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While fundamentalist movements may vary according to the global context in which they operate, for women this diversity is outweighed by the core characteristics, strategies and impacts that they share.
In a televised sermon on April 16, 2010, a senior Iranian cleric, Hojjat ol-eslam Kazem Sediqi, declared a need for a “general repentance,” warning of the “prevalence of degeneracy” in the country. He pointed to the real consequences of immodesty and promiscuity among women, noting that “many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray and spread adultery in society which increases earthquakes.”
Sediqi’s comments follow President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s forecast that Tehran will be the site of an imminent and devastating quake. In the last ten years, earthquakes in Iran have claimed tens of thousands of lives, and the country rests upon some of the most earthquake-prone land in the world. “What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble?” Sediqi asked. “There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam's moral codes.”
The proposal may seem far-fetched, but it is far from isolated. Disaster and salvation are often linked in far-right interpretations of religion. For instance, soon after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, Louisiana, Pat Robertson, a prominent voice for evangelical Christianity in the United States, broadcast a theory linking the wreckage to the endurance of legalized abortion in the country. Citing an interpretation of the Old Testament about “those who shed innocent blood,” he described the consequence: “the land will vomit you out.” This discourse can be applied to not only natural disasters, but political disasters as well. With slogans like, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” Pastor Fred Phelps and his followers in the Westboro Baptist Church have protested at more than 200 military funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, insisting that God is punishing the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality.
What we see in the press is the hard line face of religious fundamentalisms. This is a term that many women’s rights activists use to identify religious actors who are absolutist and intolerant, who seek to impose a dogmatic worldview in society and politics, and who oppose democratic values, pluralism and dissent. It can be tempting to dismiss these caricatures as an irrational element – somewhere out on the fringe. In reality, though, the fault-lines of this phenomenon are everywhere, and women across regions and religions bear the impact in very real ways.