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Is Religion Good for Women?

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
March 3, 2013
Tony Blair Faith Foundation


Around the world, and throughout history, religion has had a strong impact on the rights and status of women. Religious arguments have often been used to restrict women's rights and actions, to maintain women as subservient to men, and at times to reinforce and justify harmful cultural practices. But religion has also been a force for positive change. Recognizing its moral influence and role as cultural touchstone, reformers have long turned to religious arguments to generate support – among men and women – for an expansion of female educational, social, economic, and political opportunities. Religion can both impede change, and facilitate it.

Today, religiously-oriented debates that affect the status and rights of women occur across various societies. In particular, contentious disagreements about women's access to reproductive health and family planning are often infused with religious arguments. In the Philippines, for example, the Catholic Church has undertaken particularly active efforts to block access to contraceptives, putting the Church in opposition to many of the faithful. (Around 70 percent of people in the Philippines favored a bill that would extend access to contraceptives and support the teaching of sex education in schools). When the parliament of the Philippines finally passed legislation in December 2012 to increase access to contraceptives, it was in spite of the strongest objections from the Catholic Church.

Friction over the appropriate role for women in society also plays out – often with tremendous urgency and even violence – in conservative Muslim-majority countries, where women's rights remain deeply contentious political and ideological issues, often cloaked within a religious discourse. The Taliban's terror tactics against girls' education in Afghanistan and Pakistan are one of the most extreme manifestations of this battle. With devastating results for society, the Taliban uses religious arguments to justify their harsh practices.

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