Religious Fundamentalism and the Backlash to Women's Equality

This post was written as a response to John M. Owen's piece, "Religious Freedom and Violence: Conflicting Perspectives," which can be found here

By: Monica Duffy Toft

One issue involving religion and its relationship to violence that is gaining greater attention in the media and in academic research is the threat by fundamentalist religious groups to women’s rights and equality. From sexual violence in South Sudan and by the Islamic State, to the abduction of young women and girls by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, women’s freedoms are increasingly under threat. In several instances, fundamentalist religious movements mobilize the very forces that should have been expected to safeguard women: globalization, secularization, and democracy.

“Fundamentalism" was first used to describe a conservative type of Christian thought that opposed liberal conceptions of the Christian faith. Today the term is applied more broadly to those religious adherents who fear modernist movements as corrosive to the foundation of their religion. For the Abrahamic traditions, the foundational texts all fell into social contexts in which males exercised all political, economic, and most social authority and, critically, the texts themselves were transcribed by males. Given that the core argument of fundamentalists is that “text is sovereign” and its meaning is fixed, it follows that the more closely one cleaves to the texts, the fewer opportunities there will be for women to escape subordination to men. All three texts—the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Qur’an—invariably stipulate women’s religious duty of submission to men. 

As women’s equality has advanced, a clash has developed within societies whereby fundamentalists attempt to reassert more traditional gendered roles. It is likely no accident therefore, that religious fundamentalism has expanded in tandem with women’s equality. Religious fundamentalism has been on the rise since the 1960s, accelerating over the past 15 years. From the 1970s Moral Majority activism in the United States, to state-sanctioned religious revivalism in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, to the ascension to power of Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood briefly in Egypt and the Ennahda party in Tunisia, there is a resurgence of religion backed by well-organized movements. This resurgence is neither random nor discrete. It is embedded in broader historical processes of globalization, secularization, and in some cases, democratization. 

The digital revolution and other forces of globalization, the increased tendency of governments to exclude religion from politics, and the wave of democratization in the last few decades conjointly enabled a religious revivalism. As networked and transnational actors, religious groups were well-positioned to adopt the internet and other new media tools to amplify their ideas to a global audience. The Islamic State adeptly utilizes YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook to broadcast organized propaganda, which has turned out to be an efficient means to recruit young men and women from across the world to its cause: men as fighters; women as wives.

In other cases, freedom of religious expression allowed under democracy and enabled by secular regimes has allowed religious groups to propagate their otherwise marginal philosophies, strengthen organizational structures, and mobilize supporters. While Islamist parties were voted into power through democratic processes in Egypt and Tunisia, dictatorships, such as Bashar al-Assad’s brutal pursuit of a secular agenda in Syria, provided a rationale for religious movements to mobilize and denounce the ruthless means by which that secularism was secured. The same process undid the oppressive rule of Iran’s Shah in 1979.

This is not to say that globalization, secularization, and democracy inherently allow fundamentalist movements to thrive, but to point to the political contexts in which these processes occur and how religious actors operate within those contexts. In some contexts, globalization and secularization are associated with local political and economic development challenges, such as corruption and political repression by dictatorial regimes, unemployment, and these societies’ unfavorable position in the global economy. Many of the messages of the Arab Spring hinged on these sorts of issues. As my co-authors and I argue in God’s Century, the inability of domestic regimes to deliver on their secular promises of equality and development enabled religion and religious actors to offer a legitimate alternative to declining state authority.

Although challenging state authority may be warranted and desired, there is often a pernicious side to it, particularly when it comes to women. To the extent that a dictator has promoted gender equality during his rule, religiously-inspired fundamentalists are often able to assault women’s empowerment along with the dictator’s rule, reframing these policies as part of the “secularist” agenda pursued by the despised regimes. Women’s freedoms secured in the Mubarak era, for example, were quickly rolled-back by Muhammed Morsi’s government until he was overthrown. Through association with these regimes, women’s equality and empowerment was thus labelled “godless” and “unholy.” 

Women, regarded as embodiments of secularism, are often the easiest targets. Therefore, at an individual and at group levels, violence may be perpetrated against them. The recent execution of Samira al-Nuaimy, a female human rights lawyer in Iraq by the Islamic State is a case in point. Likewise, sexual violence perpetrated by Islamic State against women of minorities groups such as the Yazidis, the Kurds, and even fellow Muslims abducted as prisoners-of-war is often a way of asserting male dominance. 

Perhaps a more productive focus might be the marginalization of religious groups by mainstream institutions. When their political and economic grievances remain unaddressed, the argument goes, religious movements are may feel they are left with few options other than to embrace radical alternatives and to express them using extremist means, often with women as the prime targets. This does seem to be the case. As we highlight in God’s Century, a critical factor behind violent and oppressive political pursuits in the Muslim world in the last half of the 20th century was the marginalization and outright suppression of Islam by secular regimes. Importantly, however, evidence shows that where Islamic movements preserved some autonomy from the state, and where they have been open to democratic thinking, they have been influential forces towards greater democratization and peace. This has been the case in, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey, where despite the influence of religious movements, women have experienced improvements in gender equality. And at least two Christian sects—Roman Catholicism and Mormonism—maintain mechanisms for re-interpretation of texts that create powerful opportunities for state-faith cooperation rather than conflict. Moreover, states with enlightened leaders—such as Afghanistan under the rule of Muhammad D’aud Khan (1953–63; 1973–78)—are often able to manage modernization at a gradual pace and in collaboration with religious leaders, thus preventing a backlash.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a condensed version of the post. To read Monica Duffy Toft's full response, please click here.

Monica Duffy Toft is a professor of government and public policy at Oxford University's Blavatnik School of Government.

This piece was originally authored on November 6, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/5/religious-fundamentalism-and-the-backlash-to-womens-equality