Why is there a growing fundamentalist movement in a wide variety of
disparate cultures today? Why are women almost invariably the mediums on which this fundamentalism is expressed?
It is not surprising to discover a reductionist and/or essentialist attitude towards women within cultures and societies wherein fundamentalist beliefs are gaining hold. In many, if not most, world religions today, women are frequently considered the weaker sex, are seen as needing protection and guidance from men, and are defined as the dialectical ‘Other.’ Indeed, religiously based collective representations are frequently used to culturally delineate and limit the role of women to one of subordination to men, and to justify oppression and/or abuse of women.
A societal vicious circle of sorts is developed — due to religious beliefs women are treated as second class citizens, if not merely as chattel. Due to women being thus disempowered there is no good way for them to regain agency, in order to counter hegemonic views as to their true ‘nature.’ Thus as the priesthood usually remains consistently male in its membership the religion consistently reflects and reinforces this view.
A few examples of fundamentalism today: in India the original nationalistic goal of secularism is slowly surrendering to an anti-Islamic, aggressive new form of Hinduism. Interestingly, while most of its expressions are of a localized form (e.g. the sati of Roop Kanwar and the destruction of the Babari Masjid at Ayodhya), the calls for this new and more aggressive nationalistic religious fervor occur consistently within a national forum.
In Pakistan Islam is being used to justify an aggressive and xenophobic nationalism; a “shift of the discursive pendulum away from even the previously limited concessions on equality toward an emphasis on difference” (Rouse, 1998:59).
Other readings reveal Sri Lanka’s politicized form of Buddhism that rewards and reflects its proponents, and punishes all others with indifference at the very least, and Afghanistan as re-creating itself as a nation with a politicized Islam that deliberately espouses cruelty and/or repression to those who are not reflections of the national ideal: an Islamic male.
This is not, however, a movement limited only to the ‘Third World.’ In the United States the anti-abortion movement is motivated by a strong religio-political base. As Brown notes, they claim they are divinely moved to protect the children, but they do not heavily sponsor orphanages, adoption agencies, or similar structures within society. She also notes the preponderance of the use of politicization of religion today in her statement,
[F]undamentalist groups often arise in situations where social, cultural, and economic power is up for grabs; many … arise in postcolonial situations. Far from being essentially marginal to the societies in which they exist, fundamentalists are often directly involved in the political and economic issues of their time and place (1994:190).
This leads, of course, to another important question — just what is fundamentalism? Are we even speaking of the same motivations behind all these varied examples of politicized religion? Fundamentalism is almost invariably expressed in association with religion. In order to attempt a working theoretical definition of fundamentalism, let us take a closer look at religion first.
Religion is defined by Durkheim as a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, which unite a moral community. A religion, to fulfill Durkheim’s definition, does not demand a belief in supernatural beings, but rather contains both metaphysical speculations, and rules for moral discipline and conduct.
Thus a look at the collective effervescence of the religion can offer one a view (although that view is not definitive) of the collective representations of the culture. Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism today are all demonstrating, to one degree or another, fundamentalist trends for specific use within the political arena by their proponents. Thus they are all apparently theoretically fulfilling the Durkheimian requirements for religion in their respective countries. Furthermore, in each case of growing fundamentalism one can find a repeating theme of woman as untrustworthy seducer, destroyer, the cause of man’s fall from divine grace.