It is becoming increasingly clear that the often-presumed link between “secularization” and “modernization” does not quite hold, as certain regions of the developed world remain strongly religious in the cultural sphere, while the rapid progress of industrialization in the developing world has come with the growth, not the diminishment, of strong religious beliefs. Secularization, as a cultural, historical tendency, is therefore not an inevitable process, and in a surprisingly wide swath of nations around the world the question of what exactly constitutes “secularism” has become a hotly-contested issue. In these debates, women's rights are often—indeed, nearly always—the central material question under debate. Questions of women’s dress, access to education and employment, control over reproductive rights, the right to divorce, property rights, and child custody rights—these are variously contested by religious conservatives, from Saudi Arabia, to Europe, to India, to the United States. The diversity of different national histories and cultural contexts is so great that no simply universal, “secular feminist” response is readily available.
Gender and Secularism in India: a Brief Historical Overview
In the Indian case in particular, secularism in the contemporary moment seems to hinge on women's rights, sometimes with the same degree of complexity and even awkwardness of the recently enacted French laws regarding the Hijab, or headscarf. The current crisis in women's rights and religion has been directly debated in regard to two legal controversies in the 1980s, the Shah Bano case (Agnes 1999; Agnes 2007) and the Roop Kanwar Sati case (Mani 1998), though arguably it could be extended both backwards—to the debates over Sati in the colonial era and the centrality of rape in narratives of Partition—and forwards, to the violence against women in the riots that engulfed the Indian subcontinent in 1992 and 2002 (Baldwin 2002).