The Role of Religion in Gender Inequality

by | March 27, 2018


By Kyle Sittek-Lumsden

Is religion good, bad, or neutral for gender equality? Does the religiosity of individuals or countries impact gender attitudes and outcomes for women regardless of religion? Is Islam exceptional when it comes to currently promoting gender inequality? This blog will attempt to explore some evidence and issues related to this loaded topic.

These questions lay at the heart of several ongoing debates in the realm of religion and secularization. The first is an extension of Samuel Huntington’s partially orientalist ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis that places the West and Islam as adversaries. The West uses gender to condemn Islam when it is convenient. Images of veiled women were prevalent as a moral justification during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The idea that Western militaries must liberate Muslim women from their own families, communities, and religion is a dangerous implication.

Huntington posits that Islam is incompatible with democracy. While survey research has shown most Muslims prefer democracy, Inglehart and Norris make a more salient point. They claim that the divide between the Christian secular West and Islam centers around gender attitudes and outcomes. There is also a notable divide within every nation-state between the highly religious and the weakly religious or non-religious.

There has been a ‘silent revolution’ in the West since the 1960s that saw a strong shift towards sexual liberalization and changing gender roles. The major change was the evolution from the classical breadwinner family model to alternative family structures where women worked outside the home as well as permissibility of new sexual attitudes and lifestyles. While there are many ways women are still unequal in Western societies, as a group they have made rapid advances in measurable outcomes in the past 50 years. The main argument is that this process did not occur in the Muslim world at the same pace and that the high levels of religiosity of Muslim majority countries (MMCs) may serve as a long term barrier to women’s equality.

A current topical issue is of the ‘crisis of accommodation‘ and tensions within Western multiculturalism. Rising right wing populism and xenophobia in Western European nations is partially a response to increased rates of immigration from the Middle East and North Africa spurred by global conflicts. Social movements and political parties such as the PEGIDA in Germany and the National Front in France claim that Muslim immigrants are incompatible with Western values. Muslim immigration constitutes a moral panic in many European nations. The general incompatibility argument is incorrect, as Germany has been able to accept millions of migrants which will improve the future economic and demographic challenges with few tangible ill effects.

While there is convergence on many views between the populations of constitutionally secular Christian countries and MMCs, global survey data shows there are significant differences regarding views on sexual morality and gender roles. In particular, views on the acceptance of homosexuality and abortion have wide discrepancies. However, research also shows that acculturation and integration occurs for 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants and gender values eventually converge with the host society. There has been considerable debate in Western nations about veiling, polygamy, honor killings and child brides with an explicit claim or implied assumption that the issue is Islam and gender. While some of the debate constitutes a moral panic towards a foreign other, gendered attitudes and practices are more conservative among Muslim immigrants and this may be a valid tension between natives and the immigrant population.  

While it may be impossible, this blog will attempt to avoid the traps of reductionism or orientalism. Religion provides psychological and social benefits to billions. Religion has been intertwined with human development and culture and cannot be viewed in a vacuum. It is overly simplistic to blame gender inequality squarely on religion as the only cause or even as the prime cause. The most powerful driver of inequality is likely patriarchal traditions or attitudes that may lie outside the scope of religion or belief. It is also important to note that the majority of gender inequitable attitudes are held by men regardless of religion or religiosity. In spite of these facts, it is worthwhile to inquire if religion is a contributing factor for gender inequality and if it is, how it can be reformed to objectively improve the outcomes for women.

How is it possible to measure concepts such as gendered attitudes, outcomes and personal or population religiosity? Questions in the World Values Survey and European Social Survey that pertain to gender attitudes involve the acceptability of homosexuality, divorce, abortion and contraception as well as several questions regarding the proper role for men and women in society, such as whether men should get priority over women for jobs. These are issues often associated with religious rhetoric and influence. In order to measure religiosity, they use the variables for religious participation (such as daily prayer or attendance at institutions) as well as the self assessed importance of religion in daily life. Finally, measurements to gauge gender inequality outcomes can be understood by percentage of women in political representation, percentage of women in the non agricultural labour market, percentage of girls and women in all levels of school, sex ratios and literacy. The UN’s Gender Inequality Index and Gender Equity Index are both valid collective measurements of inequality within nations.

