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date: 12 August 2020

Gender, Religion, and International Relations

Summary and Keywords

Gender, religion, and politics are closely intertwined, and both have a significant impact on international relations (IR). There is a large body of literature dedicated to the intersections between gender, religion, and IR, and they can be categorized into matters regarding female subordination, human rights and equality, and feminism and agency. Religion has been historically, traditionally, and androcentrically gendered both in practice and ideology. A good portion of the literature on the linkages between gender and religion in the IR context discusses the ways in which women have been subordinated within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Their religious subordination can be linked to legal equality, and the different forms of subordinating women implicitly and often explicitly lead to the inequality of women. Scholars who address this issue vary widely between being critical of the religions that perpetuate inequality and a dearth of women’s rights, to arguing in support of religion but in critique of its application and cultural practice. In addition, as women’s rights are but one element of the international engagements of various forms of feminism, scholars also engage in a range of discussions on political agency and the critical analysis of gender from both within and without religious and secular feminisms.

Keywords: religion, gender, female subordination, human rights, equality, feminism, political agency, women’s rights, religious and secular feminisms


A significant challenge facing anyone who seeks to prepare an overview of the scholarship on gender, religion, and international relations is that each of the three terms is unstable (Castelli & Rodman, 2001, p. 4). That is, none of these terms have a single fixed meaning. Furthermore, as Herzog and Braude have noted, gender, religion, and politics are mutually constituting realities. As they explain “gender, religion, and politics . . . each mutually constructs the other two and that therefore they cannot be fully separated” (Herzog & Braude, 2009, p. 1).

This literature review is organized into three sections: Female Subordination; Human Rights and Equality; and Feminism and Agency. Of central interest here are the particular manifestations of how gender and religion intersect in international relations (IR) contexts, as well as how particular intersections compare with one another in terms of differences and similarities alike. Overall, analyses of religion in the field of IR are able to account for the impacts of gender—not just in terms of how religion subordinates or oppresses women (and nondominant men), but also in terms of how religion informs and supports different configurations of and possibilities for women’s agency as political actors.

Defining Terms

Religion is not a neutral term, nor does it mean the same thing to all people, including scholars of religion. The field is generally divided methodologically between religious studies and theological studies. Religious studies examines the multivalent phenomenon of “religion” from multidisciplinary perspectives, including philosophy, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, economics, and literary criticism, whereas theological studies (or sometimes just “theology”) is constituted by the question as to the meaning and truth of religion as itself a claim to truth (Ogden, 1978; Swatos, 1998). In other words, religious studies approaches to religion emphasize sociological and cultural understanding or comparisons of religion in particular times and places; theological studies approaches to the study of religion emphasize doctrinal perspectives.

Defining religion for this purpose is complicated and ambiguous. It is assumed that religion refers to the five major world religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism—though it is important to acknowledge that each of these broad classifications includes numerous branches and subgroups that are often bitterly opposed and therefore ought not be discussed as if they were cohesive (e.g., Saliba, Allen, & Howard, 2002). Crucially, this religious typology excludes smaller, more localized, or less structured religions that also sometimes command political attention or have clout. This is a methodological limitation of space restrictions, not a conceptual constriction that judges religious minorities and new religious movements as somehow less or inadequately “religious.” In short, a broad range of concepts, practices, and identities fall under the umbrella term “religion.”

Gender, or the everyday processes of being male, female, transgender, genderqueer, and so on, in particular social, political, and communal locations, is also not neutral. While Bynum, Harrell, and Richmond (1986) note that all human beings are gendered, there is no set universal meaning for what gender entails and involves, as gender characteristics change over time and are different between cultures (Marshall, 2000). The significance of gender is confounded by the fact that religion often functions as a key legitimator and mutual constituent of specific gender patterns and practices that, in turn, are taken as normal, natural (i.e., immutable), and moral.

International relations is perhaps the least unstable term in this grouping since, as an academic discipline, IR has fairly well-defined boundaries. Traditionally, IR references a range of interactions between nation-states. However, a statist conception of IR is limiting, considering the way that it heavily normalizes the masculinization of politics and political action (Steans, 1998). Scholars of international relations spend much of their time analyzing global politics from an aloof and detached perspective as if interactions are a game consisting only of abstract actors and theoretical balances of power. In fact, many realists claim that the only relevant political reality for consideration in international relations are states. Such an assertion essentially relegates gender to a place of irrelevancy, if not complete nonexistence within IR, as exemplified by one of the field’s key works, Man, the State and War (Waltz, 2001). As Peterson states, “The discipline of international relations (IR)—conventionally devoted to the study of war—has been particularly reluctant to acknowledge, much less welcome, feminist interventions” (Peterson, 1998). When IR engages gender directly, such as Steans (1998) does in Gender and International Relations, religion is not treated as a key part of that engagement. Furthermore, few who study gender and religion engage IR. Against such an assertion, broader “comparative politics” or “international studies” views incorporate additional levels of analysis and offer additional smaller fields of inquiry. Of course, a problem with such methodologies is that their specificity makes it difficult to formulate broad or generalized claims. For present purposes, both gender and religion are treated as both relevant and in many ways crucial to our understanding of international politics.

Female Subordination

Religion has been historically, traditionally, and androcentrically gendered both in practice and in ideology. However, a number of studies focus on women’s strategic use of religion and the wide-ranging individual interpretations of women’s faith (Bartkowski & Read, 2003; Chen, 2005; Davidman, 1993; Gallagher, 2003, 2004; Pevey, Williams, & Ellison, 1996). For example, Stacey and Gerard’s (1990) article, “We Are not Doormats,” refutes the often assumed idea that women are merely subject to religion. On the other hand, other authors focus on the apparent complicity of women in (re)producing their subordination through their belief in conservative religions. Chong assumes this is the case when she asks: “Why are women . . . supportive of religious groups that seem designed to perpetuate their subordination?” (Chong, 2006, p. 697).

For three of the world’s major religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism (otherwise known as the Abrahamic faiths), the body of woman was created from the rib of the first human. The reinforced subordination of women in the creation myths of these three religious traditions is very complex. Armstrong (2001) discusses how, on the one hand, all three of the Abrahamic religions oppose the subjection of one human being by another, and yet, on the other hand, all three have marginalized women, excluding them from equitable participation in the religious community. This paradox is compounded by the fact that each tradition insists that human beings of all genders were created in the divine image. Such a claim would seem to imply equal rights and responsibilities. Yet Hassan points to six hadith (M. M. Khan, 80, 81, 346; and Siddiqui, 752–753) that discuss women as being like a rib or created from a rib (Hassan, 2001, pp. 45–46). These hadith explain that woman, like a rib, is crooked or bent and that men must not try to straighten or correct her natural corruption because she will break. In Christianity, the writer of the gospel of Luke depicts Jesus as praising a woman for sitting at his feet like a student rather than serving and cleaning and taking care of the men (Luke 10:38–42). Jesus’s praise of the woman’s actions can be understood as demonstrating his acceptance of a woman as a student of religion equal to male students. In Galatians 3:28, the Pauline writer makes the radically egalitarian claim that “In Christ there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” But this radically egalitarian strain is counteracted by mandates for wives to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22), to be silent in church (I Corinthians 14:34), and not to be permitted to hold positions of authority over men (I Timothy 2:12). In sum, Christianity’s scriptures are internally conflicted about gender equality. As stated above, this is not the place for in-depth theological debate, but the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society is an online resource for further discussion on this topic (Swatos, 1998).

