Mayanthi Fernando at Osgoode on Regulating Intimacy – Religion, Sex and Secular Cunning

Fernando-WebAnthropologist Mayanthi Fernando from UC Santa Cruz gave a very interesting and very well attended talk as part of the Law Religion and Social Thought symposium today (check the website later for the tape, if you missed the talk).

The paper explored tensions in the way that liberal republican France situates and interrogates Muslim women in terms of their religion and their sexuality – both areas typically placed by liberal thought into the “private” arena.  I’m worried about doing it justice so will say only that it will be forthcoming in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2014 (speaking of, have a look at the set of things forthcoming from Signs in 2013! Set aside some time).

Fernando’s work focuses on the situation of Muslim women in France –“Exceptional Citizens: Secular Muslim Women and the Politics of Difference in France.” Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 17:3 (2009), pp. 379-392 is perhaps a decently representative choice.  While not focused on law, law takes on a particular significance in her work, perhaps because it is a state forum where attitudes are on display and both demands and claims are made.  In her talk today, she began with two cases to illustrate the tension she sees – first, a marriage annulment involving a Muslim couple (here is a Reuters report) and second, a discrimination claim brought by a Muslim woman told to remove her niqab whilst in the public areas of (ifI recall correctly was) an inn. Fernando focused on how Muslim women in France – particularly but not only those who wear the headscarf or niqab –  are faced (!)  the relatively contradictory demand and compulsion to talk about intimate, “private” aspects of their lives in order to justify themselves as members of the French public, referring to Foucault’s idea  of “incitement to discourse” which can serve a regulatory and categorizing function.

As a scholar working in what is now an interdisciplinary space, Fernando’s work is cited in articles appearing in legal journals and by scholars attached to law schools.  See, for instance:

To ask that we pay greater attention to context, and in particular, to power and material effects, resonates with the work of such scholars as sociologist Dicle Kog˘acıog˘ lu and anthropologists Lila Abu-Lughod
and Mayanthi Fernando, who have all recently argued that particular gendered discourses about Muslim women divert attention from where it should instead be placed: institutional politics (Kog˘acıog˘ lu); history and politics (Abu-Lughod); and structural root causes of social and economic problems (Fernando). While the cases these scholars examine are varied (honor crimes in Turkey, u.s. discourse about women in Afghanistan, and
“secular Muslim women” in France), all point to how gendered discourses about the oppression faced by Muslim women function transnationally to fuel a general vision of Islam as synonymous with the oppression of women,
which absolutely ignores fundamental issues at work.

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