Understanding the Intersection of Faith and Women's Rights

Responding to: Religion and Women's Equality

By: Nicole Bibbins Sedaca

August 23, 2016

As the world celebrates Women’s Equality Day (August 26), I applaud the Berkley Center for continuing to encourage dialogue about important issues related to faith and international affairs, including women’s rights.

While significant progress has been made on women’s rights globally, much work remains to be done. The women’s rights community works tirelessly to advance a wide array of issues, including advocating for pay equality, combating violence against women, increasing women’s political participation, fighting the exploitation of women, and many other crucial issues. In the fight for women’s equality, some activists have seen religion as a hindrance to women’s rights, given its strong role in shaping societal gender norms and expectations. And by extension, bringing change within faith communities on women's rights has been considered difficult, if not impossible. 

Rather than viewing faith and women's rights as inherently at odds with each other, it is important to understand the context in which people of faith are advocating for change. Likewise, it cannot be forgotten that early roots of feminism included religious voices—as the Berkley Forum rightly points out—and the dialogue today calls for no less diversity of views. 

Advancing women's equality within faith traditions presents unique challenges for people of faith—challenges which are distinct from broader work on women’s rights. Acknowledging the uniqueness of the dialogue about faith and women’s rights is essential to advancing women’s rights within different faith perspectives. 

One challenge is the foundation of belief. People of faith who pursue women’s rights base their fundamental beliefs and practices on sacred, unchangeable texts. While the interpretation of sacred texts changes over time, the foundational texts upon which many faiths, particularly the Abrahamic faiths, are based are not open to revision, as they are considered the literal word of God or inspired by God. Secular efforts to advance women’s rights seek to change law, constitutions, or societal norms, which are generally accepted as open to change, even if societies can be resistant to that change, depending on its nature. This foundational difference creates a significantly different framework for dialogue about women's equality.

Related to this, a further challenge is the relationship between the community of faith and society. Because faith communities seek to adhere to their sacred teachings, it is common that they seek to be countercultural and set themselves apart from the societies in which they exist. Thus, changes in society are seen through a skeptical lens, and are easily rejected by faith communities as part of their calling to challenge societal norms. Those within a faith community who are advocating change therefore have an additional challenge, namely to show that their recommended changes are not based on societal whim but rather on a reinterpretation—and continued adherence to—sacred texts. They must prove that changes in women’s roles is not a reaction to societal change, but rather an extension of their faith and consistent with their faith teaching. While the legal fight for equality within a society provides a backdrop for progress on women’s rights, it does not inherently help change norms within different faith traditions. 

These key differences do not, however, make change within a religious community impossible, nor do they make collaboration on women’s rights between faith and secular communities impossible. Rather, they highlight the need for women’s rights activists—secular and religious—to work closely together to build understanding about the determining factors that impact progress on women's rights and to forge many different paths to women’s equality. 

Women and men of faith who advocate for women’s rights are well-positioned to bring change within a specific faith community, which those outside of that community could not do. Therefore collaboration and cooperation between women’s rights activists—inside and outside faith traditions—is crucial. 

Higher education institutions can play a crucial role in providing a platform for dialogue about the nexus between faith and other issues, such as women’s rights, and for providing the opportunity for female students to pursue courses of studies and leadership roles that will allow them to fully utilize their talents. Fostering dialogue will build a crucial level of understanding that is necessary for change to be sustainable.

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Understanding the Intersection of Faith and Women's Rights