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

MA Seminar Humboldt University, Institute for Social Science

Prof. Gökce Yurdakul

Gala Rexer, M.A.

Student Assistant: 

Stefania Vittori

Thursday 10-14h, bi-weekly: 

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 religion, 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, organ donation, abortion, reproductive technologies and transgender rights, and place these controversies in a theoretical framework of sociology of the body, biopolitics and (post)-secularism. This course is limited to 25 students. There will be no “nebenhörer” / listening student.  Please note that this is a reading intensive course. You must be prepared to read a few hundred pages per week. 

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 atmosphere, it is required to send Gala ( 2 discussion points for each text by Wednesday morning 10am via email:

1.     Which aspects of this text were relevant, interesting or important for our topic in this class (Body politics, the secular/religious tensions)?

2.     What was missing, incomprehensible or objectionable in this text? What would you like to discuss further? 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 we 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 20-25 pages. Your topic should be closely related to the course material and we will discuss your topics in our last session



Session 1: 02.11.2017 Introduction

Pt. 1. Introduction, organization, questions

Pt. 1. Prepared text & group work

Session 2: 16.11.2017 The Body, Crime, and the Population

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House. Whole book

Bargu, Banu (2014). Starve and Immolate. The Politics of Human Weapons. Columbia University Press. Introduction AND Chapter 1: Biosovereignity and Necroresistance


Session 3: 30.11.2017 Religion, Secularism and Gender

Giorgi, Alberta (2016) ‘Gender, Religion, and Political Agency: Mapping the Field’ Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais, 110, setembro 2016: 5172 

Cady, Linell & Tracy Fessenden (2013) ‘Chapter 1: Gendering the Divide: Religion, The Secular, and the Politics of Sexual Difference’ in Cady & Fessenden (eds) Religion, The Secular, and the Politics of Sexual Difference, Columbia University Press.

Asad, Talal (2003)  ‘Formations of the Secular. Christianity, Islam, Modernity’ in Cady & Fessenden. Stanford University Press. pp. 1-26

Read at least one out of these two:

Mahmood, Saba (2013) ‘Sexuality and Secularism’ in Cady & Fessenden (eds) Religion, The Secular, and the Politics of Sexual Difference, Columbia University Press

Scott, Joan W. (2013)  ‘Sexualarism: On Secularism and Gender Equality’ in Cady & Fessenden (eds) Religion, The Secular, and the Politics of Sexual Difference, Columbia University Press. 

Session 4: 14.12.2017 Gender, Nation and 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)

Lie Merete,‎ Lykke Nina (2017). Assisted Reproduction Across Borders: Feminist Perspectives on Normalizations, Disruptions and Transmissions (1-23)

Rexer, Gala (2017, DRAFT)(Fragmented) Bearers of the Nation? The Role of Reproductive Technologies and the Body in Israel and Palestine


Session 5:  18.01.2018 Headscarf Debates and on Being “Different”

Hark, Sabine and Paula-Irene Villa (2017) Unterscheiden und Herrschen. Ein Essay zu den ambivalenten Verflechtungen von Rassisms, Sexismus und Feminismus in der Gegenwart.

Kapitel 1. Die ganze verrotete Gegenwart. Plädoyer für die Freundschaft zur Welt

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

Korteweg and Yurdakul (draft) Governance Feminism and Postcolonial Difference: Headscarf Regulations in France, the Netherlands and Germany

Session 6: 25.01.2018 Male Bodies and Masculinities

Korteweg and Yurdakul, Gökce: Feminism and LGBTQ Rights in Refugee Politics: Drawing Boundaries and Borders through the Gendered Racialization of Muslim Masculinities

Jews, Muslims and the Ritual Male Circumcision Debate: Religious Diversity and Social Inclusion in Germany

Guest lecture: Nil Mutluer


Session 7: 08.02.2018 Biopolitics and Transgressing Bodies

Najmabadi, Afsaneh (2013) Professing Selves: Transsexuality in Contemporary Iran. pp. 1-74

Paul B. Preciado
(2013) Testo Junkie. Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. pp. 11-81

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