Women in Religion & Politics

A Possible Non Sequiter?

Anthropology 194X: Women in Politics: A Third World Perspective
Prof. Annapurna Devi Pandey
Copyright © 1998, 2000 B. Collie Collier


The protester, while seeking always to carry the banner of truth and justice, must remember that the fires of commitment do not bestow the gift of infallibility. (Bell 1994:xxi).


This paper is an attempt to discern possible reasons behind the hegemonic repression of women and minorities. While the subject field is enormous, the examples to be examined are limited to recent readings. Furthermore there is always the danger, in examining a limited number of observationally-based resources, of ethnocentrism in the service of one's own beliefs. This is a stylistic trap I obviously wished to avoid, but knew would be extremely difficult to achieve. I am thus indebted to Geertz for his article "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture," and would like to take a moment to lay out the reasoning of this paper, as contextual background to this paper.

In the essay Geertz postulates, amongst many other observations, conditions of cultural theory. He lists first that:

it is not its own master. As it is unseverable from the immediacies thick description presents, its freedom to shape itself in terms of its internal logic is rather limited. What generality it contrives to achieve grows out of the delicacy of its distinctions, not the sweep of its abstractions.

This fits my own predicament closely: while I have several readings to draw from, I must keep in mind that these are interpretations done by others, which I am myself re-interpreting. Each of us has our own 'spin' that we put on what we see and experience; putting too broad a sweep on these readings runs the risk of conflating individual differences into a false abstraction of my own beliefs.

Geertz next states that cultural theory is not predictive; it either notes what is, "or at the very most anticipates..." Thus, while I will offer a tentative hypothesis as to potential causes for some of the behaviors observed within the readings, I make no effort to state that this conclusion is definitive, but rather simply a suggestion of possibilities. Furthermore, I am quite aware that any such speculation must be offered with the full understanding that it necessitates further study, and will probably, ultimately, be found either partially lacking in its scope, or even entirely incorrect.

Finally this paper is respectfully offered as an example of what Geertz refers to as "theoretical discussion" that is "constructive" rather than an attempt at "critical ... hastening [of] the demise of moribund notions." I do not consider myself adequately prepared to criticize the ethnographies, methodologies, or theories of others, nor is it my purpose to "vex" or criticize with more "precision." Instead, in an effort to engage in "refinement of debate," I shall take refuge in theorizing based on the studies of others. I understand that anthropology as a science is indeed "essentially contestable," but what I ultimately attempt here is, as Geertz puts it, to interpret in search of meaning.


A long-standing fascination for me has been how religion is frequently used to justify a society's institutions. Specifically I find myself, in this quarter's readings, curiously examining how religion is often applied within a culture to justify objectivisation and oppression of women. In essence, I shall be attempting through the readings I've done to take a closer look at how a culture's religion, as interpreted by men, is used to keep women from power and to maintain the status quo, and seeking to discern if it is religion alone which is societally manipulated in this fashion, or if religion is perhaps manipulating society. If the former proves untrue, I will attempt to compare and contrast this 'fundamentalist effect' in an effort to better identify and comprehend it. In order to hopefully avoid cultural ethnocentrism, I shall also be attempting to discover if similar behaviors exist within the 'industrialized West' as well.

Furthermore, I know how seductively tempting it is to point a finger at some social institution or construction and say 'there is the problem -- remove that, and all will be solved.' Like Shaheed, I am attempting to maintain self-examination of

'the limitations imposed on her consciousness by her own homegrown subjectivities and needs'; a coming 'to terms with her given status as heir of an ... order' and learning what that status signifies to other women 'subjugated by that order' (1998:159).

Keeping that in mind, I shall search to see if similar behavioral patterns that are apparently not based on established religious thought can be discerned in other socially accepted constructions of the cultures, and if so, what caused these reactions.

Since this class concerns Third World politics and women, I shall finally attempt to postulate some means of possibly negating or countering this 'effect.' I shall be using the works of others to draw my conclusions, and due to a lack of space and time I shall unfortunately be viewing a wide variety of religio-cultural views as somewhat internally homogenous wholes examined (of necessity) synchronically; which makes, of course, for a rather essentialist view of the intersection of religion and society. It is my hope that keeping these faults within my study in mind will assist in critical examination of both this paper and the books to which I refer.


