Fundamentalism and Women's Rights

Author(s): Asoka Bandarage
Date Published: July 20, 2006


The recent Republican victory in the U.S. Congress and the identi?cation of the Republican Party with Christian fundamentalism could further undermine women's right to abortion and the struggle for economic and political equality. The Republican majority in the Congress has already slashed foreign assistance, including funding for family planning. Population control enthusiasts fear that this could lead to U.S. reneging on its funding commitments to the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).

The right wing challenge calls for dialogue between feminists and other groups opposed to the fundamentalist agenda. But, given past experience, it is necessary that progressive activists develop careful analyses of the growing conservative challenge without succumbing to the neo-Malthusian agenda. It is important that feminists pay more attention to such issues as the growing worldwide movement against abortion, increasing interference of the Vatican in global policymaking, and the limits of the liberal feminist individual choice approach to reproductive rights.

Vatican Interference

Forming an opportunistic alliance with Islamic states, the Vatican challenged the right to abortion and emphasis on women's reproductive rights in the Action Plan of the ICPD at Cairo. Although the ICPD Program recognizes unsafe abortions as a major health issue, the absence of references to women's right and desire to terminate pregnancies represents a victory for anti-abortion and religious fundamentalist movements and a defeat for the global women's struggle for decriminalizing abortion and reproductive self-determination. This development will only help perpetuate the large numbers of illegal abortions worldwide and maternal suffering and deaths associated with them.

Appropriating the language of leftist, Third World and feminist critics, the Vatican charged family planning programs of western cultural and biological imperialism during the deliberations on the ICPD agenda. The Vatican's interest, however, is not economic or cultural liberation of the Third World, but the restriction of women's reproductive freedom and the augmentation of its own authority.

The Vatican does not have the moral standing to accuse others of cultural or biological imperialism. Since the beginning of European conquest over 500 years ago, the Church has not only practiced cultural imperialism, but has also annihilated people who did not accept its teachings (Kissling, 1994). For the Vatican, as for Islamic fundamentalists, abortion and contraception represent a threat to patriarchal power. Aggressive Christian proselytization and the growth of Christian evangelical movements in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the former USSR pose a serious threat to women's freedom and cultural survival, as well as the evolution of secular, democratic political traditions.

The Vatican's increasingly aggressive role in influencing global policy needs to be seriously questioned. Should the Catholic religion which represents about 980 million baptized Catholics have more say over global policymaking than other religions, especially those that represent larger constituencies? Should the Vatican and the Catholic Church hierarchy of celibate male priests be given power to make decisions over women's sexuality and reproduction at a time when many Catholics themselves favor reproductive choice and practice artificial contraception?

How did the Vatican come to be granted the privilege of a non-member state permanent observer status in the United Nations when its claims to statehood are highly questionable under international law? It is doubtful that the Vatican met established eligibility criteria for obtaining this status in 1964. For the sake of cultural justice, if nothing else, the Vatican's permanent observer status must be revoked (Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, 1994). Women's groups must also speak out against the Vatican's attempts to block its critics, such as Catholics for Free Choice, from attending the upcoming Women's Conference in Beijing.

An Anti-Women Agenda

In seeking to restrict birth control worldwide, the 'pro-life' lobby has been attempting to manipulate Third World feminist critiques of the Malthusian population control establishment. In this regard, it is useful to recall a situation reported from the United Nations Women's Decade Conference in Nairobi in 1985. An international 'pro-life' group known as Protect Life in All Nations (PLAN) forged strong alliances with government delegations from Islamic countries and attempted to coopt Third World women critical of abuses in family planning programs into its campaign to cut off all international reproductive health funding. When PLAN's true identity was discovered, a large group of women from Third World and Western countries at the Nairobi Conference issued a declaration against 'pro-life' threats to women's reproductive freedom (Confidential Statement, 1985).

During the struggle for sterilization reform in the U.S. in the 1970s, a similar situation arose. When liberal feminist organizations which were focused narrowly on abortion and choice refused to join the struggle against sterilization abuse, right wing forces stepped in, appearing to be concerned with women's rights when in fact their real motive was restriction of women's access to contraception.