Scholarship also draws attention to the idea that women’s sexuality has long been intimately linked with sin, most famously in the Christian tradition through Augustinian theology, which interprets sexual desire and activity as inherently sinful. For much of Christian history, the highest expression of Christian life was seen as being incompatible with sexual activity (Jordan, 2002). Christian ideations of female sexuality have been especially exacting, with female virtue tightly linked to virginity as, for instance, the virgin mother, Mary. Islam also celebrates Mary, the mother figure who is untouched by sexuality (Graham-Brown, 2003). Mary is the only woman to have a chapter of the Qur’an named for her (Surah 19: “Maryam”). Armstrong cites both Martin Luther and St. Augustine and their critiques of women’s sexuality. St. Augustine is quoted as saying: “what does it matter if we speak of a wife or mother? It is still Eve the temptress of whom we must beware in all women” (Armstrong, 2001, p. ix). It was St. Augustine’s emphasis on the doctrine of original sin and Eve’s partaking of the forbidden fruit that made Eve’s sin central to Western Christianity. Previous to St. Augustine, Armstrong argues, Christianity had been “good news for women” (Armstrong, 2001, p. ix).

Sonbol (2001) similarly describes the view of some Muslim scholars who argue that, initially, Islam gave women equal status in the community through the Qur’an and that it has been through misogynistic manipulation of shari‘ah law that this status has become subordinated. Sonbol describes women’s seclusion, a common Islamic practice, as a result of women being an awrah, a sexual weakness. Scholarship shows how women’s sexuality is regulated in other ways as well. Ibrahim (2001) discusses the practice of female genital cutting (female genital mutilation, female circumcision, or clitoridectomy) in which girls are circumcised in their early childhood to control their sexuality and ensure their virginity. Ibrahim argues that while this practice is performed in the name of Islam, it is not truly an Islamic practice. It is not condoned in the Qur’an, but several hadith do condone its practice (Wiggins, 2001). The Muslim Women’s League (2014), however, argues that these are “weak” hadith. El-Gibaly (2002) maintains that the practice persists in Egypt because of beliefs that it moderates female sexuality, ensures marriageability, and is sanctioned by Islam. Others argue that this practice is a cultural rite of practice and is undeserving of Western feminist condemnation (Emeagwali, 1996). This issue is generally discussed with respect to the debate on women’s rights and Islam in which some argue for secular approaches to rights, claiming that Islam is restrictive to women. Others argue that Islam can be supportive of particular rights claims (Afkhami, 1995; Ali, 2000; Donno & Russett, 2004; Drumbl, 2004; Engineer, 1992; Jawad, 1998; Kardam, 2005; Nussbaum, 2000; Sechzer, 2004). Mashhour (2005), for example, argues that women’s declining status in many Islamic contexts is a product of patriarchy, not of Islam itself. The dilemma posed then, as described above, is how to separate Islam from the systems of cultural or patriarchal domination that rely on Islam to justify themselves. The Sisters of Islam (SIS, 2014), a feminist organization in Malaysia, works to promote egalitarian forms of Islam through interpretive work and grass-roots efforts (Foley, 2004). Clearly, not all Islamic contexts of Islamic practice are egalitarian, however. Kalu (2003) documents cases of stoning, the accepted Islamic punishment for adultery. These practices are considered Islamic despite not being written in scripture.

Several scholars argue that the disconnect between scripture and practice is the result of a particular kind of human intervention. Esposito describes organized religion as “the Word of God mediated through the words of human beings overwhelmingly male and patriarchal” (Esposito, 2001, p. 1). Wadud concurs as she describes, regarding exegesis of the Qur’an: “they were exclusively written by males. This means that men and men’s experiences were included and women and women’s experiences were either excluded or interpreted through the male vision, perspective, desire, or needs of woman” (Wadud, 1992, p. 2). Sacred texts necessarily reflect the attitudes and values of male-dominated societies, as men are the primary interpreters of this text. Volumes on gender and religion regularly start in this way, using a critical theoretical approach in claiming that religious texts are written by men, for men, in ways that perpetuate men’s privileged social and political status (Morin & Guelke, 2007; Peach, 2002). As religion has historically been the foundation for law in societies, this androcentrism has a direct effect on women’s roles, treatment, and place (Carroll, 1983). Women’s agency is regularly restricted in the name of sacred text, though increased education and access for women have resulted in women increasingly using these sacred texts to challenge these restrictions (Reed, 2002). In this way, religion is a product not only of divine legacy but also of human imperfection. As Boden begins, “religious practices and human wellbeing are in conflict” (Boden, 2007, p. 1). She concludes, however, that this conflict, women’s subordination in particular, is not intrinsic to any religion and that religions have a positive and, in fact, invaluable “role to play in securing global gender justice” (Boden, 2007, p. 171).

In discussing Islam, Esposito (2001) describes the way patriarchy prevailed with men as the primary political, religious, and intellectual leaders of the community. Women’s role in leadership was limited to a very small space relating only to women-specific issues. Yet Armstrong (2001) relates that when Muhammad first received revelations of the Qur’an, he is said to have crawled into his wife Khadija’s lap, trembling. This need or desire for female companionship and comfort was a theme in Muhammad’s life. Women were among the first converts. The Qur’an offered women rights of inheritance and divorce long before Western women would win these same rights. Further, the Qur’an does not prescribe the veiling of women, nor does it require their seclusion by male protectors. These practices were imitated and absorbed into the faith when Islam moved out of Arabia and into other regions (Armstrong, 2001; Brooks, 2002). These authors point out that it is the cultural practices of religion that contribute to women’s subordination in many Muslim societies today.

Veiling is one issue that continues to attract wide-ranging scholarly attention (Bullock, 2002; Chamberlin, 2006; Gabriel & Hannan, 2011; Ghosh, 2008; Heath, 2008; Joppke, 2009; Riley, 2013; Williamson & Khiabany, 2010). The “Western narrative [is] that the veil signified oppression, therefore those who called for its abandonment were feminists and those opposing its abandonment were antifeminists” (Ahmed, 1992, p. 162). Mernissi, a Moroccan Muslim and feminist, has argued that the veil is part of an Islamic identity crisis in which Islamic “male elite” see women as a symbolic representation of the community and the veil as a symbol of protection for that community (Mernissi, 1991). Mernissi’s work, both on the veil and gender and on Islam more broadly (Mernissi, 1975, 1994, 1996, 2002; Mernissi & Lakeland, 1993; Mernissi, 2001) has sparked great debate and criticism (Abdo, 2005; Dean, 2006; Rhouni, 2009; Zayzafoon, 2005). The dichotomy between feminism and the practice of veiling seems to preclude women who veil from being feminist, and yet empirically this is untrue. As Kandiyoti describes with reference to Islamic cultural nationalism, “feminist discourses can legitimately proceed only in one of two directions: either denying that Islamic practices are necessarily oppressive or asserting that oppressive practices are not necessarily Islamic” (Kandiyoti, 1994, p. 380). The concern that the veil is forced upon women has resulted in a modern Orientalism that obscures the agency of women who choose the veil (Afshar, 2008); but Islamic feminists argue against the assumptions that the veil is oppressive (Cooke, 2000; Yegenoglu, 2002).