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. One can also see how little effort it takes within the holy texts to generalize these recurrent motifs, and define as sacred the hypostatised cultural norm: 'Man.' This religious symbol of Man allows the male-defined community to create and worship itself, and justifies a collective effervescence that seems to always exclude women. Women may contribute to collective effervescence -- but they cannot lead such rituals. Man becomes that sacred object which commands respect and obligation; woman, by contrast, are polluted, mundane. Thus woman, by her biological opposition to man, becomes of necessity the profane that defines the sacred, totemistic Man; because she is the 'profane' she can never be a part of the 'sacred.'

Oddly enough these attitudes on women are not universal throughout each of these religions. In each case there are many verses to be found that state the equality of the female and the male human in the 'gaze' of the various deities, or at the very least locate her as a necessary component of a holistic union between male and female, where cruelty or reprisal against any one part of this union leads inevitably to harm to the whole. Furthermore, there are those within each of these religions who attempt to fight the spread of fundamentalism, to speak out against religion in the service of political needs, and to prevent the rigidification of their holy texts and religious beliefs:

Ecclesiastical claims to possess infallibility in any formulated version of Scripture and creed or in the articulations of any council, synod, or hierarchical figure are to me manifestations of idolatry. Such claims do not serve the truth. They serve only the power and control needs of the ecclesiastical institution. The church must embrace the subjective and relative character of everything it says and does. If the church provides security, it cannot provide truth. ... The alternative, I believe, is security and the creation of a doomed idolatry. (Spong 1993:137)

And yet this frighteningly long-lived non sequitur of the 'faithless' and ultimately untrustworthy female remains, growing stronger in oppositional objection whenever a society's women become increasingly aware of their own agency and self-worth. This meme seems to run as follows: despite the premise of the equality of woman and man before the deities in all these holy books, the inference of the supposedly gender-linked inability of women to govern themselves (due to their inherent, sometimes deity-mandated, lack of worth), continues to flourish.

Fundamentalism does indeed seem frequently to take holy texts out of context, applying and teaching only those verses that support their particular view or issue of the moment. They also routinely insist upon the incontrovertible and divinely infallible proof offered by these holy texts, and demand unquestioning faith from the religion's adherents, coupled with some call to a particular and often political action. As Lustick notes,

[I]nsofar as its adherents regard its tenets as uncompromisable and direct transcendental imperatives to political action oriented toward the rapid and comprehensive reconstruction of society [fundamentalism] is employed here not to refer to hyper-religiosity, not to evoke images of fanaticism or simplistic thinking, but to focus attention on a certain kind of politics (1994:141).

There are some small but troubling points to be made in these observations concerning the potential linkage of repression of women with the emergence of religious fundamentalism. Durkheim's definition of religion does not require a belief in supernatural beings. Brown points out that these fundamentalisms arise in societies in flux, frequently in post-colonial situations. Lustick allows for a theoretical disassociation of fundamentalism and religion. Under these observations, it would seem clear these behaviors are not purely religiously mandated, but rather of a more political bent. If, therefore, fundamentalism is an expression of cultural needs rather than religious mandates, we should be able to discern non-religious cultural results of these stresses within other societies.

Consider the article "State Fatherhood" by Heng & Devan. In it the authors note the:

...construction of an essential identity requires a reconfiguring of the past: the equation of 'Confucian Chineseness' with the interests of the state... Locating the ideological source of the modern East Asian state in an unchanging Confucian essence allows, moreover, the idealized recuperation of the entire history of Chinese culture as a seamless narrative of continuity and cohesion, suffering neither a fall (as into communism) nor a lack... (1998:351)

Confucianism is not a religion but a philosophy, but here we see it being taught in the stead of religious classes in schools, and the Confucian texts are being taken, frequently out of context, to justify societal hegemonic thought.

