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Volume 5 Issue 04 | April 2011



Original Forum

Readers' Forum

Democracy and Dogma --Jalal Alamgir
War in Libya: How will it end? --Ali Riaz
Dinosaurs in our Midst
--Mir Mahfuzur Rahman
On the Right Side of History
--Ikhtiar Kazi
Throes of Volatility
--Quazi Zulquarnain Islam
Judges and Constitutions
Photo Feature: Survival of the Fittest
Transcending the Current Conflicts in the Microfinance Sector in Bangladesh--Syed M Hashemi

Basant Festival and Nabo Barsho: Our Bridge across Culture and Religion--Ziauddin Choudhury

House of Cards --Shahana Siddiqui
Battling it out Between 'Two Feminisms' --Kaberi Gayen
'Women as Nation' and 'Nation as Women': Literary solutions to the Birangona problem
--Rubaiyat Hossain


Forum Home

Battling it out Between 'Two Feminisms'

KABERI GAYEN examines the politics of different types of feminisms.


Today's world is passing through not only "The Clash of Fundamentalisms” (Ali, 2002), two of which are visibly religious fundamentalisms and corporate capitalism or 'market fundamentalism' (Jensen, 2006), but also 'Two Marxisms' (Scokpol, 1981) and 'Two Feminisms' (Afray, 1997; McAfee, 2005). In this world of confronting 'Two's', the 'two' of 'Two Marxisms' and 'Two Feminisms' refers to different large tendencies, not to two groups with isometric members. Thus the aim of 'Two Feminisms' is to explain two distinctly different views of politics, power and social change.

The discourse of 'Two Feminisms' was put forward by Afray (1997). In her ground-breaking article 'The War against Feminism in the Name of the Almighty: Making Sense of Gender and Muslim Fundamentalism', Afray questioned the warning of some post-modern feminists of the perils of generalisations in feminist theory that transcend the boundaries of culture and region. Examining the gender ideologies of several fundamentalist movements which had proliferated across a wide variety of cultures and societies in North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, she found that they exhibited a significant degree of similarity -- praising women's roles as mothers and guardians of the heritage yet deny them personal autonomy and call for a return to more traditional norms for women and submission to patriarchal values. Gender relations are not marginal aspects of these movements. Rather, an important strength of fundamentalism lies on its creation of the illusion that a return to traditional, patriarchal relations is the answer to the social and economic problems that both Western and non-Western societies face in the era of late capitalism. Hammami and Jad (1992:17-21), two Palestinian feminists, wrote, "The commonality between movements profoundly lies in their obsessive focus on the rights, rules and behaviour of women as pivotal to both their strategy of rule and as an aim in itself" Marty and Appleby (1991) have mentioned about the similar ideological currents around the world which in the last three decades have sought political power in the name of religion, be it Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism or Confucianism. Fundamentalists fight for a world view based on an ideal and imagined past, a carefully constructed one which often rests on unacknowledged forms of theological innovation. Not only men but also considerable sizes of women are involved in these fundamentalist groups and carry various fundamentalist gender agenda. Thus we get a new concept of 'Two Feminisms' (Afray, 1999).

Whatever might be the sect, the term feminism itself stands for a position that is anti-patriarchal, and there is the continuity between first-wave feminists who fought for equal rights and second-wave feminists who have been fighting for sexual and cultural freedom. Tying them together is the notion that patriarchy, the fathers in power, have found it in their own interests to deny women basic rights and resources. Feminist political struggle, in this view, is a battle to increase women's portion in all economic, social and political processes. One can see this common orientation across the spectrum of feminist approaches: liberal feminists seek more rights; cultural feminists seek greater validation of historically female practices and institutions; socialist feminists seek more access to economic power; and radical feminists want to attack the root of the problem by undermining patriarchy's project of oppressing women. The 'new feminism' stands for the patriarchal model of gender relations. Gottlieb (2002:31) observes, "In practice, right-wing women regularly play the part of both 'victims' and 'conspirators' to various forms of patriarchy" However, often we find that the fundamentalist groups name their activisms as 'the struggle against colonialism and imperialism'. Some examples may help clear the nature and scope of this new feminism.

