I enjoyed reading the editorial on faith and the Left in Issue 20. I have been active in faith-based movements for a number of years and in Leftist movements for just as long. I was glad to see a good overview and analysis of the many faith movements that have been at the forefront of social justice, especially liberation theology in Latin America and its impact on other parts of the world.
I grew up steeped in conservative Christian theology, the kind that will fill you with shame and guilt. I also grew up in a Muslim majority country, where I was afraid the police would arrest me for walking late at night in the street or for simply being in a car with an unrelated male. Religious patriarchy, both Christian and Muslim, oppressed me in different and overlapping ways, limiting my options, my movement, and my freedom. So I know a bit about the heavy-handedness of religion, but I also understand how it permeates social relations and society in unique and even positive ways for many.
As I read the opening of the editorial, and the story of the male Muslim speaker asking the women to go the back of the crowd, I felt unease about it. The speaker was performing funeral rites. On the one hand, the unease was similar to that of your editors. I felt anger at the image of men coming to the front and women retreating to the back. But on the other hand, I felt unease at this sentiment within me. This is a familiar contradiction that I hold within me about religion and faith. Religion is not an entity floating on its own, but is tied to identity, history, and community. People practice for many reasons and in different ways. Some of these practices, like the funeral rites, are gendered practices. Some of the spaces or practices that may seem to liberal secular feminists as oppressive are not to women in those religious communities. Sometimes oppression can be subjective.
Women can and have found a sense of belonging, purpose, and even political awakening in gendered spaces like mosques. This is manifested in many ways in the spaces where Islam is the majority religion. Rights in the Middle East are not solely or even mainly granted by a liberal secular state, but are expressed with relationships, kin, and community. In the Global North, people mostly rely on the state to express and give us those rights, whereas people in the Global South, especially in failed democracies, rely on their communities, kin, or clan as the site of rights, power, and responsibility. Women must contend with and challenge religious patriarchy, but religion in its gendered form also offers liberation within it. The question that lingers for me is: why do we as radical leftists find no problem with a woman choosing to wear the hijab or the niqab, but feel angry at other gendered practices? Women wear the veil for many reasons, and one of them is simply for piety and modesty, not for representation or to express a unique identity. A more nuanced understanding is necessary, or at least an understanding of Islam and women on their own terms. As feminists, are we simply defending a woman’s right to represent herself in hijab because we are angry at the colonial projects that have used women’s bodies to go to war or because of the process of racialization in the Global North? If there was no Orientalism or colonialism, how would we feel about another culture’s religion or cultural practices? I believe that a part of decolonization is to understand religious and cultural practices on their own terms, rather than as an expression of resistance to colonialism.
For decades, Middle Eastern women have been fighting for equal rights in citizenship, inheritance, divorce, and custody. The state uses patriarchal religion to entrench its power. Often the oppression of women’s rights becomes a compromise of peace between elite men and working class men. Many women use religion, piety, and modesty to fight for these rights—and to fight this patriarchy—and do so through gendered spaces. What if we read the incident at the anti-racism rally where there was a call for men to come forward and the women to go back as a sort of protection for women from sexual harassment, as a way to separate men because we know they can be dangerous? Don’t we secular radical feminists also have spaces for women and trans people? We also think about safer spaces and have created spaces specifically for women, children, LGBTQ people, POCs, and so forth.
I do wholeheartedly agree with the editorial that the way for revolutionaries to find common ground with a person of faith is to uplift those aspects of religion that speak to the injustice of poverty, greed, and violence and to challenge the institutional power behind mainstream interpretation of religious text. I also believe this is something leftist activists of faith need to take up in their own communities, especially when these are communities of colour, and we should support them in this endeavour.
An aspect that I think the editorial overlooks is the cultural and religious appropriation among radical leftists in the Global North. This is especially true of the co-optation of eastern religions and spirituality. Often radical leftists are critical of religion but feel no qualms about cherry-picking their favourite spiritual practice stolen from religions, especially from Buddhism and Hinduism. I understand that Christianity has a terrible and violent history, which many understandably reject, but I often find it better to reclaim parts of Christian theology, through liberation theology for example, than to create a collage of Global South religions for Western consumption. This is deeply problematic and more often than not goes unchallenged in our spaces. At times, I have left spaces where the aesthetic is one of cultural appropriation of traditional dress, spiritual practices, music, and so forth. And in some cases, leftists invent and create hybrid practices and aesthetics based on religions from the Global South and spiritualties. We must have a more open discussion about this in our communities.
Thank you UTA for writing about this contentious subject. I really appreciate that we can explore this difficult topic together.