[Methods] Beyond ‘Religion versus Emancipation’. Formulating Methodological Considerations about ‘the Secular’ in Public Controversies.


nella-2016In this post, Nella van den Brandt introduces the 2016-2021 project “Beyond ‘Religion versus Emancipation’: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Conversions to Judaism, Christianity and Islam in Contemporary Western Europe”, hosted at the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department of Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She argues that, by examining controversial events, her project sheds new light for understanding of how secularity shapes and is shaped by public discourse.

In 2016, the five-year research project “Beyond ‘Religion versus Emancipation’: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Conversions to Judaism, Christianity and Islam in Contemporary Western Europe”, funded by the Dutch Scientific Council, took off at the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department of Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Its main initiator is Anne-Marie Korte, and currently Lieke Schrijvers and I are involved as researchers.

My subproject, ‘Contemporary Controversies about Religion and Women’s Emancipation in Western-European Contexts: Great Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium’, started in September 2016. It will select and analyse contemporary controversial cases from public debates about religion, gender and sexuality. Of central importance to this project is the assumption that public debates predominantly constitute secular discourses about religion, gender and sexuality that emphasise women’s equality and sexual freedom (Gerhards et.al. 2009). An analysis of controversies in public debates, therefore, reveals secular normative understandings about women’s emancipation and the presuppositions underlying them. A second assumption is that these understandings about women’s emancipation are constituted partly through scrutinising and critiquing the norms, positions and roles laid out for women in monotheistic religious traditions and communities. Secular normative statements about women’s equality and emancipation can, therefore, be studied as ‘identity markers’ over and against religious communities. Voices from the religious communities scrutinised by ‘outsiders’, do, however, ‘speak back’. The controversies can therefore moreover be approached as constructing ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ religious identities through religious voices positing differences between religious communities and taking distance from mainstream secularised society (Anderson 1991, Aune 2011, van den Brandt 2014).

Following the angles described above, the main questions are: What are the interests, stakes and affective resonances of present-day constructions of women’s emancipation in public debates? How is women’s emancipation and equality discussed and

presented in relation to religions that profile themselves with strict rules on gender relations and sexuality? By studying current controversies in public debates, the project aims to clarify secular discourses which women converting to different religious traditions in West-European contexts have to negotiate.

What theoretical/methodological considerations does it require to study ‘secular discourses about women’s emancipation’? As mentioned above, the project conceptualises public statements and discussions about religious minorities as constituting secular discourses and understandings about women’s emancipation. There are three concepts which are central to this subproject – i.e. secular, discourse, and emancipation. Secular is conceptualised as being shaped discursively, and importantly, as emerging in relation/opposition to religious minoritised communities. Discourse is understood as narratives that enable the construction of particular concepts, identity positions and self-understandings. As such, discussing women’s emancipation, equality and sexual freedom in the context of critiquing religious traditions, enables a secular/ised self-understanding as ‘different from religious subjects’. Emancipation includes both implicit and explicit assumptions about what is beneficial for women and how to further this. In West-European public and academic thought, emancipation very often refers to ideas about equality, inclusion and freedom. Emancipation also at times refers to difference. Policy-making therefore often combines measures to further women’s equality and support their difference.i Religious traditions arguably pay more attention to women’s difference than their equality with men.

Second, we need to deconstruct the notion of power that underlies the above conceptualisations. Secular narratives and self-understandings are considered to reveal the enabling powers of secularity – i.e. the conceptual, institutional and daily life arrangements and possibilities created after/during political and social-cultural processes of secularisation. The diminished (but not disappeared) impact of religious traditions in politics and society, and in the identities and everyday life of many individuals is not just about the retreat of disciplining religious narratives. Instead, secularity is as much about possibilities for new or different narratives about certain concepts, bodies, practices and self-understandings. In this conceptualisation of secularity and emerging secular discourses, power is considered from a Foucauldian perspective as both enabling and disciplining, as both fluid and limiting. As such, secular discourse can be critically studied as productive of particular fluid/normative understandings, and as constructing and performing particular ‘selves’ and ‘others’. The subproject takes ‘emancipation’ as its central focus and investigates the ways in which ‘emancipation’ receives meaning, through associations, affects and assumptions, in the controversies about religious minorities. From a feminist, postcolonial and queer perspective, this is a relevant approach to ‘concretise’ the secular – i.e. to look into the ways in which secular discourses shape and are shaped by public debates, policy-making, and daily life discussions and thoughts.

