Event Report: Women negotiating secularism & multiculturalism through civil society organisations

Alison Halford Blog PicutreIn this post Alision Halford gives details of the workshop, ‘Women negotiating secularism & multiculturalism through civil society organisations’, held at the University of Coventry this year. The conference drew an international audience, covering topics as diverse as FGM and Hindu Nationalism. In the post, Halford summaries some key questions raised by the speakers, adding her own reflections on the need to challenge normative frameworks of essentialist/secular beliefs.

Coventry may be a city that Larkin described as a place where ‘nothing happens’ [i] but at the second of three workshops hosted by the University of Coventry in June 2015 and funded by the International Society for the Sociology of Religion and run by an organising team consisting of Prof. Mia Lovheim (Uppsala University), Dr Terhi Utriainen (University of Helsinki) and Drs Teresa Toldy and Alberta Giorgi (Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra) [ii] that all changed.  As the host Dr Kristin Aune contended  we could use this convention to develop a dynamic and innovative dialogue on the lived experiences of secular, nonreligious and religious women. As recent events have demonstrated, religious identities and norms are becoming increasingly visible, causing us to question how women’s groups, feminists and activists respond to their perceived challenges to gender equality. But how we can find consensus between secular feminists and religious women? Are there responses that make it possible to secure both gender equality and religious freedom without sacrificing either?

For many feminists, ‘If God is male then male is God’[iii] religion will always be a means to oppress and subjugate women, and it is only through a secularized liberal paradigm that equality can be achieved. This inevitably has created a tension between religious and secular feminists, and by the organising a symposium with the overarching theme “Is Secularism Bad for Women?” it could become a battleground that divides women and diminishes debates. It requires us to address whether the interface between feminism theory, western cultural practice and secularism has alienated and devalued the lived experiences of religious/non religious women and whether we can secure a gender equality that is inclusive.

To answer the question of whether secularism is bad for women, we need to establish what secularism means within a multicultural globalised Europe and if a secularist feminist approach to gender equality can engage all women. In asking ‘Can secularism be reclaimed as a non-oppressive feminist principle?’ Dr Niamh Reilly’s keynote speech was not suggesting that secularism was an oppressive feminist principle, but that a singular definition of feminism or secularism is problematic. By critically reflecting on how feminist practice and mainstream women’s organisations can acknowledge and incorporate the plurality of value systems, cultural practice and beliefs of women, she advocates that secularism can still challenge gender inequality without alienating religious feminist women. She proposes that if we accept the rhetoric of feminism by Nancy Fraser [iv] that feminist practice should prioritise economic redistribution rather than focus exclusively on gender identity, it will open up a greater dialogue between secular and religious feminists. This would assist in a cohesive action that rejects a ‘false universalisation’ of hegemony of feminist practice and celebrates ‘multiple paths with multiple settlements’ with the aim of equality, solidarity and liberation for all women.

However, can there be a utopic achievement of solidarity within women if it is untenable for feminists to support oppressive or gender unequal practice, which can be found within religious norms? Dr Reilly suggests that this dilemma can be resolved by a rejection of cultural and gender essentialism and an acceptance that there will be conflict as we negotiate a multi cultural globalised form of feminism and encourage an increased religious literacy amongst secular feminist,

We were challenged on leaving this conference that we should be envisaging conversations that contest‘dominant way of thinking as it causes things to be invisible[v]’. By this challenging of dominant paradigms it rejects a binary of belief and encourages an acceptance of diversity of religion and secularist practices. It allows us to consider how we approach the nexus between the rise of religious women’s movements as political actors and punitive measures to curb women’s religious dress practice. It could develop mainstream feminist responses that maintain the emancipatory practice of feminism, the right to an express of a ‘God of one’s own’[vi] and a commitment to a just, democratic egalitarian world.

The evidence that greater dialogue—which focuses on the common ideals of economic parity, political/cultural equality and personal recognition—is failing to be incorporated in mainstream responses by feminists and women’s social groups towards religious women can be seen in the research of Dr Line Nyhagen. In her presentation ‘Religion, gender equality and citizenship: a battleground without scope for common ground’ she concluded that according to certain women’s social movements such as Women against Fundamentalism, Southhall Black Sisters and the European Women’s lobby, atheism is viewed as the ‘amniotic fluid of feminist thought and activism’[vii], with all religion seen as dangerous to women’s rights.