In India, the Hindu rightist force uses religious imagery, glorifies the 'golden past' of the rule of Hindu kings, and seeks to reconstitute women in the image of the Hindu nation, and of reconstituting the nation in the image of Hindu women. (Stanislaus, 2001). In a 1993 interview, Mridula Sinha, ex-president of BJP Mahila Morcha, advocated dowry, said she found nothing wrong with domestic violence against women and claimed that women's future lies in perpetuating the present, because nowhere else are women worshipped as they are in India. She spoke against women's liberation, their work outside the home and equal gender rights. (Prakash, 2000). Vijaya Raje Scindia led a group of women in protest march against 'anti-sati' legislation, asserting that "it is the fundamental right of Hindu women to commit sati, as it is in preservation of our past glory and culture" (Prakash, 2000:88). In Pune, the Rashtriya Swayamsevika Samiti (Women's wing of the RSS) is disciplining Hindu women into being good mothers and good wives.

One can identify two fundamental struggles within Israeli feminism, one being universal and the other particularist. First, there is the universal feminism that lies at the core of liberal western feminism, which fights for women's rights as part of the larger struggle for human rights. This is the type of feminism expressed in the enlightened and Eurocentric literature, where the discussions focus on equal representation of women in public sector and commercial institutions. A second struggle, which is unique to Israel, focuses on three issues which define the current Israeli experience: the struggle for peace, the struggle for women's equality in religious institutions and the struggle for women's equality in the military and defense establishments. And there is a new one, Mizrahi feminism, also known as multicultural feminism, which challenges these two basic struggles of Israeli feminism, pointing to the inherent tension that exists within it: the tension between the rights of the individual and the citizen as expressed in liberal democratic political theory and the rights of groups within the society, who have been marginalised because of their inferior community status, which is directly related to their ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds. A second tension exists between liberal feminism, which opposes the exclusion of women and fights gender inequality, and multicultural feminism, which argues in favour of the rights of women of minority groups to fight for their distinctiveness, based on their group's ethnic identity. These multicultural feminists oppose the sisterhood relations of the liberal feminists (hooks, 1984) and fight the discrimination shown them by those who call themselves their "sisters"

Protestant and Catholic fundamentalists in the US have succeeded in weakening women's access to abortion through harassment of clinics and pressure on the government to cut funding, despite its legality being protected by the constitutional right to privacy. (Article 19, 1995). This exploitation of secular processes by religious groups has also affected sex education in the US. Article 19 (1995) reports, that teenagers in the US are less knowledgeable about abortion now than they were 20 years ago. In Britain, Christian fundamentalists have also made use of secular institutions, particularly the legislature, to try to restrict women's access to abortion and have been successful in marginalising sex education within the school curriculum by introducing restrictive amendments to legislation passing through Parliament. In 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt, The Holy See, the governing body of the Catholic Church aligned itself with the Islamic states of Iran and Libya, which shared The Holy See's views. In 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, The Holy See issued official reservations to the entire chapter of the Platform for Action regarding women and health (Chapter 4, Section C) for similar reasons. (Kissling and Sippel, 2002).

With global Islamic resurgence since the 1970s and 1980s throughout the Muslim world, most governments in most Muslim countries -- whether modern or secular-oriented -- all have to respond to the demands of their Muslim constituencies, i.e., the implementation of codified Islamic law or shari'ah in all areas of life. The examples of 'honour killing' in Pakistan, 'fatwa' or the extreme violence on women in Taliban regime or the restriction on women's free movement by imposing veils are well known. Othman (2006) observes, despite significant regional and political differences among these movements, Muslim fundamentalist groups have called for a return to more traditional norms for women, emphasising women's roles in procreation, the adoption of 'proper hijab', and submission to patriarchal values. While women in Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan are being charged or rounded up for improper hijab, large numbers of women in the legal and medical professions and in the civil service have either been barred from work or placed under severe restrictions, many educated young Muslim women in western countries are running demonstrations to get the right of wearing hijab and headscarf. But more than that, women are seeking empowerment in veiling, rereading the Qur'an, self-imposed chastity and secure positions at home. Badran (2009) is claiming for 'Two Feminisms' within Islam as well, one of which she has termed as 'Secular Feminism' and the other as 'Islamic Feminism'.