The veil is a covering that is meant to provide modesty or to serve as protection that allows women to participate in public while maintaining their privacy. But it has a wide range of manifestations that vary from culture to culture (Shirazi, 2003). There are also manifestations of veiling in non-Islamic societies such as the covering of Catholic nuns or Indian Sari (Heath, 2008). The issue of the veil is centered on the question of whether the covering is a woman’s individual choice or whether it represents familial, cultural, or social imposition (Heath, 2008). Hoodfar (2003) writes that women report a range of reasons for choosing to veil, including a declarative on religious or political identity, the aesthetic of the veil itself, and the anonymity and privacy it provides. Masserat (2008) finds that the anonymity of the veil extends to perhaps unexpected forms of public participation, as it is compared to the anonymity of blogging in allowing women to participate and exercise their voice while maintaining their privacy. Interestingly, Piela (2013) describes virtual spaces as offering an opportunity for Islamic women to communicate with other women who are grappling with their roles in Islam without being undermined by the misogynistic views of male scholars. Anonymity plays a number of interesting roles in the lives of Islamic women. Lewis argues that anonymity supplies Oriental other women a particular kind of power in Western societies in that they can “see without being seen” (Lewis, 2007, p. 43). The veil hides the surveillant, an act both deceptive and theatrical, which can be uncomfortable for members of societies unaccustomed to the practice. Alloula (1986) suggests that the veil, as a signifier of private space, acts as a temptation to trespass, to unveil. When guards forced an incarcerated woman to take off her veil while she was in holding, the issue of the veil and religious freedom in prison came under review (Ali, 2013). This temptation has led to sentiments that veiled women need saving, which in turn leads to relativist warnings, such as those of Abu-Lughod (2002), about the dangers inherent in reifying culture, offering instead an inducement to appreciate difference and look inward for sources of oppression and the responsibilities to remedy injustice.

The issue of whether the veil is a source of women’s agency or a tool of social control is but one example of this debate. In the case of so-called honor killings, in which male family members kill their own sisters and daughters who have betrayed the family’s honor due to sexual “misconduct,” religion can be said to be a tool of social control. Oral histories of the partition of India often include stories of honor killings. In these cases, women were slaughtered to preserve their honor and virtue against the attacking “other” (Butalia, 2000). Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim men who survived the partition told stories of perpetrating this kind of honor killing to protect their female family members. Welchman and Hossain (2005) pay particular attention to the links between Islam and honor killings. Frances Raday (2001) relates that in Israel, between 20 and 40 family honor killings go uninvestigated and unpunished a year. This is in part because of the separation between civil and religious courts in Israel. Jurisdiction over personal status matters are delegated to religious institutions by statute (Raday, 2001, p. 158). Women are barred under the law from appointment to the judiciary on matters of marriage and divorce. In this way, women are prohibited from all religious forums that interpret the religious-legal norms that govern their lives. The ultimate power of men over women in Orthodox Judaism is a woman’s inability to divorce her husband. If a husband refuses to divorce his wife, she remains married to him and there is no jurisdiction, religious or otherwise, that can help her as the state of Israel recognizes only a religious marriage,.

A lesser known practice in Orthodox Judaism is that of niddah or separation of women during menstruation (Wasserfall, 1999). Some argue that the practice of niddah today establishes communal boundaries (Anteby, 1999, Yanay & Rapoport, 1997). Others focus on the tension between niddah as a site of resistance and a source of meaning for Jewish patriarchy (Anteby, 1999; Cicurel, 2000; Fonrobert, 2000; Hartman & Marmon, 2004; Wasserfall, 1999; Yanay & Rapoport, 1997). A final critique of niddah is that it serves as a tool of oppression against women (Biale, 1984; Yanay & Rapoport, 1997; Baskin, 1985). Yuval-Davis points to another practice of subordinating women in Orthodox Judaism: a practice in which women are not counted as part of the necessary quorum or minyan for prayer. As a result, Orthodox Jewish women are limited from public religious participation. They are not allowed to lead prayer, become rabbis, or hold any other religious position. Their evidence is inadmissible in court. For Jewish fundamentalists, the emphasis is on the “natural” differences between the sexes. Since women were created differently, they obviously have different religious duties (Yuval-Davis, 2001). Further evidence of the separate roles of Jewish men and Jewish women is found in their mitzvoths or religious commandments. Men’s mitzvoths are done by an individual Jewish male or as part of the Jewish public. In contrast, a woman’s mitzvoths are done by her as wife and mother for the sake of family. In this way, men participate in religion for their own sake, whereas women’s participation is mediated through her family. “[T]here is recognition within the prayers of Judaism itself of women’s unequal and undesirable position in Judaism since each Jewish man, in his daily prayer thanks God for not having made him a woman, whereas each Jewish woman thanks God for having made her according to His will” (Yuval-Davis, 2001, p. 38).

Not all Jewish women, however, accept this division of prayer customs. The Women of the Wall (WOW) are Orthodox Jewish women who want to pray by the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem (Women of the Wall, 2014). This wall, also referred to as the Kotel or the Wailing Wall, is a site of great religious, historical, and cultural significance to Jewish people worldwide. The members of WOW pray in a group wearing prayer shawls, reading aloud from the Torah. Their prayer has been met with both verbal and physical violence from both male and female worshippers of Orthodox Judaism. WOW petitioned the Supreme Court several times before their right to worship was recognized in principle. This right has still been denied them in practice (Raday, 2001). WOW is an active challenge to issues of prayer shawls, women’s voices, customs of place, and the role of women in a quorum (Haberman, 2014).

Scholars point to the ways in which the separate roles of men and women in Buddhism reveal themselves in prayer and ritual as well. For example, Gould suggests that a common prayer among Tibetan Buddhist women is, “may I reject a feminine body and be born a male one” (Gould, 2001, p. 217). This view of women is also consistent in the Tibetan language in which women are known as kiemen or kye-mi, which literally means “inferior” or “lower” birth. Buddhism’s acceptance of both sexes as male–female identity is limited to one particular birth, and as an individual can be reborn a number of times on its way to attaining perfection, sex is unimportant. However, in many Buddhist countries and communities, this idea of gender assignment in rebirth is associated with karma. A positive karma will assure rebirth as a man, while a negative karma will result in rebirth as a woman. Like the Abrahamic faiths, interpretation by male-dominated societies has often resulted in women’s subordination within the religious context. The Sutta Pitaka, the second division of teachings delivered by Buddha and his disciples, twice recounts a story in which it is clearly stated that no woman can attain the “high ground of the wise” because she has only “two finger knowledge,” which is a reference to cooking rice (DeSilva, 1988).

