The Second Sect

Sex and Secularism (The Public Square) BY Joan Wallach Scott. Princeton University Press. Hardcover, 256 pages. $27

In August 2016, a widely circulated photograph showed armed police officers standing over a woman on a crowded beach in Nice as she awkwardly removed the top layer of her burkini. The confrontation was the latest stage in France’s decades-long struggle over certain forms of religious expression in public. Building on a 2004 law prohibiting head scarves in public schools, several towns in the South of France had banned “beach attire that ostentatiously displays a religious affiliation” in response to the 2016 Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice. Around the same time, a woman in Cannes was charged with defying “good morals and secularism” for wearing a head scarf to the beach. Commentators, including Nicolas Sarkozy, jumped in to defend the policemen’s actions as a proportionate response to the unacceptable “provocation” of wearing a burkini. But what it looked like was men with guns making a woman take off her clothes on a city beach.

What does secularism have to do with forcing women to undress in public? Part of what makes this question difficult to answer, or even to talk about, is the deeply ingrained belief that defenders of religious neutrality are feminism’s greatest allies. Secularism, in this story, is something like the man of your dreams, the ultimate nice guy who chivalrously bestows equality on women and shields their liberties from would-be violators—always ready, like the hero of a desert romance, to rescue the virtuous maiden from the sheikh’s harem. In her new book, the eminent feminist historian Joan Wallach Scott subjects this commonsense assumption to critical examination. Her aim is to sketch a speculative history of the relationship between sex and secularism: to uncover how ideas about the proper place of religion and the proper place of women have influenced each other and to show how both have been placed in the service of Western imperialism.

Secularism, Scott points out, is a hard concept to pin down. The word has been used in different ways in different contexts: Sometimes, as in majority-Catholic countries such as France, it has meant disentangling religious authority from the public sphere; sometimes, as in nations with a range of Protestant sects, it has meant guaranteeing the freedom to worship as a matter of individual conscience. Though secularism is often used as a synonym for atheism, Scott thinks there is an important distinction between the two. Secularism, as she defines it, does not attempt to forbid religious expression entirely, but rather to keep it in its proper place—away from politics. What this means, for Scott, is that secularism has two sides: It is about both prohibiting religious practice in public and protecting religious practice in private. It therefore carries the power to determine what forms of expression—and what kinds of people—belong in the political sphere. As a term that marks the ever-shifting boundary between public and private, a distinction that has so often been made in order to confine women to the latter, the word secular is something to which feminists should pay close attention.

This allows Scott to make one of her most provocative arguments: that secularism, because of its slipperiness, can reinforce women’s subordination rather than guarantee women’s emancipation. Scott does not contend that religious societies are more egalitarian than secular ones, but she wants to draw attention to the long history of conflict whitewashed by the assertion that feminism and secularism are naturally aligned. “As a student of gender and women’s history in France,” Scott writes, “I was startled to hear politicians claim that gender equality was a primordial value of democracy, dating back at least to the French Revolution of 1789.” Rather than being women’s supporters, she points out, secularists have often been their political enemies. Women were not included in the founding documents of the French Republic, and this omission was not an oversight but a violent exclusion. (What have women gained from the Revolution? Olympe de Gouges asked in 1791, two years before she was guillotined for forgetting “the virtues that belong to her sex.” Her answer: nothing.)

Melina Papageorgiou, Woman-Pool (detail), 2015, ink-jet print, 29 1/2 × 19 3/4". From the series “Burkini,” 2015. Courtesy the artist.

Turning to the writing of the French Enlightenment, Scott finds a persistent association of women with religion. “Like the female sex,” she writes, “religion was considered the source of the irrational and the violent.” Women were priests’ “whores,” wrote one official in revolutionary France. “Remember,” another cautioned, “it is fanaticism and superstition that we will be fighting against; lying priests . . . whose empire is founded upon the credulity of women. These are the enemy.” Part of the goal of this language was to stir up opposition to the church and undermine the authority of the ancien régime. But it also had the effect of disqualifying women from citizenship in the new republic. The argument has the circular logic of the best political rhetoric. Because women were weaker and more irrational than men by nature, they were more in need of the consolations of religion. But their susceptibility to religion also made them a danger to the republic and therefore proved that they were unfit to exercise political authority. The imagined equation of women and religion was so strong in French political life that secularists opposed women’s suffrage “well into the twentieth century,” arguing that women would vote in the church’s party.

