Conference: Strictly Observant Religion, Gender and the State

25th - 26th March, 2019

Woolf Institute, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0UB



Monday, March 25


Welcome and Introduction


Panel 1: Conceptual and political contestations of religion, gender and the state

Romina Istratii (SOAS): 'Religious fundamentalism': Contemplating the epistemological, ethical and practical limitations of the conceptual category in its cross-cultural deployment

Sukhwant Dhaliwal (London Metropolitan University): 'Gender Terrorism' and 'Misogyny' as frames for recognising and responding to fundamentalist violence

Petra Klug (University of Bremen): Forced Marriages at the intersection of religion, gender, and the state

Discussant: Tobias Müller (Woolf Institute)

Chair: Miriam Wagner (Woolf Institute)


Coffee break


Panel 2: Challenging sexuality and the state in religious groups

Michal Kravel-Tovi (Tel Aviv University): "Bringing the State Back In": Sexual Violence, Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Activism, and the Israeli State

David Lehmann (University of Cambridge): Moral panic and conspiracy theories in a messianic congregation in Brazil

Mahmood Jaraba (Max-Planck-Institute Halle): The Internal dynamic of khul in Germany. The debate on child custody and Mahr

Discussant: Esra Özyürek (LSE)

Chair: TBC


Public Keynote: Torkel Brekke (University of Oslo and PRIO):

Fundamentalism: Reflections on Definitions, Religious Authorities and Research Agendas

This lecture is now available on Youtube.


Conference Dinner - St Edmund's College

Tuesday, March 26


Panel 3: Contesting knowledge orders: Relationality, Feminism, Reproduction

Pinar Dokumaci (University of Toronto): Feminism Beyond the Secular, the Sacred, and the State: Can the Women’s Rights Movement in Turkey Transform the Relationship between Secular Feminists and Pious Feminists?

Ben Kasstan (University of Sussex) and Lea Taragin-Zeller (Woolf Institute and University of Cambridge): Sex and the State: Conceptualising rights to reproductive knowledge among religious minorities in Israel and England

Malcolm McLean (University of Cambridge): Transitioning to Post-Christianity: Evangelical receptions of trans discourse

Discussant: Katie Gaddini (University of Cambridge)

Chair: Julian Hargreaves (Woolf Institute)


Coffee break


Panel 4: Governing (through) gender: Relations of state agents and religious actors

Hans Vollaard (Utrecht University): The freedom to limit freedom. Orthodox-protestants on women's rights of political participation

Eva-Maria Euchner (Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich): Secular politics of sexuality and the response of Christian Churches: supporting, undermining or boycotting state goals in policy implementation?

Nurul Huda Mohd Razif (International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden): Obedient wives and rebellious citizens. Dismantling Gender Equality Through Islamic Fundamentalism in Malaysia

Discussant: Michele Martini (University of Haifa)

Chair: Guy Eyre (SOAS)


Lunch (Westminster College)


Panel 5: Political mobilisations of religion and gender

Blandine Chélini-Pont and Robin Presthus (Aix-Marseille Université): Debating the Religious Right's Trump Endorsement and Gender: Macho Descriptive Identity or Substantive Pragmatism?

Jessica Roda (Georgetown University): Between Private and Public Negotiations: When the Theological Discourse on Gender and Sexuality is Challenged from Within

Camille Lardy (University of Cambridge): 'Mum, Dad, and the kids: it's natural': Catholic references to universalism in French bioethical debates

Discussant: Susanna Cerasuolo (Harvard University)

Chair: Katherine O'Lone (Woolf Institute)


Coffee break


Round table on publication and research strategies


This conference seeks to address the question how strictly observant religious groups or "fundamentalists" (Harding 2001) challenge two basic principles within contemporary societies: gender equality and the modern state. The conference will bring together political scientists, sociologists, social anthropologists, gender studies scholars, postcolonial scholars, theologians and religious studies scholars to discuss different approaches to the contestations over gender roles, patriarchy and the politics of sexuality between and across strictly observant religious groups and the nation state. In the broadest sense, it seeks to address the question, what happens when fundamentalist groups and the state interact concerning questions of gender and sexuality?

Drawing on Martin Riesebrodt's work on fundamentalism as "patriarchal protest movement" (1992, 2000), the conference seeks to investigate what role gender plays for the persistence of self-identifying strictly observant, fundamentalist, exclusivist, (ultra)orthodox, traditionalist, or socially conservative religious people in their interaction with state actors at different levels. The conference aims to address the question how particularly the changing role of women and embodied religion within and outside fundamentalist movements poses challenges to established religious authorities (Stadler 2009). As the work of Saba Mahmood (2005) and Anabel Inge (2016) demonstrates, women play an increasingly important role in the organisational structures and recruitment successes of strictly observant religious movements. At the same time, gender inequality remains a pivotal building block of these groups. Thus, building on the work of Talal Asad (2003, Asad et al 2009), it is incumbent for researchers to investigate how the family, marriage (Chambers 2017), LGBTQ+, the "sanctity" of women and "hegemonic masculinity" (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005; De Sondy 2013) are mobilised as crucial arenas of religious and political assertion against both the religious establishment and the nation state in different religious, social and spatial contexts (Fernando 2014; Pateman and Mills 2007; Scott 2017).

The struggle over the role of women is closely connected to the contested relationship between fundamentalists and the nation state (Fischer 2009). Torkel Brekke's (2011) claims that the modern nation state in its different varieties of secularism has always functioned as a crucial target for fundamentalist struggles, for example for a Caliphate State, a Christian Dominion, or a Jewish homeland. The conference seeks to address the question on what grounds strictly observant movements challenge or are at odds with key tenants of the modern state, particularly in relation to the role of women, LGBTQ+ and the family. It seeks to uncover to what extent and for what reasons certain aspects of state are accepted, which could include e.g. socio-economic support, health infrastructure, or legal protection of religious freedom, and what elements of the state are actively challenged, for instance certain aspects of secular family law, equality legislation, dress regulations, counter-extremism policies, institutionalised discrimination, or foreign policy and development aid.

The conference seeks to address, among others, the following questions:

Confirmed Keynote Speaker

Prof Torkel Brekke, University of Oslo and Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)


Tobias Müller, post-doctoral Junior Research Fellow, Woolf Institute and POLIS, University of Cambridge

Dr Ed Kessler MBE, Founder Director, Woolf Institute and St. Edmund's, University of Cambridge

How to book

There are limited spaces available for non-participating audience members. There is a £30 charge to cover catering costs. In case you would like to attend as audience member, please apply by sending a brief outline (max 100 words) of your interest and prior work on the topic to Tobias Müller by 25 February 2019 (

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