As is true of women in other religions, women were not always subordinated in Buddhism. At its inception, Buddhism was gender neutral. When asked whether anyone had achieved his preached-of freedom from attachment and desire and attained wisdom, Buddha replied that “hundreds and hundreds had already . . . and among these victors were as many nuns as monks, as many lay women as men” (Sharma, 2002, p. 39). Much like the stories of Jesus or Muhammad, there are stories that Buddha was supportive of women in the ministry. Buddhism focuses on individual spiritual emancipation and is not concerned with “sacraments” such as marriage which are considered important in other faiths. These matters were therefore left to society to regulate. In Buddha’s time, some royal patrons of Buddha practiced polygamy, having large harems; this posed no problem for them as Buddha left these matters to social convention. In male-dominant or patriarchal societies, the lack of definitive rules of behavior were then easily manipulated to transform women’s lower social class to lower religious status. Proponents of Buddhist philosophy argue that this is an example of context or culture rather than religion. Powers (2011) draws attention to masculinist representations of Buddha, arguing that this masculinity was specific to a particular time and place rather than to Buddhism itself. Ramee (2013) adds that this time was characterized by purusha, the male-principle which served to justify women’s exclusion. Wawrytko claims that “[t]he persuasive power of the sexist stereotypes must be shattered to unleash the egalitarian promise of Buddhist philosophy” (Wawrytko, 2009, p. 308).

Scholars writing on Hinduism also show how women have been subverted to patriarchy. Perhaps the most well-known example is the practice of sati or widow burning in which women throw themselves, or in many cases are thrown, onto the burial pyre of their husbands. This practice emphasizes a woman’s virtue, as she is expected to go straight to heaven as a result of her sacrifice (Kamat, 2004). This “meritorious” act is also supposed to redeem the woman’s forefathers. The case of Roop Kanwar received international attention in 1987 for continuing a practice that the British had banned long before during colonization in 1829 and most thought had long ended in India. This practice symbolically links the end of a woman’s life to the death of her husband, suggesting that without this man, she has no reason to continue living. Taking this a step further, this practice suggests that women’s lives belong to their husbands or their men, that a woman’s purpose in life is to serve her man (Kshwar & Vanita, 1988; Ahmad, 2009; Hawley, 1994b; Kirmani, 2011).

Sharma (2002) explains that, much like Islam, Hinduism was not always so derogatory toward women. Instead, women were once a part of the process in choosing their husbands rather than merely informed once the decision was made. Daughters and sons were once equally celebrated, but that changed with the dowry system, as daughters became a financial liability for a family. During the classical period of Hinduism, a woman’s womb was understood to be a fertile field, but gradually this changed to merely a vessel for male seed. The age of marriage gradually decreased within Hinduism. Once women were married only after maturity (puberty); but as the desire to control women’s purity rose, the age of a girl at marriage decreased. Sharma argues that religious developments such as these have not had a positive effect on women. The younger a woman is married, the less education she is likely to receive. The more a son is valued within a family, the less a daughter is cared for. Even a woman’s place as a wife is threatened, as the Rgveda 10:85 prescribes that a woman is to be the mother of sons (Sharma, 2002, p. 6).

Another practice that is most often associated with South Asia and is linked to Hindu tradition is bride burning, or dowry death, in which a young bride is murdered by her husband or husband’s family over her dowry. Stein (1988) traces the evolution of bride burning and dowry that began in India among Hindu elite but have since transgressed social and religious boundaries, contributing to a much wider devaluation of women. While research does not lay this practice directly at the feet of Hinduism, it has been suggested that women’s subordination first to father, then to husband, renders them powerless and particularly vulnerable to patriarchal practice that commodifies women in the marriage contract (Banerjee, 2014; Sharma et al., 2013; Stone & James, 1995; Teays, 1991).

In Hinduism, women’s dependence on men was part of the Law of Manu, which stated that “a girl, a young woman or even an old woman was to do nothing independently, even in her own house. In childhood they must be subject to their fathers, in youth to their husbands and when in death to their sons” (Manu, 328; Sharma, 2002, p. 11). The Law of Manu, which was codified in the 7th century b.c.e., required women to be virginal and chaste, limiting their activities to cleaning, preparing men’s food, and looking after the household. It further restricted women from liquor, “associating with wicked people, separation from the husband, rambling abroad, sleeping [at unreasonable hours], and dwelling in other men’s houses,” which causes the ruin of women (Manu, 329). The Law of Manu goes on to say that women who drink or are rebellious or mischievous may be superseded by another wife (Manu, 341). Manu 328 states that “day and night women must be kept in dependence by the males of their families and, . . . must be kept under control (Gupta, 1991, pp. 18–19). Scovill (2004) writes that control over women’s lives is apparent in the three stages of women’s lives: maidenhood, marriage, and either widowhood or sati, as each stage is defined in terms of a woman’s sexuality or relationships to men.

This system of patriarchy is described in several pages of the Mahabarata, part of the Hindu sacred texts. The Mahabarata, Santi Parva, Section CCLXVI, explains that “the husband is the highest object with the wife and the highest deity to her. Women can commit no fault. Indeed, in consequence of the natural weakness of the sex (of women) as displayed in every act, and their liability to solicitation, women cannot be regarded as offenders” (Understanding Hinduism, 2017). Men are responsible for protecting their women who “never deserve to be independent” (Understanding Hinduism, 2017). The Anusasana Parva, one of the texts of Hindu scripture, goes on to describe women’s single eternal duty as obedient service to their husbands, obedience being described as never eating or bathing before him, never being disagreeable, serving and worshipping him, never using ornaments or perfumes in his absence. This discussion concludes, stating that a “woman who with concentrated attention adheres to this path of duty becomes the recipient of considerable honors in heaven” (Understanding Hinduism, 2017). Only in the service of men can women be honored in heaven. Parekh points out, however, that the term Hinduism represents a “loose and disparate body of beliefs and practices” that has no single agreed upon sacred text nor doctrinal unity (Parekh, 2008, pp. 158, 150).

In each of the religions practices described in only a limited way above, scholarship addresses the blurred line between scripture and practice, theology and ideology. Crossette (2003) argues that as women of faith come to know each other across boundaries, they realize, and thus argue, that regardless of which faith they claim, it is not religion that is the problem or the cause of women’s subordination. Rather, it is the combination of cultural influences harnessed to religion by men in authority that has tied limited women’s agency within religion and religious communities. Crossette quotes UN Secretary General Kofi Annan saying that “the problem isn’t the faith, but the faithful.”

Thus, as we have seen, women have been subordinated within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. In what follows, women’s religious subordination will be linked to legal equality.

Human Rights and Equality

The different forms of subordinating women implicitly and often explicitly lead to the inequality of women. Scholars who address this issue vary widely: some are critical of the religions that perpetuate inequality and a dearth of women’s rights, whereas others argue in support of religion but criticize its application and cultural practice. In 1921, Katharine Bushnell (2003) published God’s Word to Women in which she identified misunderstandings of the Bible that have led to such practices. Barber (2012) describes this as having more to do with societal inequality and supporting status quo power structures than with theology. Whether as a result of scriptural misunderstanding, elite leadership, or cultural context, the following literature review addresses the range of scholarship regarding religion’s effect on women’s equality and human rights.

