Does Human Rights Need God?

By Elizabeth M. Bucar; Barbra Barnett | Go to book overview

8
The Challenge of Religious Fundamentalism
to the Liberty and Equality Rights of Women:
An Analysis under the United Nations Charter

COURTNEY W. HOWLAND


I. Introduction

Religions have traditionally promoted, or even required, differentiated roles for women and men. It may well be argued that any separation of gender spheres is detrimental to women’s equality. There is no need, however, to address this broad question in the context of religious fundamentalism, whose rise in all major religions has been accompanied by a vigorous promotion and enforcement of gender roles whose explicit intent entails the subordination and disempowerment of women.

Religious fundamentalism poses the most acute problems for women’s equality, but many conservative religious groups share substantial areas of doctrine with the fundamentalists. The two groups are often differentiated solely by the political activism of fundamentalists rather than by significantly different religious beliefs. This political activism throws into sharp relief the conflicts between rights of religious freedom and women’s rights of liberty and equality.

In Part II of this essay, I define “religious fundamentalism” and discuss the contemporary rise of religious fundamentalism in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. A common goal of these movements is to pass state laws that reflect religious laws. There is a special concern with family laws and personal status laws, which have a particularly strong impact on women.

This essay was originally published as “The Challenge of Religious Fundamentalism to the Liberty and Equality Rights of Women: An Analysis under the United Nations Charter,” 35 Colum. J. Transnat’l Law 271 (1997): 271–377. The author is especially grateful to Michael Singer, who read drafts of this essay. His extensive comments and invaluable insights are reflected at main points throughout the text. This slightly reedited version appears here by permission of the author and Columbia University.

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