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Patriarchy and Fundamentalism Two Sides of the Same Coin

Cléo Fatoorehchi

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 24 2011 (IPS) - While “fundamentalism” has become something of a buzzword in the past few years, particularly in the West in connection with Islam, it in fact exists in every region and religion, and has a set of common characteristics, say activists who have studied the question for years.

To bring attention to the issue and how it affects women’s lives around the world, the international Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) launched a new report Wednesday on the sidelines of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women meeting in New York entitled “Towards a Future without Fundamentalisms”.

Following up on earlier research by AWID, the report says fundamentalist movements tend to be absolutist and intolerant, anti-women and patriarchal.

Saira Zuberi, who coordinates AWID’s Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms initiative, created in 2007, acknowledged religious fundamentalisms to be “very complex and sophisticated movements”.

Though they might have divergent focuses – Christian fundamentalism may focus on reproductive rights, and Muslim fundamentalism on “modest” clothing, for example – all of them seek social control, Zuberi said.

And to achieve their goals, the report argues that fundamentalisms can be opportunistic, seeking allies wherever they can find them, regardless of ideological purity.

According to Maria Consuelo Mejía, director of the civil society organisation Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (CDD – Catholics for the Right to Decide) in Mexico, her country is currently witnessing such a situation.

“In Mexico today, political pragmatism is everything. There is no ideology, there is no principle… because we are facing a pre-electoral period,” she told IPS.

“The PRI (International Revolutionary Party) is making an alliance with the Catholic Church, (but) they were not supposed to be the ones who make alliance with the Catholic Church, (while) the PAN (National Action Party) is making alliance with the PRD (Democratic Revolution Party),” she continued. “And that’s very harmful for us.”

Founded in 1994, the CDD advocates for the right of people to make their own choice regarding their sexuality and reproduction, and asks for the separation of church and state.

It conducted research from 2003 to 2005 in four Latin American countries – Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil – and concluded that about 60 percent of their Catholic populations agree on women’s right to abort under particular circumstances.

The CDD also noted that “at least 70 percent of the Catholic population in Mexico do not follow the moral teachings of the Catholic Church,” using contraceptives, getting abortions, and wanting sexual education in the schools, Mejía said. “Ninety to ninety-five percent don’t want the Catholic Church to influence public policies.”

A similar organisation called Catholics for Choice was formed in the United States in 1973, on the principle that religious beliefs should not undercut one’s right to make free decisions about reproductive health.

However, the pro-life movement is also very active in the U.S. Last week, conservative Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives cut funding to one of the nation’s largest reproductive health service providers for poor women, ostensibly because the group, Planned Parenthood, performs abortions.

While noting that many of these anti-abortion Republicans are Christian fundamentalists, Mejía also underscored the apparent contradiction between public poll results and the political influence of pro-life movements.

It often happens that “women who have an abortion will not support an administration in favour of women’s rights,” she told IPS. “Because (their abortion is about) solving their own problem, and because they really think that what we are doing, what they are doing is bad. This is the personal balance.”

“On the other hand, the so-called – badly-called – pro-life movement has many other ways and many other causes to unite their movement,” she emphasised. “And they have a lot of money, and … people in key positions.”

Mejía also stressed to IPS that most of the population is afraid, and thus don’t speak out. Mexico City is the only part of Mexico where women can receive abortion on demand up to 12 weeks into their pregnancy.

“Patriarchy is really a factor, a very important reason [behind] fundamentalism,” she explained. And “breaking patriarchy is a problem, because (it means) breaking the whole system of functioning of our society.”

Thus, “women’s autonomy is breaking a morale of domination, and a model of operating a society (as a whole),” she said.

Lydia Alpizar, executive director of AWID, noted that “women can [also] be fundamentalists, and there are many fundamentalist women [who advocate] against women’s sexual autonomy, against reproductive rights, against sexual education, etc.”

AWID’s report dedicates its last and largest part to feminist strategies of resistance, underlining the importance of “reclaiming a feminist vision of religion and the family.”

As the Indian women’s rights activist Pramada Menon is quoted as saying in the report, “For a very long time, those of us who work within women’s human rights have not really worked on issues of religion. I suspect this has to do with our desire to appear secular.”

Women’s rights activists now make a point of dialoguing and debating with religious fundamentalists.

Haven Herrin, a young woman from Dallas, firmly believes in the power of dialogue. For three years she has been riding around the United States in a Soulforce Q bus, stopping by universities to discuss religion and LGBTQI rights. Her purpose is less to win the debate than to raise awareness and make people think about these issues.

“All of this is only a smoke screen,” she says, the real issue is a patriarchal society, and debate is crucial for changing minds.

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