Carroll (1983) describes religion as being pushed and pulled between the forces of traditionalism and reform. Religious practice, what Carroll refers to as a kind of social ritualization, is “responsible for the vast social inertia that retards education, population control, women’s advancement, rural development, urban restructuring, and social reforms” (Carroll, 1983, p. 2). Social ritualization is often characterized by a division of labor. The patriarchal nature of this division of labor has effectively prohibited the spiritual growth of women, who remain ignorant of the rights inherent in their religion (Hassan, 2001). Many scholars address the issue of education in the division of labor. In Gender, Religion and Education in a Chaotic Postmodern World, Gross, Davies, and Diab (2013) bring together 15 case studies in an effort to address the wide range of issues at this particular intersection. Education increases awareness, which often results in the struggle for women’s progress and the desire to rise out of the limited sphere that has traditionally been theirs. With community tradition entrenched in patriarchy, women’s education is interpreted as a threat to the community itself rather than a threat to male monopolies of power. Cooray and Potrafke (2011) ask whether it is political institutions or religion that underlie gender inequality in education. Additional research compares Muslim to Christian women in addressing whether or not there is an education gap with Muslim women (Hajj & Panizza, 2009). Julé (2005) suggests that more important is the language of religion in gendering public life.

A great deal of scholarship addresses the instrumentalism of religion and the ways in which women are systematically suppressed by religious regimes for their own political goals. Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim (2001) is one of the key leaders in the Sudanese Women’s Union (SWU) in Sudan. As a result of the work done by the SWU, women in Sudan were granted the right to vote in 1954. The SWU also pursued campaigns for women’s right to enter the economic sphere and earn equal payment for equal work. In 1969, Sudan experienced a change in power, and by 1971, the SWU was banned and the rights they had worked so hard to win were denied them once again. In 1983, the National Islamic Front (NIF) declared the application of Islamic laws, and women were forced backward in a regression of rights. Ibrahim argues that the work she did with the SWU did not come at the cost of religion, unlike the so-called Islamic laws in which women are accused of adultery if she is even seen with a man outside her immediate family. Ibrahim points out that Islamic law requires four eyewitnesses in order to prove that adultery has been committed. In this way, the government restricted women’s mobility under the guise of religion by making it impossible for women to negotiate in public without being accused of adultery. The NIF further imposed the Iranian black chaddor on women, stating that the toab, the national dress, was not Islamic. The SWU later revealed that the NIF had received tens of thousands of the chaddors from Iran for free and enforced this dress code as a method of income. The SWU pointed out that the Qur’an itself does not mention the Iranian costume as being Islamic and the NIF withdrew their decision, though they have made it compulsory for women to tie their hair back and wear a scarf.

Women’s rights within religious communities have become an international issue in the age of human rights debates. Armstrong states that the improved status of women has been one of the most significant developments of the 20th century, but she laments the fact that religious people who should be at the forefront of the emancipation process have instead responded by overstressing women’s traditional roles and restrictions (Armstrong, 2001, p. x). Borland (2004) argues that the main opponent in campaigns for reproductive rights in Argentina and Chile is the Catholic Church. Improving women’s rights is often interpreted as a threat to the religious or any identity group. Anthias and Yuval-Davis (1989) argue that gender is crucial to constructing group identity, and they describe the roles that women play in reproducing the group, transmitting the culture, and socializing the children. Women are protected in these roles because they are thought to be at the core of the group itself. Hence, changing women’s roles is a threat to the very being of the group. Though their work was limited to ethnic, national, and racial identities, this argument can be extended to religious political identities, particularly in groups that share religion as a primary factor in their collective identity. Coomaraswamy (2001) reiterates the fact that women are central to definitions of cultural identity and represent the spiritual sphere of a nation. In this way, the home and private sphere are linked to the spiritual and the feminine, while the market and public are linked to the material and the masculine.

As Western colonization took over the public spaces of new colonies, private life remained immune. In this way, private life, the woman’s sphere, remained traditional, the stronghold of the nation’s culture. Women become the symbolic guardians of the nation’s cultural and religious autonomy. For example, Siapno (2001) relates how Acehnese women are required to wear the Javanese sarung ad kebaya, traditional clothing, while Acehnese men wear Western dress: coat and tie, white shirt and black pants. The role women play in reproducing the religious community is seen as protected.

As discussed earlier, women’s role as reproducer is often protected. It is a multifaceted role, extending beyond women’s rights to reproduce or roles as mothers to other facets of their public lives and beyond that to whether or not women, or the female infants that could grow into women, are even born. Religious tradition often sanctions women’s low social status, limiting their educational attainment, which in turn contributes to high fertility rates in underdeveloped countries (Beit-Hallahmi, 1997). Fertility rates in India are higher among Muslims than Hindus, and while some experts address the role of Islamic teachings regarding contraception, it may ultimately be the constraints of their socioeconomic status, rather than any religious ideology, that leads to these higher rates (Basu, 2004; Bhagat & Praharaj, 2005; Iyer, 2002; Moulasha & Rao, 1999).

Similar arguments privileging the role of socioeconomic forces over religious forces have been made by Addai’s (1999, 2000) studies in Ghana. Higher fertility rates among Muslims in India may also be the result of sex-selective abortion practices among Hindus that eliminate female births (Bhagat & Praharaj, 2005; Borooah & Iyer, 2005). As described earlier, Hindu women are wished the blessing of being a mother to sons. The Confucian tradition in China similarly emphasizes sons both because sons are responsible for performing ancestor rituals and because they are expected to care for their parents in old age. Families limited by the one-child policy in China regularly prefer to have a son rather than a daughter (Feng, 1996; Greenhalgh, 2001; Junhong, 2001; Li, 1995). Cases in Africa address the issue of whether family planning is an affront to traditional religion that emphasizes large families (Adongo, Phillips, & Binka, 1998); the role that congregations have on contraceptive use within a community (Agadjanian, 2001); or the effect of religion on demographic transitions in Zimbabwe (Gregson et al., 1999).

Community health is also affected by religious views on reproduction or, more specifically, regarding sex. Religion as a variable affecting the spread of HIV and AIDS, particularly in Africa, has garnered a great deal of attention (Garner, 2000; Gray, 2004; Lagarde et al., 2000; Smith, 2004). Kirby (1993) in particular describes the role of Islam in introducing the ideas of preventive care in northern Ghana that encourages people to make better use of Western medicine. However, Takyi (2003) draws attention to the limited consideration given to how women’s religious affiliation affects their knowledge of and ability to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS. Chikwendu (2004) looks at how faith-based organizations work against HIV/AIDS using global networks, providing a “holistic ministry” that addresses the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of people, and their reputation for dealing with stressful situations. At the same time, the ability of organizations to provide HIV/AIDS care and other services that address sexual and reproductive health are limited by external religious sources rather than internal local practices. In particular, the U.S. Global Gag rule that restricts organizations who receive U.S. aid from providing education, information, or services related to abortion (Crane & Dusenberry, 2004; Hwang, 2002; Kort, 2003; Miller & Billings, 2005). In 2009, however, U.S. President Obama rescinded the global gag, calling for family planning policy that did not politicize women (Gezinski, 2012; Rosenberg, 2009).

