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Zillah Eisenstein

Zillah Eisenstein has written feminist theory in North America for the past thirty years. She is an internationally renowned writer and activist and Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York.

Sexularism and the female body

If the "western" woman is to be liberated, we should stand with women across the globe to end the war on women's bodies.
Last Modified: 11 Feb 2013 13:59
Progressives, and especially women of all colours, stood against the Republican "war on women" in the 2012 election and voted for their sexual/bodily rights [Getty Images]

I do not get it. The Obama administration has proposed a "compromise" of the Affordable Health Care Act that allows church and religious groups to exclude birth control from insurance they provide employees. Insurance companies are instead expected to cover the cost. (How exactly this works is not at all clear.) I thought this had been resolved and that women, especially young women voted overwhelmingly for Obama because he stood with them and their sexual rights.  

Obama sided with women against the "war" that the Republicans launched against us. Why are we back at it again in new wolf's clothing? The phrase "war on women" was chosen in part by reproductive rights activists to depict the continual Republican assaults against women's rights to abortion and health care more generally. After the mid-term elections, more than 1,100 provisions restricting women's access to abortion on the state level were initiated. 

Mandatory ultrasounds were discussed in Virginia, Iowa, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and Alabama. Catholic Bishops led an assault on health care provisions in the Affordable Care Act that would require contraceptives to be paid for by insurance companies. An all-male panel was convened by Darrell Isa to consider the validity of contraceptive mandates. 

The Georgetown law student, Sandra Fluke, was disallowed from speaking before the panel. Rush Limbaugh called her a slut and prostitute and suggested that contraceptives are necessary for women who just want too much sex. The federal funding for Planned Parenthood was once again fodder for right-wing anti-abortion activists, and it even invaded the well-known breast cancer Komen foundation, supposedly dedicated to women's health. 

A majority of women in the US use contraception at present or have in the past or intend to in their future. Although the numbers are always debated, some studies show that as many as 95 percent of Catholics have used a kind of birth control at some point in their lives. So what gives?                                   

(Religious) wars on women 

Progressives, and especially women of all colours, stood against the Republican "war on women" in the 2012 election and voted for their sexual/bodily rights. This includes an indictment of religious creeds that are patriarchal and misogynistic. It then seems outrageous that "religious freedom" or "religious liberty" appears to be a trump card in the denial of free coverage of birth control for US women. This is a direct negation of women's rights to their sexual selves as a human/secular right.

 Healthcare a divisive issue in US election

Freedom of religion derives from the first amendment. But this simply means that there can be no prohibition on the free exercise of religion. It does not mean that particular stances of religion be endorsed by the state; or that religion has "special standing" above all other rights; or that it be automatically privileged against all other competing commitments; or that it get a ready pass of its outdated patriarchal coda with no argument. I am all for freedom for religions just as long as they do not get sway and power over the public and private domains that allow for women and girl's sexual agency and rights. 

I find the automatic deference to "religion" deeply disturbing. It leads to capitulation and not compromise. Compromise presumes a level playing field. It is interesting that western religious leaders are so ready to see religious oppression of women elsewhere - in Afghanistan, or Algeria or Egypt. And although there are egregious violations in these instances, the oppressiveness of religion also deeply exists in its own forms towards women here at home. 

I keep wondering what exactly "the religious grounds" are that allow the right of exception here? The fact that few seem to feel the need to specify the particular justification is more problematic than any reason could be. What exactly is a "religious objection" to birth control? That sex is fornication? Or women should only have sex if they intend to birth a child? No wonder silence is chosen instead of these explanations. Women, many who are religious, practice birth control. They need recognition. 

I call attention to the assumed privileging of religious dogma - outdated and anachronistic as it is. Most religion itself is a normalisation of patriarchal hierarchical privilege. Just ask Eve. To acknowledge religious preference is to defer to it. There is little democratic hope for secular states that deny the constant tension between the two realms. And, it makes no sense to defer to official church creed when women using contraception ignore it anyway.  

