Forum: Religion, Security, and Gender: An Unholy Trinity

In: Public Anthropologist
Maria Alcidi Research Fellow, Max Planck Foundation for International Peace and the Rule of Law, Heidelberg, Germany

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Alessandra Gribaldo Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Dipartimento di Studi Linguistici e Culturali, Università degli Studi di Modena e Reggio Emilia, Italy

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Elisabetta Grande Professor of Comparative Law, Università del Piemonte Orientale “Amedeo Avogadro”, Alessandria, Italy

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Carmeliza Rosario Post-doctoral Researcher, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Bergen, Norway

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The paper explores the interplay between religion, security, and gender. By employing a broad analytical security framework ranging from warfare violence against women to violence in the domestic sphere, the paper supports the view that countries with heightened rates of gender inequalities and violence are more insecure and prone to conflict. The paper also questions the role played by religions enforcing hierarchical gender constructs in preserving women’s security and protecting them from gender-based violence. Against this background, the paper maintains that deferring the realisation of women’s security until a comprehensive reform has taken place within the religious precinct must not be an option. Such an approach would signify the capitulation of the egalitarian human rights paradigm. Instead, women’s roles as agents of change within religious institutions should be supported, and the proactive engagement of states to encourage religious institutions to reform and embrace an egalitarian ethos should be promoted. Only in this way will the interplay of religion, security, and gender truly benefit the pursuit of women’s security.


The paper explores the interplay between religion, security, and gender. By employing a broad analytical security framework ranging from warfare violence against women to violence in the domestic sphere, the paper supports the view that countries with heightened rates of gender inequalities and violence are more insecure and prone to conflict. The paper also questions the role played by religions enforcing hierarchical gender constructs in preserving women’s security and protecting them from gender-based violence. Against this background, the paper maintains that deferring the realisation of women’s security until a comprehensive reform has taken place within the religious precinct must not be an option. Such an approach would signify the capitulation of the egalitarian human rights paradigm. Instead, women’s roles as agents of change within religious institutions should be supported, and the proactive engagement of states to encourage religious institutions to reform and embrace an egalitarian ethos should be promoted. Only in this way will the interplay of religion, security, and gender truly benefit the pursuit of women’s security.

Religion, Security, and Gender: An Unholy Trinity?


In the name of religion people dance, act, make music, fight wars,

abuse some, liberate others, seek to effect justice, reinforce prejudice,

make love …1

In 2018, I had the honour of leading the Italian delegation’s team tasked with negotiating the Decision on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women at the Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (hereinafter osce).2 Before reaching out to states’ diplomatic delegations, I was warned about the divisive nature of some topics. Among them, three stood out: the concepts of “hegemonic masculinity” and “patriarchy,” and the idea of “gender-based violence as an early-warning sign of conflict.” In the course of the negotiations other roadblocks materialized, some of which turned into full-fledged redlines during the negotiations.3 None of the three abovementioned concepts made it into the final text. On the bright side, the acknowledgement of the inequality between men and women as a root cause of violence against women, which was strenuously contested throughout all the negotiations, was finally accepted and represents one of the passages of the decision of which I am most proud:

Recognizing that inequality between men and women is a root cause of violence against women and girls, and that, in particular, discrimination and economic inequalities, including lack of economic independence, can increase women’s vulnerability to violence.4

The pushback I faced during the osce negotiations, particularly in regard to concepts linking security, religion, and gender, was enormous. The research leading to this paper helped me understand the reasons behind such resistance. It also unveiled the symbolic power of words such as “patriarchy” and “gender equality,” which resonated as a threat for some diplomats to their own set of beliefs and to their country’s national and religious values.

The paper is structured in three parts. Part i brings together security and gender to describe the pervasive impact of hierarchical gender constructs on the security of both individuals and states. It addresses the following questions: how can the concept of security be (re)defined so that it is reflective of the experiences of women, including in everyday life and beyond the conflict setting? Is there a correlation between gender inequality, intimate partner violence, and the security of individuals, communities, and the state? Embracing a holistic approach, in this part I employ an analytical framework that considers the security of women as a continuum concept ranging from warfare violence against women to violence in the domestic realm. Part ii brings together religion and gender to expose the religious underpinnings of hierarchical gender constructs. It addresses the following questions: what are the prevailing roles assigned to men and women by the scriptures? What roles have women played in the Church and why is the issue of female ordination so passionately vetoed by the Catholic Church? Is the theology of complementarianism a way to constrain women in roles that may hamper their security? This part looks at hierarchical gender constructs, particularly within Catholicism, and how they may render women more vulnerable to intimate partner violence. Part iii attempts to reconcile security, religion, and gender by highlighting that a radical religious reform embracing a full egalitarian ethos is the necessary precondition for the achievement of women’s equality, peace, and security. It addresses the following questions: how do religions react to the quest for egalitarian gender roles? How do religious leaders approach intimate partner violence? How do states react to the quest by religious groups to maintain hierarchical gender roles in the family? How are states positioned towards the implementation of international law’s obligations in the areas of gender equality within the family? And finally, how can feminist theologies help redress a history of religious discrimination towards women? The paper concludes by arguing that the state should promote a gender egalitarian ethos within religions as a gateway to the pursuit of women’s equality, peace, and security. If the ethical and legal arguments in favour of gender equality are not sufficiently persuasive, the author hopes that the prospect of building more secure and resilient states and societies for all may help garner consensus around the egalitarian model.


Having lived the first 25 years of my life in a place known for its “insecurity” and having worked for the subsequent 20 years in conflict and post-conflict settings, with this paper I am attempting to deconstruct the categories of security and religion through the lens of my own experience as well as those of the women I have encountered in my personal and professional life. In so doing, however, I am conscious of the risks deriving from an analysis that is based in part on anecdotical observation and in part on the intersection of scholarship in academic fields as diverse as international relations, gender studies, and theology. But haven’t feminists reclaimed the possibility of debating theories, including outside the realm of “testable hypotheses?”5 I am also aware that the sample of observations and scholarship I use in support of my thesis may well betray one of the very premises of feminism, namely, its focus on the plurality of women’s experiences.6 Scholars have stressed that gender constructs are always “in relation” to other categories, and that the experiences of women vary substantially, including on the basis of their age, race, culture, economic wealth, ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and other variables.7 Therefore, despite my determination to adopt an intersectional approach, the paper is heavily influenced by my own experience as a white, middle-class, cisgender woman and it cannot do justice to the various experiences women face around the world in relation to religion and security.8 By the same token, while queer individuals’ experiences of security threats as a result of religious edicts share certain commonalities with the experiences of women, the paper makes only sporadic reference to the experiences of queer people. Similarly, while men have also suffered from being constrained to religiously ascribed gender roles, I largely focus, in this paper, on expounding the impact of these roles on the security of women, including on the basis of my own experience of insecurity.

The paper utilizes the term “religion” for the most part as an institutional construct to refer to “formalized rule-based bodies, hierarchical in nature, promoting prescribed doctrines of faith and seeking to regulate the morality of their believers and sometimes, of nonbelievers.”9 No doubt these institutions play a key role, including in the promotion of the security and well-being of women in conflict and post-conflict settings, something I have witnessed directly on the job. However, I do not intend with this paper to set up a symmetrical account of the positive and negative impacts of religions on the security of women. Instead, the focus of the analysis is confined to scrutinizing the impact of hierarchical gender constructs, deriving from uncritical interpretation of the scriptures, on the security and well-being of women.

The paper focuses on Christianity and on Catholicism in particular, given my direct exposure and experience as a committed believer during the formative years of my childhood and youth. Certainly, each of the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, has its peculiar history of dealing with gender constructs. Still, they all, albeit in different ways, “sacralise the male godhead and the patriarchal family.”10 I argue, therefore, that the main arguments and conclusions of this paper may be susceptible to broader application, and I hope that other scholars will use the paper to further the development of this subject.

part i. Security and Gender: Reconceptualizing Security as a Continuum Concept

Revolution at home, against the Mubarak in the bedroom, is the hardest. Because the Mubaraks of the streets and the Mubaraks of the presidential palaces all head home. Since men act like they own public spaces, women are pushed into the house, believing they’ll be safe there. But we’re not safe at home. We’re not safe anywhere.11

Feminist scholarship on security developed as a reaction to “the almost exclusively male domain” of international relations, thus providing a gendered reading of the field.12 It is in the context of armed conflicts and conflict resolution that the impact of a feminist analysis of security manifested its most tangible results. The adoption in 2000 by the United Nations Security Council of the policy framework known as the Women, Peace and Security agenda, including its landmark Resolution no. 1325 and nine subsequent resolutions,13 represents the most remarkable achievement of feminist security studies attesting to major developments in the field of applied peace and security research. The resolution’s main tenets include the commitment to increase women’s participation in peacemaking and security practices and the acknowledgement of the unique experiences of women in situations of conflict, including the framing of rape as a warfare tool and its legal recognition as a war crime, a crime against humanity, and a constitutive act with respect to genocide. By applying the gender lens to its original focus on conflict and security, feminist studies, therefore, ultimately entered the research field of security and international relations more broadly.14

