Between Basis and Roots: Religious Fundamentalism, Radicalism, and {PRIVATE }Women

Edna Ullmann-Margalit

 

Some years ago I found myself watching, on TV, the armed forces of the mujahedeen entering Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The sight is familiar: soldiers stacked upon pickup trucks and tanks, shooting in the air for joy, waving flags and banners.

In the background sounds of far-away battles can still be heard. The very first pronouncements made by the commanders of these holy worriors were something like the following: "As soon as Kabul will finally be in our hands, all women will cover their heads once again, and will return to their proper place, at home." It sounded almost as if the entire war in Afghanistan was waged on the place - or on the lack of place - of women in the public space in that country.

This is striking, but by no means unique. There is indeed a sense in which the war in Afghanistan, as well as the revolutions in Iran and in Algiers, were fought in order to achieve, among other things, the banishing of women from public life and from public space. (1) If in modern Western societies women by and large share in public life, the banishing of women from it is a clear signal as to the kind of society fundamentalists wish to bring about. Fundamentalism of its essence rejects modernity, in all of its manifestations.

The term ’fundamentalist’ is being tossed around quite freely nowadays. Almost any display of religious revival or religious fervour is taken to exhibit fundamentalism. This is particularly true with regard to Muslim instances. It may be well to remind ourselves that, strictly speaking, all of these uses of the term ate already extending its original reference.

Originally, ’Fundamentalism’ referred to a movement in 20th century Protestantism which emphasized the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching. The important element which the current uses of the term retain from its original meaning is the emphasis on some basic text. This text may be Biblical, like the old of the new Testament, or the Koran - or it may be exegetical, i.e. a derivative text of commentaries on the basic text, like the Talmud of the Sharia.

Now Afghanistan, Iran and Algiers are, for me, somewhat far away. As an Israeli, I am familiar with some local brands of fundamentalism Looking around me I can recognize Muslim brands, both Shiite and Suni, and I can recognize Jewish brands, both Ashkenazi (Jews of European extraction) and Sephardi (Jews of Near-Eastern extraction).

In reflecting about the variety of religious groups around me and about their respective attitudes to women, I came to realize that an important distinction has to be drawn among them. This distinction is between religious fundamentalism and religious radicalism This may seem at first glance somewhat surprising, since for many purposes these terms ate taken as synonymous. After all both types of groups can be described as extremist, both share a zealous religious outlook, both start out from a deep discontent with the present, and both involve a vision of some ideal state of affairs and conviction as to the need for a basic change in the society to which they belong. And yet, the orientation of religious fundamentalism is different from the orientation of religious radicalism along several important dimensions, and this difference makes a difference with regard to their attitude to women.

Let me therefore employ the tools of my trade as an analytical philosopher and proceed to explore this distinction somewhat further.

Both ’fundamentalism’ and ’radicalism’ are based on metaphors. Both terms, as already mentioned, make us look "downwards", as it were: to underlying things, to things which are basic, elemental, rudimentary. However, ’fundamentalism’ makes us look down to the underlying structure of a building, while ’radicalism’ - coming from the Latin ’radix’ -makes us look down to the roots of a plant or a tree. The formative picture of the fundamentalists, then, is a mechanistic one. Society is like a huge and massive building, and the concern should be with the strength, stability, and durability of the basis on which it stands. The formative picture of the radicals, on the other hand, is an organic one.

Society is like a complex living plant, and the concern should be with its proper growth as opposed to its degeneration, and hence with the health of its roots.

The difference in underlying metaphors has a rich historical legacy. It also has significant ramifications. Consider: fundamentalism is backward looking. The ideal state of affairs it envisions is in the distant past. Fundamentalism is essentially about an attempt to restore a lost paradise. The lost paradise is imagined as a static world, as a monument: it is fossilized, frozen in time, closed, awe-inspiring. Radicalism, in contrast, is forward looking. The ideal state of affairs it envisions is in the future. Radicalism essentially involves an attempt to bring about (some) utopia. The utopia is perceived as a changed and different world: it is new, dynamic, open-ended, exciting.

Relating all of this to the issue of women, we observe the following. Fundamentalists want to restore the way things were - of the way things are supposed to have been - in the past. This in principle involves traditionalism. And tradition involves, among other things, a traditional division of roles between men and women. The term ’tradition’ is in fact so closely linked with the control of women that these terms are often virtually equated. In paradise man was king. The woman was created for man’s pleasure: to complement him and to serve him. She was also created to bear him children. Paradise is of its essence hostile to equality between the sexes. It thus comes about, almost by logical necessity, that a striking feature of fundamentalism is that it represses women.

