Taken together, Joan Scott’s Sex and Secularism and Sara Farris’s In the Name of Women’s Rights offer a clarion call to scholars of religion and politics who would approach their objects of study without the tools of feminist analysis in hand. Beware, Joan Scott warns, you run the risk of being seduced by secularism’s story about itself. According to that story political secularism guarantees gender equity and sexual freedom. It asserts: There is nothing of significance to see in the way of gender inequity here in the space of secular modernity. Our women are free. Over there in the territories of Islam, however, problems abound and women are imperiled.
Sara Farris conceptualizes the form of western European political nationalism that advances itself on the ground of this putative danger as “femonationalism.” With this term she brings into focus the post-9/11 convergence of liberal feminist and right wing nationalist discourses in campaigns against Islamic patriarchy in France, Italy, and the Netherlands. These campaigns have served not only ideological but also, critically for Farris, political and economic functions by working to further restrict possibilities of migration and reconfigure labor markets according to nationalist and neoliberal ends. Western European nationalisms and Euro-Atlantic political secularism, Farris and Scott argue, have routed themselves through and secured themselves upon the migrant Muslim woman’s body. This is what it sounds like—rape by other means.
With this provocative framing I mean to call attention to the violent appropriation of the sexual significance of the Muslim woman’s body seized upon in the exercise and reproduction of a European secular politics of virility. What Scott and Farris demonstrate in their respective deployments of feminist analysis is that this form of sexual predation forwards itself through the politics and poetics of emancipation. Submit to me and you shall become free, says the daddy state to the immigrant and/or Muslim woman.
Working through psychoanalysis and genealogy, Joan Scott offers a diagnosis of the sexuality of secularism. Drawing on an extensive body of historical evidence she outlines long histories of the gendered fault lines of secularism across the United States and Western Europe. Identifications among and slippages between women, religion, passion, and domesticity that took shape in nineteenth-century anticlerical discourses have worked to anchor matters of governance and public life as properly rational, masculine, public, and secular. As told by Scott, these histories overturn the commonplace that political secularism is inevitably allied with gender equity and sexual liberation.
Even as she deconstructs this commonplace, Scott demonstrates the ways it has and does function as a rationale for policing the bodies of others, and as a distraction from the rampant gender violence and discrimination evident across Euro-Atlantic nations. In other words, political secularism has both disciplinary and normalizing effects. It produces new avenues for the sexual regulation of others in the name of their liberation while installing Euro-American Protestant kinship as always already freely chosen. It holds excessive religious repression of sexual expression effectively at bay on the one hand, and excessive libertinage on the other. In between these excesses, monogamous, marital, and reproductive commitments emerge as the normal and natural conduct of rational folk and the white mummy, daddy, baby family becomes the standard bearer for the future of the nation. Liberated women are “Ni putes, ni soumises” (Neither whores, nor doormats). Secularism, in short, has always been invested in particular configurations of gender, sex, and race, and has been prepared to deploy violence to produce them.
One of the key insights Scott offers is that within the discursive regimes generated through political secularism, sexual condition serves as an index for political condition. “Uncovered women” are self-evidently sexually emancipated. Their sexual freedom stands as evidence of the efficacy of political secularism and its ability to protect against excessive religion while safeguarding access to jobs, education, abortion, divorce, individual autonomy, self-expression, tolerance, and equalitarianism. “Covered women,” by contrast, index excessive religious (read Islamic) regulation and insufficiently embrace liberal secular values. That is, “covered women” are seen to point to the vulnerability of secularism, its weakness in the face of robust religion. When such women are stripped via bans on veiling, they are understood to have been liberated from excessive religion and the threat such religion is thought to pose to secular values is neutralized. As the rhetoric of stripping suggests, this process houses a gendered dynamic and a sexual charge.
With the term femonationalism, Sara Farris offers a conceptual framework that speaks to this gendered dynamic. She insists that the advancement of stigmatizing representations of Islam and Muslims in the name of women’s liberty and rights is worthy of analytic attention as an ideological phenomenon occurring across Europe. This style of nationalism is not only a problem of representational politics, but effectively reorganizes labor markets and constricts pathways to migration for Muslims.