More subtly, any demand by Singaporan women that the promises of equality made during the creation of the nation be fulfilled are viewed as a "threat from without, a cultural crisis of ... disturbing magnitude... [the "contamination" of] 'Western' values, variously depicted as individualism, relativism, and hedonism at worst". It is fascinating to note that the very same women who courageously and tirelessly worked side by side with men to bring their nation into existence are the ones who are now being, in a very real sense, colonized by the system now in power. In this particular case a fundamentalist perspective seems to be conflated with a hegemonically perceived need for nationalism and national security. The Indian minority and women 'contaminated' with 'Western values' are being discursively presented as the dangerous and counter-hegemonic 'Other' which must be contained and isolated in order to maintain the healthy society and nation-state.

Let us attempt therefore the following tentative working definition of fundamentalism for use within this paper: Fundamentalism is the selective use of a religion or cultural beliefs, based on claims of historical and/or cultural 'authenticity,' to promote a particular hegemonic societal norm. It is not invariably associated with religion, but it does appear to invariably inscribe often repressive roles and norms of behavior upon women and minorities.


There is one other item of note within the Singaporan example; we can see an interesting juxtaposition of nationalism and fundamentalism. Is this link an isolated incident, or common to all the readings we've done? Examining other instances of fundamentalism within our readings, I believe we can discover that this is indeed so. In India we have a tiny Muslim minority being evoked as a "pampered lot" who are being "appeased" by Congress in an effort to gain their "block" of votes, even as they are accused of "purposefully outbreeding Hindus (Hasan 1998:73)." In Pakistan the

penal laws prior to the Hudood Ordinance carved out a protected but secondary status for women, but contemporary laws [specifically the Hudood Ordinance] have removed the protection without altering the secondary status of women [emphasis the authors] (Jehangir & Jilani 1990:86).

Basu writes that "Islamic 'fundamentalism' in South Asia and the Middle East is inseparable from nationalist opposition to Western domination in its various guises," and adds that

Moghadam (1994:13) notes that 'fundamentalists' in Iran consider the veil an antidote to the virus of gharbzadegi, which is variously translated as 'Westoxication,' 'Westitis,' 'Euromania,' and 'Occidentosis' (1998:171).

Without noting down each and every instance within the readings, we can still discern a repeating pattern of hegemonic hostility against the 'Other,' societally expressed as a desire to control women and minorities, and to refuse them the benefits of full citizenship, often against prevailing laws, within each country.

Why is fundamentalism being manipulated/manipulating nationalism in such a fashion? What stresses are being culturally evoked and controlled through these various societal actions and reactions? Brown states a possible explanation in her comment that we can see a desire to maintain

strong and clear social boundaries -- boundaries between nation-states, between law-abiding citizens and criminals, between the righteous and the sinful, between life and death, and not coincidentally, between men and women (1994:177).

Thus, ultimately this seems to indicate less a religious way of thinking so much as an application of modern techniques to assert control over the world by "people caught off balance (Brown 1994:190)." This supports what we've noted so far in our arguments: that fundamentalism does not require religion to flourish. This would also indicate there must be a common theme or element between fundamentalism and nationalism, and that possibly it is this common element that is most important to us in our search for the reasoning behind the hegemonic repression of women and minorities. Thus a closer view of nationalism may be fruitful in the attempt to discern the causes of repression for women and minorities within these societies facing "troubling questions of social order and moral righteousness (Brown 1994:182)."

In his book Imagined Communities, Anderson discusses the imagining and rise of nationalism. He lists several ideological changes that allowed the creation of this concept. First is the loss of the 'sacred silent languages,' which held together religious communities that spanned continents. These languages were believed to consist of meaningful symbols of essential truths, and thus transcended culture. As Anderson points out, it is the relatively new concept of languages as non-privileged collections of arbitrary symbols existing in comparative equality with all other languages, that enabled the concept of sacred languages to wither away, and with it the view of a connected religious community.

