To what extent are equal rights for women tied to issues of globalization?
Decembeer 28, 2001
Introduction to Globalization,
Gender, and Religion: The Politics of Women's Rights in Catholic and Muslim Contexts
edited by Jane Bayes and Nayereh Tohidi (2001, Palgrave). Bayes teaches women and
politics at California State University, Northridge. Tohidi is a fellow at the Kennan
Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington,
This book is an outcome of two historic world conferences on women -- the Beijing
conference of 1995 and the Beijing Plus Five conference of 2000 in New York-sponsored
by the United Nations.
As participants in the Beijing conference, we (authors and editors of this book)
were intrigued by two new important trends that had become more prominent during
the preparatory process of the conference. These trends reflected certain old international
divisions of political, cultural (especially religious), and economic nature.
The first was related to a new transnational and cross-cultural
conservative and religious alliance against equal rights for women, and the second
concerned the growing implications of globalization for women and gender politics.
The first trend was the display of a major split among the delegates around issues
of sexuality and sexual orientation, women's control of their bodies--including abortion
rights--as well as over questions of equity versus equality and sex versus gender.
The intensity of this controversy surprised many at the conference and many in
the global women's movement. That an alliance of some Catholic and some Muslim delegations
led by the Vatican (the Holy See) were united as a bloc in lobbying for a unified
position on these issues was the news of the conference (Moghadam 1995;Woodman 1995;
Tohidi 1996; Afkhami & Friedl 1997).
This book has explored the historic, sociological, cultural, and political roots
and dimensions of these gender-related global trends. Why should some Catholics unite
with some Muslims against equal rights for women? Why do some groups of men and especially
women keep emphasizing male-female differences rather than similarities? Why do these
men and women continue to advocate male supremacy rather than gender egalitarianism
and why do they oppose equal rights for men and women?
These questions led us to some even broader issues. To what extent are equal rights
for women tied to issues of modernization, democratization, Westernization, and globalization?
In the inevitable conflicts that arise between the old and the new in the processes
of industrialization and modernization, why is it that women and their status, especially
their sexuality, become such a focus of attention? Why is it that politics in Catholic
and Muslim contexts are so often played out on women's bodies?
A related question that emerged from the Beijing conference concerned how religious
Catholic and Muslim women who believe in women's equal rights were coping with the
contradictions between their own beliefs in women's equal rights and the official
positions of their religious authorities. More specifically, we were interested in
the spectrum of opinion and the variety of strategies that women have adopted with
regard to this contradiction in a variety of contexts.
The broader question here concerns the interplay between the processes of change
in religion and in patterns of gender relationships. What variety of strategies do
women adopt when traditional patterns of gender relations are challenged by new economic
arrangements or by exposure to new ideas and cultural practices? This book is an
outcome of our search for a better comprehension of these questions and for better
strategizing for the global women's movement in regard to the recent religio-political
The Conservative Muslim-Catholic Religious Alliance against Women's Rights
The Beijing Platform for Action identified twelve critical areas, including equality,
poverty, education, health, reproductive and sexual health, violence, armed conflicts,
economic participation, and human rights. The traditional practices of female genital
cutting, forced marriage, and honor killings also were addressed for the first time
in an international consensus document, with the draft text calling for laws to eradicate
such human rights violations (Rumsey 2000).
The Beijing Platform for Action has been considered an internationally accepted
blueprint for achieving women's equality, development, and peace, hence a significant
and major human rights accomplishment for women.
But as mentioned above, the alliance of conservative Catholic and Muslim delegations
around issues related to sexuality and the definition of women's rights has been
an important force challenging the implementation of the Beijing commitments. Pope
John Paul II was the initial architect of this coalition, an architect who understood
the similarities between conservative Catholics and conservative Muslims and sought
to unite the two groups.
This organizing effort began in response to the Clinton-Gore U.S. presidential
campaign in 1992, in which the Pope perceived Clinton and Gore as campaigning for
federal funding for abortion on demand at any time during pregnancy, for federal
funding for greater family planning efforts in poor countries in exchange for foreign
aid, and against population growth anywhere in the world.
