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The British Journal of Sociology 2008 Volume 59 Issue 1

Secular privilege, religious disadvantage


Linda Woodhead

Judith Butlers paper Sexual Politics, Torture and Secular Time (Butler 2008)
makes an excellent point about the ways in which individual sexual freedoms
can be used to negate the rights of vulnerable groups. She makes her case in
relation to the Dutch citizenship test and the forms of torture devised for
Muslim prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. As she points out, it is
the rankest hypocrisy when freedoms are invoked for the purpose of oppression
by those who do not respect the rights of women and sexual minorities in the
first place.
The vital question which Butlers paper raises but does not answer is whether
the connection between championship of individual sexual freedoms and
oppression of minority groups is necessary or contingent. By simply pointing
out the dark uses to which enlightened liberal support for individual rights may
be put,Butler leaves it open for readers to conclude that she is drawing attention
to the abuse of an otherwise innocent set of commitments. Here I want to
develop her hints and whispers that there may be a more integral and disturbing
connection between championship of a maximal programme of individual
rights and the disturbing uses to which it is being put.Although this issue opens
out onto a much broader debate about the relation between individual and
associational rights, I will confine my remarks to a consideration of gender and
sexual rights versus the rights of religious groups, particularly religious minorities. Does championship of the one necessarily involve denigration of the other?
And if so, are feminists and other defenders of individual freedoms always going
to be in danger of sanctioning violence against vulnerable minorities?

I
Feminist voices have been amongst the most important in the growing chorus
of criticism directed at multiculturalism (e.g. Okin 1999). Their worry is that if
cultures are viewed as goods deserving of protection, then the rights of
Woodhead (Department of Religious Studies, University of Lancaster) (Corresponding author email: l.woodhead@lancs.ac.uk)
London School of Economics and Political Science 2008 ISSN 0007-1315 print/1468-4446 online.
Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden,
MA 02148, USA on behalf of the LSE. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-4446.2007.00181.x

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Linda Woodhead

individuals may be compromised. The examples which are given very often
concern religious cultures, and the way in which they may sanction such
practices as forced marriage, marital rape, polygamy and cliterodectomy. Such
violations are used to support the case that states must uphold individual rights
and support equality and non-discrimination as an overriding duty. Support for
religious rights and associational rights in general is never more important
than support for the rights of individuals, and the latter must always trump the
former.
Feminisms suspicion of religion has a long history. From the start of the
western feminist movement, criticism of religion was central to its project of
emancipation. In the 1890s Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her team of helpers
took their scissors to the Bible, and excised those parts of it which they found
incompatible with feminism. By the 1970s radical feminists like Mary Daly
were attacking all forms of religion as inimical to the feminist project, and
invoking such wide-ranging examples as sati, rape and witch-burning (Daly
1979). Though such sweeping critique has been heavily criticized for its ethnocentrism, lack of empirical engagement, and sweeping generalizations about
world religions (e.g. Lorde 1984), hostility to religion remains entrenched. If
anything it has been reinforced by the growth of lesbian and gay studies and
their influence on gender studies. The hostility is bound up with the way in
which defence of womens rights and, even more so, sexual rights, tends to go
hand in hand with support for a maximal programme of state-backed individual rights to individual equality, freedom and self-expression.
Many recent feminist approaches have been tempered by greater respect for
difference, including an ethnic difference which tends to be rather forcibly
and artificially jointed from religion. But, as Butler reminds us, there is a
continuing tendency to link support for womens rights and sexual freedoms to
a narrative of western progress and a submerged assumption that more religious cultures must be encouraged to catch up with the enlightened secularism
of the west. Such ideas are echoed on a daily basis in the press, political debate,
and in everyday talk. I write during a week when Cherie Blair, wife of the
ex-Prime Minister, has given a Chatham House lecture in which she pleads
that religion and culture should not be used as excuses for denying people,
particularly women, their right to equality. Referencing the speech, Sunday
Times columnist Minette Marrin argues that she doesnt feel the slightest
obligation to respect religions which abuse human rights or to allow them to
bring their practices into this country (4-11-07: 16). She presents multiculturalism as incompatible with respect for individual rights, and adds as a clinching
argument: There is not a great deal of freedom in Islam which, after all, means
submission.
An alternative to attacking religion directly is to argue that it must be
excluded from the public sphere by a neutral state. The effect is equally
destructive, because the privatization of religion means the end of religion
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(one could as well speak of making politics a purely private matter). Religion
is a name we give to a complex set of social practices which structure individual
agency, and are in turn recursively structured by it. At the heart of these
practices there is a collective articulation and celebration of the sacred, which
is experienced as transcending the everyday world. Religions seek to embody
the sacred-transcendent not only by way of sacred objects, buildings and
spaces, but in their collective lives. Thus a church, for example, is not just a
place where individuals go to have private experiences of transcendence, but a
group which tries to instantiate an ideal of selfless love by becoming the body
of Christ in every sphere of social existence. In so far as members of the group
support one another (and others), often in extremely practical and material
ways, the sacred is realized in the mundane.

