By Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins/London
inequality is increasing. According to a new study by the World
Economic Forum, it will now take 100 years to close the global gender
gap, up from its previous estimate of 83 years. It’s the first time the
organisation has recorded a worsening of women’s position in the world.
Could the retreat of secularism be partly to blame?
One long-held assumption is that gender equality is an enduring principle of secularism, characterised by the separation of the political from the religious and the public from the private.
Countries with the highest level of gender equality are among the most secular places in the world: Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, New Zealand and Germany. Meanwhile, secularism is rejected by many of today’s traditionalist, conservative populist movements – in India, Turkey, Central Europe, Russia, the United States and elsewhere – where gender inequality is rife.
Yet the famed gender historian Joan Wallach Scott, in her new book, Sex and Secularism, claims the opposite is true. “The notion that equality between the sexes is inherent to the logic of secularism”, she argues, “is false”. “Gender inequality”, she states, “is not simply the byproduct of the emergence of modern Western nations; rather, that inequality is at its very heart”. Secularism, she adds, has served to account for this fact.
More troubling, Scott affirms that secularism has most often been used to justify the claims of white, Western and Christian racial and religious superiority in the present as well the past. Strangely, the biggest threat to gender equality in the modern era, according to her argument, has been neither the Catholic church, Protestant fundamentalism, fascist movements, etc, but secularism.
Grasping Scott’s counterintuitive argument requires an understanding of her approach to the history of secularism. The traditional view sees secularism as a long and gradual historical march to greater equality between men and women that began with the French Revolution and continues on today. She doesn’t see it that way.
Scott says she does not take issue with secularism as a legal and political reality, but rather with secularism’s champions who smugly claim that it is inherently good for women. Her book aims to dismantle such arguments by showing just how sexist the history of the secular West has been. By focusing on debates about the self-congratulatory benefits of secularism Scott offers a history of it that precludes any necessary relationship to gender equality.
Her approach leads to several excellent observations about the origins of modern gender inequality. The book is at its strongest when showing how secularism in 19th-century Europe was used as a weapon to oppose the threat of institutionalised Christianity, while also serving as a defence of imperial rule over the “uncivilised” peoples of Africa and Asia.
The repudiation of religion during this time, Scott argues, was predicated on idealised distinctions between what belongs in the public sphere (men, markets, politics, and bureaucracy) and the private sphere (women, family and religion).
“These distinctions had nothing in them of gender equality,” Scott rightly observes; “rather, they were marked by a presumption of gender inequality.” They were, in fact, used as justifications for not giving women the right to vote, which in secular France – out of fear women would vote for the church party – did not happen until 1944.
But the lessons to be drawn from this are not spelled out. She asserts in passing throughout the book that there are forms of genuine equality outside the confines of secularism, presumably in religious traditions, but she remains mute on whether she endorses them.
More importantly, Scott does not explain why today, self-identified religious communities are more supportive of legal inequality than secular ones. We know all too well that there is sexism in the West, but by not discussing what the anti-secularists say about women, she makes the secularists out to be the villains of the story.
This oversight is largely due to an inconsistency in Scott’s approach. Sex and Secularism claims to solely be concerned with critiquing discourse around secularism, not the political and legal reality of secularism. However, she doesn’t respect that boundary when she repeatedly argues that real existing secularism has been bad for women without contending with proof to the contrary.
The fact is that plenty of feminists throughout the 19th century and 20th century linked their emancipation with secularisation – or at least emancipation from traditionalist churches. Scott puts this history aside, by provocatively claiming that it was not really until the late 20th century that gender equality became a primary concern for secularists, and this ultimately had to do with secularism’s new enemy: political Islam.
Perhaps it is because Scott is a historian of France, where she believes oppression of Muslim women in the name of secular values is Islamophobic to the core. But whatever the reason, Scott believes that the secular West as a whole is in a clash with Islam due to its inability to imagine gender equality and religious freedom outside the confines of secularism.
Scott is interested in knowing: what kind of gender equality we have currently arrived at in the secular West? A rather dismal one, she believes, in which such equality is inseparable from a conception of sexual emancipation in service of global capitalism: one which rejects Muslims from being part of the Western community if they do not buy into our neoliberal ways of life; one that foresees an inevitable clash of civilizations between the West and Islam.
Sex and Secularism must be praised for drawing attention to the history of secularism and gender inequality. Scott’s message is no doubt timely in light of the powerful effect of the #MeToo campaign, which should given anyone pause before boasting about the superior treatment of women in the secular West.
But unless an alternative arrangement proves more beneficial to closing the gender gap, the best bet is to reform secularism, both in terms of public discourse and legal initiatives – like those that marginalise women in France – so as to remedy the sexism and abuses of power Scott has so brilliantly pointed out. - Guardian News & Media
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