Are Religious Women Really Women?

On behalf of the NGO Committee on the Freedom
of Religion or Belief, in New York, I’m Bani Dugal and on behalf of the Committee, I would
like to welcome you all to this very special meeting. We have Naz Ghanea, from the UK.
Naz is a professor in human rights law at Oxford University. She has spoken to our
Committee before and it was on popular demand that our bureau members felt that we should
invite her back. We are very lucky that she happened to be in the US.
So we are very happy to have you with us. This also happens to be during the 56th Commission
on the Status of Women. So, I believe we have guests here from overseas that are attending
the Commission. So welcome to you all and we are delighted that you could be here with
us. And it is also the reason why it’s a very busy time and there are lots of competing
events. We still hope to have a few others joining us after the meetings they are attending
and they may be some people coming in late. Given the fact that it’s the Commission on
the Status of Women, we had asked Naz to gear her talk to the issues of women and freedom
of religion or belief. Hence, the topic that she proposed was: Are religious women really women?
And it’s a provocative topic. It’s a thought provoking topic. It’s, as one person even
told me that it was a bit off-putting to her and she was not sure she wanted to be here
for this. But I see her around the table. It was you! Naz has just told me that she
is going to give a brief talk and then open it up for discussion so that we can explore conversations
on relationships between gender and religious identities. So, I turn it over to Naz.
Thank you very much. It’s great to be here. And I have to say I’m going to defer to you
regarding the expertise on gender. I’ll set the scene and I’m really interested in
your feedback on it. I also have to say that I have bit of concern
that this topic is also context specific.
So I hope it still speaks to you or has some correlation with your with your
own thoughts but we will and discuss this further at the end So, are religious women really women? Is this discussion worth having?
The reason I’m raising it is that the voice of religious women is rarely heard. They are rarely given a platform and they are rarely given agency.
We rarely see them portrayed, for example, in the media voicing their
own concerns, fighting their own battles, raising their own issues
and championing the rights of others. They are other-ed, they are distanced from
us in the media, they are projected as hijabbi women, as submissive,
as Afghani women, victims of honor killings, of female genital mutilation, and polygamy
and so on. So they challenge us, perhaps, because they’re
not private about their religion and we seem to have a tendency of objectifying religious
women and casting them, continuously, perpetually,
as victims. Now, if you come from a particular religion
or belief tradition maybe this doesn’t make sense to you in your immediate
context but what I’m talking about is in the public context and particularly in the
human rights system. So, in the human rights scene, religious women
are dissected. They are either persons holding the religion
or belief — and when I use “religion” I mean “religion or belief” because of the human rights
system the two come together as a shorthand, please forgive me but I do
intend its full implication in human rights terms.
So in the human rights scene I’m suggesting that they are either — their rights are upheld
and they’re projecting either as women or persons holding religion or belief.
The very architect of the UN human rights system categorizes them.
Now it also categorizes other women. So the girl-child is child and woman.
A woman holding – a person with a disability, is a woman and a person with a disability. And, you know,
an elderly woman, etcetera, etcetera. So the system is prone to that kind of dissection.
But I’m saying that and in certain intersectionality has been welcomed for the girl-child, for example,
but we haven’t seem to had given space to the idea of the religious woman.
With gender and race, you know, women of color have come into the system through certain
world conferences and norms and also the girl-child.
Now, when religious women have claims within the human rights machinery, then too they
seem to be forced to make a choice between their religion or belief and their gender.
In the human rights system, after all, tradition is to be vigorously contested and that’s particularly
the case with CEDAW. Tradition is something that is to be confronted.
States have the obligation of confronting tradition in cases where it stereotypes
against and discriminates against women. And it’s only in the international covenant
on civil and political rights under article 18 that we then find reference to freedom
of religion or belief. So, as religious women, as that whole, there
is no mention of them or no recognition of them either in CEDAW or in the international
covenant on civil and political rights, in the 1992 declaration on minorities, in the 1981
declaration on the elimination of racial discrimination. They are absence as a category of religious women. I think this has happened for the best of
reasons and if we look over the past five or so decades we looked at the world conferences
on women we look at the origins and development of CEDAW and its optional protocol, then the
uncomfortable fit of religious women makes sense. I mean we can understand it.
