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Looking beyond binaries

We wrap up with an article in which Cady and Fessenden outline the possibilities of looking beyond a binary between religion and women's wellbeing
© University of Groningen

We wrap-up with a summary of chapter “Gendering the Divide: Religion, the Secular, and the Politics of Sexual Difference” by Linell E. Cady and Tracy Fessenden, in which they challenge the idea that a clear dividing line can be drawn between religion as “conservative” and secularism as “progressive”. This chapter opens up a perspective beyond the binary between religion and secularism when it comes to gender and sexual wellbeing.

This binary, they argue, has historically been a prevailing understanding, particularly in the European context. However, it is one that precludes us from recognising the many ways in which both secular and religious women may enact gender equality and sexual emancipation. Why, Cady and Fessenden ask, are “women’s rights” so readily understood as an inevitable consequence of secularism? Conversely, why is religion so often equated with conservatism and oppression? And finally, what are the alternatives, and how can we work towards them?

In an influential lecture entitled “Sexularism”, feminist historian Joan Scott coins the term “sexularism” to describe the alleged correlation between secularism and gender emancipation. She then points out that ‘at the originary moments of secularism… women were not considered men’s political equals’ (Scott, 2009, 5). Instead, they were excluded from active citizenship on the grounds of “biological differences of sex”.

Building on Joan Scott’s work, Cady and Fessenden provide various contemporary examples to illustrate that secularism is not necessarily “emancipatory” today. Instead, it can both ‘advance and… constrain possibilities for gender and sexual equality’ (Cady and Fessenden, 2013, 7) in ways which vary on a case-by-case basis. Likewise, religion does not necessarily stand in opposition to women’s rights. The authors take the example of reforms easing gender segregation in Saudi Arabia, under an ‘ultraconversative Islamic state’ (ibid, p.3), to demonstrate how – even under an ostensibly “repressive” regime – Muslim women’s groups can promote women’s rights without compromising or abandoning their religious identities. Furthermore, the authors go one step further, arguing that, rather than representing mutually exclusive positions with regard to sexual governance and emancipation, religious and secular actors ‘reinforce and empower one another’ (ibid, 8). We have seen examples of this phenomenon several times in this course already – think of the range of roles played by religious and secular actors in the advancement of reproductive rights in the Philippines or the ways that Sonke Gender Justice draws on local religious and cultural resources to tackle gender-based violence and transform gender relations.

In this chapter, Cady and Fessenden also note that media, cultural and political discourse often draw a sharp distinction between the public and private spheres. This distinction is often formulated in terms of gendered difference, in which the public sphere is understood as a masculine domain, while the private sphere is seen as a site for expressions of religiosity and sexuality, and as a space for women. The authors argue that this gendered public/private divide is rooted in particular notions of what is “natural”, which implicitly inform both religious and secular discourse on sexual difference. As Cady and Fessenden note, secular voices often find fault with religious formulations of “appropriate” gendered and sexual behavior on the grounds that it is “unnatural”. Ironically, in doing so, they reinforce specific ideas (often with religious origins) about “natural” and “unnatural” sexual orientations or practices in the name of morality. This brings us back to the ways in which religious and secular histories and actors influence one another in a range of ways, with a range of effects.

At the close of this chapter, Cady and Fessenden encourage scholars and policymakers to think carefully about the kinds of oppositions we imagine (e.g. between religious and secular, men and women, free and “oppressed”). For Cady and Fessenden, binaries can blind us to the complexities of real lived experiences of reproductive health and sexual wellbeing, which happen in real contexts that involve both religious and secular voices. Challenging these kinds of polarized categories can help to pave the way for more critical discussions of the many different ways in which religious and secular actors can interact on issues of sexual wellbeing.

You have seen many examples of polarization in this course. In the media assignment you have gathered material on religious/ secular binaries in your context, and in the discussion step you have reviewed examples on contexts of other learners. After reading the article by Cady and Fessenden, what are your thoughts on the examples you have seen? What are in these examples the implications of thinking, speaking or acting in terms of oppositions? Can you imagine a different approach, where religion and sexual wellbeing are not necessarily “incompatible”? What would that approach look like in your context?


© University of Groningen
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Religion and Sexual Wellbeing: Pleasure, Piety, and Reproductive Rights

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