Feminist Contribution to Security Studies beyond the 1325 UN Resolution on Women, Peace and Security

In parallel, feminist scholars have engaged with the debate around the unit of analysis and the research method.15 By framing the very concept of security in multidimensional terms, from the perspective of “humans” as vulnerable to physical, structural, and ecological forms of violence, scholars have pushed the boundaries of security studies beyond the traditional “state-centred” politico-military realm of “conflict” and “peace.” The key point of “human security” is the focus on the most vulnerable and marginalized members of societies. Certainly, conflicts and war represent the utmost threat to humans’ survival. Yet a systemic lack of food, shelter, education, and health care, as well as environmental degradation, can likewise impact on the safety and well-being of individuals.16 The osce is among a number of organizations that embrace a comprehensive approach to security encompassing politico-military, economic-environmental, and human dimensions. Such a holistic focus on the security and safety of human beings has been a predominant theme in feminist studies, not least because in many areas of the world the state, rather than safeguarding its people’s safety, is itself a source of violence.17 Data are abundant on the role played by states’ security policies in rendering the lives of vulnerable people more insecure.18

The idea of “human security” represents, therefore, a significant development in international relations and security studies, one that challenges the traditional definition of security revolving around the protection of the state and “its sovereignty within its borders” from external threats.19 Feminist scholars in international relations have switched the focus, instead, to the investigation of “the lives of women within states … in order to change or reconstitute them.”20 When examining what the concept of human security means for women in particular, it is paramount to look at the quality of the relationships taking place in the private sphere. Evidence shows that the “home” represents the site of the greatest insecurity for women.21 Research and studies consistently demonstrate that although women can be perpetrators of intimate partner violence,22 and that violence occurs in same-sex partnerships as well, most often the perpetrators of intimate partner violence in heterosexual relations are male intimate partners or male ex-partners.23 Globally, one in three women have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, or sexual violence by a non-partner. At a national level, the figure can be as high as 70 per cent.24 With significant geographical disparities, six out of every ten murdered women (58 per cent) are killed by an intimate partner or another family member.25 Women make up 82 per cent of victims of homicide perpetrated exclusively by an intimate partner, while men are killed at the rate of 18 per cent by an intimate partner.26 These data combined reveal a picture of the home as a “battlefield” for women. Against this background, the central feminist contribution in reconceptualizing the idea of human security is to frame

violence against women on a continuum ranging from rape as a weapon of war to violence in the domestic realm (such as femicide or wife battering) and abuse in interpersonal relationships, including sexual harassment or homophobic violence.27

The coercive experiences women encounter at the hands of their male partners show similar features in times of war and peace.28 An expanded understanding of human security reverses the otherwise “simplistic and reductionist dichotomy between war and peace.”29 It imposes a significant shift in security studies, traditionally focused on the paradigm “conflict,” “peace,” and “aftermath.” When the ubiquity of violence against women is factored in, it appears that “there is no aftermath” for women.30 The shift of analysis occurs both “in time” and “in space.” It requires security studies to move away from a state-centred focus on politics, weapons, and wars to a human-centred focus on the “personal, the immediate, the everyday”31 experience of insecurity, oppression, and fear, including from gender-based violence perpetrated at home.32 This is because “the home is a boot camp; there is no better training ground for political violence and instability than lived domestic terror.”33 Scholars have identified commonalities between the emotional registers used as military tactics and those used in intimate partner violence: “military strategy is also-intimate as much as domestic violence is also-political.”34 A truly inclusive human security, therefore, can only be built on the premise of recognizing the personal as political.35 This is a key point of the feminist critique: to challenge the gendered notions of the “public vs private dichotomy,” characterized by the masculinization of the former and the feminization of the latter in line with a patriarchal “protector vs protected” paradigm.36 This fictitious divide has contributed to making invisible and irrelevant, for the purpose of security studies, the experiences of intimate partner violence and of gender inequalities, as the next section demonstrates.37

The Gendered Dimension of the Theory of Violence

The previous section contended that women’s lives can be insecure even though, on the surface, a state’s security appears to be sound. In this section, I take this argument further to argue that this dissociation between the security of women, particularly in the private space, and the security of the state as a whole is fictitious.

The correlation between gender equality (and the lack thereof)38 and the overall security of states and communities has been the subject of scholarly research,39 including among evolutionary theorists.40 This correlation has not, however, gained the same visibility as others in the field of security studies. For example, the correlation between ethnic diversity and the security of a state has been extensively explored and is well popularized among the general public.41

Research has demonstrated that gender inequalities, including those prevailing in the private sphere, especially when they intersect with other inequalities,42 can be a predictor for both interstate and intrastate conflicts.43 Higher levels of gender equality within states are associated with peace and with lower levels of gender-based violence perpetrated during international crises.44 Conversely, a higher level of gender inequality within a state appears to be a predictor for political violence,45 internal conflict,46 as well as for a more aggressive attitude by a state during international crises.47

Feminist security studies have provided a gendered reading of the categories of direct, structural, and cultural violence. Johan Galtung defines direct violence as a single violent event, structural violence as a systematic institutionalized exploitation that becomes part of a given social order, and cultural violence as the justification and legitimization of structural violence through the symbolism of culture.48 In other words, “cultural violence makes direct and structural violence look, even feel right – or at least not wrong.”49 Religions and ideologies are among the most powerful symbolic spheres of human existence that characterize cultures. To put it in the words of Frances Raday, “culture is a macroconcept, which subsumes religion as an aspect of culture.”50 The three monotheisms, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, function as institutionalized forms of culture.

Applying a gender lens to Galtung’s theory of violence, it is plausible to posit that hierarchical gender constructs, including those that are sustained by religious dicta, operate as a manifestation of cultural violence which, in turn, legitimizes gender-based violence as a form of structural violence.51 The Council of Europe Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence recognizes in its Preamble “the structural nature of violence against women as gender-based violence, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men.” Below I will delve at length into the link between gendered constructs and conflict, but here it suffices to say that when masculine identities are framed as provider, protector, and fighter while feminine identities are framed as caregiver, docile recipient, and victim, women become entrapped in conditions of subjugation and vulnerability. When feminine and masculine roles are dogmatically defined with no room for dissent, a violent paradigm may ensue, one that is susceptible to morphing into political violence or conflict.52 Gender inequality, rooted in hierarchical gender roles, represents a fertile breeding ground for direct physical and psychological violence, whereas it is, in and of itself, an expression of structural violence. Gender inequality as disparity in power, opportunities, and justice is predicated on a paternalist ideology, sustained by religions, which uses the “sweetest persuasion” grounded in love and conditioned to a status of compliance.53 If the subordinate wishes to alter the power relation, alternative persuasive methods, including physical and psychological violence, may be employed.54 In societies characterized by unequal gender roles, “partner violence may be seen as a justified form of punishment.”55 Intimate partner violence, therefore, accomplishes a performative goal as an instrument to retain social control over women who express their dissent.56

The crucial leap here is to recognize that such violence, which for millennia has been relegated to the realm of the private, epitomizes a break in the societal structure that produces disruptive consequences far beyond the walls of the “home.” The theory of violence elaborated by Galtung provides “a framework within which violence against women can be seen in the larger context of societal violence.”57 Feminist research has established a correlation between “domestic violence and international warfare as … part of a single complex of violence.”58 This conclusion is confirmed by social learning psychologists studying the impact of long-term exposure to anti-social behaviour. Where violence against women is normalized within the family, men are socialized into adopting violent behaviours including in the public sphere, which, in turn, reduces their resistance to engaging in political violence,59 terrorism,60 and war.61 Because of its structural nature and its far-reaching consequences within and beyond the private sphere, gender-based violence can be described, in and of itself, as a form of violent conflict.62 Systemic and widespread gender-based violence is an indicator that conflict is already happening rather than an indicator of future conflict. Reconstructed in this way, all forms of gender-based violence are “fundamentally a manifestation of the connection between war, militarism and the discrimination against women.”63 The interplay among these areas becomes apparent, as the next section demonstrates, when looking at the predominant gendered constructs that characterize war, nationalism, and militarism.

Patriarchy and Hegemonic Masculinity in the Contexts of Militarism and Nationalism

Patriarchy reflects the idea of a system (political, social, economic, religious, and cultural) that is based on the dominance of men.64 In ecclesiological terms, patriarchy designates each of the five male-headed highest institutions ruling the Church prior to the first Schism, which in 1054 separated the Roman Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Church with the excommunication of the Patriarch of Constantinople.65 Against this background, it should not have come as a surprise to me that the representative of the Holy See, during the osce negotiations referred to at the beginning of this paper, categorically rejected the inclusion of this term in the text as one of the root causes of violence against women. “Christianity,” the Holy See representative argued, “is built on the Patriarchy, we can’t challenge this institution.”

