Keeping Faith: Reconciling
Women’s Human Rights
The Indian Constitution recognizes sex equality yet confers jurisdiction over civil matters such as marriage and divorce to religious “personal laws,” which make no similar guarantee. In the United States, courts have created a “ministerial exception,” granting religious institutions an exemption from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace. More than 180 countries are signatories to the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) of 1979—often referred to as the “international bill of rights for women”—and yet ratifying countries have conditioned their ascent to instances where there is no conflict between CEDAW and religious law.
Since Hillary Rodham Clinton famously articulated the idea that “women’s rights are human rights” at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, women’s equality has been considered a fundamental part of the human rights fabric. Women’s rights as human rights imply universality, and indeed, today women’s rights are widely recognized in both international and national laws. In addition to CEDAW, the constitutions of countries from Afghanistan to Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Morocco, and Nigeria (to name just a few) include provisions recognizing sex equality. Despite these provisions in formal law, however, women’s rights in fact are often culturally relative. As the examples above indicate, law itself often formally yields to claims by religious groups that seek to discriminate against women in the name of religious or cultural freedom. Notably, women’s rights stand alone among the rights sacrificed in the name of religious freedom today.1 The end result is that for women, at least, in a postmodern world in which eighteenth- and nineteenth-century notions of unmediated national sovereignty have been properly put to rest, religion and culture represent the New Sovereignty. Human rights abuses that since World War II are no longer acceptable when committed by State’s are paradoxically tolerated when justified in the name of religion or culture.
For some time, scholars and human rights practitioners have posited the conflict between women’s equality and religious liberty as inherent. As the late feminist theorist Susan Moller Okin starkly put it, religion and culture are “bad”