Is secularism really better for women?

Sex, niqabs, and the secular state

In October 2017, Quebec’s National Assembly passed legislation prohibiting women from receiving public services while wearing a niqab, which covers the wearer’s face. Muslim women were among those who objected. Saima Sajid said to Globe and Mail reporter Ingrid Peritz, “If you choose to wear a bikini, why can’t I cover myself?” These contrasting approaches to women’s bodies and sexuality lie at the heart of gender historian Joan Wallach Scott’s probing and intentionally provocative new book, Sex and Secularism.

Sex and Secularism is the tenth title to appear in Princeton University Press’s Public Square series, which aims to “showcase some of the world’s finest public intellectuals writing on topics at the forefront of political discourse.” Other series authors, especially Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore and University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum, will likely be better known to LRC readers. But the internationally renowned Scott has arguably had more influence within the academy. Yale’s Joanne Meyerowitz called Scott’s pioneering 1986 article “Gender: a useful category of historical analysis” a “foundational text” of women’s and gender history. “Gender” continues to appear on syllabi across North America, and to be used and cited by scholars across the globe. Scott’s five subsequent single-authored books have been translated into eleven languages and she has received honourary degrees from universities around the world, including Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Concordia, Université du Québec à Montréal, and the University of Bergen in Norway. France made Scott a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 2017.

The seeds of Sex and Secularism were planted in The Politics of the Veil (2007), Scott’s first Public Square book. Turning her critical feminist historical eye to the heated debates around the headscarf then raging in France, home to western Europe’s largest Muslim population, Scott asked how it was that one article of Muslim women’s clothing—the veil, as the headscarf became known in France—could be endowed with such symbolic significance in French political life. How could a 2004 ban on the wearing of “conspicuous signs” of religious affiliation in public schools, a term that included large crosses and skullcaps but targeted headscarves, become such an important plank in the French response to the political uncertainties and violence of the post-9/11 world?

To analyze debates over the headscarf, Scott drew on 40 years of experience as a historian of France to survey the country’s historical relationship to racism, individualism, colonialism, and secularism. Scott challenged French assumptions about the superiority of the country’s approach to gender roles and sexuality, asking whether women’s ability to exchange “desirous looks” with men should really be considered a marker of gender equality.1 She argued further that one reason French men, including then-president Jacques Chirac, found the veil so objectionable was their belief that it robbed them of the sexualized pleasure of seeing Muslim women’s faces. Perhaps predictably, the book was translated into Arabic long before it was translated into French.

Although The Politics of the Veil was set firmly within the context of France’s relationship to both its variant of secularism, known as laïcité, and the country’s tangled colonial past, it offered a method and explanatory framework for thinking about the symbolic politics surrounding Muslim women’s clothing in other western jurisdictions, including Quebec. In Sex and Secularism, Scott broadens her scope geographically and temporally. Here the subject is women’s relationship to secularism in modern western nation-states.

This is a big and complex subject for a compact volume, but Scott is especially well-positioned to tackle it. Long before North American universities began trumpeting the virtues of interdisciplinary scholarship, Scott was reading, thinking, and writing across the humanities and social science disciplines. She joined the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton—of which Albert Einstein was an early faculty member—as professor in its school of social science in 1985, becoming the institute’s first female professor in almost 40 years. From this position of uncommon institutional prestige and power, especially for a feminist scholar, Scott has urged feminist scholars to engage with theory, especially French poststructuralist theory, and historians to engage critically with the past. She has been a force in altering how history is written and taught in North American universities.

Scott’s theoretically informed critical engagement with the past is on full display in Sex and Secularism. She warns readers in the introduction that “this is not a conventional intellectual or social history of the word secularism and its associated practices,” but “a set of arguments bound loosely by a periodization related to the emergence of modern western nation-states (from the 18th century on).” There is no narrative thread on which to hang the story and no image to feature on the stark red cover. For Scott, the book exemplifies Michel Foucault’s “history of the present,” which involves uncovering the history of contemporary terms whose meaning is taken for granted.

The book’s main goal, what Scott identifies as her “polemical aim,” is to counter the notion that gender equality is somehow inherent in secular societies, an idea that gets star billing in the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric of our post-9/11 world. Central to Scott’s investigation are the ways in which ideas about women, sexual difference (or gender), and women’s sexuality have figured in the discourses of secularism. Scott is convinced that ideas about men and women, and the sexual practices they should engage in, are fundamental to the ways that modern secular nation-states are conceptualized and organized.