Privacy is something to be confronted in our concern for gender rights. It’s in the private
sphere, in the domestic sphere, in the religious sphere, that we have witnessed at lot of discrimination
against women. And therefore that rigorous confrontation
and that perhaps negative stereotyping of women in religion; our expectation that women
in religion are subjugated and discriminated is understandable. There are, after all, many
entrenched practices that need to be confronted in the private sphere and including in the
religious sphere, regarding discrimination against women So this has made us vigilant
regarding women in the private sphere and has colored our perception of the religious
woman. But, I’m saying that this is also frozen our
picture and our snapshot of religious women in one particular direction.
And the role of religion in discriminating against women is after all well catered for
and well acknowledged in human rights documents. One author says that no social group has suffered
greater violation of its human rights in the name of culture than women.
And I would say that, you know, when we say “culture” we often mean particularly “religious
culture.” It’s not the only culture that we are concerned
with regarding discrimination against women but it’s certainly a key component of our
concern with culture. If we look, for example, at the reports of
the UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of religion or belief, the late Abdu’l Fatah Amor, in
his 2002 report said that many forms of discrimination against women were based on or attributed
to religion, tolerated by the state, and in some cases, enshrined in legislation.
At the heart of this problem lies the fact that discriminatory and harmful practices
against women, such as female genital mutilation, polygamy, discrimination related to inheritance,
sacred prostitution, general preference to have boys are often perpetuated by individuals
or communities who perceive them as a religious obligation or as being parts of their freedom
to manifest their religion or belief. Now that’s interesting.
If people are believing that part of their manifesting of their religion or belief, is
to perpetuate these practices that discriminate against women then you’re setting up a clash.
A very definite clash between freedom of religion and gender rights.
But, Amor went on to say that religions have not inventive discriminatory and harmful practices
against women; rather, these practices are mainly attributable to a cultural interpretation
of religious precepts. The concepts of culture and religion are,
however, inextricably linked. It is therefore difficult to disassociate religion from cultural
customs and traditions since religion is itself a tradition. It’s quite complicated, isn’t
it? So he is saying that yes, some people, as part of their manifestation discriminate
and then he saying religions didn’t invent it. But then, nevertheless, they cannot be disassociated,
therefore I mean it’s quite a complex idea to portray and maybe some people would challenge
how he has articulated that. Asma Jahangir, again, another Rapporteur on
freedom of religion or belief, said in her 2009 report that discriminatory and harmful
practices against women, including honor killings, polygamy, marriage of underage girls and prohibition
or coercion to wear religious symbols, religion-based personal laws, in particular, in the areas
of divorce, inheritance, custody of children, transmission of citizenship were all areas in
which she had concerns regarding religion or belief and gender.
So considering . . .it’s no wonder then, I mean this but the fact that women may be discriminated
in the name of religion or within the laws of religion is well catalogued in the human
rights sphere, not least by the experts regarding religion or belief. Okay?
So it’s no wonder then, that often religious women, as a category are a category to be
pitied. They are kind of a contradiction because they are trying to, you know, maintain association
and to identified themselves as both religious and women.
And perhaps they are pitied because, you know, others might believe that they have been entrapment
into religion. The UN Human Rights Committee cases also agree
that women are discriminated against in the name of religion but also take us somewhere
further and I’ve taken the example of Hudoyberganova versus Uzbekistan, a 2004 case.
And this is an Uzbek student of Persian at Tashkent University, in the Islamic Affairs
department. And in her second year she decides to wear a head scarf.
They closed the institute saying that she and others were trying to wear the head scarf
have made the institute no longer tenable, they throw her out of her dorms, they disqualify
her from her studies, they come in speak to her parents to try and persuade them to put
pressure on her to no longer wear the head scarf.
And the Human Rights Committee does find a violation of her freedom religion or belief.
There’s also an European court of human rights case regarding a woman who wants to wear the
hat scarf and that’s Sahin versus Turkey. Sahin is calling us.
And in this case, Sahin is a medical student in Istanbul and she wants to wear the
head scarf and of course that’s against Turkish laws. This was — cannot remember exactly — but
this was about six years ago, seven years ago.
She wants to wear the head scarf and the European court of human rights doesn’t find a violation
of her freedom of religion or belief. Why? Because they… there is due diligence
in favor of the states and the state’s law is trying to uphold secularity and therefore
tough luck. And she leaves Turkey and finishes her medical studies in Germany.