When Clinton signed five executive orders dealing with this topic on the day of
his inauguration, January 23, 1993, the Vatican responded with a carefully planned
mobilization of the global organization of the Catholic Church to oppose the Clinton
administration, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), and various
international NGOs such as International Planned Parenthood Association and their
population control initiatives which were to be presented for approval at the United
Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1993.
The Pope also sent emissaries to Muslim countries to garner their support against
abortion on demand as a universal human right and against the definition of sexual
expression not connected to marriage or procreation, as an individual right under
international law (Weigel 1999, 715; Szulc 1995, 468-69).
In addition to making a moral plea against what the Pope perceived as anti-marriage,
anti-family, anti-procreation, and pro-death initiatives, the Pope also made an anti-imperialist,
anti- western individualism argument to build his conservative alliance, characterizing
the Cairo initiatives as serious imperialistic threats designed to impose population
control measures and western morality on poor countries in exchange for foreign aid.
In Beijing, the coalition of Catholic countries that joined the Vatican included
Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and the Philippines. These were joined
by the Muslim countries of Iran, Sudan, Libya, Egypt, and Kuwait. In 1995, the Catholics
and Muslims established a Catholic-Islamic commission for the purpose of fostering
interfaith dialogue, a commission that continues to operate in 2001. During the 1995
­ 2000 period, other Catholic Muslim cooperative efforts occurred. In 1997,
the Pontifical Council on the Family met with the Supreme
Council on Islamic Affairs in Rome to unite to protect families.
In 2000 at the Beijing Plus Five Conference in New York, the conservative religious
alliance continued its opposition to the initiatives involving sexuality, abortion,
and for some, even the issue of women's rights as human rights, (arguing instead
for "human dignity") although the group had lost many of its Catholic supporters
and shrunk to a hard core coalition of the Holy See, Iran, Algeria, Nicaragua, Syria,
Libya, Morocco, Sudan, and Pakistan (Amnesty International Index 2000).
In a direct joint attack on globalization, the Catholic-Islamic Linkage Commission
on July 13, 2001 issued a statement on globalization that noted the benefits of globalization,
but warned of its dangers, signaling a continuing interest and cooperation between
the leaders of the two faiths (Zenit 2001).
This does not mean that all Catholics and all Muslims agree with the conservative
leaders of their religions. A number of Muslim NGOs, including Al-Khoei Foundation,
the international Islamic instituted based in London and New York, opposed the stance
of the Vatican and its Muslim allies in 1995 and again in 2000.
he progressive Muslims said that while some of the issues raised by the conservative
alliance were legitimate, these should not obscure the overall framework and fundamental
basis of the Beijing document--the promotion of a clearly secular vision of women's
rights. They emphasized that the need to respect cultural differences should not
preclude universal adherence to fundamental human rights as embodied in the UN Charter
What theoretical and practical inferences can be drawn from these recent alliances
made on the basis of supra-national and supra-confessional lines in support of or
in opposition to women's rights as human rights? First, let us note which issues
and what interests have brought conservative religious Muslim and Catholic groups
The main areas of consensus among conservative Catholics and Muslims have been
specifically over the divinely ordained and biologically determined different yet
complementary masculine and feminine roles; the definition of the institution of
the family; the primacy of women's role as mothers; confinement of sexuality to marriage
(heterosexual marriage only); opposition to abortion; the central role of religion
in society, emphasis on religious values; and opposition to pornography and degrading
images of women in the media, opposition to the individualism of western culture
which would give women's individual rights priority over women's communal family
and religious duties ( Moghadam 1995; Tohidi 1996).