Feminist studies have pointed to patriarchal gender relations as the “root causes” of militarism and war.66 Patriarchy is per se a manifestation of structural violence when looked at through the lens of Galtung’s theory of violence, as mentioned in the previous section.67 Furthermore, the intersection of patriarchal gender relations with imbalanced economic and ethno-national power relations represents a strong predictor of conflicts.68 Gender constructs of masculinities and femininities, such as the one that patriarchy generates, “sustain militarism as a system of beliefs and practices that regard war as normal and inevitable.”69 As a branch of security studies, militarism has also been enriched by the contribution of feminist scholars. Their critique first challenged the idea of “war” as an “event” rather than as a “presence”: “neglecting the omnipresence of militarism allows the false belief that the absence of declared armed conflicts is peace.”70 The research on gendered militarism analyses how the archetypes of militarist narratives are influenced by gender constructs. It appears that militarism epitomizes the “hegemonic masculinity” that permeates the society,71 a concept that stands at the core of feminist studies.72 Raewyn Connell describes the concept of “hegemonic masculinity” as a social construct sustained and legitimized by patriarchal authorities even though it does not correspond to the actual self-perceived identity of the majority of men.73 Soldiers’ identities are context-dependent and vary based on multiple circumstances. However, a few common traits can be sketched, including the dehumanization of the “enemy,”74 the denigration or despising of the “other” (including women and homosexuals),75 the objectification and sense of entitlement vis-à-vis women,76 the soldier’s emotionless character, and a strong sense of comradery including a willingness to sacrifice for colleagues. These and other features that often characterize the military ethos that “makes men out of soldiers” have been portrayed by feminist scholars as “military masculinities,” a subcategory of “hegemonic masculinity.”77 While more and more countries allow women to serve as soldiers, it is symbolic that they are still by and large excluded, either de jure or de facto, from combat roles, which embody the “ultimate test of masculinity.”78

The appeal to this idea of manliness manifests itself way beyond the military setting in both the private and the public spheres.79 Israel represents a case in point, where the “narrative of the siege” that legitimizes the militarization of the society has cemented the Zionist ideal of manliness, the “new Jew” framed in opposition to the passive and effeminate “diaspora Jew.”80 Nationalism is one of the areas where the symbolism of gender constructs is predominant. It thrives on the ideology that rests on “the supremacy of the heterosexual male warrior and hero over the woman, a biologically weaker being in need of protection.” The nation is associated to a family where women are the custody of honour and men the protectors of women’s sexuality.81 Such a template provides the frame for regulating not only households’ relations but also gendered roles and practices within communities, ethnic groups, and nations as a whole.82 The nexus between sexist attitudes and beliefs, political violence, and extremism has been tested in different socio-political contexts.83 When the family sanctions social constructs and national hierarchal models, the “home becomes a miniature of nation-building.”84 In the Western Balkans, for instance, the militarization phase that characterized the society in the run-up to the conflicts of the 1990s showed an emphasis on hypermasculinity. Nationalist politicians, with a view to building support for the war, endorsed and promoted the idea of the hero, the fighter as an archetype of manhood.85 In Turkey, a country with a high rate of femicide, the politics of “woman making” has been correlated with the politics of “woman killing.” The president’s praise for the ideal of a “proper woman” characterized by modesty and submission has been framed as a form of institutional legitimization of gender-based violence committed against “non-conforming women.”86 Women who refuse to fulfil their “God given purpose and become mothers because they work are giving up on their humanity.”87

Nationalistic statements made by politicians tapping into gender norms and justifying violence in an effort to promote a canon of feminine decorum are not isolated and certainly not confined to Turkey. The consequences deriving from a gender analysis of the masculine and feminine constructs and narratives in militarism, nationalism, and war are far reaching. For example, the limited “capacity to take the position of the ‘other,’”88 especially when the other is dehumanized as an enemy, deriving from a traditional military masculinity, can be extremely detrimental in security settings both at the macro level (peace negotiations, diplomacy, foreign policy) as well as at the level of the everyday lives of women and men alike.

It is important to stress that, despite the significant prevalence of men compared with women in risk-taking and violent behaviour,89 no reliable evidence that men are inherently more violent than women has been found.90 Instead, the root cause of this difference appears to be found in the socialization of gender constructs. Gender roles grounded in the concept of hegemonic masculinity appear to be built, socialized, and sustained by individuals and, much more ominously, on a macro level, by groups and institutions.91 In Part ii of this paper, I will, therefore, analyse a particular set of institutions. I will look at the role selected religious institutions play in legitimizing, actively spreading, or implicitly supporting hegemonic masculinities and subservient femininities.

part ii. Religion and Gender: Religious Underpinnings of Hierarchical Gender Constructs

There are three key features of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that are especially relevant to the security of women, as described in Part I of this paper. Firstly, they rely on authoritative interpretations of sacred scriptures. Secondly, community members are preached to by official ministers operating within an institutionalized structure. Thirdly, they prescribe norms for the regulation of the daily lives of believers.92 These three features play a fundamental role in the preservation of gendered hierarchical norms that expose women in particular, but not exclusively, to heightened insecurity.93 The abovementioned features are not confined to the three Abrahamic religions but characterize other religions as well.

Religious Patriarchy and the Ideology of Male Superiority and Female Submission

Man created God in his image: intolerant, sexist, homophobic and violent.94

For millennia, the ideology of male superiority has emerged at the intersection of politics, law, culture, and religions.95 The structure of the patriarchy or, to use a feminist biblical neologism, the structure of kyriarchy,96 rests upon the ideology of male superiority coupled with the assumed natural inferiority of women.97 Judaeo-Christian teachings have made ample reference to such an ideology as a leverage to maintain the religious patriarchal status quo.98 The Bible contains numerous passages that sanctify men’s dominion over women and children.99 In the Hebrew Bible,100 God is portrayed as short-tempered, violent, and male. Precisely due to the fact that God is featured as male (“imago dei”), restrictive interpretations of religious texts have sanctioned for millennia an almost entirely male religious authority.101 The prominent reformist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza puts it as follows:

Not only is scripture interpreted by a long line of men and proclaimed in patriarchal churches, it is also authored by men, written in androcentric language, reflective of religious male experience, selected and transmitted by male religious leadership. Without question, the Bible is a male book.102

The institutional development of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam has been the product of men’s consistent enforcement of patriarchal norms which have seriously curtailed the possibilities for women to operate on a par with them.103 As a result, women have been confined to their God-given roles as mothers and wives and have traditionally been prevented from taking up ministerial positions.

References to the subordinate role of women in religious texts abound. They attribute ultimate value to the preservation of the sacrosanct heteronormative family even at the expense of women’s own physical and psychological safety.104 Conservative interpretations of these texts, in projecting the devaluation of women as equals with men, have contributed to nurturing a culture that sustains gender-based structural violence, as demonstrated in Part I of this paper.105 These interpretations are predicated upon the centrality of patriarchal hierarchy which has dominated religious and secular institutions, including the institution of the family, for millennia. Androcentric theologies have also proved to be fertile ground for legitimizing discrimination and violence against women and non-conforming men in the home as well as in the public sphere.106 To put it in the eloquent words of Emerson Dobash and Russell Dobash:

The seeds of wife-beating lie in the subordination of females and in their subjection to male authority and control. This relationship between women and men has been institutionalized in the structure of the patriarchal family and is supported by the economic and political institutions and by a belief system, including a religious one, that makes such relationships seem natural, morally just, and sacred.107

In truth, religious texts cannot be reduced to a collection of pervasive misogynist, sexist, and patriarchal rules, as a passing reader of this paper might contend pointing to my selective choice of excerpts. The full humanity of woman in spiritual terms can be inferred from many passages of the very same texts, especially when read with an eye to the “zeitgeist” of the time they were pronounced.108 However, this paper is not prompted by a teleological ambition to balance egalitarian passages of the scriptures with patriarchal ones. That is the job of reformist theologians. Instead, I look at women’s security and well-being through the lens of the potential abuse deriving from the reference to religious texts sanctioning the idea of gender hierarchy within the religious institutions as well as within the family. I also look at the impact deriving from religious teaching resting on such problematic passages. Because one of the main by-products of patriarchy has been the setting up of the public–private dichotomy,109 corresponding to the realm of “men” and “women,” the analysis will therefore now move to the private sphere par excellence, “the family.” The next section presents selected passages attesting to the sanctification of the heterosexual family resting on the superiority of husbands over wives.

Gender Roles as Religious Constructs

The primary site of women’s subjugation to male power is the family.110

Because the Abrahamic religions are based on authoritative interpretations of sacred scriptures, this section will include a reference to selected passages. Before proceeding, however, three considerations must be mentioned. Firstly, a comprehensive examination of the passages revealing the idea of male dominance within the family goes beyond the scope of this paper. Secondly, many theological scholars have written at length on each passage. Here, I do not engage in the multiple and often opposing hermeneutics of each passage. Thirdly, these references are selective and purportedly so. On the one hand, I intend to signal the danger deriving from the justification of gendered hierarchical constructs of men and women based on “historically decontextualized” passages. On the other hand, I wish to demonstrate the challenges that feminist theologians face when attempting to reconcile these texts with an egalitarian ethos.