In addition to particular kinds of rights, scholars draw attention to a broader rights program. Couture (2003) analyzed speeches from the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference in which both Catholic and Muslim participants argued that religious values ought to guide women’s reproductive choices. This tension between universal rights and religious rights is expanded upon by numerous sources particularly as it relates to Islam (Amin & Hossain, 1995; Bowen, 1997; El Dawla, 2000; Hasna, 2003; Kazimov, 2003; Obermeyer, 1994). Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) ensures freedom of choice in religion. As this declaration could be interpreted as a challenge to state-sponsored religion, states with religious foundations argue that their moral system supersedes human rights. If God is the foundation for the government, then international law cannot improve on this divine moral order. Coomaraswamy (2001) notes that since the drafters of the UNDHR deliberately refused any references to deity in the declaration, the document can be interpreted as secular or requiring a separation of church and state and therefore poses a dilemma for religious states. To fight this paradigm, leaders of these states use the argument of cultural relativism, challenging that human rights commonly understood is a Eurocentric invention that ignores the diversity of the world’s cultures. This challenge is often used to protect the rights of these cultures to regulate their women on a broad range of issues including sexuality and family matters. Under the guise of cultural relativism, personal and family laws that most affect women are shielded from international standards. Coomaraswamy (2001) argues that because of religions’ sacred texts, which place an outer limit on reform, human rights and the rights of women will only succeed where they are interpreted in light of these texts.

Modernity and the women’s movement have helped to make great changes in women’s liberation in some parts of the world. However, there are still places where the threat of modernity only tightens men’s hold on the spiritual symbols they see their women to be. Armstrong (2001) explains how the bodies of women become the focus of acute anxiety when the ultraconservative religious or fundamentalists fear destruction of the faith. Even physical and social space is invested with the structures of hierarchy and relationships to power (Morin & Guelke, 2007). Yet women can manipulate their sexual roles through reinterpretation of their religious and sacred roles (Palmer, 1994). To address equality and the politics of gender, it is necessary to pay greater attention to the networks of agents and institutions that influence local practices rather than to focus on religion itself as a source (Kandiyoti, 2011). In Indonesia, it is women’s involvement with national organizations that shapes their engagement with discourses of both feminism and Islam in somewhat contradictory ways (Rinaldo, 2011).

The practical contradiction between religious freedom and women’s rights has produced perhaps the most coherent body of literature for the overlapping fields of work addressed here (Walter, 2001; Gustafson & Juviler, 1999; Joffe & Neil, 2012). Marshall (2008), for example, addresses the contradiction between women’s rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion as it relates to veiling. Human rights discourse, which privileges the individual, is most often at odds with religions, which privilege the community over issues of women’s roles and rights (Winter, 2006), giving legitimacy to women’s subordination by virtue of divine intent (Lam, 2007), particularly as it relates to reproduction (e.g., the edited volume of country case studies by Bayes & Tohidi, 2001) and family law (Joffe & Neil, 2012). Boden (2007) argues that religious and other forms of resistance can ultimately render the very concept of human rights inappropriate for garnering rights for women. Research questions on this topic address issues such as “how different legal arrangements between secular and religious jurisdictions shape and affect women’s rights to religious freedom and equality . . . [for] members of minority religions living in otherwise secularized societies” (Shachar, 2010); the negative relationship between party religiosity and women’s participation in politics (Kassem, 2013); cross-national variations in family law with findings that suggest that traditions of applied religious law have a greater tendency to discriminate against women (Htun & Weldon, 2011); women’s land rights in Africa (Wanyeki, 2003); how particular instances of conflict between religious freedom and women’s rights to equality are handled by law (Htun & Weldon, 2011); ways in which public religious diversity can make space for maneuvering on issues such as sexual and reproductive rights (Guzmán, Seibert, & Staab, 2010); or how religious law and secular law contradict each other on the issue of women’s equality (Raday, 2005). Another problem to consider is the disjuncture between law and common practice. Mullally (2005) explains that in Pakistan, for example, conservative religious values curtail women’s rights, despite a constitution that supports equal rights for all. In particular, Khan (2003) addresses women imprisoned for zina, or illicit sex, and the ways feminists address such injustice. Weiss (2003) investigates efforts to implement the UN Convention on all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in Pakistan, which is party to the convention.

Feminists and religionists tend to be at odds with each other on the issue of women’s rights. Feminist scholars argue that multiculturalism obscures the “gentlemen’s agreement” regarding the misogyny of religion and contributes to a silencing of feminist critiques of religion regarding the “eclipse of women’s rights” (Jeffreys, 2012). Other scholars point out that critical theorists and postcolonial discourse also oppose women’s rights and that the supposed binary between rights and religion is essentializing (Joy, 2013). The result can be that the women’s rights and roles women play can be obscured by Orientalist and patriarchal discourse, which can have particular effects on women’s right to freedom of expression (Skeet, 2009). It has been proposed that a more localized, context-specific approach to integrating rights and religious cultural practice may be the solution this standoff (Bong, 2007). Behrouz (2003), in discussing uneven inheritance practices, argues that reform of such unjust practices must be undertaken by Muslims themselves, rather than imposed by an external universal standard.

The impact of fundamentalism on the lives women around the world sparked a wave of research in the early 1990s (Brink & Mencher, 1997; Butalia & Sarkar, 1995; Franks, 2001; Gerami, 1996; Hawley, 1994a, 2001; Howland, 1999; Jeffery & Basu, 1998; Sahgal & Yuval-Davis, 1992; Sarkar, 2001). DeBerg (1990), for example, claims that the role of gender itself was central to early Christian fundamentalism. In the Introduction to Fundamentalism and Gender, Hawley and Proudfoot (1994) suggest that the construction of gender in a particular way is important for fundamentalist groups for several reasons: the role of women as dangerous “others,” woman as part of the nostalgia for a sort of golden age, and “religious machismo,” that aggressive masculinity that is asserted when the group is threatened. Yet, women support fundamentalism, despite the assumption that its subordination of women might offer them reason to oppose its values. Marshall (1991) adds that women may subvert the fundamentalist constructions of gender for their own reasons.

After this initial focus on fundamentalisms more broadly, a more focused research agenda emerged, with gender and fundamentalism at its center. This body of literature has a tendency to concentrate on Islamic fundamentalism broadly and Christian fundamentalism particularly in the United States. Christian fundamentalism in the United States has had an international voice as a consequence of its strategic alliance with certain presidential administrations (Blee & Creasap, 2010; Dowland, 2009; Madigan, 2009). As Jakobsen and Bernstein observe, “[t]he difficulty of effectively responding to the problem of gender inequalities in the United States is, in part, based on the historical intertwining of religion and political life in the United States, despite official pronouncements to the contrary (Jakobsen & Bernstein, 2009, p. 4). This has changed to some degree, as evidenced by President Obama rescinding the “global gag,” but this is a limited example. Far more literature is dedicated to Islamic fundamentalism (Afary, 1997; Afshar, 2007; Gerami & Lehnerer, 2001; Hélie, 2004; Jamal, 2005; Lachenmann & Dannecker, 2008; Masoud, 2002; Moaddel, 1998, 2002; Rawi, 2004; Soares, 2006).

