"Religion Revisited - Women’s rights and the political instrumentalisation of religion"

Publication Date: 
June, 2009

"Religion Revisited - Women’s rights and the political instrumentalisation of religion"

The Heinrich Böll Foundation, jointly with the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), organized the international conference "Religion Revisited - Women’s rights and the political instrumentalisation of religion" in Berlin on 5 and 6 June 2009. Scholars and feminist activists discussed the question of how to deal with religions in the fight for women’s rights and gender equality.


The prediction that secularism would sweep the world has been confounded in recent years as religion has left the place assigned to it (by theories of modernity) in the private sphere and thrust itself into the public arena. What are the social and political implications of religion assuming such prominent and contested public and political roles? Some observers, including many feminists, see incompatibilities between democracy, human rights and gender equality, on the one hand, and a world in which religious issues and organizations have an active presence in public affairs, on the other. Others, however, argue that religion (at its best) can act as a significant counterweight to the otherwise hegemonic institutions of the state and the market, revitalizing public debate on their moral underpinnings and their social outcomes. The task of research, therefore, is to develop analytical and normative criteria to differentiate between the various forms of public religion and their social and political consequences, including the implications for gender equality.

Key Research Questions of the Project

It has been argued that religion can “go public” at three different levels: the state level (e.g. theocratic states; or state religions or state-established churches); at the level of political society (e.g. European Christian Democrats, Islamist political parties); and at the more amorphous level of civil society. This tripartite model, however, presupposes what is broadly recognized as a modern society. But in many contexts it is equally important to conceptualize the interface between what can be labelled “the customary sphere” and formal religion. As far as women’s rights are concerned, it is in that nexus that many of the dangers and challenges lie, with religious precepts being selectively applied or totally disregarded. Similarly, there is a need for a broader conception of civil society, which can include the nature of “society” itself. This is very important because it can explain resistance, or absence of pressures, from below to pluralize and democratize religion.

This project raises two sets of questions:

1. How can religion and politics become intertwined? Are there distinct modes of insertion in different settings?
2. What are the social and political effects, especially from a gender perspective, of this blending of religion and politics? When is it likely to pose a danger to modern normative structures associated with gender equality and democracy?

Based on comparative historical analysis (of mainly European and American experiences), it has been hypothesized that only public religions at the level of civil society are consistent with modern universalistic principles and modern differentiated structures. How well can this hypothesis hold for other contexts? Can this hypothesis be substantiated as far as gender equality is concerned?

Research is carried out in 11 countries – Chile, India, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Serbia, Turkey and the United States – that present maximum variation with respect to (i) religious denominations and (ii) the level at which the blending of politics and religion takes place (e.g., state or civil society). Furthermore, a regional balance has been sought, including at least some developed countries. In terms of religion, the world’s three largest denominations (Christianity, Islam and Hinduism) have been included, as has Judaism. The research process started at the end of 2007 and will be finalized in June 2009.

* You can download the project reference document (pdf, 19 pages, 100 KB) here: