Postsecular Feminisms

Religion and Gender in Transnational Context

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Nandini Deo
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Publishing
    , July
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The volume Postsecular Feminisms: Religion and Gender in Transnational Context, edited by Nandini Deo, attempts to broaden our “empathetic imaginations” in understanding the vocabulary of piety and religious agency. The collection largely echoes Rosi Braidotti’s (in Transformations of Religion and the Public Sphere: Postsecular Public, Palgrave Macmillian, 2014) attempts to garner the “residual spirituality” in feminist and critical race theory- where agency and subjectivity are not solely aimed at producing counter subjectivities. 

Upon problematizing the liberal origins of secularism, the opening chapter draws a relationship between secularity, religion, and feminism. Tracing the emergence of a “civil society” marked by a visual presence of politicized religion in Europe, William J. Bulman debunks the liberal theory of secularization by establishing a variant understanding of “the secular” which is in dialogue with Christianity. It is within this framework of “refashioned Christianity” that Bulman locates the feminist writings of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The premise of this non-liberal “religious feminism” as in the writings of Mary Astell and others critiques the liberal historiography and social contract theory which presupposes patriarchy. Astell, for instance, employs a language of piety and reason in framing her feminist hermeneutics wherein she locates women as “practitioners of a purified, primitive Christianity” (29). Bulman regards this spiritual locale of early feminism within a postsecular genealogy where debunking the perceived liberal premise of feminism opens an arena for discursive, non-hierarchical exchange with non-western feminist traditions. 

Alka Arora argues for a feminist epistemology that could comprehend women’s individual and collective experience of the “sacred." Critiquing the premise of materialist feminism which has secularized and de-spiritualized the works of Gloria Anzaldua, Alice Walker, and Bell Hooks, Arora traces feminisms lack of a spiritual pedagogy and its inability to engage with the “sacred.” On locating the vocabulary of the spiritual within a decolonial premise,Arora positshow the sacred functions as a counter hegemonic force in indigenous goddess-centric societies, narratives of Afro-American women, and African women’s reinterpretation of  Christianity in challenging the political authority of slave owners. Upon tracing the feminist hermeneutics in Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism, Alka regards the project of postsecular feminism, as the “recovery of spiritual narratives that are anti-patriarchal and liberatory” (35).

Neera Chandhoke in “Rethinking Secularism and Democracy”,details the untranslatability of secular and religious vocabulary into each other. Chandhoke regards the postcolonial locale of Indian secularism as “contested and paradoxical” marked by the centrality of politicized religion in India’s public sphere. The colonial, legal, and constitutional attempts of “reframing and reforming” the religious vocabulary is premised by Chandhoke in the disputed domain of secularity in accordance with the interests of the nation state. 

Reading Imran Khan’s political movement as a specific postsecular turn in Pakistani politics, Khurram Hussein parallelsKhan’susage of religious vocabulary to Allama Iqbal’s framing of Islam’s political philosophy. Hussein draws out the parallel between Khan’s critique of “secular self/state” to Iqbal’s positioning of Islam as an ideological alternative - with the (Muslim) Self engagedin an “active and engaged religiosity”. Khan’s postsecular locale cannot be oversimplified as a flimsy critique of secularism, but rather as a response of a specific kind of Islamic imaginary to post -9/11 political premises, and to the ideological baggage of coloniality. 

Placing the socio-political engagements of Malayali Muslim women within a complex array of Muslim reform discourse, secularism, and late modernity, R Santhosh attempts to conceptualize the genealogy of Islamic feminist discourse in Kerala. Tracing the post 1920s emergence of Muslim reform discourse, Santhosh sketches the divergent ways in which the traditionalist and reformist circles engaged with Muslim women - added to that was the premise of constitutional/legal vocabulary, rights discourse, and the specific minority positioning of the community. Santhosh regards the Muslim women’s movement as essentially heterogeneous - marked by conceptually conflicting ideological positionalities. What demarcates Santhosh’s study is its debunking of the perceived “purely religious premise” and re-positioning of the movement as a series of negotiations (or even a simultaneous employment and subversion) between the religious and secular lexicon.

Paralleling Ambedkarite Buddhism to Latin American liberation theology, Timothy J. Loftus’s “Dalit Feminism as Postsecular Feminism” examines how Ambedkar’s radical critique on caste and structural inequalities framed the language of Buddhism as an “egalitarian ideology”. Loftus regards the absence of Ambedkar from Euro-American imagination as evidence of the “untranslatability” of religion to European consciousness - with the transcendentalists and upper caste Hindu diaspora framing Buddhism as a (casteist) “psycho-spiritual” non- religion of the “dharmic” Hindu tradition. Loftus locates the centrality of religion among Dalit Buddhist feminists through Urmila Pawars and Timothi Moons study on Dalit women, wherein the women remarks on how “Buddhism makes a deep level of moral meaning” (121). The postsecular turn in Dalit feminism is marked by the pedagogic inadequacy of secular feminism to grapple with the language of caste intersectionality and religion. 

Drawing from Rosa Vasilaki, Christine L. Cusack locates the feminist engagements of Mormon women as a potential postsecular premise where agency is conceptualized through the simultaneous reproduction and transformation of social structures. Cusack’s positioning of agency is similar to that suggested by Braidotti wherein agency is not necessarily “oppositional in nature” but rather formulated through “a series of boundary negotiations” (137).

 “(Not so) Well-behaved Women: Piety and practice among 21st century Mormon Feminists” depicts the collective spaces of feminist activism Mormon women built inside the church. Centering their activism on the divine feminine, Mormon women organize prayer meetings, workshops and chronicle their movement through literary narrative and art installations. Cusack parallels this feminist positioning of “doing religion” and “doing feminism” to women in the Egyptian mosque movement - both engaged in a process of spiritual becoming

Arguing for an alternate feminist premise rooted in cultural specificities, Nana Akua Anyidoho traces the genealogy of feminist practice in Ghana - grounded on structural iniquity rather than a “rights-based” approach based on individual autonomy. Anyidoho argues, that the church and state remain ambiguous towards feminist practices - with the neo-Pentacostal church overlooking structural and religious inequalities of women and the State refusing to employ a feminist vocabulary in the broader developmental framework. In her study of Lady Health Workers in Pakistan, Afiya Zia indulges in a scathing critique of what she regards as the “postsecular scholarly interest in Islamist politics.” Zia brings in Lady Health Workers of Pakistan, a group threatened by militants for administering health care and vaccination to women. While the women’s refusal to adhere to preconceived gender roles - debunking the public/private dichotomy requires critical attention, Zia frames this within a working class/liberal feminist discourse as opposed to Islam, which is essentializing on its own. Debunking the works of Saba Mahmood, Humeira Iqtidar, Masooda Banu and Sadaf Aziz, Zia constructs a highly problematic binary of secular versus Islamic, secular feminism versus piety (which for Zia, has – “depoliticized feminism”) – without critically engaging with either. 

By exploring the postsecular turn in feminist theory, Postsecular Feminisms challenges the normative readings on feminism and religion and its complex entanglements with secularism. Attempting to frame a vocabulary for religious piety by bringing in narratives from multiple geopolitical locations, the volume has made a key intervention in the postsecular academic genealogy - primarily in gender and religious studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Simi K. Salim is a doctoral research fellow in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.

Date of Review: 
March 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nandini Deo is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University.


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