However, tempting though it may be to ascribe wholeheartedly to this assertion, there are some persistent themes in the readings which demand consideration. In Singapore, as Heng & Devan note, there is a push for Chinese Mandarin to be accepted as the spoken language of choice there, rather than one dialect amongst many, specifically in order to stem the tide of Western thought somewhat. Furthermore, the Confucianism being taught in the stead of religious classes in the schools seems to fulfill many of the theoretical requirements of Anderson's "religious communities;" it is discursively presented as the symbol of a "hard core" of Chineseness that unifies the four "Asian Tigers" in their incipient economic (and possibly also cultural) domination of the decadent West. Could the imposition of Mandarin as the state language be also considered the theoretical equivalent of a "sacred language" holding together a community that spans continents? Rouse notes the pressures within Pakistan to discursively re-create the nation-state as a "country 'for Muslims,'" via amendments to the Constitution, creating "'Islamization' policies designed to bring the country more in line with its historical 'intent,'" while Shaheed writes of Pakistan,

Nevertheless, after independence, substate bonds of community have proved resistant to attempts by central elites to promote markers of identity that would justify their own leadership (Brass, 1979) and distinguish this 'nation' from others.

Could both these examples be said to demonstrate the continued existence of connected religious communities? Basu mentions the belief of many within both Pakistan and the small Muslim communities of India that the Indian national government is attempting systematically to replace the Urdu language by teaching Hindi in the 'secular' public schools (rarely attended by Muslim children), so that the Qur'an can no longer be read and obeyed. Is this not potentially an example of a unified religious community attempting to retain a "sacred tongue"?

It could be said, however, that Anderson's second "fundamental cultural conception" whose loss prefigured the modern concept of nations is still quite valid. This concept was that of the loss of the hierarchical nature of society since, like sacred script, the monarch was viewed as a privileged access to ontological truth. This view of the anonymous masses apart from and ruled over by the divinely-chosen monarch has been replaced by the perception of a culture as consisting of an egalitarian collection of citizens, regardless of the continuation of hierarchies and class differences easily visible within societies today. It is true that the definition of 'citizen,' as demonstrated via the readings, may be exclusively or oppositionally defined, but within the nation's hegemonic self-conception of citizenship the meme of a cultural collection of egalitarian citizenry can be said to still stand.

Other factors mentioned by Anderson as integral parts of nation creation are a new conception of time, and selective 'historical' memory and forgetting. Initially time was seen as somehow 'simultaneous,' with history and cosmology seen as one and the same. This concept was replaced by the view of time as linearly measurable; a 'homogenous emptiness' that is filled with temporal coincidence, as this very sentence structure demonstrates. The conception of the individual moving steadily through time analogued nicely with the concept of the nation, also moving steadily through history. This 'history' of the nation is created through the selection of appropriate 'memories' to assist in the creation of the nation-state, which of course necessitates 'forgetting' that which does not match the desired national 'memory.' These concepts of Anderson's also seems valid today within the readings, and easily 'borrowable' in service of fundamentalism as well as nationalism. It is this very definition of time, in fact, that allows the use of politicized religion to bolster a nation's beliefs and confirm its collective hegemonies, to claim a consistent religious or social linkage with their past which discursively justifies present actions and beliefs, coupled with a selective forgetting of certain uncomfortable 'facts' regarding the actual creation of the nation-state and its modern, present-day location.

Anderson states that the sacred scripts, societal hierarchies, and 'simultaneous' view of time answered humanity's need for a sense of connection, continuity, and meaning within life -- a need that was previously answered by religiously connected communities. He states that with the fall from use and belief of these three concepts a new form of community had to be constructed. Furthermore, he believes the answer to this need -- nationalism -- was greatly facilitated by the arrival and dissemination of both the printing press (which created shared vernacular print-languages) and capitalism (which encouraged the dissemination of the printed products).

This is an interesting conclusion for several reasons. Firstly, according to the readings from which I am working, it would seem that nationalism and religion are not, as might be implied by Anderson's work, either mutually exclusive or binary opposites. We see politicized religion being used to further the causes of nationalism, and nationalism as justification for the blanket application of religio-political views across a non-homogenous society, as has been shown previously in this paper. Secondly, it is "Westernization," with its powerfully associated capitalism, that is clearly stated as the "cultural invader" being fought in several of the above stated examples. If therefore some of Anderson's conclusions seem somewhat inapplicable, while others fit the facts presented within the writings quite well, it would appear that nationalism alone is not answering all the needs people have for connected communities, just as previously religion alone did not. Instead, at least within the readings, it would seem a mixture of both seems to be appearing, that fundamentalism is becoming an uneasy post-modern pastiche of religion and nationalistic fervor, in the service of creating a connected community.

