Does freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) have particular implications for women? As it turns out, the answer is yes—and given all the celebrations for International Women’s Day earlier this week, it is worth considering them.

Much has been written about the inequalities that women experience under fundamentalist versions of religion, which are often premised on gender hierarchy and strict gender roles. There are shelves of books about women’s fate in the Muslim world, for instance, but these often have an exotic flavor that may work against Muslim women’s actual interests. Some scholars who specialise in the study of Muslim women describe systems of “antisexist patriarchy” in political postures that purport to liberate women from forces in their society that may seem oppressive to those outside them, prompting them to ask, “Do Muslim women need saving?” The same goes for women in fundamentalist Christian societies, whereby women are seen as subjects of a system rather than agents in control of their lives.

Some of the concerns about women and religion may, indeed, have paternalistic or chivalric elements that profess to serve women’s interests, while doing little to address underlying social, economic, and political factors that may be more of a problem for women than religion. And those who presume to save women from their faith often fail to understand the ways in which even traditional and conservative forms of religion can be sources not just of women’s vulnerability, but also women’s agency and  activism in support of FoRB.

After all, it is often women who fill worship houses and who do the crucial work of religion, administering such social services as education, health, and community sustenance around the world. These activities may be equally important—perhaps more important—than devising doctrine or merely professing the faith. But when it comes to doctrine and belief, religious feminists in every tradition are often among the leaders, engaged as scholars of religion in developing “hermeneutical circles” in which to reinterpret, reframe, and reform religion. Even so, the importance of FoRB for women as religious agents, who must sometimes resist and reshape their religion cannot be underestimated.

Nonetheless, paternalistic, and perhaps patriarchal, invocations of women’s religious freedom continue to be heard around the world—including parts of the Commonwealth. A recent news report from an Evangelical Christian newspaper in India begins with the sensationalistic headline, “Violence against women is increasingly being used as a tool of persecution in India.” On closer inspection, the article contains scant attention to women themselves, other than suggesting that women and children are being arrested for their Christian faith. Another recent article from neighbouring Pakistan has a nearly identical title and makes similar claims about the susceptibility of Ahmadi and Hindu women and children to religious persecution. So, claims of women’s oppression can still be used to bolster a range of political and religious programmes.

But even as claims of women’s oppression continue to be used for various purposes, we must keep an eye out for what CIFoRB principal Monica Duffy Toft, identifies as the real threat that religious fundamentalisms pose for women’s freedom and women’s lives. As Toft observes, in some spots around the world “fundamentalist religious movements mobilise the very forces that should have been expected to safeguard women: globalisation, secularisation, and democracy.”

Religions may deem women to be the problem and women may deem religion to be the problem. But what cannot be denied is how problematic it can become, when gender becomes a tool or weapon against women in service of any number of political agendas.  With this in mind, Toft notes, “As women’s equality has advanced, a clash has developed within societies whereby fundamentalists attempt to reassert more traditional gendered roles…. It is likely no accident therefore, that religious fundamentalism has expanded in tandem with women’s equality.”

CIFoRB stands with women around the world and around the Commonwealth—women with religion and women without religion—to draw attention to the importance of FoRB for women’s agency, women’s lives, and women’s human rights.

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