Zara Kahn

Graduate Student
The City University of New York, U.S.A.

“Postsecular Feminism and the Rationality of Traditions: Can the Discourse on Human Rights and Islam be Saved?”
Advocates of universal human rights today claim that since HR don’t rest on any particular philosophical anthropology, they can be reasonably appropriated by all and accommodated within various value systems. However, recent scholarship is beginning to question HR’s universality claim. The unnamed philosophical anthropology of human rights is, among other things, secular. Drawing on Asad’s definition of modernity – as a series of projects implicated by power to institutionalize certain principles (including secularism) – I argue that universal human rights and the freedom of religion proscribe non-secular understandings of the human being and religion. ‘Secular’ and ‘religious’ are themselves fluid permutations, reflecting epistemic shifts and power structures. Employing ‘working definitions’ of each, I show that contemporary grammars of freedom and rights – as in feminism and HR theory – continue a secularized Western natural rights tradition. The category ‘religion’ is itself a modern invention, indicating disembodied, privatized belief and a particular freedom of law and coercion for the political.

These theoretical obfuscations help explain why the discourse on human rights and Islam is riddled with misunderstandings, reductive renderings and incommensurate equivocations. Many identify Islam as a religion in the modern sense – and advocate for rationalist epistemology and a full adoption of universal human rights in Muslim societies, especially pertaining to women’s rights. Others espouse an alternative rendition to ‘religion’ and produce different Islamic engagements with HR themes. In this paper I ask: 1) What can postsecular feminism contribute to the quagmire of ‘Human Rights and Islam’?; and 2) How can postsecular feminism avoid the epistemological trappings of false universalism and anti-pluralist homogenization, as HR have fallen to? I propose works by Alasdair MacIntyre and Talal Asad on ‘traditions’ to be foundational texts for emerging postsecular feminism.

Zara Khan is a doctoral student at the City University of New York's Graduate Center.  Her areas of study are Western political theory and comparative politics, with focus on religion, modernity and human rights.  She is a practicing Muslim woman, an educator, mother of three, wife and recovering poet.