Europe: Women and religion in Europe

Council of Europe address by Ms Jahangir, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Thank you for inviting me to Strasbourg and for giving me the opportunity to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I know the importance that the Council of Europe attaches to the intercultural and inter-religious dialogue, and that one of its aims is to protect human rights and the rule of law in the 46 member states.
The invitation comes at a crucial moment as you are discussing a draft resolution on women and religion in Europe and because a few days ago I was present in Strasbourg in the context of a visit to France in my capacity as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

In 1986, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights appointed a special rapporteur to examine incidents in all parts of the world that were inconsistent with the provisions of the 1981 United Nations declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief and to recommend remedial measures for such situations. Furthermore, since 1996, the commission has persistently stressed in its resolutions the need for the special rapporteur to apply a gender perspective, inter alia, through the identification of gender-specific abuses in the reporting process, including in information collection and recommendations.

Some countries have been reluctant to see the nexus between the discrimination of women and the mandate of the special rapporteur on the question of religious intolerance. It is now accepted that a special rapporteur will raise cases or highlight situations that relate to the status of women. Under that aspect of my mandate, I regularly send urgent appeals and letters setting out allegations jointly with other United Nations special rapporteurs, such as the special rapporteur on the violence against women, its causes and consequences.

At the outset, and to define the scope of my mandate, I re-emphasise that the freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right of a non-derogable character which can be limited only under restricted conditions. Nevertheless, this right, like other human rights, cannot be used to justify the violation of other fundamental human rights. That clause is, inter alia, provided by Article 5.1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and may, in certain cases, address situations of abuses committed in the name of religion. So far, I have tried to keep that approach as a central part of my mandate, and I will continue to do so.

I have read the excellent report by Mrs Zapfl-Helbling, the Rapporteur of the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men. It contains valuable information on women and religion. It also refers to the study on freedom of religion or belief and the status of women as regards religion and tradition conducted by my predecessor and published in April 2002. The study mentions the legal standards that are most relevant to gender equality in the context of religious freedom, such as those contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the various instruments against slavery and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It also lists the different types of discrimination against women, such as practices that are harmful to the health of women, discrimination against women within the family, attacks on the right to life, honour killings, and attacks on their dignity, such as restrictions on the education of women or their exclusion from certain functions.

In the framework of my mandate, and on the basis of the activities that I have carried out since my appointment in July 2004, I have noted with regret that women continue to be largely excluded from the decision-making process within most religious communities - a process that is usually a monopoly for men. In that context, in order to exercise their full human rights, women usually have to negotiate with religious beliefs and traditional values, often within their own communities. Similarly, at a time when much emphasis is put on inter-religious dialogue, the absence of women's voices from that dialogue is striking. The work that must be carried out to redress the situation remains important and will require energy at all levels.

An illustration of that reality can be found in the reservations undertaken by countries when ratifying UN instruments, in particular the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and in referring to the incompatibility of some of its provisions with the religiously inspired legislation of their countries. My predecessor's study dedicated several pages to that problem and identified the most pressing aspects, which are equality in marriage and, in the case of divorce, parental authority, the right of custody, choice of family name, heritage and transmission of nationality.

The situation remains ambiguous. Whereas some of the reservations are so general that they might not be valid because they can contradict the spirit and aim of the convention, the fact that there are so many reservations based on varying interpretations of the same religion shows an urgent need for less ambiguous rules and principles. The issue is extremely delicate, but that should by no means deter us from confronting it. On the contrary, I believe that the longer we postpone tackling it, the greater the risk of embedding gender inequalities in the field of human rights. Nevertheless, the measure that ought to be taken must be carefully considered as it deals with complex and sensitive situations and because one cannot draw a surgical line between the treatment of rights, such as the right to freedom of religion or belief and women's rights, which are so intrinsically intertwined.

My visit this year to Nigeria, Sri Lanka and France disclosed different situations with regard to freedom of religion or belief. However, it was possible to identify two patterns that reflect today's reality. First, the link between state and religion, or religions, is often the origin of the greatest difficulties relating to freedom of religion or belief. The neutrality or independence of the state vis-à-vis religion - or its capacity or willingness to guarantee and protect de jure and de facto freedom of religion of all individuals within its jurisdiction - is often the key to developing an appropriate framework for the protection of all human rights, including women's rights. It ensures that individuals can express themselves fully and dissent, even within their own religion; or, indeed, that they can choose not to have any religion at all.

Secondly, an atmosphere of religious intolerance generally undermines freedom of religion but also other human rights, including the rights of women. In this context, well-intentioned measures to protect the rights of women may, in certain circumstances, stigmatise the very women whom they are seeking to protect. Then, if such stigmatisation takes the form of humiliation, it often leads to the radicalisation of the affected persons and of those associated with them. In both cases, the central question is one of balance. Such balance implies that no right should be protected at the expense of others, and that the measures adopted to protect women's rights, the right to freedom of religion or belief and all other human rights, should take into account all individuals in society.

While Europe undoubtedly remains committed to protecting all fundamental rights, including freedom of religion or of belief, it is now faced with a challenge that will be successfully overcome only if it strikes the right balance between fundamental rights. The right balance should be present in both the domestic and foreign policies of the states concerned. Such balance will positively impact on the rights of women as individuals, regardless of their religious beliefs or their communities, and it will further promote a climate of religious tolerance.

I thank you for your attention.
Interview of Ms Jahangir, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

The more intolerance in a society, the more pressure there is on women.