As the church lost power in France, it grew increasingly associated with femininity. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, men made up the majority of those in religious orders; by 1878, most of those in religious orders were women. Its force in public life waning, religion became an individual concern, something to be practiced at home, on Sundays, or during holidays. “Religion did not disappear,” Scott writes. “It was relegated to the realm of the private: private conscience, private practice, private affect.” As religion was domesticated, the domestic sphere took on many of the qualities once associated with religion. The family was a sacred space, a temporary refuge from the harsh modern world; women, the primary practitioners of religion, were idealized as the guardians of traditional morality, the ones who made sure the family went to church every week, who oversaw the family’s rituals, who tended to the family’s graves. The separate spheres of “public and private were, like a heterosexual couple, portrayed as complementary opposites. The world of markets and politics was represented as a man’s world; the familial, religious, and affective domain was a woman’s.”

These ideas had an impact far beyond the domestic life of nineteenth-century Europe. They provided a lens through which to see the world and a set of standards by which to order it. Europeans encountering Islam in the Middle East and North Africa laid two major charges against the religion: that it wielded too much power over the state (Ernest Renan: “Islam is a fanaticism much worse than what was known in Spain at the time of Philip II and Italy at the time of Pius V”) and that it mistreated women (Lord Cromer, the British consul general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907: “The position of women in Egypt is a fatal obstacle to the attainment of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of European civilization”). They embarked on parallel campaigns to bring Islamic religious institutions under control and to rescue Muslim women from supposedly barbaric religious practices. Debates over the role of religion often became strangely entangled with those over the role of women, as during the Algerian War, when French colonists organized ceremonies to unveil Algerian women en masse, intending both to symbolically drive Islam out of public and to liberate the women involved from their subordination. In practice, Scott points out, efforts by colonial administrators and westernizing reformers to improve Muslim women’s situation by replacing existing practices with European models often had the opposite effect, especially in the area of property laws.

After dying down during the Cold War, the discourse of secularism returned in the 1990s with the rising narrative of an ideological clash between Islam and the West. At first glance, this new secularism, cloaked in the language of women’s rights and sexual liberation, seems distinct from its antecedents. Yet Scott sees it as similar in many respects to the nineteenth-century-imperialist version: There is the same fixation on the figure of the repressive Muslim patriarch, the same fascinated horror over the inhumane treatment of non-Western women, the same use of moral appeals to rationalize military force. When Laura Bush went on the radio during the US invasion of Afghanistan to tell the nation that “only the terrorists and the Taliban threaten to pull out women’s fingernails for wearing nail polish,” she was echoing a long line of putative saviors. Women’s emancipation may have succeeded the civilizing mission of the nineteenth century as a justification for imperialism, but the game hasn’t changed.

At the center of this knot is sexual difference—a problem in both Western and non-Western countries. As Scott suggests, the crusade to rescue oppressed Muslim women serves to distract attention from the fact that “gender inequality is not unique to postcolonial nations but a feature of modern nations, new and old, West and East.” Reading this reminded me of a benefit dinner I attended several years ago to raise money to buy bicycles for women in rural Afghanistan. The bicycles, the event’s organizer explained, would allow women to ride away from men who tried to hurt them; she herself was a survivor of sexual assault, and she wanted to help less fortunate women who suffered from abuse. “There is no greater symbol of liberation than a bicycle,” she said. The women in the audience, athletic with Pilates-sculpted shoulders, applauded; their husbands, nondescript men who worked at Google and IBM, lined up to write checks. What was behind this elaborate and expensive ritual? And what questions might we ask without the convenient figure of the oppressed Muslim woman as a decoy?

Namara Smith is Bookforum’s senior editor.