AWID FRIDAY FILE: Cassandra Balchin on feminist strategies of resisting and challenging religious fundamentalisms.

AWID: According to the report, fundamentalisms are flexible movements that adapt to circumstances. This is usually missed in the mainstream media’s simplistic portrayal of them. Can you give some examples of the current opportunities that religious fundamentalists (RFs) are taking advantage of?

Cassandra Balchin (C.B.): RF actors choose their entry point according to their immediate context. For example, women’s rights activists from Africa often mention poverty as an entry point for RFs. In South Asia and the Middle East, the global political role played by the United States and the resentment it has given rise to is more significant.

Across all regions and religions, there are economic, political and social aspects that give rise to fundamentalisms, and these aspects often overlap. For instance, the growing gap between the rich and the poor is an entry point mentioned across regions and has both economic and social aspects. Inequalities are partly due to the withdrawal or failure of state services, especially where states are corrupt or subject to neo-liberal economic policies.

In other contexts too, such as Latin America and the Caribbean, basic services are increasingly being provided by religious organizations filling the gap left by the state. This allows some to promote a fundamentalist social agenda through service-delivery. In many places, including the United States under President Bush and Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega, the state and other political actors ally with RFs opportunistically to increase their own political strength. This gives RFs legitimacy and access to state resources, which they then use to strengthen themselves.

We need to recognize that RF actors can be very sophisticated and agile, even if their goal at heart is just about power and control.

AWID: RFs are both a backlash against women’s increased autonomy and pro-active forces that predate the social movements of the 1960s and the neoliberal policies from the 1970s forward. Can you say more about this?

C.B.: When rights activists secure an advance in rights, RFs are usually on the frontline trying to reverse these gains. In Mali this year, a rights-advancing family law was approved by Parliament but violent demonstrations by fundamentalists forced the President to return it to the legislature for further discussion. In this example and others, it’s easy to view RFs as a backlash against recent societal changes such as advances in women’s rights and LGBTQI rights.

But RFs are so much more than that. Religious fundamentalisms are not passive or purely reactive movements but actively seek out what Wanda Nowicka from Poland calls ‘political moments’ to expand their social and political influence. Most of today’s major fundamentalist organizations in all religions were founded in the first half of the 20th century during a time of global upheaval.

Often RFs are self-perpetuating: fundamentalism in one religious community fuels fundamentalism in another. War and conflict can be both acause of religious fundamentalisms as well as a result of fundamentalist politics, sometimes in a seemingly never-ending cycle as in Lebanon, former Yugoslavia and the “war on terror”.

AWID: The report provides several examples of feminist strategies of resistance. What are some of the factors complicating this?

C.B.: Given their lack of resources and power as compared to RFs, it is amazing what feminists have indeed achieved. RFs are not as powerful as they think!

One of the greatest challenges is understanding who or what a ‘fundamentalist’ is. Sometimes the net is thrown too wide and all religious actors are labelled fundamentalists. But the existence of rights-based religious organizations such as Catolicas por el Derechoa Decidir (CDD/Catholics for Choice), and parallels in all religions clarifies that RFs and religion are not the same. Sometimes too few actors are identified as RFs, maybe because they work through apparently secular political parties or charities, or selectively co-opt rights language.

The report argues that it may be more effective to label agendas rather than actors as “fundamentalist”. This helps focus on their impact rather than worrying about the problems of labelling, although sometimes it is definitely strategic to “name and shame” a fundamentalist leadership or organization.

A second challenge is that the terms we are so comfortable with using are inadequate for capturing today’s complex realities. ‘Progressive’, ‘modern’, ‘traditional’, ‘secular’… these are all terms that no longer help feminists convey what is happening on the ground, especially given RFs’ adaptability and willingness to mask their agendas.

AWID: The report finds that secularism as a strategy of resistance is not so straight-forward. Can you explain?

C.B.: Promoting and protecting secularity is an important strategy in many contexts, and even in theocratic states such as Iran, the report shows how feminists have used secular approaches very effectively.

But it also has its limitations. First, a theoretically secular state is no guarantee of the absence of fundamentalist influence in practice. Many Latin American and some European states prove this point. Peru and Paraguay are formally secular but have also officially established a “Day of the Unborn Child” – a Catholic Church inspired anti-abortion event. The government in secular France supported the creation of the French Council of the Muslim Faith which has given space to the fundamentalist Union of Islamic Organisations of France.

Second, the actual meaning of secularism has not been sufficiently clarified – is it an absence of religion or a plurality of religions in the public sphere, or something else? Ordinary religious people are uncertain as to whether secularism includes or excludes them.

AWID: The report underscores the importance of communicating the impact of religious fundamentalisms. Why is this particularly important?

C.B.: Among other things, communicating impact is crucial to mobilizing alliances between those who are more engaged in resisting fundamentalisms and their natural allies from among women’s rights movements and all rights-based movements. RFs impact negatively on all human rights, so showing this impact can help mobilize a wide range of activists.

But we can’t presume this impact is self-evident: we have to document it. The report argues that actual and overall impact including on people’s autonomy and psychology needs to be analyzed. Feminists have to show how even though some RFs may apparently do good by providing services or campaigning against poverty and for the environment or girls’ education, they rarely work for rights-based structural change and certainly not for advancing women’s overall autonomy.

Also, activists don’t always agree on the definition of ‘religious fundamentalisms’ or on the usefulness of the term. But there can be wide agreement on their negative impacts, and that is a powerful mobilizing factor. Both the report and the case studies on resistance to fundamentalisms, show the power of broad alliances – with media, youth groups, LGBTQI organizations, religious organizations, trades unions, human rights groups, medical and scientific associations, and so on – to resist and challenge RFs in ways that are truly effective.

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