Women’s rights and freedom of religion or belief

by Marie Juul Petersen Blog BORRAR, By invitation, By invitation BORRAR, Religion, Thematic human rights issues

In China, women from the Muslim Uighur minority are allegedly subject to rape and forced sterilisation in the so-called ‘re-education camps’ where hundreds of thousands of people are detained solely because of their religious affiliation. In Egypt, religiously justified family laws on e.g. marriage, divorce and custody of children discriminate not only against women, but also religious minorities, leaving religious minority women as victims of double discrimination. In France, the ban on full-face veils disproportionately affects Muslim women’s right to manifest their religion or belief.

These are just three examples of the many ways in which restrictions of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) and gender equality intersect. Despite obvious overlaps, actors working for the promotion of respectively FoRB and gender equality rarely work together. In fact, rights related to FoRB and gender equality are often seen to be in contradiction with one another. Underlying this (mis)perception of a normative clash between the two is very often an understanding of FoRB as a right that protects religion – and often conservative, patriarchal religion. For some, this means that FoRB is seen as an inherent obstacle to achieving gender equality; for others, gender equality is seen as a threat to the protection of religious values and practices.

This antagonistic construction of the two human rights norms has consequences, not only in terms of legal protection gaps, but also in terms of a lack of understanding of and sensitivity to the needs, wishes, experiences and specific vulnerabilities of the many millions of people “whose life situations falls within the intersection of discrimination on the grounds of their religion or belief and discrimination on the ground of their gender.”[1]

The Expert Consultation Process on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Gender Equality and the Sustainable Development Goals seeks to address these challenges. The process involves a diverse range of secular and faith-based experts from different institutional, professional, religious and geographic backgrounds and with expertise in different areas. Through a series of workshops, the experts have explored the nexus between FoRB and gender equality in relation to different SDGs, formulating recommendations and concrete suggestions for action in each of these contexts. The process is organised by the Danish Institute for Human Rights and the Stefanus Alliance International, in cooperation with the UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB, and the UN Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development, co-led in this effort by the OHCHR and UNFPA, and it is funded by the Danish and Norwegian Ministries of Foreign Affairs.

The process grows out of a recognition of the need for normative clarification of FoRB and its relationship with gender equality. From a human rights perspective, FoRB is not about protection of conservative or patriarchal religious traditions and values. In fact, it is not about protection of religion at all – it is about protecting individuals’ and groups’ right to have, adopt or change a religion or belief; to manifest and practice this religion or belief, alone or in community with others; and to be free from coercion and discrimination on the grounds of their religion or belief. This includes women’s and LGBTI people’s right to interpret and practice their religion the way they believe is true, even when this goes against the orthodoxy of the religious community.  As such, FoRB can be a tool to empower people in their struggles for gender equality and non-discrimination.

While the right to have (or not have) a religion or belief is a non-derogable right, the right to manifest and practice this religion or belief can be limited in very specific circumstances; most importantly when the practices and manifestations of some people violate the rights and freedoms of others. As such, FoRB can never be used to justify violations of women’s rights or other rights related to gender equality. Female genital mutilation, honour killings, gender-based violence and other harmful practices that are purportedly justified in the name of religion are not protected by the right to FoRB. Laws that diminish the seriousness of such practices, by, for example, placing a higher burden of proof on victims, reducing the value of women’s testimony and allowing perpetrators of violence to invoke ‘honour’ to escape criminal responsibility are just as much a violation of FoRB as of women’s rights.

That there is no inherent contradiction between rights related to FoRB and gender equality does not mean that the relationship between the two is always straight-forward. The two sets of rights can collide in concrete, specific instances, with fulfilment of one right resulting in restrictions on another. This is the case, for instance, in relation to employment of staff in religious institutions. Do religious communities have a right to apply criteria as to gender and sexual orientation in their internal employment procedures, even if this goes against principles of non-discrimination? Another oft-mentioned example turns on issues of conscientious objection, or refusal to provide services related to sexual and reproductive health. Should health personnel have the right to abstain from providing such services, even if it means that this will prevent women from accessing services they are entitled to? There are no clear-cut answers to these questions, and responses require “a high degree of empirical precision, communicative openness and normative diligence with a view to doing justice to all human rights claims involved.”[2]