Women’s Submission, Sinfulness, and Salvation through Maternity

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.111

One of the most flagrant aspects of the gendered construct of women stemming from Judaeo-Christion texts is the dichotomy between Eve and Maria, the sinner and the virgin. “Male mythology not only makes woman responsible for the advent of evil in the world, but it also translates female sin into an ontological principle. The female comes to represent the qualities of materiality, irrationality, carnality, and finitude, which debases the ‘manly’ spirit and drags it down into sin and death.”112 In Christian theology, the original sin plays a major role in building dichotomous gender constructs: “as Eve [became] the paradigm for all women, all women then came to bear the responsibility for original sin.”113 There is only one path that is offered to a woman for her transformation from sin to holiness. That is motherhood, a condition that for millennia has profoundly conditioned the agency of women. Moreover, the story of Eve has legitimized men’s restraint of the social, sexual, religious, political, and economic freedom of women based on their supposed “natural sinfulness.” The abovementioned biblical passage is also crucial as it is one of those upon which the ordination of women has been denied.114 Reformers such as Martin Luther, by recognizing the priesthood of all believers, women included, emancipated Eve from “her subjection to her husband’s ecclesial authority.”115 Nevertheless, he still depicted women as “frivolous, superstitious and liable to deception.”116

The Sanctification of the Heteronormative Family based on the Connubium between a Man and a Woman

If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.117

Women are not the only cohort affected by the constraining gender constructs reflected in religious texts. Homosexuals are condemned as repugnant by all three of the monotheistic religions. The very idea of homosexuality is threatening.118 It calls into question the heterosexual construct of the family, made up of a man and a woman, which sustains the divine metaphors of the marriage between God and humanity and between priests and the Church.119 The sacrosanct family rests upon a rigid heteronormative and binary gender paradigm. If this is the script, any other form of family appears as abhorrent and deviant. The masculine heterosexual construct is threatened not only by homosexuals but also by the whole spectrum of non-conforming gender identities, as the worrying incidence of the killing of transgender women demonstrates.120 The consequences of confining men and women within rigid essentialist gender roles and of policing their sexuality on the basis of religious edicts are far reaching. The gendered ideology of heterosexual male priesthood, and his complementary relation with the female Church, prevents not only the ordination of women to the ministry, as the dedicated section of this paper demonstrates, but also that of gay men. In a paper published by a Vatican official in 2002, the argument of “the receptive bride (the Church) receiving the love initiated by the active bridegroom (the priest)” is used to exclude the possibility for gay men to be ordained.121

Women’s Utmost Rebellious Act, Adultery

Let her remove the adulterous look from her face and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts. Otherwise I will strip her naked and make her as bare as on the day she was born;122 She said, “I will go after my lovers, who give me my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my olive oil and my drink.” Therefore I will block her path with thornbushes; I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way.123

These verses contain a clear description of battered wives in a relationship of inferiority to their husbands. While in Jeremiah and Ezekiel God is depicted as a husband and Israel is depicted as a wife,124 in metaphorical terms the above passage is particularly telling in that it portrays the struggles of a married couple in flesh and bone (Hosea is the husband, and Gomer is the wife). The verses feature threats of violence against Gomer for rebelling against Hosea and for manifesting her intention to leave him for another man. One can easily imagine an abusive husband disciplining his wife and justifying his attitude on the basis of God’s endorsement of Hosea’s violent behaviour towards Gomer. Women are disciplined not because they are women “but for not being (women) in an adequate manner.”125 The passage also builds on the narrative of the opposition between the “gendered wife” as emotional, sensually driven, and sinful and the “gendered husband” as rational, righteous, and honour-driven.

The Role of Women in the Church

Scholarship has consistently demonstrated that women make up the majority of believers.126 This may seem counter-intuitive in the light of the patriarchal traditions and rules that this paper has been extensively referencing. To be sure, religious communities and rituals are fundamental sources of relief, support, and comfort, including for women, especially when these attributes are in short supply at home.127 Nevertheless, women do not hold positions of significant power or leadership within the vast majority of religions, including in the three Abrahamic religions in particular.128 In the Christian tradition, the exclusion of women from ordination to the pastoral ministry has been argued on multiple grounds, and the following section will be exclusively dedicated to this subject. Nonetheless, a few Christian denominations have accepted women as ministers of the faith.129 However, in proportion to the number of their followers, these progressive groups constitute a minority when compared with the large majority of followers of exclusively male-headed Christian denominations.130 Women’s contributions to the advancement of egalitarian theological interpretations of the scriptures is hindered by the prevailing conviction that men are the sole authoritative source of biblical interpretation. “Any organization that is run exclusively by fathers, from the father’s point of view and for the father’s benefit … will remain out of touch with the deeper pain of our times.”131

The debate around women’s role in the Christian Church has been around since its origins.132 For instance, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza for several decades attempted to demonstrate that in the early days the Church had both female and male leaders.133 She maintains that female subordination to men in the family as well as in the Church, with the corresponding exclusion of women from the priesthood, is neither reflective of the revolutionary message of the Gospel nor in line with the practice of the Church in its early days. Instead, it was the price that was paid for the institutionalization of Christianity. The exclusion of women from religious leadership reflects, therefore, the accommodation of the religion to the Graeco-Roman patriarchal culture.134 Aside from these earlier accounts, the history of the institutional Catholic Church has been marred by the attribution of exclusive male leadership in a highly hierarchical structure.

The Quest for Female Ordination in the Catholic Church

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.135

The question of female ordination within the Catholic Church became prominent in the 1960s and 1970s in conjunction with the rise of the feminist movement. This led Pope Paul vi to commission a report on the question of the scriptural support for women’s ordination. The conclusion was that the Bible offered evidence on both sides of the question. Despite the opportunity for the Catholic Church to take the big leap, Pope Paul vi issued a Declaration which concluded that “the Church does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.”136 A key point was the significance of the “sacramental symbolism.” Because of the maleness of Jesus Christ, it was considered crucial for devotees to “recognize in the priest a resemblance to Christ.”137 This particular insistence on the maleness of the Christ was subject to strong criticism.138 The concept of divine androcentrism was further utilized by Pope John Paul ii when in 1994 he returned to the question of women’s ordination.139 The Pope insisted on the complementary relationship between men and women, as described by the next section of this paper. If the human relationship of a bridegroom and a bride is mirroring God’s relationship with the Church, then, the argument goes, women’s nature and God-given role is incompatible with their ordination.140 Thus the metaphor of bridegroom and bride was used to legitimize the exclusion of women from the priesthood.141

Finally, John Paul ii concluded that “this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”142 The uncompromising reference to the infallibility of the Church on this subject attests to the finality of the ban on female ordination, which has been confirmed by the Pope Francis.143 Furthermore, because of the oath of loyalty, priests are obliged to submit to the doctrinal pronouncements of the Vatican.144 This not only rules out the possibility for women to become Catholic priestesses but also silences alternative voices within the Church. The issue of women’s ordination has become a sort of “litmus test” of the orthodoxy of candidates for the position of bishop. Such a practice is not without consequences as it reduces the number of men in the clergy who demonstrate outspoken sympathy for women’s quest for equality. The denial of female ordination is often accompanied by the recognition of the theology of complementarianism as opposed to the theology of egalitarianism.

Theology of Complementarianism

The theological position that holds that all people are equal before God is referred to as egalitarianism. Within the family as well as within the Church, an egalitarian position can be described as the partaking of authority and responsibilities by both men and women. This position is not the predominant one, at least not within the most traditional denominations of the Church. In general terms, the more egalitarian the Church, the more likely women are to hold leadership positions on a par with men.

This egalitarianism contrasts with the theology of complementarianism professed by male-headed churches. Complementarianism recognizes the equal worth and dignity of men and women. However, the distinction in roles for men and women is maintained because the order of creation as set up in the Hebrew Bible is not superseded by the egalitarian message of Christ in the Gospel. The complementarian approach does not challenge the binary distinction between the gender constructs of “manliness” and “womanhood.”145

Within the Catholic Church, one of the most zealous supporters of the theory of complementarity was Pope John Paul ii, whose papacy was remarkable in both length and influence.146 According to the Pope, the rightful resistance of women to the Genesis passage “He shall rule over you”147 must not lead to the “masculinization” of women. “In the name of liberation from male ‘domination,’ women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine ‘originality.’ … If they take this path, women will not ‘reach fulfilment,’ but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness.148 John Paul ii’s devotion to the mother of Jesus accounts for his countless references to the construct of “womanhood” in terms of “motherhood.” Mary’s model as “obedient” towards God as well as towards her son Jesus represents the utmost reference point for a woman.149 By the same token, female and male uniquely distinctive sexualities call for profoundly different life missions: “all women are oriented toward motherhood, whether this be biological or spiritual. There is no corresponding notion of ‘essential fatherhood’ for men.”150 This means that motherhood or virginity (married life or consecrated life) are the two paths to women’s attainment of their dignity.151 The Pope, therefore, replaces the older and no longer acceptable tenet of the natural inferiority of women on biological grounds with the anthropological model of mutual complementarity.