Two Sets of 'Two Feminisms'(!)
While Afray elaborates her 'Two Feminisms' concept in terms of 'progressive' and 'patriarchal' models of feminism, McAfee (2005) names the first approach as 'agonistic feminism' and the other as 'sociosymbolic'. For her, the first one among these two sets, which we conceptualise as feminism, in one way or another, divides the world between female friend and male foe. Seeing the problem as one of oppression, they see men's and women's interests as antithetical and hence that any triumph for women will be at men's expense. This feminist politics sees political struggle as a means toward creating a more democratic society. In this regard McAfee mentions the French radical democrat Mouffe (2000:103) who wrote, "far from jeopardizing democracy, agonistic confrontation is its very condition of existence”. For Mouffe, and her early co-author Ernesto Laclau, political success, following Antonio Gramsci, is the creation of a new cultural hegemony, in which the values and aims of the previously marginalised groups dominate. McAfee argues that this agonistic approach is far from democratic. So, she propagates the 'sociosymbolic' approach of feminism. Bringing in Lacanian conceptions of the symbolic, she argues that one can see more thorough and pervasive ways in which sociosymbolic systems 'oppress' women. She elaborates (2005: 140-148), "Attending to sociosymbolic structures and processes and the ways in which these formulate 'the feminine' is the fundamental political task for feminists. Only after such work has begun can we fruitfully carry on other tasks, such as legal reforms, economic measures and all. In a real sense, these other problems or symptoms are superstructural effects of fundamental maladies in the communicative public sphere" This model attracts criticisms when she says, "It cannot be peeled away like a dirty garment. Perhaps it can be reworked or reformed via means of replacing bad structures or dichotomies with more liberatory ones" Critics like Bauer (2007), Pratt (2007) and Zerilli (2007) find this proposed sociosymbolic framework as a threat to feminism as it opposes feminist political struggles in the name of rules of history and semiotics. They raise questions about how these sociosymbolic systems can be changed without proper political struggle.

'Two Feminisms', Religious Fundamenta-lisms and Neo-liberal Economy
The condition of women, especially of the Asian region, may be understood from an advertisement that Othman (2006) mentioned in the context of Malaysia. This advertisement (in Malay) on all local TV stations in 2003 portrayed a veiled beautiful Muslim Malay woman who in order to 'please her husband' groomed her hair with the shampoo being advertised. The advertisement never showed her unveiled head, only a frame of her husband supposedly admiring her beautiful recently shampooed hair. What could be a better metaphor than this advertisement to portray the combined attack of corporate capital and religious fundamentalism in one female body!

The rise of the second feminism of the 'Two Feminisms' is often perceived as the outcome of 'modernisation without grass-root democracy or autonomy for the fledgling institutions of civil society, rapid economic development and high productivity without concern for workers' welfare and care of the environment, and increased integration of women into the capitalist economy without providing alternative institutions that would share women's traditional responsibilities to their homes and communities' (Afray, 1999). Also the rise of neo-liberalism and the free market philosophy, which see society, both domestic and international, primarily as a market, where everyone is both a producer and a consumer, poses a direct threat to equality and social justice. For Jensen (2006), neo-liberalism increasingly threatens women's hard won rights, particularly the right to education, to gainful employment and to health services. In Asia and Latin America, the dominance of neo-liberal policies has led to the burgeoning of an informal sector, where flexible working practices are largely unprotected by labour and health regulations. Deregulation and privatisation are two features of neoliberalism which may also increase the risk of poverty, especially among the vulnerable. In much of the developed world, structural unemployment affects women in particular and they constitute the majority of low-paid, temporary and part-time workers and the long-term unemployed (Gayen et al 2010). The cutting of government subsidies and social welfare provisions has hit women the hardest, making it more difficult for them to escape poverty.

While this free market economy prescribes national governments to cut down the provision of education, housing, healthcare and childcare that lessen the economic burden on women and assist their economic independence, on the other hand they are maximising their capital by exploiting women in entertainment and beauty industries. The question is, how much could the 'Two Feminisms' respond to this two-way attack of religious fundamentalisms and market fundamentalism?

Generally, feminist scholarship agrees, that what have been termed right-wing movements construct an ideological apparatus that champions cultural revivalism, religious 'fundamentalism' and sexual and gendered affirmation. (Moghadam, 1994). Feminist scholarship also agrees that these cultural and religious revivalist movements with their discursive reification of motherhood and the affirmation of women's repression in an un-contestable divine domain, have posed a general threat to the secular liberal politics that feminism has historically aligned itself with.

Though feminists (not patriarchal feminists) are quite vocal against religious fundamentalisms, the voice against the neo-liberal economy is not heard very often. Even if there is protest against it and the commercialisation and commoditisation of women in mass media, the voices do not spread. One reason may be that women's access and control over information technology is very little as is their access to other resources. According to Jenkins (2008), women, who comprise nearly 52 percent of the population, own less than 3 percent of radio and television stations. Women hold the same proportion -- 3 percent -- of 'clout' positions in the media. On the other hand, as a response to the extreme exploitation of women's body in media as a tool for profit maximisation, as Hassan (2004) observes, 'veil' and 'hijab' got popularity among the educated, unmarried, Muslim women as a symbol of empowerment.

