Secularism and nationally-driven feminism

Author: Marina Mironica

[1] The problem of integrating feminism and Marxism became one of the big questions in my inchoate theoretical encounters. If one takes a look at how theoreticians of both paradigms are defending their point of view, it seems that the waters are moody and it’s troublesome to get to a common ground; a starting point that would help to advance our theories to the public. Instead, we have just arguments about whether one is more important than the other. The problem with this is that while Marxists and Feminists are struggling to prove their best points, other less valuable and suitable theories are coming to fill the void left after the “bloody fights”.

In this text, I’m trying to consider different opinions and theoretical approaches to women’s position in the labour division of reproduction work in western societies. Specifically, I’m interested in how European and western secularism is trying to incorporate and make use of its arguments in its pursue of commodifying non-western women labour-power. The question is how can feminism and marxism explain secularism’s influence on the assigned roles to women and men in the capitalist mode of production, or which combination of them helps us to advance in our understanding.

In the ”The unhappy marriage of marxism and feminism” Hartmann (1979) argues that there is no real stake for science to continue this way and a productive approach, which would imply both theories, should be put in use. The subordinate relation to Marxism, in which feminism was to be found is of no use for a complete understanding of capitalist societies and of the position of women within them. Therefore, the contributions of Sara Farris and Joan Wallach Scott are examples of how, if put together, different approaches could make more sense and, most importantly, help us understand and articulate some action points in our fight against patriarchy, inequality, sexism, and exploitation.

The authors are writing about the position and roles which were and continue to be appointed to women in Western, but most important in contemporary non-Western societies. While Sara Farris is taking a feminist Marxist position of argumentation and comes to explain how economic interests are prevailing in comparison to identity politics, ‘secularism crusades’ or liberal feminist discourse, Scott is looking closely at our understanding of gender relations as Christian-secular society. Joan Wallach Scott has a post-structuralist approach and looks at how sex and gender identity was used in the secularisation process of different cultures.

Farris wrote in her book In the name of women’s rights (2017) on how to rescue narratives of the right-wing parties have become common for some feminists and femocrats[2]. They accommodated this discourse of the need to rescue Muslim-women from their patriarchal societies. Her point is articulated around global politics and how they induced to us the perspective in which Western countries have the duty to rescue other societies, and particularly, their women since they are easier to ‘integrate’ in local economies. She says there is an economical reason for this general call to rescue, and namely, that of bringing up the liberated women in the western societies for reproductive work. According to Farris, the different way Muslim-men and Muslim-women are regarded in Western media is due to their market utility: men are job-stealers, while women could undertake the undervalued, but very needed work of reproduction which has become commodified in the neo-liberal societies. “Feminists and femocrats who have endorsed this anti-Muslim feminist discourse are militating for the liberation of these women under all kinds of integrations programs, which as result will put these Muslim-women in the same reproduction and care sectors which they fight against because it’s feminized, super-exploitative and low-status and low-paid.“ (Farris, 2018), thus generating a vicious circle. For Sara Farris, secularism – understood as being reformist and with an assimilation and naturalisation purpose –  is just another instrument of the capitalist system, as its main purpose is to extend and find more sources of exploitation. The problematic step is that some feminists assume this greed of capitalism without questioning it and contribute with their effort and goodwill to the creation of a new, yet old and more sophisticated system of oppression. As it often happens, liberatory and apparently progressive measures are misused and contribute to perpetually unjust relations. Farris’s input is very valuable and should become a starting point in a more critical view of what liberal politics mean.

Joan Wallach Scott’s book “Sex and Secularism” (2017) is regarded by Peter Coviello as an inspiring instance of debunking the idea that secularism could perform as “the guarantor of equality between women and men”. Secularism is presented to us, and almost generally accepted, as the only good way to emancipate our societies, to liberate women from the patriarchal dominance, which is embedded in religious beliefs, according to theories of secularism. Although this sounds promising and it summons Christians and Muslims to secularism, it is known that secularism is a concept highly influenced by Christianity, due to its development in the European cultural landscape. And this would mean nothing if western countries wouldn’t have had the economic dominance and the always-changing greedy system of production under capitalism it has.