This construct of “womanhood” is further extolled by John Paul ii in his letter to women published on the eve of the Beijing World Conference on Women (1995). The association of “womanhood” with the mission of care, help, assistance, service, and servanthood represents the leitmotif of the letter. Starting from the act of creation (“It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him”),152 the woman is entrusted with the role of helper, as the following passage reveals:

When the Book of Genesis speaks of “help”, it is not referring merely to acting, but also to being. Womanhood and manhood are complementary not only from the physical and psychological points of view, but also from the ontological. It is only through the duality of the “masculine” and the “feminine” that the “human” finds full realization.153

The most recurrent theme of the letter is the “dignity of women” as opposed to the “rights of women,” a concept the Pope carefully avoided for its association with women’s reproductive rights, a heavily contested subject for the Church. The Pope expresses great appreciation for the “heroic love” women demonstrate when they reject abortion after being raped. Such an emphasis on women’s immolation in the face of one of the most extreme forms of gender-based violence builds on the narrative of “suffering as a redemptive act,” something that, as stressed in Part iii, can be extremely dangerous when used to undermine women’s determination to leave abusive relationships. From a women’s security perspective, the passage that follows is even more problematic: “the choice to have an abortion always remains a grave sin.”154 It reinforces the message of “guilt and shame” that characterizes all too often women’s experiences of violence. The “feminine genius,” a concept that is dear to the Pope’s vision of women, is further associated with the idea of “service,” a vocation Mary upholds by “putting herself at the service of others.”155 It is a vocation which women are apt to fulfil given the kind of “affective, cultural and spiritual motherhood” which characterizes their nature.156

The construct of “womanhood” as portrayed in John Paul ii’s abovementioned letter reflects an essentialist underpinning, which dangerously falls back on rigid determinism.157 By extolling their key role as “helper,” women are again confined within a “theology of servanthood” which is not conducive to the pursuit of their security and well-being. By ruling out the paradigm of “women’s rights and equality” (terminology which is never mentioned in a letter addressed to participants attending the main conference on women’s rights of the twentieth century), the Pope signifies his opposition to equalizing the differences between the sexes.158 This idea, according to the Pope’s anthropological model, would damage the attributes, dignity, and value of “womanhood.”

part iii. Religion, Security, and Gender: An Unholy Trinity

Religions, as a particularly deep-rooted expression of culture,159 have a remarkable influence on the making of gender constructs. In turn, these constructs profoundly influence, at a personal and collective level, the security of both individuals and communities. In the pursuit of women’s security and well-being, the deconstruction of “hegemonic masculinity” and “subservient femininity” as prevailing gender constructs is paramount, as demonstrated in parts i and ii. The correlation between holding strong religious beliefs and unequal gender views has been demonstrated in research involving both Christians and Muslims.160 Religious institutions, therefore, have a fundamental role to play in embracing a truly egalitarian ethos – as we will see – even though they have a vested interest in not doing so. Hence, engaging with religious institutions in the pursuit of gender equality is of utmost importance to ensuring human security.

The potential for the reformation of religions in line with the evolution of social values cannot be overstated. “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way,” admonishes the famous writer Blu Greenberg, signifying that when it’s time for a Jewish practice to evolve, rabbis find precedents to justify it.161 After all, the history of religions testifies to continuous efforts to keep up with the development of society. The ways in which religious institutions respond to changes in gender constructs vary remarkably: “sometimes the change may be revolutionary, but more often modifications are incremental.”162 Religions often display ambivalence when grappling with changing gender norms and values, especially when they directly threaten positions of power. On the one hand, a religion must, to a certain extent, blend into the dominant culture to survive and retain followers. On the other hand, in order to preserve its prophetic value and appeal, a religion must resist the mainstream and scrutinize emerging values that appear to conflict with its traditions.163 Some religious institutions act relatively quickly to “accommodate” their theological edicts so as to minimize the cognitive dissonance of religious believers.164 Others, instead, adopt a “resist or withdraw” approach. Ultimately, it can be expected that “religious leaders will abandon patriarchal beliefs and practices to the extent that abandonment will strengthen the religion and contribute to its longevity.”165 The deeply entrenched relationship between male religious leadership and complementary gender constructs is by far the most compelling obstacle for the Church to reform and embrace a full theology of egalitarianism. To place this in Lee Ross’s suggestive words:

Like Siamese twins conjoined at the torso, separating religious imperatives from sex/role expectations requires a very delicate procedure where the survival of one depends very much on the survival of the other.166

The impact of these roles and expectations in regard to women’s decision to stay or to leave abusive relationships is paramount. Likewise, especially for religious women, the role religious leaders and the religious community play is often crucial. The next section will, therefore, explore the attitude of religious leaders in dealing with intimate partner violence.

Religious Leaders’ Attitudes towards Intimate Partner Violence

The symbolic impact that the teaching of patriarchal scriptures can have on intimate partner violence has been acknowledged by various religious institutions.167 Their efforts to educate and promote awareness, support, and resilience for survivors of intimate partner violence has gained momentum over the past decades. A significant number of them have developed guidelines on how to assist devotees facing abuse and violence, including through dedicated preaching sessions and individual and premarital counselling.168 Religious communities can, therefore, provide a safe haven and resource for endangered followers.

However, especially the most conservative expressions of the three Abrahamic religions, by refusing to challenge the patriarchal underpinning of the family, run the risk of turning a blind eye to the evidence of intimate partner violence occurring within their congregations.169 This has a potentially dangerous impact on abused women as they may strive to preserve the image of a devoted family, thus creating a façade that cloaks the painful reality of violence. One of the most pernicious mechanisms through which religions can perpetuate such violence is by pressuring the victim to perform the role of a “good wife,” patient and obedient.170 Furthermore, the fear of being shunned and shamed by the Church’s leader may induce women to keep the violence secret, not to mention the pressure women may face, including from the religious community they belong to, when the Church’s leader is their abusive husband.

Religion, shame, and guilt are key to the understanding of women’s insecurity within the family. Directing shame and guilt at rule breakers is the oldest and most effective way in which religions protect their traditions and keep their edicts alive.171 The concept of “structural spiritual abuse” captures the misuse of religious texts by some faith groups to coerce women to stay within abusive relationships.172 Catholic women, for instance, are reminded of the indissolubility of marriage,173 Muslim women are told that obedience is the key to their salvation in the afterlife,174 and Jewish women are forced to stay married when their husbands refuse to issue them the get.175 Furthermore, the idea of “redemptive suffering and forgiveness” as gateways to God’s mercy renders the path to leaving an abusive relationship an impervious one, especially for women embracing traditional gender roles.176 These women are more likely to look for support within their religious communities than outside them.177 In addition, women’s initial reaction to the abuse may be one of disbelief and denial, given that men are seen as “true believers” and “protectors.”178 These findings are important for they demonstrate how the seemingly benevolent idea of the “man as a protector” can be perilous as it may hide the seed of “control and violence.” At the intersection between gender and race, research has demonstrated that priests’ advice to women of colour to tolerate abusive men is rooted in their “construct” of women of colour as particularly “strong.”179 This analysis is especially telling when considering that in the United States, African-American women are proportionally more involved in religious practices and communities than other groups.180 Likewise, at the intersection between religion, gender, and ableism, recent research has documented ambivalent responses to intimate partner violence offered by Christian religious leaders confronted with survivors with disabilities.181

Thus, the role religions and their ministers can play in the face of threats to women’s security in the family is manifold. They can “serve either as mechanisms for achieving resilience in the face of domestic assault or as contributors to women’s vulnerability.”182

The Questionable Relevance of Mutual Consent to a Gender Hierarchy Within the Family

It was due to the religion she professes that, if she could not obtain his consent by kindness and condescension, she should have submitted in silence to the wrong he was doing to her.183

The sanctioning of gender hierarchy in family status law has been supported on the basis of multicultural liberal arguments aimed at protecting the rights of cultural, ethnic, and religious minorities. The mutual consent of adult spouses, the argument goes, coupled with their “right to exit,” legitimates their choice and prevents the state from intervening.184 However, there are limitations to the relevance of individual consent. When inegalitarian norms based on religious prescriptions significantly curtail individuals’ opportunity to dissent, consent cannot be accepted as genuine and the law should not validate it. When it does so, the law colludes with discriminatory religious norms. Moreover, depending on the socio-economic status of the members of the oppressed groups in the family, compounded by the pressure of the community, their ability to choose alternative paths may be very limited or non-existent.