II
Religious belonging may therefore make life not only intellectually meaningful and morally satisfying for its members, but emotionally resonant and practically live-able. Right across the world, religion continues to provide a range
of services and support to those who would not otherwise have access to them
including education, financial welfare, childcare support, and support in
dealing with domestic abuse.As a number of empirical studies show, this is true
not only in the southern hemisphere, where both charismatic Christianity and
Islam continue to grow rapidly, but even in the USA where evangelical
churches in particular offer a range of services for women run by women
(e.g. Brasher 1998). Liberal elites do not require these services not because
they have reached a plateau of enlightened maturity, or because they stand at
the vanguard of civilizational progress, but because they have access to a range
of resources which are denied the majority of the worlds population. Even
within affluent western countries, they are often unavailable to immigrant
communities, for whom religion is correspondingly important.
If religion is particularly significant for the disprivileged, it is often the
disprivileged within the disprivileged groups, or the minorities within minorities (Bader 2007: 30) for whom it is most essential. This is the opposite
observation to the feminist and enlightened liberal observation that it is
minorities within minorities who are most in need of the protection of statebacked human rights legislation. In my view both observations are true, and it
is only by holding them both together that we can be responsive to the
complexity of the situation of vulnerable individuals in societies in which
material and cultural resources are not equally distributed (i.e. all real world
societies).
Let me give a concrete example, relayed in conversation by the Danish
sociologist Ole Riis. A woman is imported into a modern Western society as a
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glorified house-slave of an ethnic Nordic husband. She is isolated and refused


an education by the husband. Her choice is to remain with him or get divorced
and evicted. She has some help from a Danish woman friend in applying for
training, and enters a course as a health worker. Her husband then threatens
her aggressively. Her Danish friend convinces her that she does not have to
accept such treatment, and brings her to an organization of free lawyers. After
a hard beating, she flees to a womens asylum with their two children and
eventually gets her own flat. Her friend helps with finding cheap furniture and
kitchenware and making contacts with social workers. As a result, the future
begins to look a little brighter, but it remains isolated and insecure.Without the
help of her (white, middle-class, Christian-background) friend, she would not
even have been able to take these steps.
This example draws attention to a number of salient points. First, religion
does not have a monopoly on sexism, chauvinism or domestic abuse. I am not
aware of any evidence that levels of abuse have any significant correlation with
religious or secular adherence. Second, although religion can and does legitimate and normalize infringements of rights, it also forms the cords of a
network of mutual support for vulnerable people. Without it, and without
some mentors, many women would just confront dominant husbands and an
impersonal, incomprehensible bureaucracy. To break out of the network
involves the risk of landing up in the dregs of society, whose existence privileged secularists often ignore. Third, although religions in general have a
conservative bias, there is great variation within the religious field, and it is
important to distinguish at the very least between those religious groups which
support human freedoms and equality, those which give them only limited
support, and those which actively oppose them. When debating the application
of individual rights-based legislation it is also important to distinguish between
the very different cases of religious groups per se, independent faith based
organizations (like private schools), and state-funded faith based organizations and services (like adoption agencies and care homes). Finally, it is worth
noting that even the most conservative religions are capable of changing and
adapting to liberal democracy, though the process takes time. Christianity is a
good example: as late as 1864 the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX condemned progress, liberalism and modern civilization; by 1964 Vatican II was
presenting the church as the champion of human rights.
It is surely nave to imagine that the enactment and enforcement of equality
and non-discrimination legislation will on its own achieve genuine social
equality. Rather, by infringing the associational rights and hence the very
existence of the moderately conservative forms of religion practised by many
minority ethnic-religious groups, it is likely to inhibit rather than advance the
cause of many of the most disadvantaged in society, including minorities within
minorities. In the real world, minorities like Muslim women are far more likely
to achieve equality by working within their own religious culture than by
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turning their backs on it (which is partly what increased prevalence of veiling