Feminism and Agency

Women’s rights are but one element of the international engagements of various forms of feminism. In what follows, scholars engage in a range of discussions on political agency and the critical analysis of gender from both within and without religious and secular feminisms. Soskice and Lipton edited a volume titled Feminism and Theology, which is limited to Judaism and Christianity with authors who seek to maintain their “engagement with the faith” (Soskice & Litpon, 2003, p. 4). From a less theological view, Sharma and Young (1998) have edited a wider-ranging volume, Feminism and World Religions, which addresses seven of the world’s religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taosim, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and the impacts of feminism on these religions as assessed by adherent scholars. Feminist Theologist Rosemary Radford Ruether describes feminism as “the affirmation of the full humanity of women” and the rejection of definitions that categorize women as “inferior, secondary and dependent on men” (Ruether). For many feminist scholars like Ruether, Wadud (Wadud, 2006), Gross, and Goldstein, religious and feminist thinking is mutually constructed and reinforcing. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity each have thriving feminisms and scholarly voices. Gross (1996) argues that feminism has changed not only the five major world religions, but also the way they are studied.

Islamic feminism finds its roots in the works of Leila Ahmed (1992), Fatima Mernissi (1991), and Amina Wadud (1992). The term Islamic Feminism itself, however, has not gone unchallenged. Badran (1999), for example, engages with the term, while Barlas (2007) resists the characterization of her own work as Islamic feminism. Moghadam (2001, 2002) argues for an Islamic feminism that calls for improved conditions for women but with respect to Islam. Though not in direct response to Moghadam, Seedat critiques the conflation of Islam and feminism (Seedat, 2013b) and argues that “Islamic feminism as an analytic construct is . . . inadequate to concerns for sex equality in Islam because it tends to promote sameness rather than allowing for diversity” (Seedat, 2013a, p. 26). Moghissi (2011) contributes to this view from a secularist position that Islamic feminism is “only one of the many forms of identity available to Middle Eastern women” and that to stay within the bounds of one’s culture is to limit one’s frame of critique and to essentialize “Muslim women” (Moghissi, 2011, p. 84).

Within Islamic feminism, scholars range from religious (representing numerous traditions) to secular. Abu Zayd (2006) writes on the Reformation of Islamic Thought and argues for a cultural and enlightened Islam characterized by an individualistic faith that consider the Qur’an and hadith as part of a discourse rather than as repositories of faith. Rhouni (2010), in critiquing the work of Mernissi, suggests a postfoundational approach to Islam; that is, she argues that the Qur’an be placed in its historical context, and so too its interpretations read from within the reader’s own context. Barlas (2013) engages Abu Zayd and Rhouni and accuses them of secularizing text. She argues that “secular attempts to undermine Islam also undermine the prospects for rights and democracy in Muslim societies” and calls instead for a liberatory Qur’anic hermeneutics. She also responds to Abu Zayd and Rhouni’s “criticism of Islamic feminists for reading the Qur’an on behalf of women’s rights [and] suggests that they think only secularists have the right to speak about rights (Barlas, 2013, p. 420). Although written prior to Barlas’s complaint, Badran (2009) suggests that Islamic feminisms and secular feminisms share a great deal in common and cautions that there is value in studying them together rather than as oppositional. There is also a reaction against Islamic feminism, such as that by Maryam Jameelah who argues alternately that feminism among Muslim women is the fault of Western influence, the forces of modernization, or the Muslim men in these women’s lives who have failed to live up to the patriarchal ideal Islamic man (Jameelah).

Early waves of Jewish feminism tended toward rejectionism (Wolf, 1998). Scholars such as Plaskow (1990) and Wegner (1988) used feminist analysis of scripture and Jewish legal practice to critique the patriarchy of Judaism. Moving past rejectionism, Hauptman (1998), a Talmudic scholar, suggests that rabbinic readings of the Talmud have served to elevate women’s status, though she ultimately accuses rabbis of not going far enough in helping women achieve equality. Adler (1998), contributes to Jewish feminism by asking how women’s full participation can transform Jewish practice. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein edited a volume titled New Jewish Feminism: Probing the Past, Forging the Future, which tasks authors whose expertise ranges from Jewish Studies to Jewish clergy to assess the achievements of Jewish feminism and identify the challenges ahead in terms of theology, ritual, synagogue, Israel, sexuality, Jewish denominations, and social justice (Goldstein, 2008). Although the essays in the book are largely personal rather than academic, they give readers a window through which they can view the current state of Jewish feminism. Pinsky (2009), studying American Jewish feminism of the second wave, explores how identities of Judaism and feminism converge, or sometimes do not. She argues that Jews qua Jews share a unique relationship to gender.

Christian feminism, too, experienced a wave of rejectionism, exemplified by Mary Daly (Daly, 1973, 1974, 1975). However, more recent scholarship on Christian feminism focuses on feminism engaged within church. Katzenstein’s (1998) Faithful and Fearless, for example, is focused on the Catholic feminist movement and its employment of “discursive radicalism” within Catholicism rather than protests against Catholicism. Schneiders suggests that Catholic feminism was “actually more indigenous to the Church itself than an import from the surrounding culture” (Schneiders, 2000, p. 62). Braude argues that “Christian feminists face a particularly difficult double bind, simultaneously calling attention to the role of Christianity in promulgating patriarchy and claiming that the authentic teachings of their faith require transcendence of the sin of sexism” (Braude, 2004, p. 572). Christian feminism was engaged parallel to but not with secular feminists, prompting Brownmiller (1999) to draw attention to the movements within Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism that she believed were successful in ways unanticipated by secular radicals. O’Connor (2010) writes about “women religious” who chose to seek equality for women from within the Catholic church and compares them to secular feminists who worked within their own environment for change and finds that change within the church was much slower and limited. She adds that the relationship between these two groups is difficult because of disagreements regarding each group’s position on the issue of abortion and the issue of clerical abuse within the church. She concludes by referring to “women religious” as a “squandered resource for bringing about social change” (O’Connor, 2010, p. 76). Secular feminism is not the only challenge to Christian feminism, as many within Christian traditions have sought to discredit feminism as incompatible with religion and even condemn feminism as a threat to faith (Davis, 1998; Kassian, 1992; Podles, 1999; Steichen, 1991).

A number of online sources are available for these religious feminisms. The Christian Feminist Network (2016), and Christian Feminism Today (2014), sponsored by the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, each offer resources, scriptural discussion, meetings and conventions, and space for open dialogue. Jewish feminism finds expression online in the Jewish Women’s Archive (Jewish Women’s Archive, 2014), the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA, 2014), and through the Jewish Gender and Feminism 101 page on My Jewish Learning (2017). Islamic feminist online resources are more difficult to find. Muslims for Progressive Values (MPVUSA) claims to be “the only American movement that advocates for egalitarian expressions of Islam, for women, and for LGBTQI rights” through inclusivity, discourse, and activism. Outside of the United States, organizations such as Sisters in Islam challenge governments to promote women’s rights within the framework of Islam. There are likely numerous other examples of such organizations online written in foreign languages. It is also possible that resources of this kind may be interpreted as subversive and are more difficult to locate because they want to be difficult to locate.