When the family is founded on … male dominance and female dependence and subordination, when religions inculcate the same hierarchy and enhance it with the mystical and sacred symbol of a male god, … the opportunity for competing visions of sexual difference or the questioning of gender (roles) is seriously limited.185

Religious devotees are socialized into accepting religious norms that, more often than not, they are not entitled to question.186 Nor are women represented in the defining of the religious norms to which they must unquestioningly conform. As demonstrated in the previous section, quitting an abusive relationship is, in and of itself, a traumatic experience. This decision is even more challenging when compounded by factors such as the pressure exercised by the religious community or its leader and by the economic dependence of women on men. In some cases, rebelling against unequal gender rules may risk a woman’s legal guardianship of her children.187 Research has demonstrated that conservative religious affiliation resting on the model of the “obedient and submissive wife” plays a significant role in women remaining in abusive marriages.188

The extreme degrees to which women are required to adhere to pietistic norms that preference male leadership and the interests of the family over their personal interests place restraints on women’s agency over their marital lives to the point of threat.189

In the face of the threat that a hierarchical family poses to the security of women and their well-being, it is fair to ask how voluntary a woman’s consent is in practice and whether the consent should be relevant for the state and its legal enforcement mechanisms.190 Since institutionalized religions are built upon the very idea of obedience to the creed, how can free will, agency, and individual autonomy be ascertained when women are subject to all-encompassing discriminatory rules? Behavioural science reveals that people conform to social norms (of which those reflecting religious values represent an important subgroup) either because they value other people’s approval (reward seeking) or because they fear negative reactions.191 Against this background, it is the responsibility of the state to adopt measures to enhance women’s individual autonomy. This includes the provision of economic incentives to reduce women’s vulnerability to intimate partner violence. Women’s consent to inequality, including as a result of religious rules, should be subject to enhanced scrutiny by the state. For the reasons highlighted in this section, it does not seem far-fetched to challenge the liberal refrain based on which “the more religion and culture are privatised, the more equal rights for women are ensured.”192

The Egalitarian Theology as Reflected in Women’s Rights

The hierarchical subordination of women to men became subject to sustained criticism around the middle of the twentieth century. The profound changes occurring in the social, cultural, and political fields rendered this stance untenable to many. Dignity, moral autonomy, and legal equality for every adult person, including in the family, represent the underpinnings of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (hereinafter udhr).193 The idea of a patriarchal hierarchy in the family could not be reconciled with the udhr’s egalitarian ethos.194 From a theological perspective, the egalitarian approach, with the full recognition of gender equality, marked the defeat of the dualistic worldview of men as created “imago dei” and women as guilty of the original sin and subject to the authority of men due to their deceitful nature.195 As Rosemary Radford Ruether, a prominent reconstructionist feminist theologian,196 puts it: “to the extent that God is not a human being, he/she is neither male nor female and to purport otherwise is a form of idolatry.”197

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (hereinafter cedaw) embraces the udhr’s egalitarian message and takes it a step further. In Article 16, the Convention obligates states parties to ensure, on the basis of equality of men and women, the same rights and responsibilities “in the family.”198

The construct of an egalitarian family, as purported by cedaw and supported by certain feminist theologians, conflicts with traditional religious hermeneutics. In their most traditional interpretations, religions rest on the concept of the superiority of men over women, as presented at length in Part ii of this paper. More progressive interpretations of men’s and women’s roles do exist. Some are based on theologies recognizing men’s and women’s equality before God coupled with their complementarity in roles. However, even the idea of complementarity between men and women appears to conflict with cedaw’s requirement of formal and substantive equality between the sexes and its call for the transformative redistribution of resources and power between women and men.199

cedaw is among the most widely ratified human rights treaties.200 Neither the Holy See nor Iran is a party to the Convention, and the United States has signed but not ratified it. cedaw is also the convention with the highest number of reservations based on cultural and religious grounds.201 These facts alone would prove Juliet Sheen’s bold conclusion that the very “tenets …of religious belief are sometimes, in and of themselves, violations of women’s …. rights.”202 Article 16, which provides for equality of women and men in the family, is the article of cedaw with the greatest number of reservations. A significant number of these reservations are simply “incompatible with the object and purpose” of the treaty and, as such, should be treated as inapplicable.203 Religious rules represent the main argument for the vast majority of cedaw reservations, including on equality within marriage, which has prompted Frances Raday, an expert member of the cedaw Committee, to claim that “it is the religions themselves which have, in the human rights era, self-identified as the core of resistance to women’s equality.”204 The deference of the state and its legal system to traditional religious interpretations denies women’s entitlement to equality in the family and in the public sphere, which in turn poses a serious threat to women’s security.205

It would be a mistake to look at the right to the manifestation of religious freedom and the right to equality and to try to balance the two. In fact, both cedaw and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (iccpr) attribute superior force to the right to equality in the case of a clash with religious norms, thus embracing a clear hierarchy of values.206 The freedom to manifest one’s religion is not absolute and can be limited to protect the “rights and freedoms of others.”207 The right to equality is among them. cedaw is more explicit on what is incumbent upon states:

To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes.208

As discussed above, religions stand at the core of gendered social and cultural constructs. It is therefore a state’s obligation to make sure to counteract religious rules reflecting those constructs which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes.

Feminist Theologies: A Gateway to Achieve Egalitarianism in Religions?

Whether the Reformation can be seen through a proto-feminist lens remains open to debate.209 Protestants’ call for reformation of the Church allowed everyone, men and women alike, to interpret the scriptures without the filter of the (male) clergy. However, as highlighted above, Luther’s ideas about women were far from egalitarian. The distinction between the public and the private spheres ended up being reinforced, with the “Christian home becoming a religious order”210 in and of itself, a place where “women’s distinctively religious duties were to be performed.”211 With the industrial revolution and the advent of economic liberalism in Europe and North America, the Christian religion began to be confined to “the private sphere of individualistic piety, charitable work, and the cultivation of home and family.”212 Thus, despite its almost exclusively male leadership, Christian belief became “culturally feminized.”213

In its modern version, feminist theology emerged in parallel to the rise of feminism in other areas of knowledge and it shares many of its fundamental underpinnings, including the rejection of the patriarchy, the need to reclaim women’s experiences, and the call for equality in rights, opportunities, and power for men and women. Much like feminism, which is usually, albeit not uncritically,214 categorized in four waves,215 each pursuing a particular set of goals, feminist theology too can be clustered to match this historical classification. Concurrently with the first wave of feminism, Elisabeth Cady Stanton is credited with the first publication of a full-fledged feminist reading of biblical scripture, The Woman’s Bible. Albeit ostracized by her fellow contemporary suffragettes,216 her work offers a trenchant critique of the most oppressive biblical passages, alongside a firm belief in the androgyny of God, whom she regularly referred to as both Mother and Father.217 Phyllis Trible is among the most well-known biblical scholars of the second wave of feminism. Her point of departure is that both sexism and misogyny in the scriptures are by-products of the translator’s bias rather than an intrinsic feature of the text. Trible’s hermeneutic reveals how, by returning to the original Hebrew, the sex and gender connotations of the translation of words can be subject to alternative interpretations.218 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza does to the Gospels what Trible had done to the Hebrew Bible. However, she goes beyond the scriptures and, as mentioned earlier in this paper, she reclaims the role played by women in the early Christian communities.219 The third wave of feminism is characterized, insofar as biblical scholarship is concerned, by a focus on intersectionality.220 In particular, towards the end of the 1980s, a growing number of African-American scholars embraced postcolonial perspectives that challenge white feminist biblical discourse for its exclusive focus on sexism and its neglect of race as a key variable of domination. Among them, particular mention should be made to the acclaimed novelist Alice Walker, who coined the term “womanism” to reflect the peculiarity of Christian Black women’s experience.221 Womanist scholars also challenge the limits of canonic boundaries and expand them to include not only Gnostic literature and the Apocryphal Acts, but also religious sites, texts, and traditions of all the peoples of the world.222 The fourth wave of feminist theology is heavily influenced by poststructuralism and queer theories.223 The analysis of sexuality and queer, transgender, and masculinity studies stand at the centre of biblical readings. Scholars such as Teresa Hornsby and Deryn Guest suggest that the history of biblical interpretation is deeply entrenched in the “dogma of heterosexuality,” which in turn is based on binary assumptions about men and women as the only two biologically determined sexes as well as of male and female as the only two gender systems of reference.224 By challenging not just the mere construction of gender as binary, but also the very binary of bodily sex, queer theories dislodge the very category of “woman” upon which feminism was once borne.225 Queer criticism often reflects such a radical rupture with scripture and biblical authority that many scholars, including feminist theologians, are uncomfortable with it.

Feminists can be broadly classified as either liberal or radical depending on whether their focus is on reforming the system or dismantling it. Likewise, feminist biblical scholars also regard scriptures, along with the religions they reveal, as “either redeemable in some way or hopelessly irredeemable.”226 Radical feminism, in particular, rules out altogether the possibility for religions to reform because of their male patriarchal bias. By far the most notorious radical theologian is Mary Daly. She became known for her book The Church and the Second Sex (1968), which was influenced by Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist masterpiece The Second Sex (1949). Daly was extremely disappointed by the modest impact of the Second Vatican Council,227 and, as a result, she published the book Beyond God the Father (1973), in which she outlined the case against the Bible and Christianity. According to Daly, by idealizing “pure women,” Christianity offers an illusion of equality which hypocritically conceals its deep misogynist roots as well as the reality of oppression, discrimination, and abuse of women’s daily life. Women are elevated on a pedestal which represents an obstacle to their self-fulfilment and to their active participation in society on a par with men. The gender construct of women as submissive, passive, and self-sacrificing prevents women from leading authentic lives. Radical feminism, despite its legitimate call for profound change, has been criticized as alienating to the experiences of religious women and their struggle to reconcile their autonomy with their religious faith.228 If the ultimate goal is to enhance women’s security, it is essential to break the dichotomy between feminism and religion because by “making women think they have to choose between the two, many … will choose their religion.”229