While the Pope was the first to organize Catholics and Muslims on these shared
beliefs, he was not alone in his creative leadership. One illustrative instance of
collaboration between the Catholic and Islamist delegations during the NGO Forum
'95 in Beijing was the workshop on "The Life and Status of the Virgin Mary"
organized by an Islamist delegation from the Islamic Republic of Iran. The underlying
proposition of this workshop was reflected in the following words:
Social scientists are now seriously questioning the moral relevancy of the models
presented in mass media. As a common model shared between the two major religions
of the world we aim to address the question of whether Mary the mother of Christ
can serve as a symbolic model for women and perhaps men.... At the threshold of the
twenty-first century, faith, chastity, sincerity, purity, moral and social commitment
and spiritual elevation are all attributes of [Mary] a flawless personality that
deserves to be considered as a model for the bewildered human race. (Gorji and Ebtekar
This was an interesting attempt on the part of the Iranian Islamists to expand
their conservative gender agenda globally across national, cultural, and confessional
lines. While at national level in Iran and amongst Shià Muslims, Islamists
have promoted Fatima (the daughter of the Prophet and the wife of the First Imam,
Ali), internationally they are willing to adopt a non-Muslim but conservative role
model for women in order to bridge sectarian gaps.
The disagreements among delegates over specific aspects of the Beijing Platform
for Action appears to be related to basic differences between modern versus pre-modern
(as explained in chapter 2 of this book) or traditional political and gender regimes.
The struggle is between those who define gender roles and sexuality on a fixed hierarchical
order often sanctioned by religious doctrinal necessity as predetermined by divine
and/or natural order, and those who view these as matters of social-historical construction
and individual choice.
One side believes in the rule of law--a law that is fixed, can be interpreted
by religious authorities only, and then obeyed by the believers. The other side believes
in a law that can be constructed and reconstructed by social change, human agency,
and the choices of citizens. These differences have their roots in different historical
eras and are a part of an ongoing historical struggle associated with the emergence
of modernity and industrialization, and the spread of modernity by globalization
since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Globalized Gender-Based Alliances
As manifested during the Beijing conferences, tremendous diversity and heterogeneity
exist in the cultural, religious, and civilizational components of each side of this
gender-based division. The alliance in support of equal rights includes most South
American, Western, African, and many Asians of Christian, Muslim, and other religions,
cultures, or civilizations.
The alliance against equal rights, too, includes Christians and Muslims of various
nations and civilizations. The cultural and religious heterogeneity of this alliance
challenges the controversial thesis of the "clash of civilizations" formulated
by Samuel Huntington (1993), according to which the principal source of conflict
in the post-cold-war world order is a cultural division between the Confucian-Islamic
and Christian western civilizations.
An important division, however, seems to be between those forces supporting democracy,
pluralism, and universal human rights, and those supporting a political order based
on religious authoritarianism, be it Islamic or Christian, a division that has a
not-so-subtle gendered nature. The contestation over a visible and articulated subordinate
status for women has in many situations become the arena of conflict symbolizing
much larger cultural, political, and ontological differences.
Gender ideology has consequently become a significant basis on which to draw the
lines of demarcation for global alliance or conflict. A broad supra-national alignment
for equal rights for women has emerged in the last fifty years as symbolized by the
United Nations conferences in Vienna on human rights in 1993, in Cairo on population
in 1994, and in Beijing on women in 1995, to form the basis of an emerging supra-national
global feminism. In reaction, a supra-national, supra-religious alliance has emerged
beginning in Cairo in an attempt to maintain and reinforce a hierarchical sex/gender
regime based on male supremacy and justified by religious beliefs.
The real picture is, of course, more complicated and nuanced than this simple
dichotomy may suggest. Other factors, especially nationality, economic and class
interests, racial, ethnic, and religious differences, cultural and political rivalries
all interplay and intersect with gender ideology and gender system.
In this book's ten chapters and one appendix (on a brief history of Catholic and
Muslim expansion), scholars from eight Muslim and Catholic communities (Iran: Mehrangiz
Kar and Nayereh Tohidi; Turkey: Ayse Gunes-Ayata; Bangladesh: Najma Chowdhury; Egypt:
Heba Raouf Ezzat; the United States of America: Jane Bayes and Susan Marie Maloney;
Ireland: Yvonne Galligan and Nuala Ryan; Spain: Celia Valiente; and Latin America:
Laura Guzman Stein) have offered their ideas and experiences.