Across the world, when women’s rights are threatened or restricted, it may often seem that religious practices are a likely culprit.
At the recent Ministerial to Advance International Religious Freedom, which took place from July 16 to July 18 at the US State Department in Washington, D.C., legal and academic experts spoke about the intersection of citizens’ rights — and challenged perceptions and assumptions about them — during a July 17 panel entitled “Women’s Rights and International Religious Freedom.”
Dr. Nazila Ghanea, an associate professor in international human rights law at Oxford University, Helene Fisher of Open Doors, Ed Brown of the Stefanus Alliance, and Dr. Nayla Tabbara of the Adyan Foundation spoke on the panel, which was moderated by Pam Pryor, a senior advisor in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.
While religions do not have human rights, individuals and communities do, Ghanea said during her remarks.
Ghanea has argued that religious beliefs are often used to justify violations of women’s rights, including in a July 2017 paper for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). These violations include the extremes of forced marriage and female genital mutilation, as well as less physically threatening yet still harmful incidences of discrimination, including regulations on religious dress — an issue that is of specific relevance to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Aceh in Indonesia, all of which have specific laws on compulsory veiling.
Access to education is also a key issue where religious freedom and women’s rights intersect, and the way religious practices and beliefs shape a society can have an impact on this fundamental right.
In an interview with IranWire at the recent ministerial, Pascale Warda, president of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization (HHRO) based in Iraq, talked about growing up in a village in the Duhok district of northern Iraq, where children only had access to a primary school. She described herself as being lucky to be able to continue her secondary school studies in Mangesh, which she was only able to do because she was accompanied by her brother and cousin. As a girl, she wouldn’t have been allowed by her father to continue her studies alone.
“That was the ideology...on the women there,” she said.
Even so, her father was adamant that she and her brother dedicate themselves to their studies.
“He always told us, 'Please, just study. Just study. We will save our country having people who are graduated, who will work for the country to make [success] possible,” she said.
She bemoaned the fact that while the people of Iraq are highly educated and recognize the value of education, the political situation in the country since the Iran–Iraq War has led to a more dire situation, with youth being orphaned or forced to forgo school for work. Women, too, are impacted, with some being unable to leave their “paternal” homes.
Legislating How Women Dress
Zahra Rabbani Amlashi, daughter of prominent Iranian clergyman Ayatollah Mohammad Mehdi Rabbani, is no stranger to the restrictions of paternalism. While the Iranian government is well known for regulating women’s dress and behavior — and meting out punishment for infractions — Amlashi described to IranWire’s Shima Shahrabi how societal standards are even more restrictive for women in the families of clergy.
She described her father as a “modern and progressive-minded” clergyman who did not “discriminate between” his four daughters and one son. As such, he encouraged and enabled Amlashi to enroll in university in Tehran, where she stayed with her brother, who was also studying. Nevertheless, she told IranWire that she chose to restrict the choice of the university she attended and the field in which she studied in order to protect her father’s “prestige.”
Similarly, as a clergyman’s daughter, she told IranWire that she is expected to wear a chador in places like the city of Qom. For her or other daughters of clergymen to instead wear manteaux and headscarves would elicit disapproval.
Such restrictions on dress were not the intention of Islam and clergymen like her father, according to Amlashi.
“The compulsory hijab that is now forced on the society is not something that was supposed to happen when it started,” she told IranWire. “Governments that enforce such restrictions will suffer from its harmful consequences.”
While countries that enforce compulsory veiling are often cited as some of the more serious persecutors of women’s rights, such persecution can also take the form of restricting a woman’s right to wear religious attire.
In a 2016 study of 198 countries and territories, the Pew Research Center found that one quarter (amounting to 50 countries and territories) “had at least one law or policy regulating women’s religious attire in 2012 and 2013, the two most recent years for which data are available.”
The study included countries where at least one level of government — national, provincial, or local — had instituted regulations specifically aimed at women’s attire. The research found that 39 (78%) of the 50 countries and territories that met these criteria had regulations restricting the religious attire of women, while 12 (24%) of those countries and territories had regulations requiring a certain form of religious dress.
Many of these restrictions take the form of bans on the wearing of niqabs and headscarves, which have appeared in various iterations throughout Europe.
Engy Abdelkader, a public fellow at the Public Religion Research Institute at Rutgers University, writes that restrictions on the headscarf are not merely an issue of religious freedom but also of women’s rights, as such restrictions can limit a woman’s right to education in cases where girls and women who wear headscarves or niqabs are faced with bans on their religious attire in schools.
The Role Religious Communities Play in Upholding Rights
Such examples around restrictions on the right to education and the right to wear, or not wear, religious attire underline how religious practices — or restrictions on those practices — are often linked around the world with violations of women’s rights.
However, clashes between religious rights and women’s rights are not inevitable, and the assumption that they are only perpetuates the harm done to women, according to a 2013 report by Heiner Bielefeldt, who was at the time UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Calling this perception an “abstractly antagonistic misconstruction of the relationship between freedom of religion or belief and equality between men and women,” the report documents how its persistence can do harm by failing to recognize that “many women suffer from multiple or intersectional discrimination [sic] or other forms of human rights violations on the grounds of both their gender and their religion or belief.”
Ghanea argues in her USCIRF paper that this misperception stems in part from the conception of religion-inspired restrictions on women’s rights as cultural practices that cannot be touched by the international human rights architecture, particularly the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). She cites anthropologist Sally Merry Engle, who writes that while CEDAW upholds dated views of culture as unchanging and inflexible, a more modern view allows for an understanding of culture “as a process of continually creating new meanings and practices that are products of power relationships and open to contestation among members of the group and by outsiders.”
According to UN Special Rapporteur Bielefeldt in his 2014 report, such contestation is at the heart of a more positive, rather than destructive, intersection of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) and women’s rights.
“In virtually all traditions one can indeed find persons or groups who make use of their freedom of religion or belief as a positive resource for the promotion of equality between men and women, often in conjunction with innovative interpretations of religious sources and traditions,” he writes, adding that such efforts enable the kind of “direct synergies” between FoRB and women’s rights that are precluded when the two are assumed to be mutually exclusive.
For Warda, such synergies must come from religious communities themselves.
She and her husband William Warda, who serves as the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization (HHRO) public relations officer, were awarded the State Department’s inaugural International Religious Freedom Award at last week’s ministerial for HHRO’s efforts to document atrocities and abuses against Iraq’s religious minorities.
When asked how religion can play a role in supporting women’s rights, Warda, who identified herself as part of Iraq’s Chaldean Christian community, was adamant that religious leaders, and particularly men, must push back against interpretations of religion that circumscribe women’s rights.
“In the name of religion, in the name of traditions, we deal with women like...real garbage,” she said. To reverse this trend, religious authorities in particular must take stances to protect women’s rights, Warda told IranWire.
It’s a situation that isn’t unique to Iraq. According to the UN Special Rapporteur Bielefeldt’s report, “discrimination based on stereotypical roles of men and women is one of the most widespread human rights violations worldwide.”
“It can assume cruel forms and deprives many women and girls of their rights to life, freedom and respect for human dignity,” the report reads. “The need for concerted action to eliminate such violations, including by addressing their cultural root causes, is more than obvious.”