Sex, secularism, and “femonationalism”

In their important new books, Sara Farris and Joan Wallach Scott examine how and why gender equality has become the basis for claims that Europe and North America are distinct from—and superior to—the rest of the world, and especially the Islamic world.

In In the Name of Women’s Rights (Duke University Press, 2017), Farris situates European right-wing parties’ embrace of women’s rights within their anti-immigration and anti-Muslim policies. She argues that the surprising intersection among nationalists, feminists, and neoliberals emerges from a very specific reconfiguration of the labor market and migration patterns produced by neoliberal globalization. This intersection, which she calls “femonationalism,” therefore needs to “be deciphered by disclosing its very concrete political-economic modes of operation.”

Scott, in Sex and Secularism (Princeton University Press, 2017), deals with the way that secularism, now championed by the Left and Right alike, has come to stand for sexual freedom and sexual democracy above all else, even as sexual difference remains an intractable problem. Gender inequality, she argues, “is not simply the by-product of the emergence of modern Western nations, characterized by the separation between the public and the private, the political and the religious; rather, that inequality is at its very heart. And secularism is the discourse that has served to account for this fact.”

With contributions from historians, anthropologists, literary scholars, sociologists, and scholars of religion, this forum takes these two books as sparks for a broader conversation about sex, gender, religion, nationalism, secularism, neoliberalism, and the public sphere.

Thank you to editorial board member Mayanthi Fernando for guest curating this discussion.

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