Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

Gender, Cultures, Politics and Fundamentalisms in Africa


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Links between culture, religion and politics reflect an extreme complexity, in a contemporary context where political and religious issues clash at both national and international levels. Whatever its origin and nature, religion is woven into culture and can provide a solid foundation both to the most basic acts of daily life (greetings, food, taboos, legal provisions, moral rules of conduct) and to political decision making of major world powers in the late 20th century, despite the obviousness of some economic and geopolitical interests. Regarded as a dimension of privacy in countries mostly described as secular, religion goes far beyond the public and politics. Africa, our area of reflection, offers a variety of situations: some republics claim to be Islamic, others make Islam a state religion. In other countries that are federations, there are some states which apply the Sharia. The vast majority of states with large Muslim populations have enacted family codes, based wholly or partly on Islamic laws. All these phenomena assume an assuredly ‘political’ dimension. In the name of the Muslim or Christian religions, states and various movements are organizing themselves, and taking decisions and actions described as fundamentalist, as they are considering a necessary return to fundamental principles. Such beliefs have been the cause of much cultural, political and military violence that has claimed many lives among populations, and women especially.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Communist regimes of the 1990s were indicative of the death of ideologies and the resurgence of religions in the Western world. But can we really speak of a resurgence of religions in the world, while many societies have never ceased to convey the values and religious practices that give meaning to their daily lives?

In Africa, religion, its cultural logics and its institutions have always been the foundations on which societies have developed and have been transformed. Societies have had religious experiences, based on cultural, cosmological and mythological constructions; on the cults of ancestors; and on symbolic, initiatory, syncretic, messianic, brotherhood systems, etc. Islam and Christianity have developed on soils rich in spirituality, mysticism and piety in local religions. One can talk of a return to the sacred, but quite largely of continuity, the strengthening of a religious and cultural heritage embodied in everyday life, which is easily
the bed of fundamentalisms.

It is therefore about being aware of the sensitive place of religion and its impact on culture in contemporary social and political transformations. This phenomenon has significantly contributed to the backlash against women’s rights. While the secularization of laws has led to major progress in women’s rights, reinforced by three decades of major international conferences (on women, environment, human rights, population, etc.), such progress has always been challenged by fundamentalist movements. This phenomenon is the corollary of the various cultural tensions, no less fundamentalist, in the name of African culture; the consequences of which have been especially suffered by women. In the name of the African values that underlie national identities, it is increasingly difficult to make a reasoned criticism of social and cultural practices that are yet constantly evolving into living realities.

Religion, culture and politics have so much intertwined actions and confused their effects in the daily lives of people that it is extremely difficult to disentangle the various sources of influence. If we have usually accused religious actors of being fundamentalists, we must today extend our analysis to other actors in politics such as the neoliberal system and its propagators. Indeed, denouncing only religious and cultural fundamentalisms could mean to sever the claims against a prevailing world order. This unequal world order not only monopolizes political power and exploits the global resources for its own purposes, but it deprives large sections of the population of the freedom to exist, and move around as free, individual citizens of the world.

The neoliberal system is not only an economic, but also a social and political system, with the resurgence of right-wing parties in the West. It is a corollary of neo-conservatism which conveys religious and cultural values that are as traditionalist, conformist and regressive as those it claims to fight, for example, in the Muslim world. There is a genuine alliance between neoliberal and neoconservative organizations. They seek to promote values that are opposed to current socio-cultural changes in the name of Christian religious values of the Bible and the Gospels. They reject any critical review of such original texts. The impact of these values is critical for the situations of women in the world and in countries of the South, including those in Africa.

Among the struggles waged by women over the past thirty years, sexuality and fecundity have been key elements. In addition to their rights as citizens, which they should share with men on principles of equality enshrined in most constitutions, there are specific rights that affect women’s bodies, namely their physical, sexual and reproductive rights. Various provisions of criminal law, labor law or civil law governing relations between people, particularly between men and women, often wear the mark of gender difference, a difference that can be expressed in terms of inequalities. In the current context of women’s struggles to eradicate such inequalities, they are reinforced by national and international policies promulgated in the name of religious morality. It is important, through a multidisciplinary and comparative approach, to conduct a critical review of the nature and role of these various fundamentalisms that are emerging as social phenomena, as political discourses and practices. How do these fundamentalisms use religion, culture and politics to influence gender relations and perpetuate the oppression of women?

February 18 2011

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