Women are members and players in all churches and need to be recognised as such. This present proposed birth control compromise defies the fact that religious women ignore the church in their private practices. Patriarchal misogyny disallows women sexual rights to their bodies while they practice birth control. Secularism should require/necessitate sexual rights and a limit to religious privilege over female bodies.  

There are many religious women in the US and in Islamic countries as well who believe their texts - the Bible or the Quran - can and should be interpreted in terms of sexual egalitarianism. So who gets to interpret the text and who gets to be recognised as the Church per se? The same (Catholic) church that turned a blind eye towards paedophilia and the sexual abuse of hundreds of children for decades does not get to legislate the sexual practices of women and girls. Instead of deference, careful interrogation and challenge of religious privilege is needed here. 

It should also be pointed out that female bodies - slave and free alike - were not at the forethought of the founding fathers, which were also old white males. The separation of church and state was crafted as a divide with no recognition of racialised and sexualised exclusion but that did not stop the re-interpretation and expansion of the meaning of citizenry. Fabulous forays into legal rights for people of all colours and women have been made/interpreted/extended from their initial musings. Demanding sexual rights is a righteous part of this history. 

What was intended for this phrase "freedom of religion"? The founding fathers obviously did not have "the ladies" of any colour in mind when they were crafting it. This is why I am not a strict constructionist of the constitution or any (religious) doctrine. New contexts and needs continually change and reinterpret new possibilities. Static doctrine is always in need of rethinking. 

Freedom of/for sexual bodies 

"If you allow misogynist religious practices to be normalised politically, then they parade in secular form and destroy the possibility of democratic sexual rights for women."

The word "woman" - which has been a nemesis for feminism and also its glorious idea of a collectivity - is both too inclusive and not inclusive enough in this war of words and deeds. It is not particularly single young women who are under siege but all women are as well: married and unmarried, sexually active women of all colours and especially poor women, women who have already had the children they choose to. 

If feminism of any sort matters in this instance it is that women and girls get to decide about their bodies as independent selves. But the Republicans evade this discussion and instead put forward an anti-government stance toward health care and choose to protect their kind of family - from encroachment. And "the" church and "religious" groups feign outrage at the mere thought of sex, let alone sexual rights. 

So here it is: freedom of/for religion has nothing to do with my body or my daughter's or any woman's or girl's body and what she gets to do with it. Contraceptives are a woman's right to control her body. Freedom of religion means you are free to choose and practice whatever religion you want to, if you want to, but it does not mean that you get to have any particular view of anyone's bodily integrity. Reimbursement for contraceptives is my right if I choose it. In a secular state I get to freely choose what my body needs and that means that I need access to/for my choice. The Affordable Health Act should make sure that this is so. 

The clear divides between public and private; political and religious; church and state; secular and religious never hold. The realms are never separate but they are distinct and different and need careful negotiation and re-scoping. If the state defers at the start to religion while posturing a guarded distance, it does not bode well for women's rights or their sexual freedom. Female bodies are the canary in the mine. If you allow misogynist religious practices to be normalised politically, then they parade in secular form and destroy the possibility of democratic sexual rights for women.  

There is a politics to sex because the personal is political. If the "western" woman is to be ever truly liberated, we need to stand with women here in the US and in Tahrir Square and the streets of Delhi and across this globe to end the war on women's bodies. Compromise on this will not do. 

Hopefully, you might join "A Billion Women Rising" as we take to the streets on February 14 - women and girls - with men, across this entire globe standing against sexual violence and for sexual rights. Our bodies. Our lives. Our sexular selves.

Zillah Eisenstein has written feminist theory in North America for the past 30 years. She writes in order to engage in political struggles for social justice across the globe. She is an internationally renowned writer and activist and Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York. Her most recent books with Zed Press, London include: The Audacity of Races and Genders (2009); Sexual Decoys, Gender, Race and War (2007); and Against Empire (2004).

1722

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