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Women Against Fundamentalism

By Dolores Chew

08 March, 2005
South Asia Citizen's Wire

Feminist greetings, sisterhood and solidarity for International Women's Day. In the past couple of weeks as we built up to today's event and I was sending out information on my e-networks there were responses from friends in India who were very enthused by what we had planned -- they wanted report backs and commended our conceptualization of issues. This networking that we do both locally and globally is so important because as the pace of information moves faster and the powers that seek to control our lives are constantly engaged in evolving new ways to dominate us, we need to share information. And this is what we have been doing so successfully over the past few years with our women's day events. It is only by placing the local issues and struggles in a global context that we can make sense of what is being attempted by the forces of capital, patriarchy and imperialism. And it is only by sharing information, strategies and making the connections that we can be successful in confronting the behemoths that seek to dominate us.

Where do fundamentalism and women's struggles against fundamentalism fit into all this? Are there connections between global reengineering, the feminization of migration and modern slavery? At first glance these seem slim. Isn't fundamentalism about religious men trying to keep women in Afghanistan and Iran in burkhas and chadors and living in medieval times? And isn't global reengineering just the opposite -- about transforming the world, making it a better place with democracy and justice being delivered by bombs to people's doorsteps and rooftops (whether they like it or not) and everyone having a camera phone to speak on while eating a Big Mac and guzzling Coke because things go better that way (or perhaps your chai latte, because of course the drinking water is contaminated)? So aren't fundamentalists and democratizers in opposition?

Well one would expect so, but surprise surprise, you have a democratizer with a Texas strut committed to bringing justice to the world, who is also in opposition to a woman's right to choose. And then you begin to see that the Dark Ages (in some traditions, the Kali Yug) are right here and fundamentalism and modernity or post-modernity are not necessarily in opposition!

As feminists we need to remind ourselves that though there are chinks in the armour, patriarchy is alive and well and like capitalism and its corollary imperialism, it's constantly finding new and innovative ways to re-invent itself. Patriarchy is about power -- for some, while convincing all men that no matter how oppressed they are by political and economic systems, there is always someone below them who they can control -- their wife, their mother, their sister, their daughter. Fundamentalism too is about power and control, often in collusion with patriarchy. What we need to remind ourselves is that we cannot be smug. Fundamentalism is to be found everywhere. Every tradition and culture has the possibilities of fundamentalism. And fundamentalism has little to do with religion and everything to do with politics and control. In fact we need to remind ourselves that religiosity, spirituality have answered and continue to respond to human needs. They are not in question. It is the manipulation of people's religiosity and the exploitation of a sense of insecurity, powerlessness, of not knowing where to turn to in times of economic and political crisis, when there is a sense of hopelessness and helplessness that fundamentalist forces move into the vacuum, with promises of formulaic, quick fixes that are grabbed onto by those who feel they need something to hold on to.

While we need to make these distinctions we should not shy away from recognizing that most major religions over time have become institutionalized and uphold class and gender privilege. And as such afford opportunities for fundamentalist articulations. However, around the world today it seems a no-brainer -- Islam = fundamentalism. This is something we must vehemently oppose -- every major world religion has its fundamentalist possibilities and groupings -- Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and yes, Islam too -- to name the major ones. But religions in their practices and rules are social and cultural constructs, despite individual belief about divine revelations (and I know that this could be hotly contested). The personal aspect of religion and the public face can be very different. We see this with interpretations, rules that evolve, local particularities and practices, etc.

But moving on to some of the specifics about fundamentalism, we need to develop an understanding of how fundamentalism works and recognize that it has very little to do with ëtradition' and everything to do with maintaining control -- political, national, gender. That it is a strategy and mechanism that morphs and reinvents itself in adaptation to the times. So when Hindu nationalists committed genocide against Muslim minority populations in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, it had little to do with being a good Hindu and everything to do with seizure of state power. That Muslim women were especially, brutally targeted was an obscene blending of gender-based violence and misogyny that is implicit in most fundamentalist worldviews. In the aftermath of the murder of Milia Abrar in Montreal in 1998 and till today, word on the street is that this is what happens when a misguided young woman breaks from tradition. Across the border many of those who are anti-choice for women support the death penalty, so we know their concerns stem less from taking human life than controlling women's bodies. In Canada today the debates and discussions around same sex civil marriage are a fierce reminder of how in a modern democracy the insecurities of people can be exploited to deny equality in law to many citizens. Fundamentalism has little to do with brown people who talk funny and wear flowing robes!

Repeatedly we see that intrinsic to fundamentalist thinking and operating is the control of women, their autonomy, their sexuality, their choices. And this is where we find the nexus between patriarchy and fundamentalism. The two are inseparable. That is why women are often the primary or exclusive targets of fundamentalist forces. Control the women, control the community. Give the men power and they will fall in line and support you. But this can be somewhat simplistic. Again and again we see how women can be as strident and male-identified in their articulation of fundamentalist ideology -- upholding institutions that oppress them because it offers some grounding, some familiarity -- better the devil you know than the one you don't kind of logic. The slaves who prefer the known quantity, slavery. Or the select few who profit from the subordination of the majority.

Returning to our theme of global reengineering, we need to remind ourselves that fundamentalism is intrinsic to the efforts of capital and imperialism. In order to have vulnerable, pliant populations, labour pools and markets you need to keep populations in a state of crisis. And the cynicism is blatant. While Afghanistan happened "for the women", when Iraq happened the official line was "we don't do women". The flavour of the day changes to suit the excuse at hand. And while fundamentalism may garb itself in medieval drag it's all about the present.

On International Women's Day there are many reports by human rights organizations, women's organizations, listing and documenting the abuses, torture, mutilations, rapes, violence and death that women suffer with impunity -- sanctioned and legitimized by cultures, societies and states on every continent in the world -- the cultural specifics vary but the causal factors, the ideological underpinnings are not very different. In no way do I want to diminish this pain, anguish, suffering and stunting of personal and physical growth that these practices cause. However we should not explain them away as cultural peculiarities and backwardness, for this can swing between racist labeling to various kinds of justifications. Yet we should not lose track of the bigger picture -- patriarchy and the control of women in the service of agendas -- national, multinational, corporate, class and patriarchal. If we are able to do this we will be able to interpret the shifting maps and faces of the forces of power and control that seek to keep us subordinate in the shifting spaces of global reengineering.

(Speech delivered at 4TH annual International Women's Day event organized by the 8th March Coordination and Action Committee of Women of Diverse Origins, Montreal Saturday 5th March 2005 )











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