Rethinking the Interplay of Feminism and Secularism in a Neo-Secular Age

Feminist Review 97 (1):5-31 (2011)
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Abstract

The need to re-examine established ways of thinking about secularism and its relationship to feminism has arisen in the context of the confluence of a number of developments including: the increasing dominance of the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis; the expansion of postmodern critiques of Enlightenment rationality to encompass questions of religion; and sustained critiques of the ‘secularization thesis’. Conflicts between the claims of women's equality and the claims of religion are well-documented vis-à-vis all major religions and across all regions. The ongoing moral panic about the presence of Islam in Europe, marked by a preoccupation with policing Muslim women's dress, reminds us of the centrality of women and gender power relations in the interrelation of religion, culture and the state. Added to postmodern and other critiques of the secular-religious binary, most sociological research now contradicts the equation of modernization with secularization. This article focuses on the challenges that these developments pose to politically oriented feminist thinking and practice. It argues that non-oppressive feminist responses require a new critical engagement with secularism as a normative principle in democratic, multicultural societies. To inform this process, the author maps and links discussions across different fields of feminist scholarship, in the sociology of religion and in political theory. She organizes the main philosophical traditions and fault lines that form the intellectual terrain at the intersection of feminism, religion and politics in two broad groups: feminist critiques of the Enlightenment critique of religion; and feminist scholarship at the critical edges of the Enlightenment tradition. The author argues that notwithstanding the fragmented nature of feminist debates in this area, common ground is emerging across different politically oriented approaches: all emphasize ‘democracy’ and the values that underpin it as the larger discursive frame in which the principle of secularism can be redefined with emancipatory intent in a neo-secular age.

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