Although there have been many instances of religious mobilization against social injustice and human rights abuses - from liberation theologians in Latin America to the Catholic opposition to nuclear war and economic injustice in the USA in the 1980s - there has been more recently, a narrowing of agendas around an exclusive focus on moral, ideological and identity-based politics. Women’s rights advocates have often found their demands for democracy and equality in the ‘private’ domains of family law, reproduction and sexuality virulently opposed by those who claim to be speaking on behalf of religious ‘communities’.
This raises the thorny issue of the compatibility of faith-based platforms with gender equality goals. There is value in attempting reform within different religious traditions, as well as limitations. We argue that if the goals of economic and gender justice cannot be pursued and consolidated in tandem and if solid transnational alliances cannot be built the goal of gender equality will be put in jeopardy.
In the Global South, advocacy for universal human rights and women’s rights comes up against political platforms that use religion to resist ‘cultural imperialism’ and ‘Western-style individualism’. When religion becomes politicised in multi-religious or multi-ethnic societies, gender issues and women’s status can be used as an instrument to further discriminate against or discipline minority and disadvantaged groups. Critiques of forms of gender discrimination practiced by different religious or ethnic communities become politically loaded in such contexts to the extent that they feed into existing identity-based conflicts. Some women’s rights activists consequently advocate ‘internal reform’ as the most appropriate route, if not the only feasible approach, to making religious communities more responsive to gender justice and equality concerns.
In contexts where secular spaces are limited, (as in Iran), or where ethno-religious conflicts have created tensions between feminist and communal claims - as in Israel and India - feminists who work from within religious communities and advocate religious interpretations that help to promote gender justice, have played a crucial role. They often popularise woman-friendly interpretations of religious texts, stimulate public debate and force religious authorities to engage with women’s rights issues, in order to advocate for legal and political reforms.
However, the extent to which these reformist discourses get a public hearing or are able to influence state policy is a matter of debate. Particularly under authoritarian regimes, many governments have forcefully acted to repress scholars, activists, and organisations advocating women’s rights even when, as Shahra Razavi has argued, such advocacy seeks to demonstrate its compatibility with religious doctrine. In settings inflamed by ethno-religious conflicts, the demands of women’s rights advocates’ are often played off against nationalist bids for protection and unification of the community, however defined.
It is therefore questionable to what extent internal reform movements can, on their own, offer a more promising avenue for egalitarian change, considering the power religions can wield against dissident voices. Furthermore Anne Phillips has argued that it is unhelpful to set up a clear cut opposition between internally and externally generated change, or to represent one avenue as superior to the other. The dividing line between the two strategies may be porous to the extent that those who work for ‘internal’ reform very often draw upon the ideas and arguments of ‘external’ advocates for change. Alliances between feminists of different persuasions and social locations are therefore imperative.
In Iran, for instance, reformist religious women have increasingly reached out and joined secularist women in various campaigns, resulting not only in what Parvin Paidar has called a more ‘pragmatic feminism’, but also in mutual learning. As Valentine Moghadam writes, reformist or women-centred interpretation of religious laws should be considered not as an alternative to secular and democratic demands but as a component of more holistic social change’.
In India an alliance of Muslim women’s groups with the Indian women’s movement, and movements for secularism, democracy, and human rights, has been crucial to broad-basing the struggle for women’s rights, which now goes beyond reforming personal laws to promoting gender equality. However, given the exclusionary nature of nationalist and identity politics in multi-religious states, such alliances are inevitably difficult to build and sustain. In Israel, for instance, Ruth Halperin-Kaddari and Yaacov Yadgar have described how women’s rights activists within the Muslim community have resisted appeals from their Jewish counterparts to join forces in demanding secular civil family laws as an alternative to communal law because this would give the state more authority over the community without addressing the problem of state discrimination. Feminists from the Muslim community have preferred to reform Muslim family laws, as accomplished in 2001 when the Family Courts Law was amended, reducing the exclusive jurisdiction of Shari’a courts.
A further challenge to alliance politics emanates for the disjuncture between gender justice and economic justice objectives. The connections between economic and social justice, and gender justice are crystal clear in daily life: What do legal rights to abortion and bodily integrity amount to if quality public health services remain out of reach? How can formal rights to divorce and child custody be fully exercised if women do not have the financial wherewithal to support their dependents? An enabling environment for the realization of women’s substantive rights therefore requires both a rights-based agenda that guarantees individual rights and autonomy, and an economic agenda that promotes social and economic rights.
Feminist groups and movements, often in alliance with leftist parties, unions and other civil society groups have drawn attention to the distributional failures of the neoliberal agenda, demanding redistributive measures to redress the economic/social injustices of unfettered globalisation. However, promoters of social justice are not always supportive of women’s rights agendas, especially in the arena of reproduction and sexuality. Such fissures were clearly apparent at the UN conferences of the 1990s when an alliance led by a group of conservative states and largely religious NGOs consistently opposed the women’s rights agenda (especially reproductive choice), while they were also critical of the agenda of economic liberalisation that Northern governments were pursuing.
In the USA, examples of feminist alliance-building with religious actors have not led to progressive outcomes. Janet Jackobsen and Elizabeth Bernstein have described the way in which the feminist-evangelical alliance has been enabled by a rightward shift of some feminists towards neo-conservatism and a ‘law and order’ agenda, and the leftward turn of some evangelical Christians away from divisive issues such as abortion and gay marriage towards a ‘new internationalist’, social-justice theology.
Despite these hurdles, the influence of international networks and platforms in bolstering feminist activism at the national/local levels cannot be denied. The growing size and influence of an international women’s movement that is linked through both regional and international networks and the succession of UN conferences held in the 1990s, have informed national debates and advocacy work on women's rights in many contexts. In addition, in countries where governments have signed on to key UN conventions such as CEDAW, and are therefore subject to the scrutiny of human rights bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights, or countries like Turkey that seek accession to regional bodies such as the European Union, women’s rights activists can bring pressure to bear on their governments to change the national legal or policy frameworks to comply with conditionalities, even if this often yields meagre returns. Given that conservative religious forces utilise transnational flows of ideas, influence and finance to consolidate their position within the national contexts in which they operate, it is both self-evident and imperative that resistance should be articulated both at the international and local levels.
The struggle for gender equality must necessarily be fought on multiple fronts, pushing for internal reforms, drawing upon international standard setting instruments and seeking broad based alliances.