CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Far from encouraging equality between sexes and sexualities, ‘secularism’, on the contrary, establishes gender inequality. Moreover, it has acted as an effective rhetorical strategy for affirming the religious and racial superiority of Western countries, both in the past and in the present. In opposition to Samuel Huntington’s (1993) theory of a ‘clash of civilizations’ between the Christian West and Islam, Joan Wallach Scott presents a rich and richly documented analysis, drawing on numerous historical studies on the unequal and hierarchical foundations of the very process of secularism.

2It is difficult to do justice in French to the term ‘secularism’, which is rendered as laïcité in the French translation of the book (Flammarion, 2018). Taking what she presents as a Foucauldian ‘genealogical’ approach to the concept, in her analysis the terms ‘secular’ (‘referring to things nonreligious’), ‘secularization’ (‘the historical process by which transcendent religious authority is replaced by knowledge that can only originate with reasoning humans’), and ‘secularity’ (‘a nonreligious state of being’) are superimposed (p. 5). This is ultimately not a problem, since the aim of the book is not to give substantial content to secularism as a concept but to capture the discursive logics associated with it and how they have evolved over time. Scott writes that ‘although it may not reflect the reality it claims to describe, the secularism story (secularization, secularity) does have an important influence on the way these realities are perceived’ (p. 9). This is a highly original aspect of this book, which distinguishes it from many others that seek to explore the foundations of secularism, or the content and limits of the process of secularization. The concept of ‘secularism’ functions here as political discourse.

3The genealogy of the concept of secularism has considerably evolved over the last centuries and is based on the play of multiple oppositions. In its earliest uses, it carried a negative connotation and referred to intraworldly relations. This logic was reversed in the 18th century. At the time of the French Revolution, secularism came to positively refer to the State and its representatives, with religion becoming its negative counterpart. The 19th century was characterized by new oppositions: between women and men, masculinity and femininity (with the public and political sphere reserved for men, while women were relegated to the religious sphere), but also between ‘civilized’ (Christian) nations and ‘primitive’ nations in Africa and the Ottoman territories. In the second half of the 20th century, during the Cold War, the idea of a free (Christian) religion, as against the cold and authoritarian domination of communist atheism, was integrated into the very concept of secularism. In the most recent period, there has been a direct association in Western countries between secularism, democracy, and gender equality, on the one hand, and religion, Islam, and gender inequality, on the other. ‘Gender equality is portrayed in terms of the difference between uncovered and covered societies’ (p. 14). The concept thus confirms the political and moral superiority of the West over other countries, and in particular predominantly Muslim countries.

4The first chapter, ‘Women and religion’, surveys a large historical literature in order to show that the association between women and religion is a product of secularism itself, not the relic of ancient practice. The French Revolution of 1789 established the idea of the reasonable and reasoning man and the emotional woman, under the influence of clergy and confessors. The gendered division of labour (women are the guarantors of men’s morals, while being economically and politically dependent on them) became a marker of ‘modernity’ (p. 48). The same logic can be observed in the modernization of the Ottoman Empire, in particular around the transformation of sharia into a standardized, modern civil code. Here again, secularism and the colonial enterprise established or reinforced gender inequalities, which would sometimes be reinterpreted as ‘tradition’.

5The second chapter, ‘Reproductive futurism’, emphasizes the role of science in the subordination of women, by way of the imposition of heterosexual marriage and reproductive teleology as a requirement of nature itself. The Western model of heterosexual marriage, characterized by asymmetry between the sexes, took root in the colonized countries over the course of the 19th century. The combat against non-reproductive sexuality (masturbation, homosexuality) and the associated methods (contraception, abortion) is thus not the remnant of a religious doctrine. ‘These policies consolidated a class and racialized vision of national homogeneity’ (p. 81).

6The democratic revolutions of the 18th century are often seen as the source or foundation of gender equality in Western countries. Chapter 3, ‘Political emancipation’, challenges this idea, as revolutions have tended to reinforce the division between the public and private spheres. According to Scott, the social contract thus became a sexually asymmetrical contract, whereby women were understood to consent to their own subordination. Furthermore, the right to vote did not prevent the marginalization of women in the political process, including in the most recent period. She writes: ‘the extension of the vote to women did not entirely invalidate the equation. Instead, it simply moved the question of men’s power to another plane’ (p. 121).

7Chapter 4, ‘From the Cold War to the clash of civilizations’, highlights the shift of the concept of secularism towards those of democracy and liberalism, in opposition to Soviet atheism. The USSR was then represented as the antithesis of religious freedom in Western, Christian countries. Scott suggests a parallel between discourses around religious freedom and around sexual freedom during the Cold War. ‘Sexual freedom—no longer a private matter—was increasingly referred to as a founding premise of secular democracy’ (p. 126). Beginning in the late 1980s and the 1990s, many international institutions defending women’s rights began to focus on violence against women, which they were more likely to present as a consequence of women’s dependence than as its cause.

8The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 once again shifted the lines of discourse around secularism. Islam became a threat to a system conceived as both democratic and Christian, characterized by sexual emancipation (Chapter 5: ‘Sexual emancipation’). In the new discourses of secularism, religious freedom and sexual freedom became synonymous. Emancipation (in particular women’s emancipation) could only come about through sexual freedom, which in turn is guaranteed by secularism. By this token, Muslim countries are countries of oppression, and moral crusades to ‘uncover’ women are justified both inside and outside national borders. Here, the author suggests a number of fertile prospective directions for thinking the relationship between sexuality, religion, and emancipation. Drawing on anthropological research in Muslim countries (notably that of Saba Mahmood, 2009), she questions the notions of ‘subjectivation’ and ‘agency’, as well as a Western-centred reading of emancipation. She shows, moreover, that the assertion of equality between the sexes or sexualities in no way guarantees its reality. [1]

9In conclusion, Sex and secularism is an extremely rich book, both in its diversity of sources and its scope. Scott invites us to rethink the concept of secularism as power-generating discourse, within nations but also in relationships between them. Her rethinking of the relationship between religion, secularism, and nation situates them at the intersection of gender, class, and race. In its wide sweep, the book opens a number of avenues deserving of further study, in particular of new developments in anti-gender movements in Western countries, [2] how Muslim women appropriate or distance themselves from discourses linked to secularism, and the place of religious feminisms. [3]


  • [1]
    Mahmood S., 2009, Politique de la piété: le féminisme à l’épreuve du renouveau islamique, Paris, La Découverte.
  • [2]
    Kuhar R., Paternotte D. (eds.), 2018, Campagnes anti-genre en Europe. Des mobilisations contre l’égalité, Lyon, Presses universitaires de Lyon.
  • [3]
    De Gasquet B., 2019, Quels espaces pour les féminismes religieux? Nouvelles Questions Féministes, 38(1), 18–35.
Uploaded on on 04/12/2020
Distribution électronique pour I.N.E.D © I.N.E.D. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait