Human Rights Without Frontiers
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Are women's rights and religion inherently at odds with each other?

This report by HRWF addresses early, forced and child marriages, female genital mutilation, violence against women, ‘honour’ killing, public dress codes, and reproductive rights. Through these various violations of women’s rights, the report explores the ways in which religious texts, practices, cultural influences, and patriarchal systems influence or motivate the infringement of these rights; and to discover and highlight the powerful potential that religion and religious leaders have to help guarantee women’s rights around the world.


In hopes to discover and highlight the powerful potential that religion and religious leaders have to help guarantee women’s rights around the world, this report examines current tensions that exist between women’s rights and some interpretations of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish doctrines.

This report addresses early, forced and child marriages, female genital mutilation, violence against women, ‘honour’ killing, public dress codes, and reproductive rights. Through these various facets of women’s rights, the report explores the ways in which religious texts, practices, cultural influences, and patriarchal systems influence or motivate violations of these rights.

The Abrahamic religions as organized systems have always been led by men and have perpetuated a patriarchal culture that can be questioned in the light of the current human rights culture. Women have the right to gender equality, and some women reject the dominance of men and patriarchal social systems over their persons, claiming autonomy over choices on issues exclusive to their sex.

Women’s rights and freedoms are guaranteed under international law and should be protected over social, cultural, or even legal norms when they result in gender discrimination and prejudices. Nearly all international human rights treaties prohibit sex-based discrimination. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights bans any act of discrimination based on sex and gender. “Equal rights for men and women” is a fundamental principle of the United Nations Charter (1945), of the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights (2000),  and it is also mentioned in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is a key treaty for the rights of women as it guarantees women’s de facto equality in all domains; 189 States are parties to the treaty.  Importantly, CEDAW indicates certain areas where discrimination against women should be eradicated.

Article 1 of CEDAW specifies that the expression ‘discrimination against women’ implies:

“any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women (...) on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”

Using this definition, CEDAW requires all state parties

“to take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women.” 

CEDAW Article 5(a) expects State parties to take any suitable measure to modify any

“social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary to all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.”

With the ratification of CEDAW, state parties have committed to abolish all customs that negatively affect rights to gender equality and have agreed that gender equality is to be valued over cultural norms.

Reservations expressed by State parties, however, limit the scope and implementation of these treaties, widening the distance between international norms and their fulfilment on a national scale. This is the case in a number of Muslim majority countries where Shari’a is the sole or main source of the law, and CEDAW received more reservations than any other human rights treaty. As a result, such reservations almost nullify the spirit and the effect of the treaty.

This report seeks to promote a dialogue between defenders of women’s rights and religious leaders and institutions in order to reduce and eliminate violations of women’s rights in the name of religion.

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