Coventry University: Keynote speakers

  • Dr Line Nyhagen (Loughborough University)

Religion, Gender Equality and Citizenship: A Battleground Without Scope for Common Ground?

Religion poses a dilemma and a challenge to rights-based approaches to gender equality and equal citizenship for women and men. Some feminist scholars and activists portray all religions as patriarchal and seek to deny the influence of religion in the public sphere. They view religious women who accept gender inequalities as oppressed and submissive, lacking in freedom and agency. Such strong secularists want religion to be a private matter of individual belief that has no bearing upon democratic deliberation and policy-making. They actively support the creation of a democratic deficit by silencing both progressive and conservative religious women’s voices. In representing the relationship between secularism and religion as one of conflict and collision, they also effectively silence the possibility of a common ground between secularism and religion.

The first part of my paper examines how organizations such as Women Against Fundamentalism, Southall Black Sisters, and the European Women’s Lobby frame the intersecting issues of religion, gender equality and citizenship. In the second part I present findings from a study of how Christian and Muslim women in Norway, Spain and the UK understand gender equality, feminism and citizenship. The study demonstrates that rights based approaches to citizenship and to gender equality are too narrow. Some religious women choose to foreground women’s and men’s equal value, rather than equal rights, and emphasize relationships of belonging, participation, love and care.

Finally, I will address the question of whether there is scope for building a common ground between secular and religious feminists and women.


  • Dr Niamh Reilly (National University of Ireland, Galway)

Can Secularism be Reclaimed as a Non-Oppressive Feminist Principle?

In an increasingly multicultural and globalised Europe, religious identities and actors have resurfaced as significant social, cultural, and political forces. These developments have highlighted the need to critically examine established ways of thinking about religion and secularism and, in particular, the status of women and the role of feminism in this nexus. Tensions between the claims of gender equality and the claims of religion are well documented vis-a-vis all major religions and across all regions. In Europe, the continuing moral panic about the presence of Islam, marked by a preoccupation with policing Muslim women’s dress, is a reminder of the centrality of women and gender power relations in the nexus of religion, culture and the state. In such circumstances, punitive measures directed at minority or migrant women are justified in the name of defending European “values” chief among which, it is argued, is “gender equality”. This raises profound questions for and about leading women’s (‘secular feminist’) organisations and whether  they endorse, contest or remain silent in response to such measures. In doing so, the interface of feminist theory and feminist practice comes under scrutiny and, with it, the need to interrogate the underlying premises and assumptions at work in dominant understandings of feminism and secularism, and the interrelation of the two, which militate against the ostensible purpose of feminism as an emancipatory project. Mainstream feminist responses to religion and religious actors, generally, are ensconced in a widely-accepted concept of secularism as a core tenet of a liberal, modernizing paradigm, which relegates religion entirely to the private sphere.  Sometimes such responses are inflected by radical feminist tenets, which view religion as quintessentially patriarchal and inherently harmful to women.  In contrast, this paper suggests that to begin to underpin non-oppressive feminist practice in relation to religion and gender equality in multicultural and globalised societies, mainstream women’s organisations must (re)engage with a more relevant repertoire feminist theorising. This includes feminist critiques of the Enlightenment critique of religion and feminist projects at the critical edges of the Enlightenment tradition.  Ultimately, this paper explores the prospects for reclaiming secularism as a non-oppressive, feminist principle, and what might be required of mainstream women’s organisations and feminist practice in this context.


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