5-6 JUNE 2018 / Tour & Taxis / Brussels

What’s Religion got to do with it?

Debating the Good and the Not so Good about Religion and Gender Equality

Special Event
Wednesday, June 6, 2018
09:30 to 11:00

The Session is envisaged as a debate between two sets of speakers. Both answer the question: What has Religion Got to do with Gender Equality? One set speaks about how religion and religious dynamics have supported gender equality. The other set of speakers answer how religion and religious dynamics have been part of the harmful baggage against gender equality.
The Debate serves to address some of the puzzling issues that have plagued development cooperation and human rights for decades. It offers an opportunity to stimulate an open and reasoned exchange between differing worldviews which dominate our current global civic polity and challenges policy makers and development practitioners, wishing to understand how religions matter and how to deal with the emerging contending ideas.

Key points

  • Religion matters to most people in the world, for good and bad influencing how gender roles and relations are understood and practiced. Religious actors play a key role in shaping popular perceptions of gender equality.
  • Advocates argued that .cooperation with religious leaders, organisations and communities can encourage gender-sensitive interpretations of religious scripture and empower marginalized voices.
  • Critics point to the danger of legitimizing patriarchal structures and practices through enhanced cooperation with religious actors. Religious language is powerful and religious leadership is often male-dominated, and even the inclusion of female voices is no guarantee against patriarchal interpretations.
  • Development agencies need faith literacy in order to navigate this complex field, to be able to speak to – and challenge – religious actors, and to ensure religious diversity in cooperation.


Religion matters. A Pew Research Center Poll in 2012 showed that 8 out of 10 people worldwide considered themselves religious. Religion influences the ways in which people understand and practice gender roles and relations. For that single reason, policy makers and practitioners in development agencies need to take religion seriously when working to promote gender equality. To try to speak to people in a language that does not take religion into account is to not speak to them at all.

The nexus between religion and gender equality is contentious and complex. Religion can be – and has historically been – a source of motivation for engagement in struggles for justice and social welfare. All over the world, religious leaders, organisations and individuals find inspiration in religion to fight for women’s empowerment and gender equality. At the same time, religion is also a source of strong and persistent resistance to gender equality. Religious practices and structures are often highly patriarchal, dominated by male leadership, and coined in a language that legitimizes discrimination, exclusion, and even violence against women, LGBTQI people and other marginalized groups and individuals.

Religious actors play a key role in shaping and influencing perceptions and practices of gender relations. As such, some argue that cooperation with these actors presents great potential. Cooperation with religious leaders can encourage gender-sensitive re-interpretations of religious scripture. Through a gradual approach, faith-based organisations such as World Vision and Islamic Relief have facilitated substantial shifts in (male) religious leaders’ conceptions of e.g. gender-based violence. Others – such as Circle of Concerned African Theologians – engage with female theologians and laypeople, encouraging experience-based interpretations of scripture. Through this, they not only point to the existence of alternative religious interpretations of gender relations; they also contribute more broadly to creating awareness of the historical specificity and contextuality of "male-dominated" religious dogma.

While acknowledging the importance of engaging with religion in efforts to promote gender equality, others point to the inherent risks in cooperation. Gender equality does not give itself to compromise, thus making no room for gradual approaches. In the long run, they argue, cooperation with (male) religious leaders risks legitimizing deep-seated patriarchal structures and practices. This is not necessarily prevented by the inclusion of female religious leaders: women are not a homogeneous group, and there are many women who actively promote patriarchal structures and practices. Furthermore, religious leadership and scripture may not be the most relevant entry point to changing popular perceptions and practices. Religiosities come in a multitude of different ways, and lived religion may be something very different from formal religious institutions.



Is religion good or bad for gender equality? There is no easy answer: Religion can be both a force for good and bad in the promotion of gender equality, and there are both potentials and risks involved in cooperating with religious actors. Regardless of one’s stand on the question, however, there can be little doubt that religion must be taken into consideration in development agencies’ efforts to promote gender equality. Today this is an "obligation" for policy makers.

This obligation to engage requires faith literacy on the part of development practitioners and policy makers, encouraging a better understanding of how, when and why religion matters to people’s lives and facilitating meaningful cooperation with religious actors. But it also requires literacy on the part of religious actors in terms of knowledge of human rights, and a willingness on the part of development agencies to uphold these principles when challenged by patriarchal discourses.

Cooperation with religious actors cannot be narrowed down to conventional religious leaders. As important as they might be, they are not the only – or even most legitimate or representative – spokespersons of religious individuals, communities, traditions and values. Reflecting the multitude of different religious actors, development agencies must support efforts and initiatives that bring diverse voices to the table, including – but not limited to – faith-based organisations, representatives of the LGBTQI community and women theologians.


Organised by


Azza Karam
UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund)
Jan Figel
Special Envoy for Promotion of Freedom of Religion Outside the EU
European Commission
Stefano Manservisi
European Commission - DG for International Cooperation and Development (DEVCO)
Christo Greyling
Senior Director: Faith - Advocacy and External Engagement
World Vision
Nontando Hadebe
Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians
Rumee Ahmed
Associate Dean in the Faculty of Arts and Associate Professor of Islamic Law
The University of British Columbia
Evelyne Paradis
Executive Director
ILGA-Europe (European LGBTI Association)
Ken Kitatani
Director of the Forum 21 Institute, ordained minister of Sukyo Mahikari
Forum 21 Institute
Nazila Ghanea
Associate Professor in International Human Rights Law
University of Oxford