This observation ties in nicely with my previous working definition of fundamentalism. What it does not do is explain possible reasons why this particular discursive response to societal stresses is appearing. Since this paper is supposed to have some possible solutions to the issues of repression as informed by fundamentalism, it would behoove me to take a moment to attempt to understand what these reasons might be.


According to de Saussure, "No society ... knows or has ever known language other than as a product inherited from preceding generations." By this token it might be postulated that current hegemonic views within a society must also be of necessity inherited from the past, even as they are discursively influenced by quotidian experience. Perhaps within this assumption an explanation for the many examples of fundamentalism in post-colonial countries, in our readings, can be found. Phrased in a somewhat essentialist manner, perhaps it is the previous existence of colonial repression that selectively informed the current, sometimes extreme repressions and hegemonic views on women and minorities that we see today, as described within the readings. This will not explain all the examples of fundamentalism that have been examined so far, but might aid in creating at least a working hypothesis as to the reasons behind these repressions, and explain somewhat why they are accepted despite their obvious logical shortcomings.

As de Saussure noted, signifiers are composed through comparison with "similar values, with other words that stand in opposition to it." Under those circumstances, it could be that to oppress is to discover one's self, to exist oppositionally to one's victim, to know one's own strength and power. Symbolically this is a powerful act, one that has, as we've previously seen, compelling religious overtones. As Barthes notes,

We find again here this disease of thinking in essences, which is at the bottom of every bourgeois mythology of man (which is why we come across it so often). ... myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear. ... Myth is a value, truth is no guarantee for it; nothing prevents it from being a perpetual alibi: it is enough that its signifier has two sides for it always to have an 'elsewhere' at its disposal. ... Men do not have with myth a relationship based on truth but on use [italics his] (1957: 121, 123, 144).

Thus the current fundamentalist and nationalist mythologies insidiously create and define themselves in an essentialist fashion because they are needed in order to define boundaries and categories, to oppositionally create classes and hierarchies based on power through repression. Unfortunately these politicized religions frequently maintain much the same hegemonic thought patterns, albeit with different dominant players, as were previously inherent within the colonial state. Nationalism may have promised a more egalitarian citizenry, but it has delivered only more of the same hierarchies, with different classes defined as the despised 'Other.' As Foucault notes,

In order to be able to fight a State which is more than just a government, the revolutionary movement ... must constitute itself as a party, organised [sic] internally in the same way as a State apparatus with the same mechanisms of hierarchies and organizations of powers (1972:59).

The use of the myth-making capabilities and the oppositionally defining tactics of the colonial hegemony has been applied to maintain (sometimes deliberately, sometimes not) the very same colonial hegemonic hierarchies the creators of the new nation-states purported to wish to disassemble.

However, blaming current hegemonic repression on previous colonial powers seems a touch simplistic. It may adequately explain some of the conclusions of the readings, but does not explain the existence of repressive societies previous to the arrival of the colonizing powers, nor does it clarify the situation in the United States. If, therefore, an examination of language cannot suffice to explain fundamentalism, another form of discourse must be found.

It would seem then that we cannot completely answer or explain repressive fundamentalist thought via the theory which views language as a determinant of culture-making, which states that society is formed by language, just as language forms society. Indeed, Foucault's critique of this ideology demonstrates his belief in its errancy. As the major initiator of the discourse on power, Foucault apparently believes that modern apparatuses of power are positive and productive. Their effectivity rests on what he refers to as a politics or regime of truth, rather than being repressively instituted on a regime of falsity, as is currently frequently believed.