I shall want to say more on this, but let me first draw the parallel observation, with respect to radicalism. A striking feature of radical movements is the role often played in them by women. There is nothing necessary about this, but it is eminently natural: radical movements seek to transform the world, to break away from - to uproot - traditions. Hence women can hope to find a place in them Utopias can, in principle, accommodate equality between the sexes, and, historically, this has often been the case. By way of illustration, let me mention in passing a study of voting patterns conducted in Israel (by Galia Golan and Naomi Hazan) some years ago, which came up with the following finding: in a sizable number of families in which both husband and wife belong, broadly speaking, to the same political camp (i.e. to the "leaf" or to the "right"), the husband tends to vote for the large, "centrist" party (i.e. Labor or Likud), while the wife tends to vote for the smaller, more radical party of that camp (i.e. Meretz or Tehiya). Interestingly, at the time that the study was conducted, the two radical parties concerned were lead by women (Shulamit Aloni and Geula Cohen) - and these were the only parties in Israel ever lead by women.

Note, however, that what was just said holds for radical political movements in general. When we restrict our attention to radical religious movements, matters are more tricky. There is often a curious merge, a blurring of the boundaries, between fundamental and radical religious movements.

The religious camp in Israel is in recent years undergoing processes of increasing extremism. These operate along two dimensions, both religious and nationalist. Groups which were traditionally highly extreme religiously, i.e. the ultra-Orthodox groups, are becoming increasingly nationalistic, right wing and xenophobic. [This in itself is interesting, even paradoxical, given their long-standing opposition to the official state ideology, which is Zionism. I shall not discuss here the complex changes in their attitude to Zionism; in principle they remain anti-Zionist.] At the same time the National Religious Party, as well as the movement and the mentality of Gush Emunim born from it, which for many years were the standard bearers of the staunch Zionist modern Orthodoxy, are becoming more fanatical religiously.

The ultra-Orthodox and the modem Orthodox communities are, then, in some important ways coming closer to each other. Still, by and large the ultra-Orthodox (or ’Haredim’) can be counted as Israel’s religious fundamentalists, and the modem Orthodox, represented by Gush Emunim - as Israel’s religious radicals. To the first camp must also be added the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox, as represented by the Shas party. This community strikes its own synthesis of religious extremism with right-wing extremism. But their evocative motto, "Returning to the Glory of the Past", puts them firmly in the fundamentalist camp. Their main concern is with resurrecting traditional values and traditional frameworks of family and community as they were - of as they are imagined to have been - in the North African countries from which they immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s.

What about the women in both of these camps? The main contours of the picture areas clear as they are predictable. Within the ultra-Orthodox fundamentalist communities, which are thoroughly patriarchal, the ideal-type for men is the rabbinic scholar, who spends his entire day in the Yeshiva (a Talmudic academy, so to speak) with the other men, and the ideal-type for women is the home-confined wife-and-mother. The message to the daughters is that, being proclaimed unworthy to study the Torah, they ate of less value than boys, that their lives are to be confined to domesticity and servitude to men and children, and that the only positive value of their sexuality is that it be strictly confined to marriage, the service of men, and reproductive ends. As with fundamentalist communities everywhere else in the world, this stance is entirely visible.

Fundamentalists of the world, from Kabul to Jerusalem, unite in their zealous insistence on covering the head - and more particularly the hair - of women, as well indeed as their arms and legs and everything else. In a news report from a year ago, the leader of a small community of Orthodox Jews living in the mountains of Yemen says: "We are Orthodox Jews, very keen on our traditions. If we go to Israel, we will lose hold over our daughters, our wives and our sisters." (Agente France Presse, 18 May, 1997)2 This quote is revealing. Israel is perceived as a modern state, and modernity is equated with the loss of traditions, which is in turn equated with the loss of men’s control of women. The Yemenite community chose to ensure the preservation of its traditions by not immigrating to Israel; the ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel try to preserve their traditions by fighting a running battle to isolate themselves as much as possible within the Israeli society.

There is one wrinkle in this tale, which is worth mentioning. The typical ultra-Orthodox family is poor. The husband studies all day long, there ate many children (ten or twelve children are the norm), and the family subsists on a small allowance. The woman therefore, in addition to her considerable domestic responsibilities, often seeks outside work, in order to supplement her husband’s stipend. It thus mms out that many women in these communities are the real breadwinners in their families. However, they cannot pursue any careers to speak of, nor do they enjoy any of the advantages or benefits of their economic power. The source of prestige remains excellence in the rabbinic studies, from which women are entirely barred. They are thus doubly, if not trebly, disadvantaged.

The women of Gush Emunim area different story. This movement, as already mentioned, is Orthodox in its religious outlook, and is suffused with nationalist-Zionist fervour. Their women’s modes of dress too are bound by modesty codes, and they too have numerous children. But in distinction from the ultra-Orthodox, this movement does not in principle reject modernity. The movement was founded in the mid-1970s, and soon came to be characterized by its fierce determination, not without Messianic overtones, to settle the territories occupied in the 1967 war with as many Jews as possible. This movement, then, is a curious mix of religious fundamentalism and radicalism. While strictly traditionalist, and even fundamentalist, in its adherence to the Bible as the sacred source of legitimacy for Jewish ownership over the Land of Israel, Gush Emunim is clearly radical in its aims, orientation, and modes of operation. And its women, from the start, fueled the engine of the settling activities. In many of the movement’s early confrontations with the Israeli government, which were often fierce, women played a major, if not a leading role; the official spokesperson of the movement in its early years was a woman. These radical women leaders, interestingly, derive their power and authority from their being wives, and typically mothers to numerous children. Their radicalism manages to be expressed along with a full affirmation of the most traditional family values.