The most robust finding from this analysis is that religiosity affects attitudes about gender and sexuality. Controlling for other demographic factors, increased religiosity is correlated to increased gender inequitable values for both individuals and entire populations. This finding cuts across religions and countries. Countries grouped as Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist all fare significantly worse for women than countries grouped as non-religious. As a country becomes more secular, attitudes and outcomes for women are improved. There is also a strong correlation between gender attitudes and gender outcomes for women. If survey data from a country shows widespread gender inequitable values, the country will also have negative outcomes in education, health, labour, and political representation for women.

Within Canada, views on sexual morality and gender roles are highly influenced by religion. Those who identify with the religious ‘nones’ are far more likely to hold sexually liberal and egalitarian gender role attitudes. High levels of religiosity are statistically significant to disapproving of gay marriage, abortion and divorce and people vote for the Conservative party to implement those values into policy. The Canadian example does not show Muslim exceptionalism but does show that the main cleavage regarding gender attitudes is on religiosity rather than which particular religion. The religiosity variable also holds true for the United States. An analysis of each continental state shows that the religiosity of the state and the gender inequitable views and policies are correlated.

There does not seem to be a consensus for Muslim exceptionalism for gender inequitable attitudes among the world religions. There is contentious, politicized research on both sides. Many scholars have claimed that if other factors are properly controlled for, the Islam effect is neutral or negligible. They claim that the true causes are poverty, education, corrupt institutions, lack of information technology, pre-existing male kinship networks and colonial histories. The presence of oil in many MMCs skews the labour market in favour of female exclusion. For example, Tunisia’s manufacturing based economy creates far more financial independence and gender equitable outcomes for women compared to oil rich Algeria, which is a comparable nation in many ways. There is also a correlation to Arab ethnicity and gender inequality, as there may have developed some honorary customs for women to stay at home and for male kinship ties to dominate. Political corruption and authoritarianism, which have predominated in the Muslim world during the 20th and 21st centuries, are strong predictors of all forms of inequality. The historical context of colonialism by the West and Muslim-Christian relations has also had an overarching impact on Muslim identity.  

On the other hand, there is substantial research showing Muslim countries are particularly inequitable compared to the other major world religions. Controlling for the aforementioned variables, researchers Klingorova and Havlicek have shown that MMCs are influenced negatively by Islam. Hinduism and Buddhism have both also been shown in studies to have higher than average gender inequitable outcomes compared to Christian or non-religious countries. There is no Muslim country within the top 100 for GII or GEI. In addition to that, the World Bank predicts that MMCs will reach gender equality levels comparable to Western secular Christian countries in 150 years.

MMCs are often over 95% Muslim. In comparison, many secular Christian nations have only 60 or 70% of a majority religion. The Seguino and Schnabel studies show that the greater proportion of highly religious people in a country, the more gender inequitable outcomes and attitudes will be present. Therefore, countries with substantial amounts of non-believers or those who qualify as weakly religious and only view religion symbolically will have more gender equality. There is evidence that the intensity and practicality of religious life in MMCs is reported to be higher than Western countries. As previously mentioned, there was a sexual morality liberalization process that occurred in Western nations since the 1960s that has not occurred at the same pace in most MMCs. The oldest generations in MMCs and secular Christian nations have more comparable gender attitudes than do the youngest and oldest generations within each nation. However, the youngest generation’s sexual attitudes in MMCs resemble the oldest generation far more than the cohorts in the West.

Why would religion contribute to gender inequality? Religion influences people in ‘stealth’ ways. It can be hard to measure, but governments, communities, and families use a gendered lens to prioritize male outcomes. The decision to keep girls home from school, abort a female fetus, hire a man over a woman, and a variety of other micro interaction gendered decisions are informed and influenced by the patriarchal values espoused by organized religions. Outside of the interpersonal domain, religion also guides macro level government spending. Religious gender values and gender equitable government spending (such as tax credits for single mothers or generous maternity leave) are negatively correlated.