We are starting to get a richer picture of a woman who is chosing to manifest her religion
or belief — and who is also a women. And here, Sahin continues her studies. She
leaves the country and succeeds in her objective, all be it, there is violation of for freedom
of religion or belief, is not found. So you get the picture we have, perhaps more
in the European context, the picture we have of a head scarf wearing woman as being subjugated
and submissive. Sahin challenges that because she is an agent of change. She finds a way
forwards to upholds both and she doesn’t give in to demands that she shouldn’t manifest
or she shouldn’t express herself in a particular way.
So how will the UN human rights mechanisms be able to uphold the rights of a woman to
be both religious and woman? I think there needs to be a
how much closer cooperation between different treaty bodies.
I also think that, although CEDAW has been confrontational on traditional practices and
tends to put religion as a whole within that category, I think CEDAW too needs to
become more perceptive and more sensitive regarding the fact that religion isn’t always
a category to be fought against. I can also think of examples where human rights
NGOs might want to be more perceptive, and perhaps I could even say less paternalistic
regarding religious women. There are multiple accounts of being a woman and, you know, feminism
in many countries suffers from being elite and rich and out of touch.
I know that thematic issues is about women, rural women, isn’t it?
It’s critical in the development of the women’s rights movement in many countries that the
multiplicity of accounts of being a woman are engaged and entertained more fully.
And I’m suggesting, at the international level, and in the human rights scene too, we need
to be sensitive and inclusive of those multiple accounts, including that of the religious
woman. So I don’t want to paint all NGOs with the
same brush but and let’s just say that at the national level and in their projects and in their
advocacy then if we have too rigid a perspective and preconceptions about women’s rights must
be upheld purely through a secular framework or purely through an international human rights
framework, and if that cannot be supplemented in any project, in anywhere, you know, with
cultural accounts and religious accounts, and laws and I think that might be losing
a trick. When we initiate projects is there a token
consultation or is there a genuine engagement with women of the grassroots about what they
see as their current challenge and that they want to overcome?
And, you know, what kind of allowances do we make that genuine engagement and so on?
And, also of course consultation with men who want to advance women’s rights.
This does skirt around some very difficult questions and that is the question of where
to draw the line? And, also, you know, there’s endless literature
and concern from different disciplines about how do we know that a woman’s position is
— has being freely arrived at? Is that even possible?
We assume that a woman or a group of women can be sort of untouched and raised about
their culture, objectively determine their path and then we should respect their decision
about how they want to engage both gender and religious identity.
And also when I talk about religious women I’m not saying that religion should be immune
from all kind of criticism regardless of the violations that we’re talking about.
Of course harms to bodily integrity should be prohibited and one would expect — and
it’s quite right that the human rights movement should be actively engaged in that. And I’ll leave where to draw the line for
the discussion because that’s I think for ongoing discussion but what I’m saying is
that we shouldn’t presume that religion, gender, binary.
We should recognize of course that cultures are not static and religion includes huge
diversity and that religion is not always backward and harmful.
We need to entertain a space where religion and gender is in harmony.
Also, if we have that binary we are forgetting that women themselves, religious women themselves,
maybe agents of change, are agents of change within their religion.
Now the literature talks about how women are agents of change within their – where necessary
— I mean first of all we should have assumed that religion is always bad for women.
But, even having said that, in cases where we believe that there are traditions that
are discriminatory against women, what about leaving a space for women as agents of change
within their culture, in this case their religious culture?
The literature describes this as “translation,” “textualism,” “constructivism,” and “reconstructionism”.
Basically, “translation” is when religious women elects tradition, religious traditions, and
stories and texts that give a wide, a wider range of ideas about human rights for women.
Wider than that this is being traditionally or is currently being entertained in their
culture — in their religious culture. “Textualism” is using religious texts and cultural
texts to help explain the rights of women.
And may be the rights of women in international law are endorsed by reference to those texts.
Okay? “Constructivism” is historically situating why
religion may have been given only particular roles within that religion and saying that
now context is different and therefore women should be given more chances and more
variety of options and life opportunities. And that takes, sort of, reinterpretation.
Okay? And “reconstructivism” is described as empowering new women leaders to create new
knowledgebases for their communities. Now, putting that to one side, then let’s
look at the Pew Research Forum, Forums Reports, on Religion and Public Life
from August, 2011. They have a report on rising restrictions
on religion in which they say that restrictions on religious beliefs and practices rose between
mid-2006 and mid-2009 in 23 of the world’s countries.