The truth on which this application of power is based, in order to be understood, must be emancipated from all the forms of hegemony; social, economic, and cultural. As Foucault states, it is the nature of the technologies of power to traverse and produce things, to induce pleasure, form knowledge, and produce discourse. Consequently, the study of the discourse of power must of necessity be more fruitful in examining the nature of the creation and implementation of society than the study of socio-linguistics, which is only a form or expression of that very discourse of power.

To Foucault, theory is a constructed tool kit; not a system, but rather an instrument or logic concerning the specificity of power relations and the struggles around them. Also, these very struggles must be examined on a case-by-case basis, in order to avoid the theoretical tool kit becoming an integral part of the very cultural system or structure it seeks to examine, and ultimately to expose.

Furthermore, as Foucault himself points out, in his searching for the nature and expression of power within society, he discovered that the sciences he was studying were profoundly enmeshed in social structures. This occurred to the point that any previous studies done had simply reiterated unconsciously the very social structures and scientific armatures they were supposed to be critically examining. The unwitting acceptance of the social status quo was so pervasive that initially the questions Foucault was asking about the nature of power were considered frivolous or unimportant. In addition, as Foucault ruefully notes, it is the nature of the scientific structure to constantly strengthen and entrench itself by incorporating new ideas, reforming them as a part of the very structure and ideology which they attempted to dismantle.

Thus, according to Foucault, power is accepted because it is not merely repressive. It does not only say 'no,' but rather it "traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse (1977:119)." In that case, the post-colonial nation-state, formerly oppressed and powerless, might find the ability to once again exercise power -- even unjust power -- intoxicatingly irresistible. It would make sense that the society of the newly established nation-state would incorporate both its previous, 'historical memory' based power within itself, whether theoretical, religious, or physical, and that the struggle for power should occur between the varying discourses presented by each of these types of power. Also, by their very nature within the society and their linkage to pre-colonial "authenticating historical memory," each of these forms of power would be considered eminently logical and correct -- a hegemonic expression of the new dominant paradigm working within each of the societies, justified by selective recollection and re-presentation of their pre-colonial pasts. This would also explain the situation in the United States, where current fundamentalist (and sometimes also hegemonic) thought wishes to remove both agency and power from women and minorities, and blames the lack of strong social boundaries for the loss of some idyllic, selectively remembered fictional historical golden age.

And yet the very vehemence and pervasiveness of these repressions, across a wide variety of cultures and societies, must give pause. Can only one simple answer possibly be correct? Some of the oppositional nature of language can be seen in the readings, just as can be seen some of the discourse of power. It would seem therefore that a combination or pastiche of explanations, much as with the previous exploration of both fundamentalism and nationalism, might most adequately explain the repression and oppression seen within the readings.

In his article "Culture of Terror -- Space of Death" Taussig writes of torture. This is an extreme example of human behavior, but it fascinatingly presents both expressions of power as well as oppositional creation of categories and boundaries. As Taussig notes,

It is also clear that the victimizer needs the victim for the purpose of making truth, objectifying the victimizer's fantasies in the discourse of the other. To be sure, the torturer's desire is also prosaic: to acquire information, to act in concert with large-scale economic strategies elaborated by the masters and exigencies of production. Yet equally, if not more, important is the need to control massive populations through the cultural elaboration of fear (1992:138).

While it is an uncomfortable thought indeed, perhaps it is within yet another post-modern pastiche of Foucauldian creation and application of power, and Saussurian oppositional categorization via language and classification that the discourse of repression can most effectively be situated. If this is indeed the case, examples within the readings to support this postulation should be discernible.

And indeed, this is the case. In the reading on Singapore the authors noted "controversy of a sort arose around the issue" of the Prime Minister's attempt to assert "mastery" over female reproduction, social formations, and bodies, an issue

...whose political volatility was at once and slyly undercut, however, by its characterization in the [governmentally controlled] national press and electronic media ... as a 'Great Marriage Debate.' Its reduction to merely a 'debate,' and over merely an old, respectable, and comfortably familiar institution, marriage, strategically moved the issue away from any explicit recognition of or engagement with its deeply political, and politically extreme, content (1997:347).

