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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development

A Debate on the Public Role of Religion and its Social and Gender Implications



In feminist, as in mainstream, thinking, there has been a reassessment of the relationship between religion and politics. For much of the twentieth century, it was assumed that religion was at odds with gender equality, and campaigners for women’s rights looked to the spread of secular principles and attitudes as an important engine of change. But the notion that secularism, understood as the complete separation of politics from religion, is the precondition for progressive politics has been challenged by critics of the secularization thesis, including José Casanova. Specifically within feminism, it has been challenged by the importance attached to women’s agency, and the need to respect the choices of religious as well as non-religious women.

Yet religions can and do threaten gender equality, and particularly so when their authority over their members is enhanced by a formal or informal role in the political system. The essay argues that Casanova does not engage sufficiently with the severity of this issue, and that his resolution is too complacent both in its celebration of the democratic engagements of civil society, and its reliance on movements for internal reform. Civil society is not a neutral zone, and the associations that constitute civil society can reproduce social hierarchies and exclusions as often as they contest them. Internal reform, moreover, will be hardest to mobilize precisely where it is most needed.

This paper addresses the relationship between religion, politics and gender equality through four aspects: (i) what authority, if any, states can cede to religious communities or groups without beginning to threaten gender equality; (ii) the informal impact of religions on attitudes and lives, beyond any institutionalized power; (iii) the possibilities and limits of internal reform; and (iv) the possibilities and difficulties of alliances between religious and secular groups. The central theme running through the essay is that religions most threaten gender equality when they are conceived of—and conceive themselves as—corporate bodies, capable of speaking with a unified voice. The key protection for women is a strong politics of individual rights. In arguing this, however, this paper stresses the difficulties surrounding the politics of rights. It is crucial both to recognize the centrality of individual rights and acknowledge the problems in their interpretation and implementation. This is not something that can be resolved at a purely theoretical level. It alerts us, rather, to the political issues.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 15 Sep 2009
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1994-8026
    From: UNRISD