Body Politics and the Margins of Life: The Secular/Religious Tensions

MA Seminar Humboldt University Institut für Sozialwissenschaften


Gala Rexer


Time:                                     Thursday 10:00- 14:00, bi-weekly

Place:                                    Universitätstr. 3b,  R. 004

Dates:                                  03.11.2016, 17.11.2016, 01.12.2016, 15.12.2016, 12.01.2017, 26.01.2017, 09.02.2017


This seminar is concerned with how conflicts between religion and secularity (i.e., secular and religious discourses, norms, actors, and institutions) are shaped differently in differing socio-legal contexts in the Middle East, Europe and North America. Specifically, we will examine the way religion and secularity shape disputes and are shaped by disputes over “body politics” and “the margins of life”.  We will explore the secular laws and religious disputes governing what is permissible to do to the body and who has the authority to decide (The Church, the mother, the public, the individual etc.)  We will focus on current legal and social controversies that have erupted around the practices of male circumcision, posthumous organ donation, abortion, technologies of birth and death with dignity (assisted suicide).


Assignments (10 credit points)

Class Participation: This is a „Lektüreseminar“, i.e. class participation is essential. Come to class prepared and ready for group discussion. Your own participation will affect the learning atmosphere and outcomes of this class.

Discussion Points: In order to motivate this athmosphere, it is required to send me 2 discussion points for each text by Wednesday morning 10 am via email:

  1. What about this text was most interesting or important for our topic in this class (Body politics, the secular/religious tensions)?
  2. What was important, interesting, missing, incomprehensible or objectionable in this text? What would you like to discuss further or are there open questions you would like to discuss?

These discussion points will be compiled and send to you by Wednesday afternoon. This compilation can also help presenters to get to know the major issues the others are interested in or want to discuss.

Presentations: Each session one or two students will give a presentation (max. 20 min) on the weekly readings and questions. The point is not to summarize the texts one by one, but to identify and present main themes, concepts, questions and critiques. You do not necessarily need to prepare a PowerPoint presentation, unless you have some important visual material to show (which can be very helpful and I encourage you to do so if you find something that relates to your topic). Presenters do not have to send in discussion questions for their own sessions.

Final Assignment: Your final paper should be about 12-15 pages. Your topic should be closely related to the course material and we will discuss your topics in our last session.


Course Readings


Session 1: 03.11.2016



Pt 1. Introduction, organization, questions

Pt. 2 Short text & group work



Session 2: 17.11.2016

Body politics, Bio Politics


Weiss, Meira (2002). The Chosen Body. The Politics of the Body in Israeli Society. Pp. 1-64


Asad, Talal (2011). Thinking about the secular body, pain, and liberation politics. In: Cultural Anthropology, Volume 26, Issue 4, pp. 657–675.


Foucault, Michel (1978). History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon. “Right of Death and Power over Life”, pp. 135-150.


Foucault, Michel (2003). Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–76. New York: Picador. Lecture 11:  17 MARCH 1976, pp. 239-263.



Session 3: 01.12.2016

Sex segregation in Israel


Guest lecture:

Yofi Tirosh (Tel Aviv University) „Sex Segregation in Israel: A Socio-Legal Perspective“


Lahav, Pnina (2013) Israel’s Rosit the Riveter: Between Secular Law and Jewish Law. In: Boston University law review. Boston University. School of Law 93(3):1063-1083.


Case translation, 2010: Naomi Ragen v. Ministry of Transport


Haaretz Article May 17, 2016: Failing Program to send more ultra-Orthodox Israelis to College to get extra funding,


Blog post by Yofi Tirosh: Israel Faces a New Front of Segregation



Session 4: 15.12.2016

Gender, Nation & Reproduction


Yuval-Davis, Nira (1997). Gender and Nation. Chapters: „Theorizing Gender and Nation“ (1-21) and „Women and the Biological Reproduction of the Nation“ (26-37)


Kanaaneh, Rhoda (2002). Birthing the Nation. Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel. Chapters: “Introduction” (1-23 optional) and “Babies and Boundaries” (23-80)


Kahn, Susan Marta (2000). Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel. Chapters:  “Introduction” (1-7) and “Not Mamzers: The Legislation of Reproduction and the “Issue” of Unmarried Women” (64-86).



5 Session 12.01.2017

Male Circumcision


Yurdakul, Gökce (2015). Secularism, Religion, Diversity: The Contradictions of a European Identity


Judd, Robin (2007). Contested Rituals: Circumcision, Kosher Butchering, and Jewish Political Life in Germany, 1843-1933, pp. 1-21


Bijan Fateh-Moghadam (2012). Criminalizing male circumcision? Case Note: Landgericht Cologne, Judgment of 7 May 2012 – No. 151 Ns 169/11, 13 German Law Journal 1131-1145.


Ciftci;, A. V. S. A. E. Y. D. U. H. (2002).”A Limited Study on the Perception and Change in Attitude about Circumcision among Health Care Professionals and Their Male Family Members.” Urol. Int. 69.



6 Session 26.01.2017



Guest lecture:

Kirsten Achtelik, Social Scientist, journalist and author “Feminismus, Pränataldiagnostik, Abtreibung”


optional reading guest lecture: Achtelik, Kirsten (2015). Selbstbestimmte Norm. Feminismus, Pränataldiagnostik, Abtreibung. “Einleitung” S. 7-13, “Für die Abschaffung des §218” S. 15-27, “Vorgeburtliche Untersuchungen” S. 39-81, “Selbstbestimmung ohne Selektion. Vorschläge” S. 185-198, Glossar & Abkürzungen


Kamenitsa, Lynn (2001). Abortion Debates in Germany. In: Abortion Politics, Women’s Movements, and the Democratic State, Dorothy McBride Stetson (eds.). Pp. 111-134


Reitz, D. and G. Richter (2010). “Current Changes in German Abortion Law.” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 19(3): pp. 334-343.


Steinfeld, Rebecca (2015). Wars of the Wombs: Struggles Over Abortion Policies in Israel.


Ziegler, Mary (2015). After Roe. The Lost History Of the Abortion Debate. “Introduction” pp. 1-23 & “Conclusion” pp. 220-240.


Session 7:  09.02.2017

Headscarf Debates


Korteweg, Anna C. / Yurdakul, Gökce (2014): The Headscarf Debates: Conflicts of National Belonging. Stanford: Stanford University Press. (whole book)


Discussion final papers