On Methods of Studying Secularism: An Interview with Joan Wallach Scott

by Shaunna Rodrigues

Professor Joan Scott’s most recent work, Sex and Secularism, argues that there is a close relation between the formations of the secular and the confinement of women’s bodies. The book follows the journey of several questions raised by Scott in her earlier book, The Politics of the Veil, to contend how secularism is formulated as a discourse of sex and power.

Shaunna Rodrigues interviews her on the methodologies she employs to build continuities between the two books, on how the emancipatory effect of secularism on women cannot be taken for granted, and the problems involved in treating secularism as a positive alternative to Islam.


Shaunna Rodrigues (SR): Has a state ever managed to effectively maintain a boundary between the political and the religious for a diverse polity? Has secularism as a project ever received endorsement from a diverse citizenry?

Joan Wallach Scott (JWS): I don’t think so. My knowledge is not encyclopedic, but even if I were to take France, which is a ‘hardcore’ secular country, its accommodation to its majority population of Catholics was always the case, even for its law of 1905, which is the law that is held up as having definitively established the separation between the church and the state in France. The state still observes all the catholic holidays while the religious holidays and religious practices of many minorities have been sidelined. I think Saba Mahmood’s book, Religious Difference in a Minority Age, really gets it right by asking if secularism can actually, definitively engage with difference when a country has a religious majority. I don’t think secularism has ever in practice actually separated itself from the dominant religion.

It is true that in France, teaching in the schools after the law of 1905 certainly did not have any religious content. In fact, they could not even teach theology because it was considered to be religion. Therefore, there are spaces within these nations where some separation, more or less, can be factored in. But laws and policies themselves have always accommodated the majority, which makes it possible for discriminatory practices to be extended to minorities.

SR- Let me come to Sex and Secularism. How did the characterization of Islam in contemporary political discourse lead you to argue that it is gender inequality and women’s subordination that typifies the articulation of secularism in modern western nation states? 



JWS- I got interested in this question when I was doing my book on the Politics of the Veil. I often think of Sex and Secularism as an expanded discussion in the former. France insists that the French word for secularism Laïcité cannot be translated into any language. It is a kind of special-ness of France which is being insisted on in making this claim. What struck me was that even in France, this ‘hardcore’ secularist country, there is such a contradictory situation where a country that was so Catholic could, at the same time, do so much that is claimed to be secular. For example, children who were not allowed to have a catholic education in France’s public schools were still allowed an off on Wednesday afternoon for religious instruction. Then there were so many things which insisted on the purity of the notion of French secularism versus the religious display on the part of Muslims that I thought that I needed to think more deeply on the question of religion and secularism. I read a number of things, including Talal Asad’s Secularism and Genealogies of Religion that were all adding up to a discourse on secularism which questioned the policies that separated the church and state, asking if they were pure in terms of their separation.

Then I also realized that the second wave of feminism, of which I was part, had already done this work even though we did not use the language of secularism. We talked about industrialization, modernization, proletarianization, urbanization, modernity… whatever the language was, it was the same thing as secularism. It was about the move from more traditional ways of doing things to the more “modern” way of doing things. And our work was critical of that: there was no Renaissance for women, there was no democracy for women, you could go down the list. Similarly, you had people working on race-- there was slavery in the United States for a long time, there was slavery at the time of the French Revolution. Further, there was the argument from the whole enterprise of post-colonial studies, which was critical of the notion that modernity was the end point of the civilizing process, and these ‘other places’ were somehow left behind and needed to be ‘developed’ and modernized to suit the modern world. And I thought why was no one going back to all this literature, including feminists who had participated in this critique of Western modernity?


I thought that whatever was happening now had made not the Catholic church, but Islam, the focus. This glorification and mythologization of secularism had enabled the west to present the story of secularism as one of triumphal progress as opposed to these people who were stuck in their “traditional, backward, oppressive” ways of being. And gender was one of the big arguments that was being made. In France they were talking about the equality of men and women being a primordial value going back to the French revolution. And I thought ‘…Really?’ (laughs).

So, I decided that I would go back to all these sources and try and figure out how to develop a critique or a genealogy that could expose these contradictions, tensions and problems in the practical development of secularism. And, of course, however aspirational the language would then be in terms of equality, if you looked at gender even in the discourse itself, gender inequality was the name of the game. The first thing that I came to when I started reading about religion, the privatization of the family, the development of arguments for the differentiation of spheres, which becomes much sharper and clearly articulated at the end of the 18th and 19th century, I realized that it is not only about politics, reason, passion, it is not only about women in the home, but it is about how women become religion. Women and religion come to be identified as the same thing with the privatizing of the family and home and the privatizing of religion, which is part of the argument of secularization. I jumped up and down in excitement when I realized that was what was happening. It wasn’t merely the lining up of oppositions but in the conflation of women and religion that something was happening, which was more profound than simply separating spheres.

Then I thought what would I do after this? Marriage, the family, and reproduction became the next story. Then I thought I had to do politics (as an issue to be covered), because then then the (counter) argument would be, “well women got the vote in the 20th century, at least by the time of the second world war”. That is why I had to explore politics. That became the most interesting thing to me because there was a whole psychoanalytic dimension that I could explore there.

SR - In your earlier work Politics of Veil, you attempt to address the political consequences of secularism. Are these captured by the distinctions you draw between a minority being prevented from dictating its religious beliefs to a majority, and a minority being denied its political freedoms because of its religious beliefs.