is intended to signal). In doing so, they are much more likely to bring about a
gradual internal transformation of these communities than is any heavyhanded secularist intervention. As Haleh Afshar (2007: 419) observes, Islam
provides a framework that enables its adherents to open pathways towards
feminism.

III
What the stand-off between various forms of secular liberalism and religion is
likely to achieve, then, is something very different from what well-meaning
secularists desire. Moreover, as Butler reminds us, the antinomy plays into the
hands of those who intend actual harm to minority groups (whether minorities
on the national or international stage). This is especially the case when western
liberalism presents itself as a neutral stance, which is somehow detached from
culture, and which has no sacred commitments of its own. Then religion
becomes a marker of the subjugated other, whilst the privileged become the
possessors of pure truth, transparent rationality, and the engines of progress.
My suggestion is that we can resist this stand-off by rejecting the idea that
there is a simple choice to be made between individual and associational rights.
As soon as one looks at real world situations, the opposition begins to blur. In
practice, for example, human rights law often involves rather sophisticated
line-drawing exercises between group and individual rights, as the Shabina
Begum case in Britain illustrated rather well (McGoldrick 2005, 2006).
Moreover, states are given and claim considerable room for manoeuvre in
interpreting international human rights treaties and adapting them to local
cultural situations. The example of India and, to some extent, Canada, suggests
there is no reason why constitutional (not secular) liberal democratic states in
the west could not provide maximum toleration and accommodation for religious practices without surrendering support for minimal morality and basic
human rights. Such rights could include not only negative liberties but essential
positive rights, including exit rights and meaningful exit options. They may
include minimal, but not necessarily equal, respect and concern (Bader 2007).
As Butlers paper hints, the alternative option of using state power to promote
maximal programmes of individual human rights premised around the universal good of leading an autonomous and self-chosen life is not only likely to be
counter-productive, but to continue to generate the noxious spectacle of
freedom being turned into a tool and a justification of coercion.
To return to my opening questions, I do not believe that feminists and other
defenders of individual freedoms are necessarily in danger of sanctioning
violence against vulnerable minorities. Nor, conversely, do I believe that religions in liberal democratic societies must set their own standards and claim
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total exemption from all human rights and equalities legislation. Rather, I
think what is needed is greater mutual understanding, a more generous and
tentative sense of who we are, greater realism about imbalances of power in
modern western societies, and some serious self-criticism and compromise on
both sides. To date, it has to be said, religions and religious minorities in the
west have shown themselves to be more willing to make this compromise than
have enlightened secularists.
(Date accepted: November 2007)

Bibliography
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Butler, J.P. 2008 Sexual Politics, Torture and
Secular Time, British Journal of Sociology
59(1): 123.
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Lorde, A. 1984 An Open Letter to Mary


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British Journal of Sociology 59(1)