In the neo-liberal economic era, when maximisation of interest on invested capital is the main motto, some new concerns are emerging. Why will a capitalist settle at all for cheap female labour when he can have cheap male labour as well? This question is particularly relevant when the money is freely roaming, crossing the borders and cheap male labour is readily obtainable from developing countries. Why settle for the flexibility of casual and part-time female labour if anybody can exploit a potential army of casual, part-time male labour as well? How will female and male workers fare as capitalism requires an increasingly flexible work force? Will women tend to be marginalised in the growing part-time sector? Are we seeing, in Pateman's (1988) terms, a renegotiation of the relationship between the patriarchal and capitalist contracts and will women still come out as the second best? These are the questions around which the future of women's job is hanging on. Unfortunately, neither of the 'Two Feminisms' seems much prepared to address this. However, Islamist economy, which is mainly comprised of charitable money donated by rich people from Saudi Arabia and Middle-Eastern countries and distributed by international Islamic NGOs, is being considered as a challenge to this free-market economy and attracting women of low income category to some extent (Afray, 1999).

Mernissi (1989) argues that the spread of fundamentalism in the last two decades has stemmed from the political and social failures of the secular, authoritarian states of the post-colonial period, states that operate within the rules of the International Monetary Fund and the interests of the imperialist powers. Again, feminism has been seen as the response to fundamentalism, which could not combat the threats of neo-liberal capitalism. Taking either side, i.e., fundamentalist or corporate capitalist, may prove to be fatal. Women movements throughout the world therefore demand a three-sided fight: against religious fundamentalisms, against all powerful capital and for democracy. It seems that neither of the 'Two Feminisms', unfortunately, could capture this complex situation of the combined threats of fundamenta-lisms and the neo-liberal capitalism.

Afray, Janet. (1997), "The War Against Feminism in the Name of the Almighty: Making Senses of Gender and Muslim Fundamentalism”, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, NY.

Ali, Tariq. (2002), The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusade, Jihads and Modernity, Verso Publishers.

Gottlieb, J. V. (2002), "Female "Fanatics": Women's Sphere in the British Union of Fascists”, in P. Bacchetta & M. Power (Eds.), Right-Wing Women: From Conservatives to Extremists Around the World. New York: Routledge.

Hassan, Reffat. (2004), Private communication with author Norami Othman. 2006.

Jad, Ishla and Hammami, Rima. (1992), Women and fundamentalist movements. News From Within. 8(10/11):17-21.

Jensen, Robert. (2006), "The Threats of Suatainabl Democracy: The Four Fundamentalisms”. A talk delivered to the Brisbane Social Forum, Australia, May 21.

Kissling, Frances and Sippel, Serra. (2002), "Women Under Oppressive Regimes: Women and Religious Fundamentalisms”, Consencience, Winter 2001-2002.

Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, (1991). eds, The Fundamentalism Project: Fundamentalisms Observed, Vol. 1, Chicago 1991, pp. ixx.

Mouffe, Chantal. 2000. The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso.

Mernissi, Fatima. (1989), Doing Daily Battle: Interview with Moroccan Women, New Jersey

Moghadam, V. M. (1994), "Introduction: Women and Identity Politics in Theoretical and Comparative Perspective”, in V. M. Moghadam (ed.), Identity Politics and Women: Cultural Reassertions and Feminisms in International Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

McAfee, Noelle. (2005). "Two Feminisms” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 19(2).

O'Loughlin, Toni. (2008), "An aggressive campaign against the secular lifestyles of women in Jerusalem”, The Observer, September 21.

Othman, Norami. (2006), "Muslim women and the challenge of Islamic fundamentalism/extremism: An overview of Southeast Asian Muslim women's

struggle for human rights and gender equality”, Women's Studies International Forum 29: 339353.

Pateman, Carole. (1988). The sexual contract. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Prakash, Louis. (2000), The Emerging Hindutva Force: The Ascent of Hindu Nationalism, New Delhi, ISI.

Skocpol, Theda. 1981. Gouldner at His Best. Contemporary Sociology 10 (2): 194-195.

Kaberi Gayen is Associate Professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.

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