There's A Book For That
For when you are tired of being used as an excuse for imperialism: Read This.
By R.H. Lossin
Women who inhabit that vague space known as Western society are, we are regularly told, in an enviable position. Of the virtues that the United States claims to export in its on-going multi-front war, gender equality ranks high on the list. There is no escaping the fact that American women are the beneficiaries of historic and on-going violence and exploitation, but this is very different from saying that they have achieved perfect parity as a result of democratic institutions. The formulation democracy=equality of the sexes is misleading. It is also very convincing. When various official and news organs triumphantly declared that, thanks to the U.S. invasion, women in Afghanistan were now able to remove their burqas and start businesses, it was surprising to me how many smart people bought that line, if only in a qualified way. It was a given that I would be critical of the invasion, but being critical of the use of women’s rights to justify the invasion brought a different response. And if I pointed out that the U.S. did not have a perfect track record on this front, I was reminded that I didn’t run the risk of being stoned to death for reading or looking at someone other than my husband. True enough.
But it is distressing to be singled out, by association, as the only justification for a useless war and doubly upsetting to have legitimate feminist criticism dismissed by way of military violence. How, even given this sartorial liberation, could a country filled with cluster bombs that are regularly mistaken for emergency relief packages by the family members of these lucky women, possibly be an improvement in their lives? How could we, even for a second, indulge in the ridiculous fantasy that military invasion was good for women?
Joan Wallach Scott’s new book, Sex & Secularism argues that secularization, a process central to how “European states are said to have brought organized religion under their control, introduced bureaucratic management…and justified their sovereignty in terms of republican or democratic theory” rather than “God’s will,” has been transformed into the “positive alternative, not to all religion but to Islam.” Central to the success of this nouveau-imperialist discourse is “the notion that equality between the sexes is inherent to the logic of secularism.”
This, Scott argues, is patently false: “In fact, gender inequality was fundamental to the articulation of the separation of church and state that inaugurated Western modernity.” It not only solidified this division, but also deepened and specified it. “Euro-Atlantic modernity entailed a new order of women’s subordination, assigning them to a feminized familial sphere meant to complement the rational masculine realms of politics and economics.”
Scott is concerned with two interrelated problems presented by the reification of secular liberalism. It continues to justify “claims of white, Western, and Christian racial and religious superiority in the present as well as the past” and it uses this assumption of superiority to gloss over the sexual inequalities shared by Western and non-Western societies. In short, it is a self-reinforcing, ideological move that prevents us from looking in either direction.
Sex & Secularism provides a genealogy of a set of ideas, or ‘discourses,’ that Scott argues are at the very heart of social organization, both domestically and internationally. Sex and secularism are “co-constitutive.” That is, they produce, reproduce and “guarantee” one another. In Scott’s words, “the representation of the relationship between women and men had provided a way of articulating the rules of organization for emerging nations; in turn, those rules established the ‘truth’ of the discourse of sex…Gender referred its attributions to nature; politics naturalized its hierarchies by reference to gender.”
Delivering secularism to Afghanistan via mercenaries and aerial bombardment did not only fail to accomplish the liberation of Afghani women. And it did more than distract us from our own problems with gender inequality. It positively reinforced a legacy of secular militarism that cannot be disentangled from a discourse of sexual inequality. American military oppression abroad is of a piece with sexual oppression at home. An injury to one, it turns out, is an injury to all. Or maybe, an injury is an injury.