It decreased in 12 countries and it remained essentially unchanged in the others. So their
report suggested it increased in 12% of countries it decreased in 6 and it remained unchanged
in the others. They say that more than 2.2 billion people,
that’s a third of the world’s population, live in countries where either government
restrictions on religion or social hostilities involving religion rose substantially.
Sorry, that it did rise substantially in that three year period.
So although the percentage is only 6%, that’s a third of the world’s population where they
know it’s an increase in restrictions on the basis of religion or belief in that three
year period. I say this just to say that religious women
are not only discriminated on the basis of their gender within their religion, religious
women also face other discrimination and by categorizing them as the poor religious woman
within their religious community, we might lose site of the discrimination and violations
of human rights that are taking place — that are being continued against her on other accounts.
It could on account — I’m talking about on accounts of their religion or belief — but
also on accounts of their race, their age, etcetera, etcetera.
So, we shouldn’t, again, freezing them into one snapshot loses that greater picture of
violations that they may be suffering. So, I did a bit of homework. I looked at the
priority areas of CSW since 1992 and I found that there has never been attention given
to women holding particular — religious woman is not an acceptable shorthand, so, you know,
women holding religion or belief. There has never been a theme or a subtheme. I didn’t search through all the resolutions.
But there’s never been one that has addressed this issue.
In the 45th session in 2001, which is no doubt because of Durban coming up, the thematic
issue was gender and all forms of discrimination, in particular race, racism, racial discrimination,
xenophobia and related intolerance. I didn’t look at the resolutions, but maybe you recall
were there any resolutions that addressed women and religion?
And then the second question is, have there even been resolutions addressing
women and religion – in a positive way, not only in, you know, in raising concerns?
Those concerns are legitimate, I’m not saying that they’re not legitimate, but it wouldn’t
be allowing for multiple accounts to not also see it, as a platform for empowerment.
So, discrimination against women within religion is not the only experience of religious women
that is relevant to human rights. Religious women are also empowered through
their religion. Many religious women feel liberated through
their religion or belief. Many draw strength, identity, direction, fulfillment through their
religion or belief and their gender. For them, there is no separation between their
embodiment of being a woman and being religious. As Asma said, no one should have to choose
between multiple and vital identities. And it’s not for us to determine what is a
vital identity for them. It is for each person to be able to articulate
that and to project who they are and what matters for them.
So, one of the pictures I’m, you know, seeing about religious women, well, I thought that if we look at the article 6 of the
1981 declaration on the elimination of discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, the religion
declaration, let’s put it, briefly, if you look at article 6, it gives a non-exhaustive
list of manifestation of religion or belief. So if we just take that and insert gender,
then insert women, then we should consider the role of religious women in worship, their roll
in worship, you know, women and worship, women and community building, women and religious
ceremonies, women and charity, the role of women in holy days, the role of women in training
religious leaders, and in fact the role of women as leaders.
And we should take “leader,” I think, in the broadest sense and again as self-defined within
a community. Of course, even this is a very impoverished
picture of the religious woman within religious culture.
But it’s a good starting point. So I thought as a pushback against the popular
and dominant discourse that I think, please tell me if it’s different in India — I hope
it is. But, you know, as a pushback against the dominant picture I see of the poor religious
woman who needs to be rescued, and in her pitiful condition and she should be empowered
to instead become fully woman and become liberated. Let’s also keep within our minds a picture
of a strong religious woman. The religious woman in leadership, the religious
woman who is dissenting, the religious woman who is navigating and championing a path
that does justice to both her gender and her belief.
And let’s do that whilst also continuing to give new attention to concerns with women
within religion where that is indeed warranted. Let’s welcome women in their full diverse
and with all their intersectionalities. Thank you.

I'm puzzled. Dr Ghanea has misinterpreted CEDAW, and appears not to have read some key literature on CEDAW (etc) and people's multiple identities. CEDAW and other rights instruments and intelligent intersections feminist arguments don't take issue with religion. They state only that where religion (or culture/ethnicity/laws etc) assert that women are of lesser value than men, are less than human, that these institutions should be challenged and their assertions should not be fulfilled.

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