The promotion of a reformist agenda from within institutionalized religions is the goal of reformist theologians.230 The legitimacy and credibility of those promoting doctrinal changes from within cannot be overestimated. One of the main goals of reformist feminist theology has been to bring to the surface the androcentric foundation of religious teachings.231 Another has been to embark upon a new hermeneutics of biblical texts primarily aimed, as described in detail above, at counteracting those texts most commonly used “against” women; offering a critique of patriarchy from a socio-economic perspective (liberation theology); and popularizing the stories of women in the scriptures through an intersectional perspective that features race, wealth, age, and other characteristics. This approach requires “deciphering” religious texts reflecting patriarchal bias and subsequently “reclaiming” an interpretation that is in keeping with a feminist outlook. It also involves the efforts of religious preaching to build a counter-narrative of a plurality of gender constructs which rests upon an egalitarian ethos. In this context, the story of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, emerges as the quintessential archetype of feminist theology for her assertion of independence, her refusal to be subservient to her husband, and her decision to leave the Garden of Eden to lead a solitary life. The story offers an alternative model of a woman who is autonomous, self-reliant, and self-sustaining. With this section I have attempted to demonstrate that Christianity is far from constituting a monolithic, immutable system of belief and that feminist theologies are contributing significantly to dismantling the patriarchal bias underpinning hierarchical and binary gender constructs. It is paramount to acknowledge and support the struggle that feminist biblical scholars face, including due to the limited institutional backing and cultural attention they receive. This is especially true in the face of the mainstreaming of androcentric exegesis of the scriptures by conservative theologians.232


Throughout history, women have made numerous attempts to join institutionalized religions on the same footing as men. Ascetism was one of the paths women chose. The more secluded and non-threatening these paths were to the authority of the male clergy, the higher was their success rate. Old and modern-style witch-hunting is the most commonly used tool to stifle attempts to challenge the power of male clergy.233 “The quid pro quo for safety from institutionalized violence was [and is] obedience.”234

This paper has validated the idea that threats to women’s security, at home as well as in the public sphere,235 constitute a threat to the overall security of citizens and of the state. The paper has also demonstrated the dire consequences deriving from nationalistic and militaristic gender constructs that borrow from religious narratives to legitimize, glorify, and condone gender-based violence. The militaristic construct of the “male warrior, predator, and conqueror” is not, however, the only one threatening the security of women. The paper has also argued that the more benevolent gender construct of the “man as the family protector and provider,” by constraining the agency and financial ability of women to decide for themselves, can likewise undermine their security.

The second part of the paper has looked more closely at relations between religions and gender. It has demonstrated the profoundly dangerous impact of Christian gender constructs that confine women (and men) to different prescribed roles. By acknowledging the fundamental importance that religions play in particular for devoted women, the paper has also presented ways in which women, especially within the Catholic Church, have advocated for the ordination of women. The refusal to reform the Church, the paper has shown, is the result of a deliberate choice to retain power by attributing to women an anthropologically different role from men. The final part of the paper has attempted to reconcile the “unholy trinity of security, religion, and gender” by looking at how religious leaders react to threats to women’s security deriving from intimate partner violence. It has also presented the role the state should play particularly in respect to the fulfilment of its international obligations stemming from cedaw. Considering religious-based reservations to cedaw, the paper has illustrated how religions stand in the way of the fulfilment of women’s rights. Religions are not, however, monolithic creations, and the last part of the paper has acknowledged the tremendous work of feminist biblical scholars in dismantling harmful gender constructs. It has praised their relentless attempts to deconstruct and reclaim the scriptures and religious messages in ways that recognize the experiences of women and attribute to them the merits they deserve.

The paper has validated the idea that religions enforcing hierarchical gender roles have been especially slow in promoting women’s rights and have in multiple ways threatened rather than preserved women’s security. The paper concludes by pleading for religions to move towards gender egalitarianism and to acknowledge the diverse realities of women, men, and others beyond constraining binary gender constructs. Religious institutions need to acknowledge their historical responsibility and “original sin” and “cease from misusing ‘thus saith the Lord’ pronouncements to incubate the ideology, practice, and promotion of male supremacy and its effect on the physical integrity, legal protections, and quality of life for women.”236 At the same time, state institutions must do more to provide incentives for religions to reform. Instead, disguised as a deference to multicultural liberalism, they have at times colluded with discriminatory religious norms by sanctioning hierarchical family status law that threatens women’s security.

To conclude, I argue that deferring the realization of women’s security and well-being until a comprehensive reform has occurred within the religious precinct is not a viable option. Such deference to the religious dictum would signify the capitulation of the egalitarian human rights paradigm.237 The time has come for states to listen to the call of feminist biblical scholars and to proactively engage with religious institutions to reform and embrace an egalitarian ethos. It is only in this way that the security of women can be truly prioritized.


To Leslie Groves, a wonderful soul, my mentor, and a strong supporter.

A Commentary on Maria Alcidi’s “Religion, Security and Gender: An Unholy Trinity?”

Working within institutions to confront power structures and try to change them is an exhausting task, often subject to frustration and failure. The text “Religion, Security and Gender: An Unholy Trinity” is an occasion to take stock, offering a breathing space to better understand and reflect on the interplay between religion, security and gender.

Maria Alcidi starts from her experience as head of the team tasked with negotiating the Decision on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women. She quickly realizes there are issues that cannot be discussed and words that cannot be voiced; there is nonetheless an acknowledgement during the negotiations that gender inequality, with its various forms of discrimination and economic marginalization, is at the root of violence against women. This recognition is an achievement in itself, reminding us how structural violence is violence. We could indeed further reflect on the relationship between inequality and violence. It is clear that inequality causes violence, but it is equally true that violence and the very threat of violence – that is, the possibility of it taking place, even in oblique ways – is what sustains, reinforces and reproduces inequality. Hegemonic masculinity, patriarchy, intersectionality: these terms cannot always be debated in institutional contexts as they sound like a threat. The point is that they are indeed a threat: to hold them to account necessarily means questioning the institutions themselves. Although feminism draws on powerful theoretical elaborations, in structural terms the practices of feminist and transfeminist movements struggle to be drawn into a system that has been constituted through their exclusion and marginalization. The very language of politics and law does not provide a proper tool to talk about intimacy and domestic violence in such a way as to allow those who suffer to narrate their experiences and claim rights.238 The phenomenon of gender-based violence eludes quantitative “hard facts and data,” as Sally Engle Merry239 has pointed out. The innovative modes of qualitative social research that can convey the experiences and difficulties of subjects marginalized by gender, sexual orientation, social class, religion and racialized by origins and belonging are not likely to be taken into account in institutional settings. What violence is, how it can be witnessed and how it can be proven and recognized is complex. Who has the ability to speak out and what can be said? The literature is vast on how states, laws and institutional policy are impervious to questions arising from social marginalities (even compelling ones such as the refugee issue).240 However, it is in particular the everyday, domestic dimension that makes gender-based violence something especially elusive to institutions. The public–private divide that feminism has always contested reverberates in the distinction protector vs. protected; also the focus on security – as in the expression “messa in sicurezza delle donne” in Italian (providing security to women) – has to do more with the security of the state and much less to women’s safety and freedom. Alcidi’s reflection, including her personal and professional positioning, focuses on the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – that, with due historical differences, all “sacralize the male godhead and the patriarchal family.” Religion, to be sure, is a cultural fact that regulates faith and morality and thus exceeds the narrow dimension of belief. Yet it is generally recognized today that home and family represent an insecure space for women. Religion is closely linked to kinship, family, intimacy and gender: gender complementarianism, womanhood, motherhood, dignity vs. rights (especially reproductive rights), and the gendered space of social reproduction are mostly deemed undebatable and naturalized in religion discourses. Family and kinship are therefore a privileged space for feminism to assert that intimate relationships, marriage, motherhood, traffic in women, heteronomativity and fertility control are political issues. The encounter between anthropology and feminism on these points offers a productive opportunity to analyze discourses, break continuities and bring out the political dimension of the intertwining of kinship and gender.241 Anthropologists who have carried out research in religious contexts, particularly Islam, have been able to bring out from specific ethnographic fields the practices and discourses of women who experience, inhabit and live norms through forms of religious discipline that differ significantly from practices that the Western (secularized and liberal) feminist movement claims as liberatory. In this way, notions of agent-subject, autonomy and oppression have been interrogated, highlighting different modes and different degrees of response to the meshes of power.242

The fact remains that gender violence is practiced worldwide, also where there is not a strong religious culture. Neoliberal policies recognize and put gender differences “to work” – giving value to them when needed, domesticating them, making them productive – but they certainly do not repel gender violence, as is clearly seen in the levels of partner violence and murders of women, especially transgender people, migrants and prostitutes, in countries where secularism is dominant. One might ask whether it is really possible “to build a counternarrative of a plurality of gender constructs which rest upon an egalitarian ethos” (as Alcidi argues) by confronting religions, feminist theologies and the work of feminist scholars. This would indeed be a challenge. The point is that scholars cannot do it alone; it takes an intersectional linkage that brings subaltern subjectivities together. It remains unclear how feminist biblical scholars can really captain this struggle but they could contribute to opening up spaces and inspiration to break normative discourses. What is certain is that they can only do so together and within a broad movement. If we talk about religions of the book, religious institutions and the state, it is evident that the interests that cut across these three dimensions are deeply intertwined. Institutions cannot be expected to move against established norms; only an intersectional and grassroots movement can hope to make an impact on a new politics of gender, one which stands against violence, militarism, colonialism and racism. That feminist movements of any kind intersect, confront, fight and proliferate is perhaps what can make the difference.