Thus we see deliberate use of language to form and inform society. Furthermore, Foucauldian creation and use of power is demonstrated via its application to

...successfully define and superintend a crisis, furnishing its lexicon and discursive parameters, successfully confirm[ing] themselves the owners of power, the administration of crisis operating to revitalize ownership of the instruments of power even as it vindicates the necessity of their use.

Thus the 'fathers' of the state confirm their hegemonic and self-created and -awarded power by containing the emergencies they themselves 'discover' or manufacture.

More violently we see this disturbing concept of hegemonic use of power coupled with oppositional definition of the nation-state's preferred citizenry within the essay by Rouse:

All court language, justifications for convictions, and linguistic currency regarding sexual violence especially rape, reveal the deeply rooted culturally subservient standing of women. Thus, terms such as 'easy virtue,' 'loose woman,' and 'unchaste character' are encountered repeatedly in the cases. The Federal Shariat Court has the power to interpret what constitutes immoral conduct. If Zina [laws promulgated as "part of the Islamic-defined reform system of the legal and social structures"] is not established, it can transform the language of accusation and charge the accused with, say, 'bad character' and 'obscenity.' This language is invoked not only in Zina and rape cases but cases having to do with the murder of women (1998:64).

As she notes above, the state reserves for itself the power and ability to define "good" women, and the court justifies violence against women through selective application of language and definitions.

In yet another essay which discusses violence against women, Kumar notes that it is the deliberately poor definition of what constitutes rape and wife-beating that allows it to continue in India, despite laws forbidding it. She notes furthermore that women are often blamed for the attacks against them due to their "easy virtue" or due to being "a loose woman who could not by definition be raped (1995:70)."

In a commentary on the Rodney King case, Butler speaks of the same pastiche of power and language use against a minority member:

If racism pervades white perception, structuring what can and cannot appear within the horizon of white perception, then to what extent does it interpret in advance 'visual evidence'? ... According to this racist episteme, he [King] is hit in exchange for the blows he never delivered, but which he is, by virtue of his blackness, always about to deliver (1993:16, 19)"


It is noteworthy that in each of these cases a feared danger to the hegemony is imputed to the Other, always discursively defined as either women or minorities, and symbolically and physically defeated, frequently through application of the very violence supposedly presented by the Other. This trope consistently insinuates (frequently against what could be considered evidence to the contrary) that the abused victim is in actuality the hegemonically dangerous victimizer. Thus we see the dominant paradigms of the nation-state discursively expressed and reinforced within the societies discussed in the readings. Butler also notes clearly, concerning the King case, the collusion of the representatives of the dominant hegemony in this act:

Attributing violence to the object of violence is part of the very mechanism that recapitulates violence, and that makes the jury's 'seeing' into a complicity with that police violence ... In this sense, the circuit of violence attributed to Rodney King is itself the circuit of white racist violence which violently disavows itself only to brutalize the specter that embodies its own intention (1993:20, 21).

Thus it can be seen in our readings that within a society in change, fear and the desire for control over one's life and environment are often turned upon the Other, oppositionally defining the sacred or hegemonic cultural norm by powerful ownership of the language of discourse, which is then used to create, and via an act of collective societal effervescence, destroy or control the profane or polluted. Furthermore, collusion of 'accepted' or 'good' women or minorities in maintaining these boundaries can be assured through these means, due to a fear of:

the spectacle of a terror which threatens us all, that of being judged by a power which wants to hear only the language it lends us. ... [we become] accused, deprived of language, or worse, rigged out in that of our accusers, humiliated and condemned by it (Barthes 1957:46).

These impulses may be decked out in the trappings of fundamentalism or nationalism, but they remain at heart an insecure reaction consisting of a violent pastiche of alarm and lack of control in the face of a world suddenly too complex, too varied. By forcing simplistic and essentialist definitions upon that which the nation and hegemony fears (such as "such segments of society as do not give back an image of the state's founding fathers to themselves [Heng & Devan 1998:344]"), a justification for necessary societal self-defense can be made. This also enables the state to engage in a satisfying and self-justifying collective effervescence, to "reenact periodically the state's traumatic if also liberating separation from colonial authority... (Heng & Devan, 1998:343)."

