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

Religion, Politics and Gender Equality

  • Project from: 2007 to 2009

Religion, Politics and Gender Equality

The prediction that secularism would sweep the world has been confounded in recent years as religion has left the place assigned to it (by theories of modernity) in the private sphere and thrust itself into the public arena. What are the social and political implications of religion assuming such prominent and contested public and political roles? Some observers, including many feminists, see incompatibilities between democracy, human rights and gender equality, on the one hand, and a world in which religious issues and organizations have an active presence in public affairs, on the other. Others, however, argue that religion (at its best) can act as a significant counterweight to the otherwise hegemonic institutions of the state and the market, revitalizing public debate on their moral underpinnings and their social outcomes. The task of research, therefore, is to develop analytical and normative criteria to differentiate between the various forms of public religion and their social and political consequences, including the implications for gender equality.

Key research questions of the UNRISD project
It has been argued that religion can “go public” at three different levels: the state level (e.g. theocratic states; or state religions or state-established churches); at the level of political society (e.g. European Christian Democrats, Islamist political parties); and at the more amorphous level of civil society. This tripartite model, however, presupposes what is broadly recognized as a modern society. But in many contexts it is equally important to conceptualize the interface between what can be labelled “the customary sphere” and formal religion. As far as women’s rights are concerned, it is in that nexus that many of the dangers and challenges lie, with religious precepts being selectively applied or totally disregarded. Similarly, there is a need for a broader conception of civil society, which can include the nature of “society” itself. This is very important because it can explain resistance, or absence of pressures, from below to pluralize and democratize religion.

This project raises two key questions: first, how can religion and politics become intertwined? Are there distinct modes of insertion in different settings? And second, what are the social and political effects, especially from a gender perspective, of this blending of religion and politics? When is it likely to pose a danger to modern normative structures associated with gender equality and democracy?

Based on comparative historical analysis (of mainly European and American experiences), it has been hypothesized that only public religions at the level of civil society are consistent with modern universalistic principles and modern differentiated structures. How well can this hypothesis hold for other contexts? Can this hypothesis be substantiated as far as gender equality is concerned?

Research is carried out in 11 countries—Chile, India, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Serbia, Turkey and the United States—that present maximum variation with respect to (i) religious denominations and (ii) the level at which the blending of politics and religion takes place (e.g., state or civil society). Furthermore, a regional balance has been sought, including at least some developed countries, since a certain degree of economic development is a prerequisite for the existence of civil societies (and a pluralist party system). In terms of religion, the world’s three largest denominations (Christianity, Islam and Hinduism) have been included, as has Judaism.

The UNRISD Project Proposal has been completed and funding has been secured. An UNRISD/UNIFEM Expert Group Meeting to discuss the research questions and the proposed studies took place in Bratislava on 28 February 2007. Suitable researchers were identified for ten of the country studies and for two thematic papers. The researchers submitted first drafts of their research papers which were discussed at a workshop in Istanbul on 14-15 May 2008. The purpose of the workshop was to bring the researchers together to present the findings of research to that date, to draw out the comparative dimensions of the project, and to consider the methodology as well as the expected outcomes of the Research Reports. The workshop convened researchers of the country studies on India, Iran, Israel, Nigeria, Poland, Serbia, Turkey and the USA, as well as the Advisory Group members, representatives of the donors of the project, the UNRISD Research Coordinator and the HBF Research Fellow. After the workshop, the researchers revised their papers and discussed the final research reports at a workshop in Berlin on 4-5 June 2009. Subsequently, an international conference – “Religion Revisited - Women’s rights and the political instrumentalisation of religion” – was convened in Berlin on 5-6 June 2009, which brought together scholars and feminist activists to discuss the question of how to deal with religions in the fight for women’s rights and gender equality. The final research reports will be published online in the second half of 2009.

Sources of funding
The main part of funding for the project has been secured from the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation (Germany). The UNIFEM Regional Office for Central and Eastern Europe provides additional funding for three country studies (Poland, Serbia, Turkey). UNFPA has funded three of the thematic papers (on faith-based organizations delivering services; on gender, immigration and debates on honour killings; and on the analysis of World Value Surveys data on gender equality and religiosity).

Country-level Research teams

  • Chile: Virginia Guzman, Ute Seibert (Centro de Estudios de la Mujer, Santiago)
  • India: Zoya Hasan (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)
  • Iran: Homa Hoodfar (Concordia University, Montreal; Iran Module of the Women and Law Programme of Women Living Under Muslim Laws); Shadi Sadr (lawyer, women's rights activist and journalist, Tehran)
  • Israel: Ruth Halperin-Kaddari (Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women, Faculty of Law, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan); Yaacov Yadgar (Department of Political Studies, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan)
  • Mexico: Maria Consuelo Mejia (Catolicas por el Derecho a Decidir, Mexico); Ana Amuchastegui Herrera (Universidad Autonoma, Metropolitana-Xochimilco, Ciudad de Mexico); Guadalupe Cruz Cardenas (Catolicas por el Derecho a Decidir, Mexico)
  • Nigeria: Charmaine Pereira (Network of Women's Studies in Nigeria, Abuja); Jibrin Ibrahim (Global Rights: Partners for Justice in Nigeria, Abuja)
  • Pakistan: Farida Shaheed, Samina Choonara (Shirkat Gah, Lahore)
  • Poland: Jacqueline Heinen (Université de Versailles St-Quentin-en-Yvelines (UVSQ), Paris); Stephan Portet (independent researcher, Warsaw)
  • Serbia: Rada Drezgic (Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, University of Belgrade; Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh)
  • Turkey: Yesim Arat (Department of Political Science and International Relations, Bogazici University, Istanbul)
  • USA: Janet Jakobsen (Barnard Center for Research on Women, Columbia University, New York); Elizabeth Bernstein (Barnard College, Columbia University, New York)

Commissioned thematic papers
  • Casanova, José. Religion, Politics and Gender Equality: Public Religions Revisited
  • Phillips, Anne. Religion, Politics and Gender Equality. A Feminist Response to Casanova
  • Mariz Tadros. Gendered ideologies and practices in Faith-based organizations delivering services.
  • Anna Korteweg and Gökçe Yurdakul. Islam, Gender and Immigration: A Comparative Analysis of Honour Killing Debates in Western Europe and North America.
  • Stephanie Seguino and James Lovinsky. Gender Equality and Religiosity: Evidence from World Value Surveys.

Advisory Group
A small advisory group has been set up to provide substantive inputs on the research design and research reports. The members of the team are:
Asef Bayat, International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, Leiden, the Netherlands
Franziska Brantner, European Studies Centre, Oxford University, UK
Deniz Kandiyoti, Department of Development Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK

Related reading:
Parvin Paidar 2001 Gender of Democracy: The Encounter between Feminism and Reformism in Contemporary Iran UNRISD: Geneva
Amrita Basu 2005 Women, Political Parties and Social Movements in South Asia
Deniz Kandiyoti 2005 The Politics of Gender and Reconstruction in Afghanistan
UNRISD: Geneva
Gita Sen 2005 Neolibs, Neocons and Gender Justice: Lessons from Global
Negotiations UNRISD: Geneva
Shahra Razavi 2006 Islamic Politics, Human Rights and Women’s Claims for
Equality in Iran in Third World Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 7, pp. 1223-1237