JWS - Absolutely. I think that’s the story of the veil and that’s what I come to when discussing laïcité in the veil book, which is that there is an important distinction to be made between a majority dictating the practices of religion to a minority and a minority being allowed to practice the beliefs and practices they have.


That is where the Saba Mahmood book comes in. I love the title of the book, Religious Difference in A Secular Age: A Minority Report because it is exactly around the question of minority religions that she does her analysis. And I think she is right in her argument: however secular the state is defined, the dominant religion is not only protecting the majority from certain kind of punishments but discriminating against minorities in the name of secularism.

SR- In Sex and Secularism, you state that you have a clear aim in assessing how secularism has historically emerged, through particular oppositions like reason and sex, the masculine and the feminine, to discredit secularism as the guarantor of equality between men and women. What were the theoretical difficulties you experienced in pushing across this argument?

JWS- That is a good question. The hardest difficulty was the objection from many of my colleagues, including feminists, who thought that I was embracing religion and denouncing secularism – after all didn’t secularism, at least in its promise, guarantee equality? This was something I wouldn’t deny.

I spoke about this in Politics of the Veil as well, but I had to take a position on where I stand on this question? I am not religious at all, I have no desire to impose religion on anybody. I do think there are certain religious teachings that are far more stringent in their prescription of roles for different sexualities. But still, the question for me was how do I write a critique of secularism without rejecting it, without saying this is a bogus promise. When I finished the book and Donald Trump was elected President, I was wondering if this was the right moment to publish a critique of secularism, when there are people rushing in to tell us that we cannot have abortions and that God is the ultimate judge of everything.


Some of the answers to this came to me when I was thinking about the notion of equality, an aspiration, principle or ideal that I endorse completely. Equality is a useful notion to mobilize protests of all kinds. But if one were to go back to a history on the American principle of equality, one has a constitution written by a huge slave-holding population among the founders who at the same time were lauding equality as one of the founding notions of the American public. Slaves were considered to be less than human. Despite this history, I believe in equality as an aspiration.


What I arrived at was a similar justification for secularism. In looking at the ways in which secularism was articulated historically and has continued to rest on a notion of gender inequality, how could we could arrive at a point where it is not being used like it is being used now? How do we think beyond the limits which have been imposed on it and move to a different way of understanding what the relationship between the religion and the state could be? What are the possibilities of not having an ultimate transcendent authority to justify what our relationships are but to insist, instead, that these are things that we can, together, articulate our relationships on?



SR- How do we study the contributions of deeply diverse democracies outside the West, like Turkey, India and Egypt in shaping the idea of secularism, especially when we treat the idea of secularism, not as a fixed analytical category, but as a discourse of power?

JWS - It would relieve us from the trap that there is an objective fact of secularism that can or cannot be lived up to or imposed. Thinking of secularism as a discourse of power means asking what does it mean when Kemal Ataturk imports the French notion of secularism or the various Italian and other civil codes that replace various Ottoman regulations. What does it mean politically when it happens? What does it mean when women are unveiled, given the vote, and defined as mothers in the family. You start looking for the interests that are defining these things, you are looking for the political arguments that are taking place. For example, during the French revolution, there were big arguments on whether women should be given the vote or not. I give these quotes in Sex and Secularism by Condercet on the consequences of women being pregnant or indisposed, or men who have the cold or have the gout. There are all these moments of relaxations to the dominant line of thinking. And if you are asking how in whose interests this discourse is working, then you can look at what use this discourse is put to.

SR- I read Politics of the Veil when it came out in 1997 as a student in India and was deeply influenced by the arguments you made there. Do you think of an audience which is reading your work from non-western secular democracies when you write your books? How do you think your argument speaks to them?

JWS - I do not know the answer to non-western secular democracies on the question of secularism. I do know that for minority religious communities in France, this argument has enormous power. These minorities are enormously discriminated against. Some of them wear their headscarves, others look ethnically like French people. There, there is an enormous resonance of my work. The critique of the discourse which they feel misrepresents them on the one hand, and discriminates against them on the other, has a strong resonance with them.

When it comes to the differences between the practice of secularism in the West and non-West, I grant the description of the differences, but in the end, the gender part of the argument does not look very different. The point of Sex and Secularism, therefore, was to open up a discussion on this. I don’t know the answer to Egypt or Turkey or India to be able to set that out. But the task is to do it in a way which isn’t comparative secularism - which takes secularism to be a thing, a ‘test’ of neutrality, and uses that ‘test’ as a way of making a comparison - I don’t think that’s the way to make a comparison. I think the way to make a comparison is a historically more mobile one, in which you look at the ways in which secularism has been used to articulate a set of demands which leads to policies. How are minority religions and majority religions dealt with? That would be a really interesting set of questions to study.


Joan W. Scott’s groundbreaking work has challenged the foundations of conventional historical practice, including the nature of historical evidence and historical experience and the role of narrative in the writing of history. Broadly, the object of her work is the question of difference in history: its uses, enunciations, implementations, justifications, and transformations in the construction of social and political life. Scott’s recent books have focused on the vexed relationship of the particularity of gender to the universalizing force of democratic politics. They include Gender and the Politics of History (1988), Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (1996), Parité: Sexual Equality and the Crisis of French Universalism (2005), The Politics of the Veil (2007), The Fantasy of Feminist History (2011), Sex and Secularism (2017), and Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom (2018).

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