I want, finally, to return to where I started, to Afghanistan. A lengthy article appeared in the New York Times about ten days ago (April 6, 1998, by Barbara Crossette), which tells of the plight of women under the regime of the militant Islamic Taliban movement, which took control of most of the country in 1996. Under their edicts women cannot work, they must be veiled in the all-enveloping chador (or burqa), and, in purdah many of them effectively live like prisoners in their own homes, secluded and shielded from any men who are not members of their family. Also, government schools are denied to most of the girls. This is a harsh reality of oppression, which is unacceptable to many Afghan women who now seek international help to regain their rights.

Fundamentalist societies evidently differ in the degrees of severity of the control they exercise over women. The Taliban case in Afghanistan probably represents one end of the scale, the end of extreme oppression. There is no question that the degree of control to which women in the ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel are subjected is very different. They are subject to milder and subtler forms of repression, which are nevertheless real and eradicable. In contrast to the Afghani women, whose subjection to traditionalist Islamic roles is recent and coerced, and many of whom rebel against it, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish women are totally socialized to their situation. Their situation comprises an intricate web of social norms and a way of life which have been practiced for many centuries, originally in Central and Eastern Europe, and now mostly in a few places in Israel (notably Jerusalem and Bnei Brak) and in New York City (Williamsburgh and Boroughs Park). Women in these communities by and large endorse this way of life and willingly reinforce it, irrespective of age.

Not all of them, of course, and not all the time. Just a few weeks ago a case came to light in which a young woman of 21 in Bnei Brak was continuously raped by her uncle since she was nine years old. Only recently did she summon up sufficient courage to file a suit against him. The state court convicted him, expressed their shock at the cruelty of the case, and sentenced him to a relatively heavy prison sentence. But the close-knit ultra-Orthodox community where this happened rallied behind the man, not behind his victim. He is the son of a venerable rabbi, and as such he is in principle beyond reproach. Lodging a complaint against such a man is unacceptable and unforgivable in this community. The woman has now become not only this man’s victim, but a victim of her entire community. Abandoned and ostracized, she is forced to leave and try to build a new life for herself elsewhere.

All of this underlines the following: there can be no simple and uniform answer to the practical question, what are we to do in face of the subordination of women in fundamentalist communities and societies. I don’t think there can be any doubt that outside intervention and help is as necessary as it is justified in cases where women are blatantly denied basic rights and liberties, and where the women themselves are aware of their situation, want it changed, and cry out for help. But with women whose consciousness has not yet been raised to their subordination, the situation is complex and involves genuine dilemmas. Legislative measures are likely to be ineffective, or else they may bring about the destruction of otherwise valuable ways of life which are meaningful across a wide range of human activities.

When we observe, from the outside, women who are willing accomplices in their own subordination, our multicultural juices begin to flow. Who are we, we ask ourselves, to destroy their equilibrium? Who are we to tell them that their lives are worth less than men’s because they lack a context in which they are able to question their inherited social roles and in which they can develop the capacity to make meaningful choices about how to lead their lives? When culture instills in women a conviction that the full meaning of their lives resides in obeying God and husband, what remains for us to do? What we can, and must, do is insure, as best we can, that these women have what the renowned economist Albert Hirschman calls Voice and Exit: that those among them, and most especially the young women, who feel differently and wish to speak their minds, are not silenced, and that those among them who wish to choose a different way of life are allowed to leave the community with impunity.

Edna Ullmann-Margalit The Hebrew University of Jerusalem April 1998

1- As Barbara Smith says about the rise of the FIS party in Algiers in the wake of the 1988 riots: "The party’s aims remained, and remain, ambiguous. Amid the excitement, if never got around to formulating a clear program. Its emphasis, as always with Islamist movements, was on women. It was prepared to dictate what they should wear (hedjab, of a headscarf, how they should be educated (single-sex schools), and, indeed, what they should do with their lives (with exceptions, stay at home and look after their families). "(The New York Review Of Books April 23, 1998) In a new book, Khalida Messaoudi says: "The Fundamentalists, like any totalitarian movement, want to exercise absolute control over society, and they fully realized that the place to start was by seizing control over women’s sexuality, something Mediterranean-style patriarchy facilitates." (Unbowed: An Algerian Woman Confronts Islamic Fundamentalism, to be published in May by University of Pennsylvama Press.)

2 - Quoted in Susan Moller Okin, "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?", Boston Review, March 1998.



1998



 



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