Farris elaborates the ways femonationalism reverberates through programs for civil inclusion and gendered divisions and distributions of labor, setting “bad” Muslim men outside the nation and drawing “vulnerable” Muslim women across the border into care and cleaning sectors of the labor market. These practices of labor inclusion serve the social reproduction of the nation proper even as they are represented as facilitating economic independence among migrant and Muslim women. In other words, the “sexualization of race” situates migrant and Muslim women as needing to be freed from their own “bad” patriarchies. Once liberated, they are “free” to work providing care and domestic labor in the homes of properly European families. This organization of labor subtends the whiteness of Europe by putting the capacities for social reproduction possessed by migrant and Muslim women to work for white families while setting brown and black, migrant and Muslim, men outside the boundaries of the nation. This configuration of gender, labor, race, and religion recapitulates the colonial discursive formation captured by Gayatri Spivak in the phrase, “White men are saving brown women from brown men,” as Farris herself notes.
Feminist historians have long argued that the “woman question” functioned as an alibi for the so-called “civilizing mission” of colonial conquest and imperial rule, and subsequently for anticolonial nationalisms and secular forms of rule. And yet, this insight has been regularly disregarded by many political theorists and scholars of religion whose analytic frameworks continue to situate gender, race, and sex as epiphenomenal. Following Farris and Scott’s interventions, such disregard can only be seen as symptomatic. Such disregard is itself evidence of how effectively secularism and nationalism have installed themselves in the body of politics as rational disinterest and seized upon theoretical bodies in the extension and naturalization of their libidinal force and economic predation.
Writing with India in mind I am brought to some questions that move more deeply into the terrain of geopolitics. Farris and Scott, unlike many theorists of political forms, clearly locate their arguments in geopolitically specific historical and material terms. Moreover, their arguments take transnational flows and relations such as global capital and orientalist representations into account. And yet, more might be said about the long histories of what we might call the geopoliticization of gender relations and the organization of sexuality. I want to bring the arguments of Farris and Scott into conversation with two other recent publications in order to highlight another set of points about geopolitics in relation to political and sexual forms.
In Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, Saba Mahmood demonstrates the entangled and co-emergent histories of political secularism in Europe and the Middle East. Working against the idea that a more robust secular state would resolve the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East, she offers a diagnosis of the present that calls for sustained attention to the paradoxical effects of political secularism—a mode of liberal modern governance that has unfolded differently in particular contexts but that everywhere combines the promise of religious liberty with the exacerbation of religious differentiation and minoritization. Mahmood offers a persuasive exposition of the critical place of sexuality and gender in the constitution of political secularism by exposing the gendered effects of the shift of religious authority away from civil and political affairs and into newly demarcated spaces of family and sexual relations through regimes of “family law.” As Mahmood points out, the family has rarely been understood by scholars of secularism to be a “necessary unit of political secularism.”
Vrishali Patil draws on widely circulated European textual representations of Africa, the Americas, and the Indian subcontinent from the early modern period to demonstrate the long entangled histories and geopolitics of sexual and political forms and their investments in the form of the family. In “The Heterosexual Matrix as Imperial Effect” she argues that agents of merchant capital, Christian missionization, and metropolitan science constructed non-European others for a European audience as sexually indiscreet and undifferentiated through figures of hermaphroditism, harlotry, polygamy, and sodomy. These early modern representations penned by travelers informed eighteenth-century evolutionary accounts that performed concern for the treatment of women in so-called savage and barbaric societies while situating “companionate, monogamous, heterosexual marriage enfolding a private, domestic femininity and a public masculinity” as the civilized ground of social and political superiority. In short, “the heterosexual matrix” (Butler 1990) is an imperial effect of geopolitical histories.
I would like to draw attention to two implications for scholars of religion and secularism in light of the arguments of Mahmood, Patil, Scott, and Farris. The first is that in addition to the tools of feminist analysis, we will need to grasp postcolonial historiography, transnational method, and queer theory if we hope to be able to adequately account for the co-emergence and co-constitution of political, religious, and sexual forms. Finally, to the extent that we continue to divide our study of these forms into discrete fields (sexuality studies, political theory, religious studies, and so forth), we remain caught in a ruse of power—its deployment of these forms in the extension and sedimentation of geopolitical relations.