For the attention of:
The Chair and members of the Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)
The Chair and members of the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media, PACE
The Chair and members of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, PACE
Coventry Statement on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Resolution 1464 “Women and Religion in Europe”
To members of the Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
September 9, 2015
The undersigned participants of the international workshop: “Is secularism bad for women? Women, religion and multiculturalism in contemporary Europe” (sponsored by the International Society for the Sociology of Religion)1 wish to register the following concerns:
1 This is a workshop series led by Dr. Kristin Aune (Coventry University), Prof.Mia Lӧvheim (Uppsala University), Dr. Terhi Utriainen (University of Helsinki), Dr. Alberta Giorgi (Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra; GRASSROOTSMOBILISE, Eliamep) and Dr.Teresa Toldy (Fernando Pessoa University, Porto; Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra) (https://womenreligionandsecularism.wordpress.com/). Three workshops are taking place in 2015 in Uppsala, Coventry and Lisbon, each attended by 30-60 participants from across Europe, who are academic experts in religion and gender or representatives of women’s, policy or religious organizations. The workshops explore the relation between the role of religion in women’s lives and gender equality. While some scholars and political actors argue that a form of political secularism is the best way to ensure gender equality, others consider secularism a bad political arrangement for religious people, because it excludes them from the political and public sphere. The workshops debate this, taking forward discussions initiated by Susan Moller Okin’s 1997 essay ‘Is multiculturalism bad for women?’ The workshops ask: how can European societies secure religious women’s freedom and flourishing? What political arrangements offer the most to those who are religious and female? The Coventry Statement reflects discussions at the Coventry workshop (June 30-July 1st 2015) resulting from the key-note entitled “Religion, Gender Equality and Citizenship: A Battleground without Scope for Common Ground” delivered by Dr. Line Nyhagen (Loughborough University). The statement drafting process was led by Dr. Niamh Reilly (NUI Galway) and Dr. Kristin Aune.
1. We note with concern that Resolution 1464 (2005) on “Women and Religion in Europe” contains many unfounded assertions that encourage an intolerant understanding of secularism and perpetuate retrogressive perceptions of women only as victims of religion. As such, Resolution 1464 militates against achieving the desired, positive balance between the rights of women to freedom of religion and expression and to equality on gender and other grounds.
2. Overwhelmingly, Resolution 1464 discusses religion as a negative and as a threat. It notes that religion continues “to play an important role” in the lives of many women in Europe but makes the blanket assertion that “this influence is rarely benign”. This is at odds with much sociological research, which documents the diversity and complexity of women’s lived experiences of religion in different contexts and in different religious and spiritual practices.
3. Resolution 1464 unduly singles out “religiously motivated gender stereotypes” as playing a primary role in the promotion of “discriminatory treatment of women by men and even violence at
their hands.” In doing so, contrary to previous resolutions of the Parliamentary Assembly2, Resolution 1464 incorrectly and irresponsibly encourages the misperception that “honour crimes”, “forced marriages” and “female genital mutilation” are rooted in religion, especially Islam.
2 Resolution 1247 (2001) on Female genital mutilation and Resolution 1327 (2003) on So-called “honour crimes”
3 PACE “Women and religion in Europe Report” (Doc. 10670) (Rapporteur: Mrs Rosmarie Zapfl-Helbling), 16 September 2005
4. On the issue of Muslim women’s head covering, we note with concern that the Report upon which Resolution 1464 is based, appears to be heavily influenced by a limited, particular view on the matter, which does not appreciate that the meanings of religious symbols vary with subjective positions, contexts and time. The author states: “The reason why I find it so difficult to respect the headscarf as a religious symbol like any other is that there is so much baggage that comes with it, a sense of submission to the control by men of a girl or woman’s destiny and the way she leads her life.”3
5. We further note with deep concern that all nine provisions of the call to action Paragraph 7 of the resolution are directed at containing the presumed threats posed to women by religion and none recognise women as subjects and agents in their own lives. There is no provision to encourage member states to consult with and listen to what women have to say about “women and religion in Europe”. Rather, it addresses women only as objects of top-down protection measures. This flawed and potentially harmful understanding of what it means to enforce women’s rights and gender equality is exemplified in sub-paragraph 7.1.1, which calls on Council of Europe member states:
[To put in place and enforce] specific and effective policies to fight all violations of women’s right to life, to bodily integrity, freedom of movement and free choice of partner, including so-called “honour” crimes, forced marriage and female genital mutilation, wherever and by whomever they are committed, however they are justified, and regardless of the nominal consent of the victim; this means that freedom of religion is limited by human rights (emphasis added)
Revising the latter position, we note the ECHR judgment S.A.S. v. France, which establishes that concerns about upholding gender equality are not permissible grounds for a face veil ban where women defend their right to wear such clothing.
