language of “right to life,” they sometimes succeed in recruiting to their ranks individuals who otherwise have little affinity with their cause. Often, they use violence to establish their political agenda. But, given the political system and the possibilities for social and economic mobility, the fundamentalists in the United States and other Western societies can not gain control of the whole society. This is not the case in the global South, particularly in Muslim societies.

Fundamentalism in the Global South
The history of fundamentalism in the global South is not unlike that in the North. The same forces operate here, as well, except that they are conditioned by more strongly enforced traditions, pervasive poverty, government inefficiency, and, most importantly, the effects of neocolonialism. These factors lead to widespread malaise exacerbated by a sense of moral despondency. The doctrine of inerrancy here assumes stark and frightening manifestations as militant religious radicals unleash massive and unprecedented violence against women. The following cases represent the kinds of violence perpetrated against women since the first World Women’s Congress four years ago.

In Iran, Homa Darabi, a professor of child psychiatry at Tehran University tore off her head scarf, poured gasoline over her body, and set herself on fire in Febru­ary 1984 because she could no longer stand persistent harassment for failing to obey Islamic dress code and the sexual apartheid policies it represented.

In Algeria, on January 23, 1994, in the city of Tiaret, Derouche Mimouna, 28 and mother of five children, was decapitated in front of her family. On Feburary 25, 1994 in Side Bel Abbes, two sisters, aged 12 and 15 were kidnapped and raped in the forst. On March 3, 1994, in Tlemcen, a 69 year old woman named Samia Hadjou had her throat slit. On 23 July 1994 a 37 year-old working woman was decapitated and her head left in the street as a warning to others. Her children ran into the street and tried to retrieve their mother’s head. The frequency of such attacks on women whose only crime is the appearance of modernity, has led many young women to carry poison with them so that they may kill themselves if they are captured.3
In Bangladesh, the novelist Taslima Nasrin has been called a heretic and a “fatwa” (religious edict) was issued demanding her death. She was forced to flee her country in order to escape both her government which wants to arrest and try her and the fundamentalists who prefer her outright execution. The court in Bangladesh is scheduled to determine her guilt and pass sentence on her.

In Egypt, in June 1995, a court ruled that an Egyptian couple must divorce against their will because of the husband’s scholarly writings on Isalm. The lawsuit against Abu Zeid, a literature professor at Cairo University, was brought by fundamentalist Muslim lawyers who maitained his writings about the Koran, Islam’s holy book, made him an apostate and therefore he could not be married to a Muslim woman. In January 1994 a lower court had thrown out the lawsuit, saying the lawyers were not interested parties. The three-judge appeals court essentially accepted the lawyer’s argument that Abu Zeid’s work amounted to questioning the Koran’s divine origins, and agreed to enforce the “shari’a“, or Islamic law, which governs marriage among Muslims in Egypt and does not permit marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man. The June ruling is truly frightening. It accepts that any Muslim can go to court to threaten the security and disrupt the life of anyone if he feels Islam is being wronged. Among the dreadful consequences of such a ruling is that it makes the woman vulnerable to the capital charge of adultery.4
These examples represent the range of abuses against women perpetrated by fundamentalist forces within and outside governments. All of these specific cases have happened since the previous Congress and demonstrate the growing strength of the fundamentalist movements and their expansion in an ever widening arena of action against women. Sexual apartheid, silencing of all non-traditional voices, terrorizing of women through violence, the use of the charge of apostasy to disrupt the lives of individuals and families are all consequences of the swelling tide of fundamentalism throughout the world.

Women are fighting valiantly for their rights in Algeria, in Egypt, in Iran, and in other Muslim and non-Muslim countries. They must be supported by the international community. Resisting fundamentalistms is of vital importance to the cause of women’s human rights globally. How can we resist these violent and militaristic forces?

First, fundamentalism comes as a reaction to change and flux, especialy in the condition of women. We must strengthen our connection to women’s grassroots movements and through exchange of information and ideas help each other. We must understand the complex and dynamic social, economic, and political forces at work in modern society in order to challenge the retrogressive fundamentalist prescription of a return to a falsely idealized past. A global campaign for women’s human rights education is of utmost improtance in this regard. A number of projects are now being carreid out in various regions. The Sisterhood Is Global Institute, for example, has held a number of “Dialogues” and consultations in preparation for a model human rights education program for the Muslim world.

Second, the fundamentalists’ most effective weapon is a clearly articulated formula that defines women’s place in family and society. We must also present a coherent and clearly delineated alternative through the humane, constructive, and egalitarian vision of feminism in al its splendid diversity.

Third, fundamentalists do not underestimate the power of the global movement for women’s human rights. They have reached across religious, national, ethnic, and racial lines from the Global South to the Global North in order to forge alliances and do battle against the values of the women’s movement. We witnessed the work of these forces at the Vienna and Cairo Conferences. We must also know our enemy and recognize his power. We must reach across all the specific national, cultural, religious, and racial traits that seemingly separate us and articulate, as strong and as clearly as we can, our belief that as women we are united in a strong and unbreakable common bond of sisterhood rooted in and nourished by the universality of our individual rights, which is the reatest protector of our diversity.

Fourth, fundamentalisms, whether they be Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Bud­ dhist, or Muslim, all strive to separate us. They bring God, Christ, Mohammad, Buddha, Confucius, our language, our cul­ture, our nation, our race, and now most potently our suffering as membrs of colo­nizing or colonized nations, to drive a wedge between us, to subdue, silence, or separate us. We know that all religions as traditionally interpreted by men are patriarchal and we know that all cultures have oppressed women throughout his­tory. We realize that all nations, be they colonizer or colonized, have always colo­nized their women. We must not let any affiliation at all supersede our affinity with each other as women. Our solidarity and unity are our greatest weapons in resisting fundamentalisms.

In Canadian Human Rights Foundation Newsletter • Fall 1995

1. Nancy T. Ammerman, “North American Protestant Fundamentalism” in Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms Observed (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp.1-65, 14 2. Rocky Mountain News, Sat. July 15, 1995. 3. Karina Bennoune, “S.O.S. Algeria: Women’s Human Rights Under Siege” in Mahnaz Afkhami, ed., Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World (Syracuse University Press, 1995), pp.184-208 4. See Saahir Lone, “The burden of History,” in Civil Society: Democratic Transfor­mation in the Arab World (June 1995), p.4.