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When Secularism Fails Women

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One of the most incisive aspects of Joan Wallach Scott’s comparative argument is her attention to the role of secular transformations of law in colonial contexts, and the effects of such transformations on ways of organizing families and property. Drawing on the work of Judith Surkis, Wael Hallaq, Janet Halley, Kerry Rittich, and others, she shows that across British and French imperial contexts, distinctions drawn between civil, or contract, law and family law relegated women to the realm of “custom” or “religion,” thereby denying them equal status in civil law: “Indeed, the position of women in family law is itself the product of secularizing influences.”

[..] Though challenging the fixity of “woman” as a category makes intellectual sense, it does not erase the reality that people who are defined as women are more likely than those who are defined as men to be paid less, sexually harassed, or violently assaulted by family or strangers.

Questioning the egalitarian ideals of secularism is similarly fraught—activists have fought for everything from access to contraception, to fairer divorce laws, to same-sex marriage with appeals to a secular narrative of separating church and state. But the secular goals of these struggles—think of contraception activist Margaret Sanger—does not mean that these ideals of secularism may not also nurture racist xenophobia or white privilege rooted in colonial property laws (including laws that allowed slavery). Even a secular celebration of sexual emancipation, as Scott argues, is a gendered “freedom which does not necessarily confer equality.” A sexually emancipated world is one in which sexual harassment and predation against others who are less empowered still continues. More here.

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