Let’s return to the analysis proposed by the two authors and see how their contributions could widen up our understanding of secularism from a feminist perspective. And here I’m happy to say that they complete each other like a puzzle. Scott is a historian working with psychoanalysis theories, so she has got the explanations for how did we get here, how our society is so gendered biased and where does all the structural sexual division of labour come from. Namely, she talks about Lacanian theories and leans to explain the actual context through an unfulfilled desire coming from general human insecurity. No matter how explanatory or not I find this theory, the fact is that Marxist theory doesn’t provide any kind of explanation of the origins of our social structure. It comes clear to us that these structural inequalities of gender and class are inherent to the capitalist mode of production, but it’s not really obvious how this particular path was encountered. So, I find Scott’s contribution useful for the sake of being able to continue the analysis of our modern society, where no social relations could and may be considered otherwise than intersectional. Moreover, they should be taking into account the vulnerable position of women due to the patriarchal system and the class conflict which arises not only at the national society level, but in our globalized time, at the level of the world system, too.

Nadia Fadil comes with the concept of “taming the Muslim woman” which seems to be the official approach of the western state institutions toward its new citizens. By wearing burkini or hijab, Muslim women are seen by the right-wingers as representatives of the terrorists, are framed as ideological steps and are presented as some kind of Trojan horses which should make us anxious and afraid of what they could hide under their veil. At the same time, Fadil says that Muslim men are presented as untameable wolves, while Muslim women could be associated with witches, as Federici presented them in her book Caliban and the Witch. Federici’s argument on witches is that they withstood the new economy of (reproduction) labour introduced in the times of the post-feudal restructuring of European societies. It also implies Farris’s argument: that “female bodies are primarily captured as passive and social actors, instrumental to the neoliberal restructuring of the market”. Though in many cases Muslim women “appear as hyperactive, cunning figures” (Fadil, 2018), almost like witches, they are seen as tameable. Following this logic, the discourse of the oppressed Muslim woman serves primarily to the female labour power regulation in a new racial division of the female labour force, as Farris also describes it. Scott, on the other side, uses this point to discuss a new configuration of secularism where we have privatization of the female body and not the emancipation which was promised by secularization. This happens due to the structural factors which have put women in this kind of relations – in which some more privileged women have to exploit other women in order to be able to compete on the labour market side by side with men. And here, feminism is taking a nationalist shift, becoming exclusivist feminism, namely, femonationalism – oriented to fulfill the needs of the nation. It is a feminism that fights for the ‘local women’s’ rights while diminishing others (from outside the nation) women’s rights.

Secularism has been defined as a renouncement to any religious belief and not as the right to choose which religion to embrace. This pursuit is explicitly followed by western governments and here the Muslim woman appears as a passive figure which is used as a battlefield for governmental transformations. More than this, the Muslim woman is “explicitly divorced from her community and approached as individual” and any kind of resistance or sign that she wasn’t secularized, that she’s not a success of biopolitics is seen as a disappointment or treason for those who aimed to “save” and “tame” her (Nadia Fadil, 2018). Herein I see the differences in approaching the problem of the women and secularization in our globalized world. More specifically, the difference consists of where are these two means looking for solutions to the already existing situation – of inequality and discrimination of women. The two authors are coming with two general perspectives and I come to inquire which one fits better. Should we rethink the role of the state and its disciplinary politics toward its citizens and specifically to its emigrants, as Scott does? Or should we dismantle the capitalist mode of production which subverts all kinds of other political, social and cultural actions we do try to enact on marginalized members of our society? The forever question of what is more relevant: politics as state affairs or economy and its imperatives.