Fundamentalism is not an adaptive or empowering long-term impulse. It is instead the simplistic assessment and definition of a problem as it is perceived by the mainstream hegemonic paradigm. The societal effects inspired by this trope are insidious -- by tarring any who are at all loosely allied with the scapegoated victim(s), such behavior effectively isolates the target one wishes to 'punish.' It takes great courage to invite attacks or vitriol similar to that being suffered by the victim(s) of societal chastisement or violence. Indeed, this fundamentalist/essentialist view of the world invites an unhealthy form of group-think that chastises innovation and true self-analysis, both societally and individually, and forestalls any attempts to either get at or constructively deal with the true roots of the problem. True, if the goal is merely short-term gain (such as striking out vengefully against perceived benefits to a despised minority, or maintaining male privilege) fundamentalism is an excellent ideological technique, since any counter-hegemonic discourse is forcibly subsumed to the selfish desires of the individuals or nation-group insisting on the dominance of their hegemonic paradigm.


It is a simple but appealing answer to say that all that needs to be done to solve the problems delineated and explored above is to restructure the societies in the readings. Were this to occur, then by definition women and minorities would not be repressed any longer, but would instead be hegemonically considered full and contributing members of each society... and voila! there would be no further need for fundamentalist repression. I say simple, because this is obviously impossible, and thus syllogistically removes the onus and burden of change from the shoulders of non-participants within any of the cultures discussed in the readings. It allows one to sit comfortably back, satisfied that one's job, of examination only, is finished. A slightly more thoughtful answer might look at the nature of both fundamentalism and nationalism for some means by which to either diffuse or replace them.

There is by definition a certain lack of flexibility inherent in the concepts of nationalism and fundamentalism. Fundamentalism by its nature freezes a perceived historical past to justify a present or desired reality. It must therefore not change, for it is as a defense against too rapid change in the modern day world that it was first conceived. Furthermore, nationalism replaced religion as a means to meet the needs of a collected community, and religion indubitably replaced something else. To believe that nationalism is the ultimate and final ideology the community can discursively create to satisfy the stresses of modern life is surely a fallacious assumption. Thus as discursive methodologies, both of these '-isms' would seem to have within them the seeds of their own downfall; for by refusing to change or evolve past certain societally defined parameters they must inevitably fall to a more vigorous and adaptive interpretation of the needs of the community.

On a more personal level it would seem that careful application of what is useful to the community (as judged by the needs of those within the imagined communities themselves) would be most efficacious in promoting liberation from fundamentalism and nationalism. It would appear that there is no one, simple, reductionist, over-arching solution, for the needs of each community vary from not only location to location, but from minority, gender, and class as well. Instead, a wide variety of small and individualized solutions would seem wisest, and can be demonstrated as working in several different locales. The spread of education and information to women and minorities, coupled with financial assistance where applicable, is one possible solution, as exemplified by the women's self-help organizations in India.

Of course, for true and lasting change, the dominant paradigm must indeed be subverted, which would seem to also indicate a need to educate those who create and maintain the hegemonic nation-state. This is not something that can be accomplished overnight, of course, and will indubitably receive heated attack -- as indeed it is even today. However, the mission has begun, and must be maintained for any lasting good to come of it, and to thwart the apocalyptic predictions of societal disaster which both fundamentalism and nationalism proclaim if they are not zealously obeyed. As Taussig notes,

It is to the subversion of that apocalyptic dialectic that all of us would be advised to bend our counterdiscursive efforts, in a quite different poetics of good-and-evil whose cathartic force lies not with cataclysmic resolution of contradictions but with their disruption (Taussig 1992:165).

It can no longer be said that any particular class or minority is inherently good or evil; nor do we live in some Panglossian 'best of all possible worlds.' What is clear is that if we do not attempt to create it, it will never come into existence. There is no one else but ourselves, all peoples, to act, and no better force to show those new to this discourse how to act than those who are already acting with self-discovered agency, who wish change, and to be heard rather than talked at; to be, as Gunning puts it, able to modify their lives, sometimes radically, but not to jettison them.

Last Updated: Fri Apr 21 2000