The Clash Between Gender Equality and Religious Freedom

By Angelina Kaneva

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer

(Photo Credit)

The rights to freedom of religion and gender equality are both well-established principles within international human rights law. Freedom of religion is encapsulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and Article 1 of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion or Belief. Provisions concerning gender equality are contained in Article 2 of the UDHR, Article 26 of the ICCPR, and Article 1 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

In reality, however, there has been a “prickly overlapping” between religious freedom and gender equality. Exploring the intersection of these two fundamental human rights, especially with regard to Muslim women, one can quickly identify the points of contention.

There is a common perception that Islam degrades women and denies them basic human rights, although Muslim men and women, as well as many religious studies scholars, vehemently argue that such “values” are not inherent in Islamic theology and that the mistreatment of women in some Muslim communities is due to cultural factors that lead some misguided individuals to misinterpret religious teachings. Nevertheless, many misogynistic practices occurring in Muslim-majority countries, where religion is often used as a justification not only for discrimination but also for violence, have drawn the attention of the international community.

Furthermore, a number of Muslim-majority countries have entered reservations to their ratifications of the international human rights instruments that support gender equality on the basis that some of their provisions contain pronouncements on the status of women that contradict Sharia law. Taking such a “particularistic” or culturally relativist justification means that certain treaty provisions become inapplicable in certain national contexts, which undermines the legal standard of gender equality.

It is therefore easy to conclude that a deep tension exists between Islam and gender equality as seen through the lens of human rights principles. This issue is not only relevant to Muslim-majority countries and the lives of Muslim women living in them, but also to states where Muslims are a minority religious group and struggle to practice their religion freely without contradicting principles of gender equality.

So is gender parity more important than religious freedom, and will the rights of Muslim women continue to be threatened as long as greater freedoms are accorded to religious practice? From a human rights perspective, the answer is not obvious, as it would suggest that one must choose one of these two fundamental but competing rights and ultimately discard the other.

Moreover, as Ahmed Souaiaia suggests, “In conservative societies, some women lose the right to wear what they choose to wear. On the other hand, in some liberal societies, some Muslim women lose the right to wear what they want to wear. In both cases, the liberal discourse and the conservative religious discourse have more in common than each of them would care to admit: Both are about control and values.”

There is no difference between a Saudi Muslim woman who is denied the right to wear a T-shirt and jeans because of the religiously justified, state-imposed “appropriate dress code" and a French Muslim woman who consciously chooses to cover her face but is prohibited from doing so on the principles of national security and Western notions about women’s liberation.

It is time for Western societies to stop viewing Muslim women as victims who need to be saved and whose plight can only be alleviated by abandoning the religious principles that oppress them. Such views offer an overly simplistic solution to an extremely complex issue and blatantly deny the role religion plays in the lives of many Muslim women.

Of course, this is not to say that Muslim communities, or any other religious communities, should not be subject to scrutiny and criticism for discriminatory and in some cases violent practices; it simply means that the criticism needs to advance beyond the assumption that Islam is to blame and instead take into account the actual voices of affected women, both in conservative Muslim-majority countries and in Western countries with large Muslim communities.