Gender’s importance to politics was a concept first outlined in Scott’s 1986 article, and she now draws on examples from the huge body of literature in women’s and gender history that her work helped to spawn. She also utilizes the writings of an impressively diverse group of western and non-western intellectuals, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Max Weber all the way to Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and the political theorist Wendy Brown. The objective is to excavate the historical, and political, uses of secularism, which only emerged in the 19th century.

Terms such as secularism, Scott argues, gain meaning through their contrast with an opposite term, and this process obscures characteristics important to both terms. Although this insight comes from poststructuralism, Canadians, who are used to fashioning ideas about Canada and Canadian identity in opposition to the United States and American identity, are well positioned to appreciate its analytical merits. Scott’s story—and she is clear that she is analyzing the story that has been told about secularism and not any objective truth about it—pivots around a number of key oppositions: secularism versus religion, man versus woman, public versus private, west versus Orient, Christianity versus Islam.

Women’s relationship to religion starts things off. Scott demonstrates how, as modern nation-states emerged across the west in the aftermath of the 18th-century democratic revolutions in France and the United States, women everywhere were associated with secularism’s antithesis, religion. Partly this reflected the fact that women attended religious services and joined religious organizations in record numbers during the 19th century—so much so that campaigns had to be launched by century’s end to return men to the fold. But Scott is particularly interested in showing how secularist discourses defined women as emotional, superstitious, and, therefore, susceptible to religion, as opposed to supposedly rational men. In Scott’s analysis, therefore, the association between women and religion emerged not from any timeless religious teaching but rather was the product of a secularist worldview. And in secular societies, both religion and women were deemed inferior.

Historians of women have written extensively on the role of women in 19th-century western religion, but Scott’s focus on secularism allows her to offer fresh insights into the historical processes involved in women’s subordination in modern nation-states. Particularly interesting are her comments about the political ramifications of the woman-religion association in secularizing societies. In France, where the Catholic Church was perceived as a threat to the French Revolution of the late 18th century and the Third Republic of the late 19th century, secularism was initially defined firmly against Catholicism. Women’s strong support for Catholic offerings cast them as potential political dangers to the republic, which helps explain why French women only received the vote in 1944, long after it was granted in most other western states.

Scott was surprised to discover that, in other political contexts, secularism could encompass religion, rather than being in opposition to it. In countries where Protestantism was dominant and not a threat to the state, such as the United States and parts of Germany, the Christian tradition could be enfolded into secularism. In these situations, Protestantism was perceived as a liberal alternative to both Catholicism and the supposedly oppressive religions of the Orient.

Yet this did not necessarily advantage Protestant women. As Scott nicely illustrates, Protestant churches were allowed a political role in the post-revolutionary American republic only after lay women, who had played important roles in outsider religious sects in 17th- and 18th-century England and colonial America, were firmly subordinated to male ministers. Nineteenth-century American Protestant ministers soon became some of the staunchest defenders of what became known as the ideology of separate spheres, which ordained that men should inhabit the public sphere, including the economy and politics, while women were to look after the private spheres of home and religion.

The increasingly secular world that emerged in the 19th-century west brought new restrictions for women, and these were exported to far-flung colonial settings. In the late 19th-century Ottoman Empire, moreover, jurists reformed law in ways that mapped western understandings of gender division and asymmetry onto older indigenous traditions.

Science provided the intellectual justification for claims about the inequality of women in 19th-century thought. Sex and Secularism’s second chapter explores how the division of society into separate spheres was grounded in nature and human biology and resolutely defended by men of science, whose prestige was in the ascendancy in the secularizing 19th-century west. Anatomical drawings exaggerated the size of women’s pelvises and men’s brains, while doctors countered women’s demands to be allowed to attend university by arguing that sustained intellectual activity would harm their reproductive organs and compromise their ability to bear children.

Feminist demands eventually bore fruit. Universities and colleges began opening their doors to women in the late 19th century, although the number of female students remained only a small percentage of the already small number of students attending university in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The long history of discrimination against women surveyed in these chapters sets the context for the current political moment, in which examples of sexual harassment and worse are exposed on a seemingly daily basis.