6. In contrast to Resolution 1464, we welcome the more nuanced approach to women and religion contained in subsequent PACE resolutions, recommendations and reports. In particular, we commend the Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination Recommendation 1838 (2008) on “Empowering women in a modern, multicultural society”, especially by developing “programmes aimed at promoting active participation by women in intercultural and interreligious dialogue, including in events held by the Council of Europe on the subject” (paragraph 6.2).
7. We further welcome the more complex account of women and religion contained in Resolution 1743 (2010) on “Islam, Islamism and Islamophobia in Europe.” We note the detailed and considered discussion contained in the Explanatory Memorandum provided by the Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination with respect to the draft Resolution 1743, in which it is observed that:
[By] punishing women for their outfits through bans, penalties, scornful statements, we are not serving the liberation of women whom we assume are coerced by men…. Facilitating
their involvement by accommodating their needs and respecting their choices will provide them opportunities to integrate in the larger society. 4
4 PACE “Islam, Islamism and Islamophobia in Europe”, Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men
(Rapporteur: Nursuna Memecan). Available at: http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-en.asp?fileid=12896&lang=en
8. However, we are concerned that an underlying bias persists, exemplified in Resolution 1464, which construes religion in negative terms and pre-emptively denies women’s agency in religion. We urge the Committee to continue to develop and support an approach that seeks to attain a positive balance between the rights of women to freedom of religion and expression and to equality on gender and other grounds, wherein the voices of diverse women and context-specific, evidence-based research are paramount.
9. Finally, we ask that where Resolution 1464 is cited in future resolutions, recommendations or reports of the Parliamentary Assembly, that criticisms of its content will be noted, and that Recommendation 1838 (2008), Resolution 1743 (2010) and the associated Explanatory Memorandum of the Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination should also be cited in tandem with Resolution 1464 as a corrective measure.
Shahnaz Akhter, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick
Farah Ali, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Derby
Dr. Kristin Aune, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University
Saleema Burney, Faculty of Languages and Cultures, SOAS, University of London
Dr. Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University
Revd. Bonnie Evans-Hills, Church of England Diocese of St. Albans
Dr. Sarah F. Fischer, Political Science Department, Marymount University, Virginia
Alaya Forte, Centre for Gender Studies, SOAS, University of London
Katie Gaddini, Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge
Dr. Alberta Giorgi, Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra and GRASSROOTSMOBILISE, Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy
Kavita Gupta, Women’s Zone web forum
Bridget Harper, Coventry Women’s Voices
Jane Hodgson, Department of Sociology, London School of Economics and Political Science
Dr. Sarah J. Jahn, Center for Religious Studies, Ruhr-University Bochum
Dr. Lois Lee, Religion and Political Theory Centre, University College London
Prof. Mia Lӧvheim, Department of Theology, Uppsala University
Prof. Jill Marshall, School of Law, University of Leicester
Dr. Eva Midden, Department of Media and Culture Studies, Utrecht University
Dr. Line Nyhagen, Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University
Davinder Prasad JP, British Organisation for People of Asian-origin
Dr. Niamh Reilly, Centre for Global Women’s Studies, School of Political Science and Sociology, National University of Ireland, Galway
Bettina Sirén, Department of Literature, History of Ideas and Religion, University of Gothenburg
Revd. Pam Smith, Church of England Diocese of Oxford
Dr. Teresa Toldy, Fernando Pessoa University, Porto and Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra
Dr. Terhi Utriainen, Department of Study of Religions, University of Helsinki