In the past ten years, nationalist, communalist and religious fundamentalist social movements have surfaced all over the world, moving into the power vacuum created as local elites have been overwhelmed by the new global financial ruling class. The emerging struggle is not between East and West, as Samuel Huntington would have it, but within both; it is a struggle between the forces of globalization and the atavistic social movements that have sprung up to oppose it. Civilian populations, especially ethnic minorities, women and children, are caught in between. Among such movements are the Taliban in Afghanistan; the Serbian nationalist movement (and its opposing counterparts elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia); Islamic fundamentalist movements in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere; the Hindu communalist movement in India; the Israeli settler movement in the West Bank; and a whole range of militantly patriarchal Christian groups, from the militias to Operation Rescue, in the United States.
These movements have in common a desire for racial, ethnic and religious homogeneity; an apocalyptic vision of purification through bloodshed; and a patriarchal view of women and the family. I call them atavistic because of the way they yearn back to a mythic past, often the age of barbarism, when their nation, tribe or religion was great. (“Atavism: Biol. the reappearance in an individual of characteristics of some more or less remote ancestor that have been absent in intervening generations.” American College Dictionary) In Israel, to take one example, religious fundamentalists who believe they should control all the land that was biblical Israel’s at its point of greatest territorial strength have repeatedly brought the peace process to a standstill. And in the United States, a cadre of religiously driven conservative leaders paralyzed the federal government for more than a year in their campaign against the Sixties and Sin, both exemplified by Bill Clinton.
As central to such movements as ethnic or religious homogeneity is the control of women. Atavistic social movements attack feminism not only as an obstacle to such control but as part of their war on modernity itself, for, like other movements for social and political rights, feminism is inescapably secular and thus part of the project of modernity, opposed to older forms of social organization in which women’s needs and voices were subsumed into a communal or religious entity represented by male elders. Even in countries where the women’s movement is led by female versions of tribal elders, feminism resists being swallowed up in male definitions of the class, the nation, the community; it sticks in the craw. Add to this the threat of female sexual and reproductive autonomy, then place both in the context of a volatile world situation where local males are losing power and the family has become the last bastion of unquestioned male authority and privilege, and what have you got? A world culture war, in which feminism becomes the scapegoat for every frustration and women become the focus of every contradiction.
This war takes culturally specific forms in each country, targeting poor women, because they are most vulnerable, and feminist intellectuals and organizers, because they stir up the others. Last month in the Bronx, Tabitha Walrond, a 19-year-old African-American, was tried for homicide in the death of her infant son. She had been breast-feeding him; her milk was insufficient, and he died of malnutrition. The prosecution also charged her with second-degree manslaughter and endangering the welfare of her child by failing to get him emergency medical care when his condition became acute. But Walrond was unable to get medical care for her son; she was repeatedly denied a Medicaid ID number by a city administration that has shown an unholy eagerness to get women off the welfare rolls regardless of what will happen to them and their children. Tabitha Walrond is but one example of the way American women are caught between the drive to cut government spending and release capital from all constraint on the one hand, and backlash tendencies invoking earlier, more patriarchal forms of social organization on the other.