How to Make Progress on Gender Equality Without Decreasing Religious Freedom: The OSCE Context

Montserrat Gas-Aixendri is a full professor of law and religion at Universitat Internacional de Catalunya (Barcelona, Spain).

The commitment of Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development to “leave no one behind” includes a promise to end discrimination. The road toward effective equality between women and men is not yet complete, and there remain many forms of discrimination that can and must be stamped out. Progress calls for the contributions of all social agents, including religious organizations. Nevertheless, freedom of religion or belief and gender equality sometimes seem to be rights standing in opposition to each other in an artificial antagonism. For some, religious freedom is viewed as an inherent obstacle to the achievement of equality, whereas for others, gender equality is regarded as a threat to the protection of religious values and practices. The resulting tensions are particularly plain to see in the region of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), where several cultures are present and the landscape contains a wide range of cultural and religious diversity.

Without doubt, the relationship between gender equality and religion is complex, not only because it involves many interrelationships but also because antagonistic interpretations between the two rights are themselves often grounded in gender or religious stereotypes (Relaño 2021). To understand the clash better, therefore, we need to pay heed to two issues at the heart of the debate: the gradual secularization of the West and the phenomenon of cultural globalization. Recent research has tried to move beyond this polarization. Studies like those of Mahmood (2015) and Scott (2018) and others make a post-secular turn by challenging some of the assumptions that underlie liberal feminism. In fact, the phenomenon of secularization seems rather more ambivalent. While some women find liberation from the supposed burden of religion, other women encounter intersectional discrimination based on simultaneous factors (like being women and believers) that interact to produce “synergistic” types of discrimination

Conflicts between freedom of religion or belief and gender equality may sometimes rest on mere conjectures, and States would violate religious freedom if they imposed restrictive measures beyond the confines of Article 18.3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In a 2013 Report, the UN Special Rapporteur acknowledged that the reasonable assumption that promoting gender equality always constitutes a legitimate purpose does not in itself suffice to justify restrictions to freedom of religion; such restrictions must also have a legal basis, and one has to demonstrate that less restrictive means are not available (para. 31). Hence there is a need to analyze each specific case with a proper balancing of the rights and interests at stake.

As I argue in my recent article, reconciling religious freedom and gender equality appears to be a postmodern attempt to balance the secular and the religious understanding of gender by means of a fragmented approach that is both practical and contextual. While such an approach may settle specific issues, however, it will hardly reconcile differing conceptions. We should reflect on how to successfully establish a constructive relationship between the two rights. In this vein, it is worth considering other potential ways to harmonize diverse positions. In my view, it is essential to go beyond the tactics of conflict resolution. It is necessary to lift up and broaden our view beyond the culture wars in order to see past gender and religious stereotypes. Such an expansion could be achieved through a variety of actions and approaches.

  • Focus on the real issues and needs of women. Current ways of pitting religion and secularity against one another in relation to gender give rise to forms of polarization among religious and secular actors that are undesirable and pose obstacles to our ability to perceive and hear what women really need. Listening and empowering women within religious communities should be one of the main objectives in efforts to harmonize religious freedom with gender equality.
  • Rely on religion to achieve an equality that is multidimensional. Religious organizations are one of our most powerful agents of social change, promoting the equality and well-being of women and girls. Many religious leaders and communities are staunchly committed to upholding and defending human rights for all and building peace. Religion can be a strong source of motivation and mobilization in struggles for inclusion, equality, and nondiscrimination.
  • Leave gender-sensitive developments within different religious traditions to the respective believers themselves, who are the rights holders in the context of freedom or religion or belief. Respecting the autonomy of religious communities on issues of gender equality means allowing them to evolve from their own values and traditions and letting them make their own decisions about how to incorporate such secular cultural values. It is important to take a positive view of movements within religious groups that are opening up to increased participation by women, not only in the interpretation of doctrinal texts but also in positions of responsibility within the administration of religious communities.
  • Open up to other readings from religious and cultural traditions that can enrich and complete our concept of equality. Often we observe only the strict rules on gender relations that exist within religions but choose not to see how those rules have empowered women and increased their agency. Since the end of the Second World War, the alliance between Christianity and liberalism has fostered respect for human dignity and the development of a robust constitutional culture. In the field of solidarity between sexes and between generations, the concept of complementarity and co-responsibility has been developed in a context that is substantively egalitarian.
  • Promote changes of attitude before bans or requirements. Anti-discrimination legislation on its own does not win the battle against intolerance. Success comes through a change in attitudes and behaviors. As nudge theory maintains, using small incentives to motivate is more effective than imposing bans. It follows, therefore, that priority should be given to anything that encourages a change of attitude toward gender discrimination. It is valuable to uncover ways by which religious leaders can contribute to the elimination of gender stereotypes, which are a frequent cause of discrimination against women and a factor that contributes to the violation of a wide range of rights.
  • Promote a preventive strategy through education. Along the lines of Sustainable Development Goal 4, it is important to promote educational programs on human rights, seeking to eliminate patterns of behavior that reflect prejudices built on the idea that women are inferior (CEDAW, art. 5). It is also necessary to eliminate any possible religious stereotypes that may underpin activism in support of gender equality. To do so, it will be necessary to build a focus on religious pluralism into the actions and programs pursued in the aim of gender equality, and to bring a gender perspective to policies designed to promote religious freedom (Relaño 2021).

The theorists of secularization accept that religion continues to play an undeniable role in society, even though religious experiences have become more diverse and individualized and less institutionalized. Our increasingly pluralistic societies must pay attention to the criteria being used to settle controversies between equality and diversity. As the Sustainable Development Goals set forth, we need to create wide-ranging strategies aimed at development, democratization, and peacebuilding. To that end, it is desirable to pursue a new post-secular approach to any conflicts between religious freedom and gender equality in our research agendas and our policies, avoiding narratives marked by particular visions of culture. Democracy, in effect, calls for the existence of a public space where all voices can be heard and, perhaps, agreements achieved.

From a geographic viewpoint, the OSCE region, which stands at the crossroads of East and West, is a good example of the coexistence of diverse historical, cultural, and religious traditions. In my view, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights as the main OSCE human rights institution can make a valuable contribution to the achievement of flexible policies that tend to harmonize the values of gender equality and religious freedom so that moving forward in one does not require slipping backward in the other. In addition, this contribution can potentially provide a good example for the rest of the world.