I analyse two examples of recent issues in Dutch and Flemish political and public debates and popular culture that provide material for two case studies in this subproject.

Popular representations of female converts will be one of them. Material for this case study includes the Dutch television series Van Hagelslag naar Halal (From Hagelslag to Halal – the first term referring to a typical Dutch type of chocolate toppings, and the second to food that is considered ‘allowed’ in Islamic law, 2015) which portrays the relationships between white female Muslim converts and their mothers; the recent Dutch exhibition Bekeerd (Converted, 2014) that presents various white female Muslim converts; and the recent Flemish theater play Reizen Jihad (Travels Jihad, 2014-2015) in which a female Muslim convert who travels to Syria to participate in armed Islamist struggles takes center stage. These examples immediately point to a fascination with/fear of white women converting to Islam, an affective response to female Muslim converts that can be analysed in terms of understandings about religion, gender and ethnicity. An analysis of representations of female converts reveals implicit and explicit notions about women’s emancipation and freedom that are constitutive of secular discourses and self-representation. The emergence of secular/ised discourses is then dependent on an ethnicisation of women crossing particular religious/ethnic boundaries.

A second case of the subproject is the current controversy (2013-2016) about the Dutch dating website Second Love. This website creates a community for people who are looking for an ‘exciting love affair or adventure’, and explicitly goes beyond the norm of the monogamous couple. The launch of the website, and its wide advertisement, raised critique from religious voices, such as media figures from the Evangelical Public Broadcasting Company (EO), and politicians belonging to the Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij (SGP), which represents orthodox Calvinist communities. This religious critique considered the website and its advertisements as filthy and encouraging infidelity and cheating, and the latter as threatening the stability of families, and the well-being of children in particular. While the former case about female converts mainly looks at secular/ising discourses about religion, gender and sexuality, this second case rather looks at religious/religionising discourses about gender and sexuality in a secular/ised society, but also at the responses this religious critique received from other politicians and in media coverage. The assumption here is that an analysis of the Second Love controversy will reveal oppositional voices that create/reinforce secular/religious collective boundaries. Gendered and sexualised notions about relationships and families may then emerge as secular/religious identity markers in a discursive landscape inhabited by secular and Evangelical/Calvinist subject positions. I emphasise the ‘–ising’ in both secularising and religionising. Formulating secular and religious discourses and identity markers as verbs draws explicit attention to their conceptualisation as always in the making, notably in contexts of controversy (Latour 2005).

In conclusion, this subproject aims at developing a controversy-based methodology to explore how secularity enables certain discussions, practices, identities and bodies. As such, it contributes to current interdisciplinary debates across the humanities about religion in the public sphere of secularising and culturally diversifying West-European contexts (Braidotti 2008, Casanova 2009, Nynäs et al. 2012). Of course, there are many other potential approaches that might reveal the contours, contents and materialisations of the secular. I am looking forward to learn about other approaches to the secular, especially those that allow us to reveal the dynamic between various voices and religious/secular positionings (Mahmood 2005, Braidotti 2008, Bracke 2008), and to critique ethnicised/racialised, gendered and sexualised power relations between individuals and groups in society (Auga 2014, King & Beattie 2005) based on assumptions about ‘proper’ agency, identity and belonging.


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Mahmood, S. (2005). Politics of piety: The Islamic revival and the feminist subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Nynäs, P., Lassander, M. & Utriainen, T. (2012). Post-secular society. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

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van den Brandt, N. (2014). Religion, secularity and feminism in a West-European context: A qualitative study of organisations and activism in Flanders. PhD dissertation (Dec. 8). Ghent University, BE.

Nella van den Brandt started at 1 September 2016 a postdoctoral research that is part of the NWO-funded project “Beyond ‘Religion versus Emancipation’. Gender and  Sexuality in Women’s Conversions to Judaism, Christianity and Islam in Contemporary Western Europe”, supervised by prof. Anne-Marie Korte. She studied Cultural Anthropology, Arabic Languages and Cultures and Women’s Studies at Utrecht University (2002-2010), and completed a PhD thesis at Ghent University (2010-2014) about contemporary discourses on religion among feminist activists and civil society agents in Flanders. Her current postdoctoral project (2016-2020) explores public controversies about religious minorities (Jewish, Christian and Islamic) in the Netherlands, Belgium and the U.K with a focus on debates in which assumptions about women’s emancipation are at stake.


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