Religious freedom and women's rights share common ground

by Thomas Reese

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Support for religious freedom often appears to be in conflict with women's rights both in the United States and abroad. In the debate over the contraceptive mandate, for example, the religious freedom rights of employers were set against the right of their women employees. This conflict is real and will eventually be worked out in society and the courts.

But the conflict between religious freedom and women's rights is bad for both sides. If those supporting religious freedom are perceived as opposing women's rights, they will suffer because they are fighting against an historical force that is only going to get stronger. If those supporting women's rights are seen as against religious freedom, they will suffer because religion is so fundamental to most of the world’s outlook on life.

This is a lose, lose situation.

But is conflict between religious freedom and women's rights inevitable? I would argue that it is not and that there are areas where women's rights and religious freedom go hand in hand and can support each other. Rather than opposing each other all the time, supporters of religious freedom and women's rights could work together on some issues.

I think that this is especially true in the area of international religious freedom -- religious freedom outside the United States.

Although I am chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, what I write here does not necessarily represent the views of the commission.

It is true that there are legal and cultural practices supported by religious beliefs that treat women unequally in families, education, the workplace, and society. Examples would be female genital mutilation, forced marriages, honor killings, rigid dress codes, divorce laws favoring the husband, inheritance laws favoring male heirs, and restrictions on education, employment, and participation in political life.

Looked at one way, it appears that allowing freedom of religion is holding women down in these examples.

A way out of this apparent conflict is to emphasize that religious freedom is a human right that resides in the individual not in a religious tradition. "The human right to freedom of religion or belief does not protect religious traditions per se," explained Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, "but instead facilitates the free search and development of faith-related identities of human beings, as individuals and in community with others."

Religious freedom does not protect religious belief or religious institutions from challenge. Rather religious freedom protects the right of an individual to believe or not believe, to change one's religion if one desires, and to speak and act on those beliefs. It protects believers not beliefs. Religious freedom includes freedom of speech and press on religious topics, which allows individuals to challenge religious beliefs and traditions.

As a result, religious freedom in its true meaning empowers women to decide for themselves what they will believe and empowers them to challenge the teachings of their own religion if they don't like the way it treats women. Any restrictions on the right of women to challenge religious beliefs and practices are violations of their religious freedom. With this kind of religious freedom the religious establishment can be challenged. Ultimately, it allows religions to evolve and change over time.

"In virtually all traditions," notes Bielefeldt, "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." When religious freedom is promoted, the position of these people is strengthened.

The fight over religious dress is a case where religious freedom and the rights of women are portrayed to be in conflict but in reality they are in sync.

In some Middle Eastern countries, women are forced to dress in a certain way because of religious tradition even if they don't support this tradition. Meanwhile, in Europe, secularists are telling women they cannot wear religious dress even if they want to as an expression of their faith.

Putting aside the fact that any man who tells women what clothes to wear needs his head examined, both cases are violations of both the religious freedom of women and their fundamental rights as women to make decisions in their own lives. In both cases, the state is acting paternalistically and restricting the religious freedom of women. In both cases, religious or secular elites are saying they know what is best for women. A respect for religious freedom would allow women to wear what they want in both situations. In other words, religious freedom empowers the woman to make her own decisions.

I am not saying that all conflict between religious freedom and women’s rights can be easily resolved, but it is important to look for potential synergies between the two. This would be helpful to the advocates of both causes. They need not be seen as two essentially contradictory human rights norms.

Certainly proponents of women's rights and religious freedom can agree that forced conversion and marriages of abducted girls is wrong on both counts. Likewise, telling a woman that she cannot change her religion, that she cannot fall in love and choose her own husband, that she can be mutilated, that she cannot be educated or have political rights -- all this is not only violating her rights as a woman, they are violating her rights to believe and act on her own beliefs.

Freedom of religion for women should be a strongly articulated goal of feminists who believe that women have the right to make their own decisions. The rights of women, who are most vulnerable to religious discrimination, should also be a strongly articulated goal of religious freedom advocates who believe that all people, especially vulnerable populations, should have the right of religious freedom.

Working together, advocates of religious freedom and women’s rights could be a strong, bipartisan force that could make a difference is the lives of millions of women around the world. Disagreements over some issues should not lead to constant warfare. Rather, both sides need to focus on how they can work together on those issues about which they agree. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is]

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