Such practical conflicts between rights related to FoRB and gender equality obviously deserve careful attention; however, in our analyses of the relationship between FoRB and gender equality, we have found that most challenges seem to be about violations of both FoRB and gender equality rather than about a clash between the two. Analysing the relationship between FoRB and gender equality in the contexts of health (SDG 3), education (SDG 4) and access to justice (SDG 16), we find that gender-based and religiously based discrimination and inequalities often exist in tandem. In fact, research shows a strong correlation between countries with high restrictions on religion and low protection of gender equality.[3] The challenges that LGBTI people, women, girls and religious minorities face in terms of discrimination, marginalization and exclusion are often similar, and often – though certainly not always – the drivers and root causes of these challenges are the same. In relation to education, for instance, we often find similar patterns of gender- and religiously based discrimination in curricula and text books – whether in the form of stereotyping,  stigmatisation, or rendering women, girls, LGBTI people and religious minorities invisible. Likewise, when it comes to health, women, girls, LGBTI people and religious minorities often suffer disproportionately from lack of access to health care and quality treatment.

Challenges frequently intersect and overlap in the sense that religiously based discrimination has certain gendered consequences, and gender-based discrimination has consequences for religious minorities. For instance, violations of FoRB often affect women, girls and LGBTI people in worse – or just different – ways than men. As noted in the example above, persecution of religious minorities often involves gender-based violence, whether in the form of rape, forced sterilisation, forced marriage, kidnappings or otherwise. Similarly, violations of rights related to gender equality also affect women’s, girls’ and LGBTI people’s right to interpret and practice their religion or belief as they want. When family laws restrict women’s right to marriage or custody of their children on the basis of their religious affiliation, these laws constitute a violation not only of women’s rights but of FoRB as well. LGBTI people, women and girls in religious minorities are often victims of double or triple discrimination (i.e. intersectional discrimination), being discriminated against not only by the state and the broader majority culture, but also by their own religious community. Even persecuted religious minorities can  – just like their majority counterparts – be highly patriarchal with practices and traditions that run counter to gender equality norms and principles.

Addressing these challenges obviously requires a wide range of actions, including e.g. repeal of discriminatory family laws, educational reforms to ensure inclusive education for all, and heightened attention to the gendered consequences of religious persecution. The consultation process has resulted in a number of recommendations and concrete suggestions for actions which will be published in a series of reports in Spring 2020.

One general recommendation, which was consistently emphasised by participants in the consultation process, is worth highlighting: the need for a nuanced understanding of, and engagement with, religious actors when addressing gender and religiously based inequalities. First and foremost, actions in this area should not only target, but also actively involve, the very people who are subject to gender and religiously based inequalities, making sure that the perspectives, knowledge, and experiences from e.g. women from religious minorities, non-believers, and LGBTI communities are heard and taken into account. Furthermore, we need to engage with those religious actors who instigate, justify and maintain discrimination and inequalities. Religious beliefs, doctrines, traditions and practices can obviously be – and often are –used to maintain, encourage and justify discrimination and exclusion of girls and women, LGBTI people, religious minorities or non-believers, and there is a need for interventions that address and challenge these, e.g. through awareness-raising and training of religious leaders. Finally, and importantly, religious actors are not only victims or perpetrators of human rights violations; they are also often staunch advocates and supporters of human rights, finding motivation and justification in religion for their struggles towards greater inclusion, equality and justice.[4] Such actors are key partners in efforts to address gender and religiously based discrimination.


[1] Heiner Bielefeldt: Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (Focus: Freedom of religion or belief and equality between men and women), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2013, p. 22. See also Nazila Ghanea, Women and Religious Freedom: Synergies and Opportunities, US Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2017, for an excellent analysis of the relationship between FoRB and women’s rights.

[2] Heiner Bielefeldt: Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (Focus: Freedom of religion or belief and equality between men and women), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2013, p. 8

[3] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/11/religion-holds-women-back-or-does-it/

[4] See e.g. the Faith for Rights Declaration, an initiative spearheaded by a group of faith-based and secular civil society actors, in cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. See also UNFPA’s Women, Faith and Human Rights (2016) for reflections from women of faith on the relationship between religion, human rights and gender equality, as well as the recent interview with Religions for Peace’s Secretary General, Azza Karam, ‘Our world needs plenty of healing’ in Sister-hood December 2019 (https://sister-hood.com/sister-hood-staff/our-world-needs-plenty-of-healing/). OpenGlobalRights has also published various articles under the heading ‘Religion and Human Rights’, discussing potential points of collaboration (https://www.openglobalrights.org/religion-and-human-rights/)

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