Friday, 5 June 2009

"Religion Revisited"

This is the title of an international conference at the Gunda Werner Institute (Böll Foundation) in Berlin, with the topic Women's Rights and the Political Instrumentalisation of Religion. The two-day event is part of the 11-country UNRISD research project Religion, Politics and Gender Equality, which will publish its final report in October 2009. Tonight, the opening panel brought together José Casanova (Sociology of Religion, Georgetown University, USA), Anne Phillips (Gender Institute and Government Department, London School of Economics, UK), Farida Shaheed (Shirkat Gah Resource Centre, Pakistan) and Agnieszka Graff (Warsaw University, Poland).
The full keynote addresses by Profs. Casanova and Phillips can be downloaded in PDF form (click on the names). Casanova notes a growing de-privatisation of religion: Religion, which he defines as a "discursive reality", appears to conquer increasing space in civil society, politics and the State. He sees this as a problem only if religion encroaches on the free exercise of democracy and human rights (including women's rights - and the right to practise one's religion). The same reserve applies to secularism... Casanova calls for a clear distinction between religious institutions and religious individuals. Phillips's speech, titled Religion - Ally, Threat or just Religion? puts equal emphasis on the exercise of individual human rights. She cautions against a corporatist understanding of religion by which a few spokesmen define what "their" religion is about. Or, as Shaheed puts it: belonging to a community does not give you equality within that community. To make things more complicated, Phillips points out that a focus on individual rights comes with dilemma, too: e.g. religious Muslims in the UK may prefer to have problems related to "family law" solved by shari'a councils, which are tolerated in the UK. If the UK government prohibits them, it impedes on the religious freedoms of Muslims. But allowing these councils to function is likely to give women a less equitable deal than the secular UK personal status law... The ensuing discussion suggests that traditionally "the State" (law and law enforcement) has been most effective at limiting religious practice where it impedes the exercise of individual rights.

Shaheed notices that sexual rights appear to capture most attention among religious authorities; Casanova speaks of "feminism" as having replaced "communism" as the scariest spectre haunting traditional religious establishment. To which Phillips adds an optimistic note: in her opinion, the apparent fixation of religious authorities on sexuality indicates that gender relations are not unquestioned anymore.


Finally, a participant representing the "Romanian Green Youth" stood up to ask the panelists what role they would see for religion? Graff: equal participation in a pluralistic society. Casanova agrees, and: it's the personal experience that counts (as suggested by a feminist, "pro-choice", veiled catholic nun who tells us about activities of dissident Catholic institutions in Spain). Phillips: One principle of the society I want to live in is equality. Shaheed sees the separation of State and religion as the only way to guarantee space for everyone.

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