International: Impact of religion on women’s leadership roles

Historically it has been sometimes assumed that secular and left-of-centre parties are more willing to promote women in politics, while conservative and religious parties limit women’s participation in politics and public life.
Recent developments show that this is not always the case, since some religious parties started recruiting more women members to promote their political agendas. For instance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of religious political parties in Pakistan, despite its stated opposition to women’s participation in political and public life, promoted women candidates in the 2002 elections to the National Assembly. As a result, 12 MMA women candidates were elected to the National Assembly in Pakistan. According to Ashutosh Misra, by promoting women in the national elections, MMA gave priority to power over ideology. (Misra, A. p.201. 2003)
Religion and religious norms historically have played an important role in shaping public policies and public life in many countries around the world. Some countries may experience the impact of religion on their public life more than others. In many countries, this impact ebbed and flowed throughout the course of history. Experts suggest differentiating between religion and religious norms. For instance, Dr. Azza Karam, Senior Culture Adviser at UNFPA, points out the following:

“Religion and religious norms are not one and the same thing. Religion itself is a reference to a complicated set of institutions, texts (most considered holy, together with a body of interpretations thereof), as well as norms and values which are difficult to quantify, and almost impossible to group into one term. Moreover, religion also incorporates a range of spokespersons - some of whom are clergy and many of whom are, or can, be scholars, laymen and women, as well as, sometimes, political actors themselves.

Religious norms is a more specific – yet still complicated – wording that refers to what some believe to be a form of behavior which is validated by religious beliefs.”

(Karam, A. Expert Opinion. 2009)

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the role of tradition and cultural norms that may be formed separately from religious norms or affect religious ideology. This consolidated response highlights the impact of religious norms and religion on women’s political participation. The response also describes women’s participation in religious institutions and religious political parties, as well as women’s resistance to religious limitations to their political participation.

Women’s Participation in Religious Institutions

Research shows that women’s participation in religious institutions around the world varies not only from a religion to religion, but also within the denominations of the same religion and can depend on cultural norms and traditions existing in a country or region. Speaking about religion and women’s movements in the Middle East, Dr. Nadje Al-Ali mentions that Islam itself is lived heterogeneously in the region, and highlights that while most Middle Easterners are Muslims, there are differences between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims as well as other Muslim groupings, such as the Alawite minority in Turkey. Dr. Al-Ali adds that women belonging to minority religious groups, such as the Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt, are generally exposed to similar or the same cultural and social codes and traditions as their Muslim counterparts of the same social class. (Al-Ali, N. p.2. 2002)

Azza Karam, Senior Culture Adviser at UNFPA, highlights that in countries where religious institutions play an important role in determining national policy trends and international platforms, women’s representation in such institutions can be considered as a form of political participation. Dr. Karam mentions that:

“The involvement of women in these institutions – or their absence from within them - at different levels, are important indicators of the extent to which these religious institutions sanction women’s political participation.” (Karam, A. Expert Opinion. 2009)

This statement is also supported by Ms. Margaret Mensah Williams, iKNOW Politics Expert and Member of Parliament in Namibia, who highlights that the refusal to promote women to leadership positions by a clergy of a specific religion is an indication that this specific community may not be ready to accept women into political and public life. (Williams, M. Expert Opinion. 2009) In their book, Pamela Paxton and Melanie Hughes talk about the impact of Confucianism on the role and participation of women in politics in China and in other Asian countries, including China, Japan, the Koreas, Vietnam, and Singapore. They mention that under Confucianism, women at every level are to occupy a position lower than men. For instance, in the Confucian Book of Rites it says that the woman should follow the man in her youth, as she follows her father and elder brother; when married she follows her husband and, when her husband is dead, she follows her son. Ms. Paxton and Ms. Hughes state that when a culture dictates that women should be subordinate to men and should follow the opinions of their husbands and fathers, they are less likely to be politically active. Simultaneously, the few women who are politically active are not taken seriously by political leaders or regular citizens. (Paxton, P and Hughes, M. p.247. 2007)

Some religious institutions are more willing to involve women in their structures and give them a more prominent role. Pamela Paxton and Melanie Hughes suggest that in addition to electoral systems and political processes in each country, a country’s dominant religion often influenced the development and success of first-wave women's movements. In their analysis, they mention that countries where Protestant Christianity is a dominant religion women’s suffrage and representation in politics can be found earlier than in the countries with the dominance of Catholicism. Among the reasons cited as to why the Protestant religion may have encouraged women to participate in politics, Ms. Hughes and Ms. Paxton highlight the philosophical notions of Protestantism about the rights and responsibilities of the individual, particular emphasis on education, and individualism of both sexes. (Paxton, P and Hughes, M. pp.53-54, p.220. 2007)

Another example of a religion promoting women’s participation in its structure is Pentecostal Christianity in Africa. According to Charlotte Spinks, African women are attracted to Pentecostal Christianity because, according to her, it rejects the socio-cultural status quo aspiring to escape from marginalization of certain groups, including women, in “patriarchal” societies. This form of Christianity, according to her, also preaches individual prosperity, which legitimizes ambitious young women seeking to break traditional barriers in order to achieve economic, social, and political independence. Ms. Spinks also points out that while many mainline Churches and traditional African cultures preserve leadership positions for men and the elderly, in Pentecostal Churches she says that women and youth are encouraged to exercise responsibility. (Spinks, C. pp. 22-26. 2003)

Exclusion of women from religious institutions and religious leadership may have a negative impact on women’s status in society and limit their opportunities in politics and public life. Ms. Fatou Sow in her article about the influence of religion and traditions in Senegal mentions that in traditional Senegalese rituals women were highly respected and acted as leaders of worship, presided over fertility and possession rites, and represented divinities in the areas bordering the sea and rivers, specifically in the areas between Dakar, Cape Verde and Saint Louis. Ms. Fatou argues that women’s role and status in society as well as cultural practices in Senegal changed after the introduction of Islam to the country. These changes resulted in women’s absence in religious leadership positions and rituals, and in the dwindling role of women in society as a whole. (Sow, F. 2003)

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