But what’s the role of secularism or even its fault, could one ask, since we are talking about the economy and global politics. Secularism hasn’t acquired the political dimensions, secularism was from the beginning political in its fights and aspirations. Peter Caviello (2018) tells us that as Huntington predicted a clash of civilizations for the new millennium and later on G. W. Bush started the war on terrorists, the new purpose of the global politics has become to spread civilizational messages. And when Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris[3] declared that the clash has more to do “with eros not with demos”, the “gap in values” started to be regarded as a problem “between the West and the Muslim world”. A gap that should be solved through a commitment to “gender equality and secular liberalization”. These ideas were “the happy offspring of secularization, that great gift of disenchantment” which was coming from liberals. Later on, these ideas have become the “new common sense about global women’s rights and saving Muslim women in particular” (Lila Abu-Lughod via Coviello, 2018). Even if for me it’s not clear how these particular values – eros and women’s rights – have been chosen, Joan Scott has an explanation for how those were instrumentalised. She is repurposing the Lacanian framework and explains the unknowability of sex which is so important for the secular legitimacy and which is “a figure for democracy’s own foundational indeterminacy”. Looking through the lenses of Lacanian theory it appears as a fair enough point.

While Non-western women are described as credulous and superstitious, it is said that secularism provides a right to choose belief, hence to fulfill the inherent abilities and beliefs one has, whichever these are. On the other side, the option of choosing is associated only with the right to choose disbelief, i.e. secularism. But how could one choose something that is so strongly influenced by the Christian religion – secularism? Moreover, it is put forward as being free of religious roots and able to accommodate everyone, regardless of their beliefs.

Sara Farris and Joan Scott both agree that “secularism is an environing alibi for hegemonic liberalism and its imperatives” nowadays. They refuse to “think in a positive way about the gender liberation which the secular liberalism is selling to us.“ I find their point inspiring and it’s theoretically stimulating that we can consider such ample and decisive areas of our societies: feminism and secularism in a new, “pervasive interrogative non dismissiveness” way, as Caviello tellingly expressed it. Indeed, it’s a hard task to distinguish real feminist demands from exploitative and patriarchal practices, since “gender inequality has been hardwired into the politics of secularism”. Scott brings the metaphor that secularism and gender inequality “it’s a feature, not a bug”, meaning that it was always there, maybe even intended. Therefore, we cannot hope that secularism will solve our problem, because secularism is also hardwired with power relations, with the capitalist mode of production. I acknowledge that a multi-paradigmatic analysis of the role of non-Western women in the global economic system and in the local reproduction-work market is essential for understanding what has to be done in order to provide if demanded, a real help for them.



Eisenstein, Hester, 1989, Femocrats, Official Feminism, and the Uses of Power: A Case Study of EEO Implementation in New South Wales, Australia, Volume 2, Issue 1 Yale Journal of Law & Feminism

Hartmann, Heidi I., 1979, The unhappy marriage of marxism and feminism: Towards a more progressive union, Volume: 3 issue: 2, page(s): 1-33

Farris, Sara, 2017, In the name of women’s rights: The rise of femonationalism, Duke University Press

Scott, Joan Wallach, 2017, Sex and Secularism, Princeton University Press

Blog posts: (Opened in February 2018) (Opened in February 2018) (Opened in February 2018) (Opened in February 2018)


[1]The text is a result of the semester project prepared for Paradigms of Secularisation class at the Faculty of Sociology and Social Work, BBU (Cluj). This text is a reflexion based on four other entries from the blog The Immanent Frame on the subject Sex, Secularism and “Femonationalism” from 2018. It’s an opinion essay which looks at the expressed perspectives and seeks to come with an understanding of the subject, by whether taking one particular side or coming with a new formula of understanding secularism and feminism.

[2] Femocrats is a term used often to distinguish feminist believers from official feminism voices meant to reproduce the state structures. As Hester Eisenstein (1989) defines it:  Femocrats were seen as being at the opposite end of the spectrum from the true feminist believers. […] The opposition, then, was between revolutionary feminism of the streets, outside the corrupt system of power and prestige, and the official feminism of the state, which created bureaucrats in its own image. The femocrats were seen as painted birds whose role it was to contain and to dissipate the energy of the women’s movement.

[3] Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris claimed this back in 2003, in the pages of Foreign Policy (Link here:

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