Dr Nyhagen contends that accepting secularism and its values as the only position of legitimacy within the policy and political arena has caused a democratic deficit, with the silencing of progressive and conservative religious women within the public sphere. She deliberates that feminism has become conflated with secularism, and that while women’s religious conviction and social activism can create a feminist discourse, they are excluded from mainstream women’s organisations and feminist movements; the common ground has become a battleground, with conversations about violence by men, political exclusion and the increasing sexualized representation of women being replaced by the rights of religion to be seen in a public manner. Dr Nyhagen recognizes that it will be deeply problematic to find consensus between groups on homosexuality, divorce and a woman’s ownership of her body (abortion, Muslim dress), but ‘the feminist challenge is to develop intersectional analyses that does not necessity or privilege gender’[viii].

It would be indefensible to claim that secularism is bad for all women but, as Dr Lois Lee discussed, what we need to ask is whether secularism is bad for religious and nonreligious women. In her series of reflections on the ‘Religion’s Others and “Postsecular” Publics’ and drawing upon Jurgen Habermas’ revisionary contention that the democratic dialogic processes should enable all citizens to participate in public debate, she questions whether narratives of religious/nonreligious and secular women are visible in secularism. She believes that the reimaging of the secular to develop a new vocabulary that incorporates women who are ‘religious secularists/secular secularists [ix]’ changes and challenges the binary of secular/religious, providing an intersection which acknowledges lived experiences and facilitates the nonreligious a normative space

It could be inferred that a ‘postsecular’ critique that envisages ‘equality’ of belief allows us to identify how binary systems have failed women because it places secularism/religion as antithesis. This polarization has denied women freedom of expression, as each is seen as the ‘other’ [x] rather than developing a continuum from radical secularism to theocracy. It will require flexible negotiation in arriving at settlements between equality and beliefs as Dr Lee commented, “How do you categorise a religious Muslim group that advocates for LGBT rights?” But by the identifying and conceiving of a new paradigm, which encompasses all women’s experiences rather than an enforced singular dominant normative frame, we can develop a more relevant repertoire to achieve equality.

Conferences such as this remind us to continually interrogate unequal practices and assumptions within normative frameworks of essentialist/secular beliefs. But amelioration between gender, religion and secular practices can only happen if men invest into this vision. As only one solitary male attended the conference, could we infer that there is a male reluctance to challenge the credentials of secularism as an advocate of equality, or is it whilst secularism is bad for women it has been good for men? Are we unquestioning, accepting its definition promoted by white middle class men such as Hitchens and Dawkins, which may not reflect the life histories of women?  If secularism is quintessentially as patriarchal as religion, are men using secularism as a means to subjugate and oppress women’s narratives?  Ultimately, is secularism like religion, causing women to, as bell hooks commented, “be in the margin, to be part of the whole but outside the main body” [xi]? In seeking for rights-based approaches to equality within the public sector, maybe the question that we have failed to ask is who has the power in secularist dialogues, which is setting and controlling the agenda.


[i] Larkin, P (2010). I remember, I remember in Burnett, A (2012) ed The complete works of Philip Larkin. London: Faber and Faber

[ii] https://womenreligionandsecularism.wordpress.com/

[iii] Daly, M (1992) Beyond God the Father: towards a philosophy of women’s liberation. Boston: Beacon press

[iv] Fraser, N (2013). Fortunes of feminism: from state-managed capitalism to neoliberal crisis. New York: Verso Books.

[v] Reilly, N (2015). Notes from Can secularism be reclaimed as a non oppressive Feminist principle. University of Coventry Conference ‘Women negotiating secularism and multiculturalism through civil society organisations ‘. June 30th 2015.

[vi] Beck, U (2010). A God of One’s Own. Cambridge: Polity Press.

[vii] Nyhagen, L (2015). Notes from religion, gender equality and citizenship: a battleground without scope for common ground. University of Coventry Conference ‘Women negotiating secularism and multiculturalism through civil society organisations’. June 30th 2015.

[viii] ibid

[ix] Lee, L (2015) Notes from Religion’s others and Postsecular publics: inegalitarian approaches to gender equality and inclusion. University of Coventry Conference ‘Women negotiating secularism and multiculturalism through civil society organisations’. June 30th 2015.

[x] Goffman, E (1990). Stigma: notes on a spoiled identity. London: Penguin

[xi] hook, b (2000). Feminist theory: from margin to center: from margin to centre. Second edition. London: Pluto Press

Alison graduated from the University of Derby and is now a PhD candidate at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at the University of Coventry. Alison’s research focuses on the lived experiences of religious women, gender roles and feminism.

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