Asma Jahangir, a lawyer from Pakistan, is the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief. She addressed the Parliamentary Assembly session on 4 October 2005 as part of a debate on women and religion.

Question : Ms Jahangir, you have been following this issue for a year now, what have been your impressions?

Asma Jahangir: Freedom of religion is a very interesting and pertinent subject all over the world, and it is very important that women's voices should be heard. It is also very symbolic to have a woman as rapporteur on this subject.

So far I have visited three different countries - Sri Lanka, Nigeria and France. In Sri Lanka there have been problems with Christian evangelists converting Buddhists - so called "unethical conversions". In France, there is the issue of wearing conspicuous symbols of religion and Nigeria is interesting because of the use of the Charia law in the North of the country, and an atmosphere of general intolerance.

What I have found is that the more intolerance in a society, the more pressure there is on women. Neutral and secular states fare better than states that set themselves up as arbiters of religion.

Question: This is a very emotional subject - how do you approach your work?

Asma Jahangir: It is very important to approach these subjects rationally. It is very easy to be alarmist, when a few awful incidents can trigger difficult situations. The most important thing is to be firm where rights are being violated. For instance, honor killings are very obviously a crime, and must be dealt with as such. If my child refuses to carry a prayer book to school, it is not a crime to use persuasion, but it would be a crime to beat the child. If an adult woman consents to female circumcision, that is a choice; but if it is a girl, or if the woman does not consent and the procedure is carried out anyway, that is completely illegal.

Question: How can you regulate this area? How can you bring about change?

Asma Jahangir: Laws can help, but there is only so much a government can do. You have to tackle the community pressure too, otherwise there is no acceptance of change in the community. For example, in terms of female circumcision, you have to bring in laws to make sure that children are not harmed, then speak to community leaders to find other ways of celebrating that rite which would not harm women. Of course, dialogue itself is not easy: often the people who speak for their community are the men. Good work can be done in towns and cities where the whole community is brought into the dialogue.
Council of Europe/ Parliamentary Assembly
Women and religion in Europe
Resolution 1464 (2005)[1] Provisional edition
  1. In the lives of many European women, religion continues to play an important role. In fact, whether they are believers or not, most women are affected in one way or another by the attitude of different faiths towards women, directly or through their traditional influence on society or the State.
  2. This influence is seldom benign: women’s rights are often curtailed or violated in the name of religion. While most religions teach equality of women and men before God, they attribute different roles to women and men on earth. Religiously motivated gender stereotypes have conferred upon men a sense of superiority which has led to discriminatory treatment of women by men and even violence at their hands.
  3. At one end of the spectrum lie the extreme violations of women’s human rights such as so-called “honour” crimes, forced marriages and female genital mutilation, which – though still rare in Europe – are on the rise in some communities.
  4. At the other end are more subtle and less spectacular forms of intolerance and discrimination which are much more widespread in Europe – and which can be just as effective in achieving the subjection of women, such as the refusal to put into question a patriarchal culture which holds up the role of wife, mother and housewife as the ideal and the refusal to adopt positive measures in favour of women (for example in parliamentary elections).
  5. All women living in Council of Europe member states have a right to equality and dignity in all areas of life. Freedom of religion cannot be accepted as a pretext to justify violations of women’s rights, be they open, subtle, legal or illegal, practiced with or without the nominal consent of the victims – women.
  6. It is the duty of the member states of the Council of Europe to protect women against violations of their rights in the name of religion and to promote and fully implement gender equality. States must not accept any religious or cultural relativism of women’s human rights. They must not agree to justify discrimination and inequality affecting women on grounds such as physical or biological differentiation based on or attributed to religion. They must fight against religiously motivated stereotypes of female and male roles from an early age, including in schools.
  7. The Parliamentary Assembly thus calls on the member states of the Council of Europe to:
  • fully protect all women living in their country against violations of their rights based on or attributed to religion by:
  • putting into place and enforcing specific and effective policies to fight all violations of women’s right to life, to bodily integrity, freedom of movement and free choice of partner, including so-called “honour” crimes, forced marriage and female genital mutilation, wherever and by whomever they are committed, however they are justified, and regardless of the nominal consent of the victim; this means that freedom of religion is limited by human rights;
  • refusing to recognise foreign family codes and personal status laws based on religious principles which violate women’s rights and ceasing to apply them on their own soil, renegotiating bilateral treaties if necessary;
  • take a stand against violations of women’s human rights justified by religious or cultural relativism everywhere, including in international fora such as the United Nations, the IPU and others;
  • guarantee the separation between the church and the State which is necessary to ensure that women are not subjected to religiously inspired policies and laws (e.g. in the area of family, divorce, and abortion law);
  • ensure that the freedom of religion and the respect for culture and tradition are not accepted as a pretext to justify violations of women’s rights, including when underage girls are forced to submit to religious codes (including dress codes), their freedom of movement is curtailed or their access to contraception is barred by their family or community;
  • where religious education is permitted in schools, ensure that this teaching is in conformity with gender equality principles;
  • take a stand against all religious doctrine which is anti-democratic or disrespectful of human rights, especially women’s rights, and refuse to allow such doctrines to influence political decision-making;
  • actively promote respect of women’s rights, equality and dignity in all areas of life when engaging in dialogue with representatives of different religions and work on achieving full gender equality in society.
Assembly debate on 4 October 2005 (26th Sitting) (see Doc. 10670, report of the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men, rapporteur: Mrs Zapfl-Helbling). Text adopted by the Assembly on 4 October 2005 (26th Sitting).