Third World and women of color feminist critics of Malthusian population control must continue to be cautious of right wing efforts to manipulate feminist language and win our sympathies. This is not always an easy task in the context of increasing efforts by the Malthusian population control establishment itself to coopt gender analysis and feminist concerns for its own purposes. Ultimately, both religious fundamentalists and Malthusian fundamentalists, who attribute all problems to 'overpopulation,' attempt to wrest reproductive decisions and power from women and hand them to external authorities, whether they be patriarchal religious entities or bureaucratic medical hierarchies. They both use sophisticated media and adapt indigenous culture to change consciousness and win converts: contraceptive acceptors in the case of the new-Malthusians and souls in the case of the fundamentalists.

The challenge facing feminist and other progressive forces is to stay clear of both the right wing and neo-Malthusian extremes and to develop alternative analyses of and solutions to women's subordination and the global crisis.

The neo-Malthusian focus on fertility reduction has diverted attention from the fact that everywhere it is women who take care of children and hold families and communities together. But, the lack of recognition given to women's nurturing and caring labor in the ICPD agenda has produced a discourse that equates women's freedom with individual reproductive choice and tends to see 'women's rights' as based on the neglect of the family. As Indian feminist activists, Vandana and Mira Shiva, have explained, the focus on sexual and reproductive rights in the ICPD consensus has been 'disempowering' rather than empowering to Third World women. It has allowed the right wing to appear as the only ones concerned with ' family values' (Shiva and Shiva, 1994).

A broader vision and agenda on reproductive and women's rights must address the increasing violence directed against women globally. In countries where militant fundamentalist movements are strong, the backlash against women has moved far beyond restrictions placed on access to abortion and contraception. Women and social minorities are increasingly the victims of fundamentalist forces fighting in the name of the traditional family and morality and against the sexual permissiveness represented supposedly by adolescent sexuality, homosexuality, non-traditional families, and the AIDS epidemic. Much of the opposition of the religious Right to the ICPD Program of Action came during attempts to address such issues.

In countries such as Algeria many women have been deliberately targeted and assassinated for the 'crimes' of simply working outside the home and not wearing the veil. As the levels of unemployment, insecurity and despair increase around the world, the attempts to restrict women to the traditional wife and mother roles are bound to increase, and violence against women and different ethnic groups is likely to take new forms. But, this violence may not be restricted to the right wing fundamentalist forces. It can also come from more established forces representing scientific and capitalist interests including neo-Malthusianism and neo-conservatism. As in the past, right wing fundamentalism and techno-bureaucratic authorities can collude to produce fascist movements and governments based on eugenic ideologies of gender, race and class superiority and technologies for genetic engineering.

The fear, insecurity and anomie inherent in the modern materialistic, technological world make right wing fundamentalism with its promise of security, stability and sense of belonging attractive to many people.

The world needs a strong moral and spiritual basis if in fact the excesses and insecurity associated with the current western consumerist model of social development is to be transcended and the global crisis is to be resolved (Bandarage, 1991). But, that ethical and spiritual basis cannot come from the patriarchal ideology of the Catholic Church or the violent tactics of religious fundamentalism. A new global ethic and spirituality that are based on universal rights and social justice must replace the patriarchal morality and fundamentalism of both conservative religions and the population control establishment.

Selected References

Asoka Bandarage, "In Search of a New World Order," Women's Studies International Forum, vol. 14, No. 4, 1991, pp. 345-355.
"Church or State?: The Holy See at the United Nations," Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, International Program, New York, July 3, 1994, p.4.
Confidential Statement from the 1985 Nairobi U.N. Women's Conference.
Interview with Frances Kissling, Terra Viva, ICPD, Sep. 6, 1994, p.16; see also Conscience, vol. XV, no. 4, Winter 1994/1995.
Vandana and Mira Shiva, "Was Cairo A Step Forward?", Third World Resurgence, Issue No. 50, October 1994, p.14.
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Asoka Bandarage is Associate Professor of Women's Studies at Mount Holyoke College. This article is excerpted from her forthcoming book, Population and Global Crisis, to be published by Zed Books.