Santa Clara University


Religion and Ethics in Global Women’s Issues

1. Brief Introduction
2. A Short Introductory Course
3. Other Resource Materials
4. Recent Articles

Brief Introduction:

Religious discussions of women’s issues tend to focus on family values in the societal context and the ritual role of women in the ecclesiastical context. The major global events for the former discussion were the U.N. World Conferences on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994) and on Women (Beijing, 1995). Religious representatives took various positions at both meetings, but especially the Vatican and conservative Muslims opposed any statement than suggested the existence of a right to an abortion. In the end, when the Cairo document included the text “in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning,” these groups supported most of the final program. Catholic leadership saw the conference as a public relations fiasco, however, and appointed Harvard lawyer Mary Ann Glendon to head its delegation to the Beijing conference. Glendon sought to place emphasis on those sections of Catholic Social Thought which focused on women’s health care, equal pay for work, and economic development for women. Both Catholics and Muslims objected to the original text as too individualistically oriented, lacking an emphasis on the family as the basic unit of society.

In 2001, the head of the U.N. Population Fund, Saudi Thoraya Obaid, a graduate of Cairo’s American College for Girls, Mills College in Oakland, and Wayne State University in Detroit, consulted with Al-Azhar University to create materials that use Muslim perspectives to address reproductive issues.

Women may become clergy in mainline Protestant and Jewish denominations. Even in the liberal United States, however, they make up only about ten percent of such clergy. Olson, Crawford, and Deckman (below) discuss the interaction of religion and political action in their hectic lives. In addition, feminism has influence the theology of all major religious traditions.

A Short Introductory Course:

This section begins by contrasting two collections of articles with the above sociological and ecclesiastical contexts and approaches. Bayes and Tohidi treat the global roles of Catholicism and Islam surrounding the U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing. Olson, Crawford, and Deckman investigate the relationship of religion and politics among women ministers and rabbis in six mainline Protestant denominations and Judaism in the United States. The first book thus discusses gender-linked ideology and organization at the global level, while the second examines the lived experience of fifty-four women at the local level in four American cities. Finally, the article by Barnes discusses women religious and the movement to reestablish the bhikshuni sangra [ordained women mendicants] in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Tibet, and the Chinese tradition. Barnes focuses on the Buddhist religious institution. Women engaged in Buddhist social service in the world, on the other hand, could be studied in Huang article below.

Bayes, Jane H., and Tohidi, Nayereh, eds. Globalization, Gender, and Religion: The Politics of Women’s Rights in Catholic and Muslim Contexts. New York: Palgrave, 2001. 

This book takes the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing as its starting point. At that conference the Vatican led an alliance of some Catholic and some Muslim states as a unified lobbying block. The authors explore the various Catholic and Muslim positions at the conference and afterwords in selected countries. After Bayes and Tohidi’s two introductory chapters on the conference and on the globalizing and modernity contexts for women’s issues, the book provides chapters on:

Catholicism-the United States (Susan Marie Maloney), Ireland (Yvonne Galligan and Nuala Ryan), Spain (Celia Valiente), and Latin America (Laura Guzmán Stein).

Islam-Turkey (Ayşe Güneş-Ayata), Iran (Mehranguiz Kar), Bangladesh (Najma Chowdhury), and Egypt (Heba Raouf Ezzat).

These chapters are written from various perspectives, which allow the reader to compare not only countries, but perspectives. For example, Ezzat takes the perspective of the Islamist movement in Egypt.

Olson, Laura R., Crawford, Sue E.S., and Deckman, Melissa M. Women with a Mission: Religion, Gender, and the Politics of Women Clergy (Tuscaloosa, Al.: The University of Alabama Press, 2005).

This latter book seeks to account for the interaction of religion, gender, and politics in terms of principles, priorities, action agendas, organizational pressures, political strategies, and the general political climate in the four cities of Omaha, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and Washington, D.C. Findings are then compared with national survey data from the Cooperative Clergy Project. “The basic gist of the theoretical framework is that religion and gender shape both the women’s political principles and the organizational pressures they face. These personal principles and organizational pressures combine with the political contexts in which the women live and work to shape their political priorities, their issue agendas, and their political strategies.” (p. 25)

Barnes, Nancy J., “Buddhist Women and the Nuns’ Order in Asia,” in Queen, Christopher S., and King, Sallie B., eds. Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1996), 259-94. This article discusses women religious and the movement to reestablish the bhikshuni sangra [ordained women mendicants] in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Tibet, and the Chinese tradition. Monks and laity in the Theravada countries oppose full ordination, but have developed other women’s organizations: the dasa sil matavo in Sri Lanka, the mae ji in Thailand, and the thila-shin in Thailand. Taiwan has fostered the bhikshuni sangra as part of its Buddhist revival. The role of the male bhikshu sangra as “fields of merit” is important to both monks and laity, especially in the rural areas.

Huang, C. Jullia, “The Buddhist Tzu-Chi foundation of Taiwan,” in Queen, Christopher S., and King, Sallie B., eds. Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1996), 134-51, describes this organization founded by the Buddhist nun, Dharma Master Cheng-yen.

Other Resource Materials:

Brasher, Brenda. Godly Women: Fundamentalism and Female Power. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

Negash, Almaz, “Educating Women and Children: A Moral Imperative,” presentation for Women Leaders of the World, program of Global Women’s Leadership Network at Santa Clara University. Almaz also was one of the organizers of the Women Leaders Intercultural Forum (WLIF) conference at Columbia University, September 24-26, 2006. With its annual conferences, WLIF aims to augment women’ ability to increase the enjoyment of human security in their communities, their countries, and the entire world. The Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP), headed by convener Mary Robinson, produces culture-specific training programs for women in the Global South, especially in Muslim-majority countries.

Recent News Articles:

“Women Lead an Islamic Revival In Syria, Testing Its Secularism,” New York Times, August 29, 2006. Women, led by female scholars, sheikha, form vanguard in Islamic revival, especially among young women. Qubaisiate movement. Bashar al-Assad has allowed scarves in public schools and soldiers in mosques, but Alawite president fears too much power for Islamists. Arresting women, however, would raise public outcry.

November 6, 2009.