Another reason that religion influences gender equality is because all mainstream organized religions have been in the business of regulating female sexuality, family structures, and sexual morals. When scripture is analyzed, each religion makes normative gender role proclamations, usually about the provider and protector role for men and the nurturing and mother role for women. While often the sexism within scriptures are not directly violent to women, they promote indirect oppression as these gender roles segregate men and women to their own spheres. It has been found that the more a person believes in the literalism of their scripture, the more gender inequitable attitudes they will hold. Claiming that scripture has other worldly, non human authority serves as a powerful barrier to changing patriarchal norms within religious institutions and texts. Being critical of religious traditions on any grounds can be met with emotional opposition for believers or religious apologists.

Religious scriptures are gender inequitable as they are reflections of their time. Gender views and practices in the societies that produced the Bible, Quran, and other scripture were regressive and harmful compared to today’s standards. It can be difficult to challenge patriarchal verses without challenging the divinity and infallibility of the entire religious tradition. Women have been excluded from the direct formation of scripture and positions of authority within religious organizations, which reinforces their inferior place in society with a divine seal of approval. Even though modern scholars attempt to reinterpret sacred texts to fit the present context, the gendered violence and messages within scriptures exist without question.

The headscarf debate in multiple secular identifying nations encapsulates the religion versus gender equality issue. The headscarf is a powerful symbol depending on the lens that is used. It is either a symbol of gender inequality and incompatibility of Islam, or a symbol of cultural identity and rejection of imposed Westernization. The bodies and clothes of Muslim women are a battleground for political and religious arguments, many of which do not actually care about the condition of Muslim women but wish to promote their own beliefs or self interests.

A fundamental question is: why would women want to participate in their own oppression? Proponents of wearing headscarves in public claim they do not and that the headscarf has multiple meanings that are separate from a supposed false consciousness that some in the West imply Muslim women possess. After all, more women are believers than men. The major claim is that wearing a headscarf is a rejection of ideological Westernization and ‘secular’ values that have been enforced through colonialism. All individuals have agency and choice and when Muslim women choose to wear headscarves, they are exercising their free will.

However, choices are always constrained within the individual’s culture and time period. People are born into their religion and often have no say in negative religious practices. Early childhood socialization influences adult behavior and decisions. For pro secularists, the headscarf is the prime example of how religion is entrenched as a segregating and subjugating force for women in daily life. This means that while there may not be direct violent coercion to cover, there are very powerful family and community pressures. The act of shunning or shaming is used to get individuals leaving the norms of their faith to ‘rejoin the flock’.

Arguments can be made that women are pressured to cover their bodies because of inequitable concepts of gendered modesty, piousness, chastity, and family honor. While modesty in dress is emphasized by several major religions, the backlash for nonconformity for Muslim women may be a double standard. The message being sent is that women are under stricter codes of sexual and behavioral conduct than men. It is also implied that male and female sexuality cannot be trusted and that men must guard over women’s bodies from both other men and from themselves.

There may be several problems with this blog and line of thinking. The first is that religion is a very difficult concept to measure. For example, what exactly constitutes religion can vary greatly between individuals and groups. Indigenous and African religions are frequently excluded in analysis due to Western understandings of religion. A second is the fact that religion and culture are inseparable. No individual on Earth can analyze religion from outside of their own religious socialization. Secular orientalists have often mystified the ‘other,’ particularly Muslims, and colored the gender analysis with racism and classism. Finally, patriarchal norms and values since the agricultural revolution drive individual and group behavior and the formation of all ideas and institutions. As it is difficult or impossible to separate culture and religion, it is difficult to separate foundational patriarchal values from religion. Nevertheless, attempting to understand the role of religion in gender equality can drive influence policy to improve equality within religions.

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About Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere. You can contact Scott via email, his website, or Twitter.

2 thoughts on “The Role of Religion in Gender Inequality

  1. Delbert Godon

    There are plenty of people who where socialized outside of religion. Why does an atheist site give a platform to religious articles.

  2. Indi

    I can’t help but notice the false balance made between the evidence that Muslim women in the west are choosing to wear hijabs – sometimes against the wishes of their family – and the opinions of people that they’re just doing it out of pressure from family or community.


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