For many other religions, there is a less unified body of feminist literature. There are, for example, feminists who are Taoist or Sikh, but there is not (yet) a vibrant scholarship that documents these contributions. Some religious traditions do not lend themselves to a unified body of literature or representation. As we have discussed, Hinduism itself is not characterized by doctrinal unity. This disunity is what Sugirtharajah (2002) refers to as the complexities of Hinduism and echoes the concerns of others in linking particular religious traditions to a particular kind of feminism. Instead of precise definitions for these labels, it is argued that responses to women’s issues be contextual and specific. Buddhist feminism has a more well-developed literature advancing from Rita Gross, who argues for a revalorization of everyday domestic experiences that are particularly relevant to women and an androgynous model of humanity that affirms both femaleness and maleness rather than denying them both (Gross, 1992). Klein (2008) adds to this literature with her book Meeting the Bliss Queen, which she frames as a dialogue between Buddhism and feminism, rather than as an attempt to put them in the same frame, to address the question of selfhood. Hu (2011) engages feminist analysis with Buddhist texts to present a contemporary Buddhist ethics for peacemaking. Other world religions may have coherent feminisms that are perhaps not well documented in English. There are resources where some of these alternative views can be found. Feminism and Religion (2014), affiliated with the Women’s Studies and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University, is a blog with well-established scholars of feminism and religion that continues to develop the dialogue regarding feminism and religion from widely varying traditions.

While feminism promotes women’s agency, scholars address agency in a number of other forms. Participating in religion or religious politics itself is a form of agency, as discussed in a range of issues in a special volume of the Journal of Women’s History (1999 10:4) on Women and Religious Politics, Nikki Keddie suggests in the editor’s note that religious politics appeals to women because “women are more likely to be religious observant than are men”; “religiopolitical movements are seen as providing some protection for women,” such as inheritance for women or fidelity for men, and because “religious politics allow women to be activists in their milieu” rather than in outside and potentially foreign secular or feminist settings (Keddie, 1999a). In her own article in that volume, Keddie suggests that fundamentalism as a particular kind of religious politics is attractive to many women because of “a widespread desire for cogent rules, stronger families, and more defined roles” (Keddie, 1999b).

Fundamentalism, and in particular Islamic fundamentalism, is a popular topic for both international relations and gender studies. As Sahgal and Yuval-Davis explain, “women, their roles, and above all their control, are at the heart of the fundamentalist agenda. That they should conform to the strict confines of womanhood within the fundamentalist religious code is a precondition for maintaining and reproducing the fundamentalist version of society” (Sahgal & Yuval-Davis, 1992, p. 1). For example, numerous pieces have been written on pre- and postrevolution Iran. Kazemzadeh (2002) claims, contrary to arguments that postrevolutionary Iran was liberating for Iranian women, that women were the losers in the revolution. He blames Islamic fundamentalists who manipulated Islam, leading to declining status for women, in order to pursue their own misogynistic goals. Also discussing Iran is Moallem (2005), who explores two opposed notions of transnationalism, feminism and fundamentalism. She argues that transnational feminism’s efforts to save women from Muslim fundamentalism are comparable to the efforts of Muslim fundamentalism to save these same women from Western values. Iranian women are not passive but instead have developed an indigenous feminism and are agents for their own resistance. Adding to this critique, Shirazi (2009) challenges the stereotype of the oppressed Muslim woman, as she describes the “quiet resistance” of women from varied Islamic societies as this resistance relates to honor and virginity, fertility and childbirth, women’s attire and ethics, arts and athletics, sexuality, and spatial segregation. In a separate example, Jafar (2007) argues that Islamic fundamentalism poses a direct and unique challenge to the work of women’s NGOs, Pakistan in particular, and examines and offers a critique of strategies that women’s NGOs use to counter fundamentalism.

Women’s agency is often coupled with the concept of resistance, and yet examples of the pietist movement in Egypt shed light on women who exercise their agency in their attachment to patriarchal religious structures (Mahmood, 2004). Mahmood is critical of Western feminism because it excludes the agency of women who seek the submissiveness exhibited by the pietist movement. This exercise of agency, criticized in its framing as docility, ought perhaps to be reframed as observance or religious conduct, or as Avishai (2008) terms it, “doing religion.” Omer (2014) suggests that the concept of agency itself needs to account for women who choose to “embrace marginality and subordination” without being framed as “docile agency” or limited to the frame of “false consciousness.” Bennoune’s (2013) Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here recounts tales from across the globe of struggles against Islamic fundamentalism. She describes fundamentalism as an extreme-right movement that manipulates religion and limits women’s freedoms, and she is careful not to confuse this expression of Islam with other, more moderate expressions. The narratives retold in this volume are full of intelligent, creative, and brave responses to fundamentalism. However, Bouachrine (2014) critiques the celebratory discourse of Muslim women’s resistance and instead illustrates the limits of this resistance, highlighting the restricted agency of women in Islamic societies both fundamentalist and otherwise.

Fundamentalism is not limited to the Islamic religion. Riesbrodt and Chong (1999) use North American and Latin American cases to discuss two types of fundamentalisms: legalistic-literalist types, which they argue tend to represent the “self-organization of men who compensate for loss of authority and status by increasing their control over women”; and the political charismatic type, which represents “a self-organization of women actively attempting to reshape the patriarchal family in their own interest.” They conclude that religion alone cannot account for gender relations and that it is necessary to include structures of authority in the family as well as political and economic structures in the analysis. Religion is not the only limit to women’s agency. There are multiple overlapping forms of domination, including colonialism and feminism. Following Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s (1994) work and question, “can the subaltern speak,” Western, European, or First World feminism has been accused of “white women saving brown women from the brown men” (Pui-lan, 2002, p. 73). The edited volume from which this piece comes argues that subaltern women are actively voicing their resistance to various forms of domination and claiming their own agency in terms of both religious practice and their own faith (Donaldson & Pui-lan, 2002). Stabile and Kumar (2005) illustrate this with the case of Afghani women who are represented in Western media as needing liberation (see also Ahmed, 1992). Raghavan, Levine, and Travis (2012) have edited a volume addressing Muslim societies specifically to counter the myth that religion and feminism are in opposition to each other. They offer examples in which religious prescriptions can interact with legal norms to affect change.

Vuola (2002) suggests that the feminist critique of religion should focus on the deconstruction of religious fundamentalism because of its impact on women’s human rights discourse. In an extreme example of feminist response to fundamentalism, Fekete (2006) describes the way in which feminists are being recruited to right-wing, anti-immigration politics through the promotion of anti-Islamic stereotypes like forced marriage, female circumcision, and clothing that subordinates women in Europe. The overarching goals of women’s equality are being used to support calls to limit multiculturalism. The literature on feminisms, feminist engagements, and critiques of feminism are deserving of their own literature review.

Areas for Further Research

As this review has shown, the literature on gender, religion, and international relations is vast, but the connection to the global—how international relations is implicated—remains fairly inchoate. More research on the global context of female subordination, women’s rights and equality, and feminism and agency can add insights that could lead to advances in theory and in policy. Further research on men’s roles and on alternative genders in a global perspective is warranted. The crucial role of fundamentalist religion in global conflicts and in the subjugation of women (Islamic State and Boku Haram are just two examples) makes such future research all the more critical.


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