Letting Their Hair Down

Magnum Photos
Cairo, 2005; photograph by Martin Parr

If ever a couple of books were locked in an epistemic cage match it would be the two under review here, written by warring brands of historians on the subject of sex, religion, and secularism. I am, by default, in the secularite corner: I come from such religiously indifferent people they couldn’t even bother to be atheists. My sister and I were the only ones of our friends who didn’t go to Sunday school—when I once asked why, my father said that he and my mother couldn’t agree on whether to send us to a conservative or a reform temple, so we didn’t go at all. Maybe he meant it as a parable. In any case, that always seemed like religious education enough: minor doctrinal differences blown into major impasses. Or impossible conundrums. (As with the Sunnis and the Shias, my parents eventually divorced.)

I invoke this secular pedigree because it’s Western feminists of my ilk—who assume that secularism has been women’s ally, who associate religion with the fear of female bodies (coupled with a perverse desire to control them), we who play for the Enlightenment team—whom Joan Wallach Scott’s polemic Sex and Secularism aims to persuade. A distinguished feminist historian whose career—from labor history, to history of women, to gender theory, to poststructural and postcolonial theory—has tracked the evolution of her discipline, Scott argues here that those of us who thought progress toward female emancipation was paved with secular milestones have been sold a bill of goods.

“In fact,” writes Scott, “gender inequality was fundamental to the articulation of the separation of church and state that inaugurated Western modernity.” Further: “Euro-Atlantic modernity entailed a new order of women’s subordination.” The italics are Scott’s, and in her reckoning, the sexual division of labor central to secularization provided cover for the exclusion of women from the public sphere and indeed from the category of personhood itself.

By this account, the public–private divide that characterizes modernity, by which Scott means the emergence of Western nation-states from the eighteenth century on, simply produced newfangled versions of female subordination rather than rectifying the old ones. Women were associated with religion in secularist discourse—we’re the superstitious, emotional ones—and men with reason; women were assigned to familial lockdown while men ran the world, just as before. The difference is that secularism invokes biology instead of divine law to justify its notions of masculine and feminine spheres, trafficking in crackpot medical theories about women and the female brain (men had bigger skulls, women bigger pelvises—guess who was considered the more rational sex).

It’s the sort of stuff that can be racialized, as required, to scientifically explain the inferiority of nonwhite peoples. And indeed it has been: the secularism story has always been a cover-up for anti-Islamism and imperial conquest, according to Scott, serving to justify the…

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