Applying a Gender Perspective in the Area of the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief

Article excerpt

Religion, spirituality and belief play a central role in the lives of millions of women and men, in the way they live and in the aspirations they have for the future. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is inalienable and must be universally enjoyed.1


Many horrible events in different parts of the world graphically illustrate the need to discuss freedom of religion or belief in relation to gender. Among such events is the Taliban's public beatings of women for failing to wear the burqa, as required by its own interpretation of Islamic teachings.2 Recently, the United Nations SecretaryGeneral recommended that the "[r]elationship between freedom of religion and, in particular, the right to manifest religious beliefs, and women's right to equality" should be addressed.3 This statement is a stark reminder that the silence that traditionally enshrouds this relationship has only recently been questioned explicitly in international fora.4

Various international human rights instruments stipulate that women and men are equally entitled to all human rights and fundamental freedoms,5 which includes the right to freedom of religion or belief.6 Both a global and a regional instrument7 specifically acknowledge that the enjoyment of this right must be conferred equally on both women and men.8 Furthermore, numerous international human rights instruments contain a clause prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, and, in recent years, on the basis of the wider concept of gender.9 It is therefore apparent that a woman's gender should not be a reason to restrict her right to freedom of religion or belief, a right that broadly embraces theistic, nontheistic, and atheistic beliefs.

This Article examines a number of alleged violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief that are primarily directed against women or to which women are particularly vulnerable. Women who are hampered in their enjoyment of this right are often women who object to certain interpretations of their religion or belief imposed by religious leaders or society or women who are committed to a different religion or belief from that of the wider society. In this Article, they are referred to as "dissenting women."

The alleged violations below are assessed by using a basic yardstick based on international human rights norms, which articulate both an internal and an external aspect of the right to freedom of religion or belief.10 Section II.A addresses situations involving alleged violations of internal freedom, which denotes the individual's inner, private domain. Allowing people the freedom to believe in a religion or belief of their own choice lies at the heart of internal freedom. Section II.B addresses situations involving alleged violations of external freedom. External freedom denotes the outer, often public, domain and has been defined as an individual's "freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."11 Section III presents conclusions and a number of recommendations that could be helpful in combating violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief that are specifically or primarily directed against women or to which women are particularly vulnerable.


A. Violations of Women's Internal Freedom

In assessing situations in which women are restricted in their choice of religion or belief, it should be clear that they do not have to make a once-in-a-lifetime choice or resign themselves to the religion or belief passed on to them by their parents, spouse, religious leaders, community, or society. Internal freedom means that women should be free, at any time, to explore other beliefs and to make their own choices as to religious commitment and membership. …


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