The rigid sexual division of labour also held for political life. If religion had legitimated political rule in pre-modern Europe, political theory guided the leaders of modern nation-states as they groped toward new relationships between the governing class and the governed. Scott has written extensively on the vexed relationship of women to republicanism in France, and she outlines here how women were disqualified from political citizenship in western political theory and marginalized in the political life of emerging western nation-states. Middle class women were allowed to “stretch” their sphere through charitable works and reform and religious activity, but political citizenship eluded women until the 20th century. And, once won, the vote proved less transformative than suffrage activists had hoped.

None of this will be new to historians of western women, but Scott takes the story further afield, illustrating how gender asymmetry also characterized the non-western nation-states that emerged in Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon in the first half of the 20th century. In the end, Scott argues convincingly, gender-based notions of difference are fundamental to the conceptualization of political modernity and secular subjects.

Scott’s final two chapters bring secularism’s story to the present. She neatly illustrates how Cold War political discourses, which cast the enemy Soviet communists as atheists and materialists, allowed Christianity to take a place alongside liberty and democracy in the defence of western civilization. In the United States, Cold War political alignments pushed religion to the centre of political life in new and lasting ways. In Europe, Christian democratic parties (including the one now headed by Angela Merkel) moved into the political void left by fascism’s defeat. After the collapse of communist regimes across Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, religion, this time in the form of Islam, provided a new ideological enemy for the west.

The Cold War years left their mark on women and sex on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In the west, the 1960s brought the emergence of sexual freedom as a basic tenet of democracy, and “sexual citizenship” became a marker distinguishing western democracies from other supposedly less developed nations. Further east, a communist style of gender politics mixed rhetorical commitment to gender equality with high rates of labour-force participation and punishing shortages of most consumer goods (and birth control). Three decades later, the collapse of communist regimes brought a new emphasis on “sexualized individualism,” based in sex, cosmetics, beauty, and fashion. These were all thought to be in short supply under the grey, often gerontocratic, regimes of late communism. When it came to gender politics, the former political foes had found a new unity of purpose.

Sex and Secularism concludes by showing how these developments fed into the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric characteristic of the post-9/11 world. A democratic, secular-but-Christian west rhetorically committed to gender equality and women’s right to sexual expression faced off against an Islam represented as totalitarian and oppressive to women. In Europe, Muslims, who are increasingly described in racialized ways, take the place once assigned to Jews as the continent’s impossible to assimilate “other.” The “clash of civilizations” rhetoric has set the stage for calls to legislate how Muslim women living in western jurisdictions clothe their bodies, with those calling for restrictions on headscarves, veils, niqabs, and burkinis doing so in the name of women’s right to self-determination and gender equality.

The rhetoric, Scott writes persuasively, also obscures important realities on both sides of the political divide. Among other things, the focus on western women’s right to a liberated sexuality draws “attention away from the economic and social disadvantages that result from discrimination and structured forms of inequality,” and from the continued objectification of women. In Canada, for instance, women aged 25 to 54 still only earn 87 cents for every dollar earned by men, while a majority of women (56 percent of women in that same age cohort) continue to be employed in jobs and sectors of the economy that are traditionally associated with women, e.g. teaching, nursing, social work, sales, service, or administration. These “women’s jobs” are less well remunerated than those held traditionally by men. Moreover, new stories of women’s harassment in the performing and creative arts continue to come to light. Meanwhile, Muslim women living in the west, including Saima Sajid, make clear that they do not feel oppressed by their religious garments. Wearing niqabs or face veils, they contend, allows them to be evaluated based on who they are and what they can contribute to society, not on their physical attractiveness or use of makeup.

Sex and Secularism is a challenging, timely, and important book. Scott herself admits that “some readers will find the juxtapositions to be unlikely; some will want more contextualization than I have provided. Some will chafe at what they deem to be overly sweeping trans-geographic historical claims about gender, sexuality, secularism, state formation, and capitalism.” Her aim, she continues, was to “open—not to definitively close—a conversation about the place of gender equality in the discourse of secularism.” That she has definitively done, as few other scholars could. Readers of Sex and Secularism will be forced to rethink their assumptions about the role of women and their bodies in contemporary political debates, including those swirling around the niqab in Quebec.


  1. Readers interested in a journalistic exploration of how “seduction” informs everyday interactions in France should peruse <i>La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life</i> (2011), by former <i>New York Times</i> Paris bureau chief Elaine Sciolino.