1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009)

Religion: Ally, Threat, or just Religion? (Draft)



This paper is a feminist response to José Casanova’s thematic paper on “Public Religions Revisited”. It diagnoses that, given the fact that religions can threaten gender equality, it is not surprising that campaigners for gender equality have found themselves at odds with religious authorities, or that feminists have looked to the spread of secular principles and attitudes as a welcome engine of change. In the course of the twentieth century the earlier association between feminism and religion largely dropped away. While individual women continued to locate their commitment to gender equality in their religious faith and beliefs, the public discourse regarding the rights of women and equality of the sexes became almost entirely secular, and was more often linked to socialist or communist ideals. It was no longer considered necessary to seek normative justifications for gender equality from within religious doctrines. It was, moreover, widely assumed that the declining public authority of religions, measured in their reduced role in circles of government, and reduced authority over their (also reducing) flock, would produce a more welcoming environment for feminist ideas.

It is clear by now that this narrative of declining faith, diminished public role for religion, and enhanced prospects for gender equality, had only a partial and localised significance; and that neither socialist ideas about the dissipation of religion, nor liberal dreams of a wall of separation between religion and politics are to be realised in the foreseeable future. It is evident that religions are not being confined to a private zone of individual conscience and practice, but are being actively invoked in political life. Religious beliefs furnish the substance for many political interventions, as when they are mobilised in debates about homosexuality or abortion or to justify constraints on women’s freedom of movement. In a number of countries, religion provides the basis for state law.

The paper questions whether mechanisms of mutual responsibilities and self-imposed limitations of religious authorities and democratic institutions, combined with reform movements inside each religion and a principle of minority rights, as emphasized by Jose Casanova, adequately address blatant discrimination against women in the organisation of churches, misogynist strands in religious traditions, and difficult and heated debates about such matters as abortion, polygamy, and systems of personal religious law. If we are to abandon the idea of a strict separation of religion from politics – as unlikely to happen and anyway not normatively required - what other kind of protections need to be in place to secure the best conditions for gender equality? Are Casanova’s twin tolerations, combined with the vitality of internal reform movements, enough?

The paper argues that women should mutually recognize and respect each other’s agency and freedom of conscience. Those women who are not religious should not assume false consciousness or attribute victim status to those who choose to live their lives by religious precepts; those women who are religious should not assume that the others lack ethical conviction or are slaves to a material culture. The paper, secondly, maintains that the relationship between religion, politics, and gender equality should not be conceived in quasi-corporatist terms as a relationship between democratic and religious authorities, but always viewed through the lens of individual rights and needs. It furthermore discusses how religion differs from culture and non-religious political belief, particularly considering the complicated intersection of individual choices and bowing to external authority. The paper, finally, warns against a demonization of religions as inherently at odds with gender equality as well as against complacency that too readily accepts compromise on matters of equality between women and men.

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