A Commentary on Maria Alcidi’s “Religion, Security and Gender: An Unholy Trinity?”

Is gender egalitarianism, based on a liberal secular ideal of individual rights as opposed to reciprocal duties, the only way to achieve a nonpatriarchal/nonmale dominated society, therefore a safer familial environment and a safer society for women? Does gender inequality always result in women’s subordination? Are women willingly complying with “unequal” religious/cultural practices, always in need to be saved against themselves by coercive state intervention? Are we, the Western secular liberals, allowed to impose our cultural understanding of human, social and gender relationships upon everybody else on the assumption that a different understanding inevitably means women’s subjugation and male violence?

In her article “Religion, Security and Gender: an Unholy Trinity?,” Maria Alcidi doesn’t seem to have any doubt about an affirmative answer to the questions raised above. Yet one can envisage an alternative way of conceiving gender relationships and the social order, where egalitarianism is not paramount among equal individuals, but rather complementary among different people who are not autonomous and independent from each other, but – to the contrary – strongly interconnected and interdependent on one another.

Today the majority of the world’s population live according to non-Western/nonsecular legal traditions (including African, Asian, Melanesian and other populations) and is thus still governed by a cosmology and an anthropology at odds with the Western model.243 Populations live according to a cosmology and an anthropology that assign a central position to the community, often characterized by the absence of the idea of “rights,” with an emphasis on the specificity of each person (different from, but complementary to, others) as well as by the fact that group survival and cohesion are more important than the individual. “Community is constituted by elements that are different, hierarchical and interdependent” explains Michel Alliot, a leading expert in African law.244 “People [in the non-Western legal tradition] do not conceive of human dignity nor organize the social order in terms of rights but on the basis of responsibility and gratitude towards parents, extended family, tribe, clan, ancestors, the sun, rivers, animals, plants, in a word, the earth,” says Robert Vachon, adding that:

The Asian person sees him/herself as a relational individual, as part of a familial, a communitarian network, and, in the final analysis, as part of Hinduism, like Atman (the total and impersonal self which is Reality, the impersonal whole that is Brahman, i.e. Reality), as part of Buddhism, as the non-I and non-self (anatta) […] I therefore do not define myself by distinguishing and affirming my rights, but by identifying with the Whole and the non-I, by assuming my responsibilities towards family, community and the whole or the void that (I) am. I find my dignity in the ‘dharma’ or ‘dharma’ of the non-I.245

Along similar lines, the strong sense of mutual belonging among members of groups and subgroups, as well as the perspective that the good of the group is paramount, are vividly described by Marylyn Strathern in her writings on Melanesian societies. She describes the personhood of the Papua New Guinean individual as: “distributed or dispersed across a spectrum of relationships, belonging to diverse groupings” or as “an entity with a multiple or plural character” composed of multiple relationships.246 This is a concept of personhood similar to that expressed in Africa by the term “Ubuntu,”247 which means that one may be a person only through other people.248

In such contexts one can speak about equity as opposed to equality, of a sense of duties as opposed to a sense of rights, of a relational self as opposed to an individual one and about a self-fulfilment disconnected from self-interest involving women as well as men. Gender relationships therefore need to be seen in a broader perspective than the one we adopt in a world where the individual and her rights are central. They need to be contextualized in a wide communitarian set, where women have different roles and thus participate in different power relationships relative to men according to their status of wives, co-wives, mothers or sisters. Women are male-dominated (or sometimes merely appear as such to a Westerner’s eyes) when they have one of those roles, yet they are male-dominating when they have a different one. Equity, as a principle governing society, materializes in a compensatory scheme, where the “dividual” – as Marilyn Strathern defines the partible personhood molded by the relational web in the communitarian context249 – who loses power having one position gains it when adopting a different one African and Indian women’s dominance over their sons is a clear case in point.

In a broader perspective regarding gender relationships, moreover, contrary to the secular liberal approach taken by Alcidi’s much celebrated cedaw treaty – based upon individual rights250 – unequal marriage arrangements such as polygyny do not necessarily end up subordinating women. “Far from discriminating against women, [polygyny] provides for a more inclusive approach that is not necessarily at odds with women’s interests,” says Anne Griffiths, quoting the vast literature upon the subject.251

Nor is Alcidi’s approach – which takes for granted that no agency is possible outside a person’s individual autonomy – in tune with the many empirical studies that have proven that the nonautonomous, relational, interconnected woman can truly consent to practices that seem oppressive from the point of view of the humanist liberal secular outsider. Women are not necessarily either prisoners of patriarchy or a dupe of it. Often, women lucidly bargain with patriarchy, as Uma Narayan would say,252 and most of the time they take personal advantages by complying with unequal gender rules that in a communitarian collective context match their interests too. To be sure, people conform to social norms not only “either because they value other people’s approval or because they fear negative reactions,” as Alcidi writes. They also conform because of their willingness to inhabit the norms, as the ethnographic study conducted by Saba Mahmood on the women’s Egyptian mosque movement shows. As part of the global Islamic Revival, the Egyptian piety movement Mahmood studied seems inimical to the interests and agendas of the women who actively support it. Engaging for the first time with a theological reasoning that has previously always been the purview of learned men, women in the mosque movement pursue practices and ideals embedded within a tradition that has historically accorded women a subordinate status. Indeed, they seek to cultivate virtues that are associated with feminine passivity and submissiveness (e.g. shyness, modesty, perseverance, humility and so on).253 Nonetheless, women in the mosque movement exercise agency – as Saba Mahmood convincingly argues – although a different one from that ingrained in the secular liberal feminist conception.254 They use distinct modalities of agency, for example affectivity and responsibility, in realizing their desire to develop piety and in so doing they “inhabit” and mediate what is perceived by much of Western liberal understanding as subordinating norms.

In sum, by enlarging the spectrum of her analysis to cosmologies and anthropologies alternative to the liberal secular Western tradition and by giving them more credit, Alcidi could have given weight to the theology of complementarianism embraced by the Catholic Church, and a less one-sided – more accommodating – stance could then have resulted.255

A Commentary on Maria Alcidi’s “Religion, Security and Gender: An Unholy Trinity?”

Reconceptualizing Security

Alcidi’s paper is a call to reconceptualize the concept of security. It claims that security should be understood as a continuum between private (e.g. intimate partner violence) and public violence. Alcidi is particularly interested in the role of religion in enforcing hierarchical gender roles and thus making women vulnerable to violence both in the domestic and public spheres and making them susceptible to insecurity in times of conflict. She departs from the viewpoint that “countries with heightened rates of gender inequalities and violence are more insecure and prone to conflict.” She also argues that (organized) religion, particularly the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, are contrary to individual human rights because they offer a paradigm of hierarchy and inequality, while the human rights paradigm represents the opposite. Ultimately, Alcidi proposes women as change agents within religion (e.g. through feminist theologies) and suggests that the only way to reduce the gender inequalities advanced by religion and which lead to women’s insecurity is for states intervening with religious institutions to embrace an egalitarian ethos.

The paper has three well-argued parts. The first deals with themes of security and gender, the second with religion and gender, and the third – the “unholy trinity” – with religion, security, and gender. Despite the valid and well-presented arguments, the paper also has an evolutionist view of societies and its structures and ignores processes that can enhance or decrease the ability of religions to contribute to women’s insecurity, such as colonialism, capitalism, and neoliberalism. In what follows, I will problematize the different assumptions of the paper in the same order that the paper raises them.

Security and Gender

In this first part, Alcidi highlights how feminist scholars have problematized the understanding of the concept of security. According to these scholars, security is multidimensional, no longer focused on the protection of the state but concerned with human security. This new approach counters the dichotomy of war and peace and sees insecurity as a continuum of different types of violence. In the case of women, Alcidi argues that the domestic realm is a battleground due to the existence of structural gender inequalities – largely a byproduct of religion – which informs culture significantly.

This understanding has had similar developments in the discussions of security within anthropology in that security, when defocusing from the state and refocusing on the individual, can effectively mean increased rights. According to Daniel Goldstein, for example, “in Latin America, the ‘right to security,’ an apparently ironic reentailment of these conjoined expressions, becomes a rallying cry for people who lack access to justice or safety under a democratic rule of law.”256 Goldstein further links security to neoliberalism by unpacking the framework surrounding the concept of security and associating it with the social consequences in people’s everyday lives.

Though Alcidi does address the genealogy of the concept of security and its interlinkages with gender and contributions from feminist theory, the paper falls short in discussing the historical context in which the debates arise. Alcidi presents arguments at a metalevel, which blurs particular circumstances and the diverse experiences that tend to characterize the different securitiscapes and the women within them. For example, I find the following affirmation problematic: “a higher level of gender inequality within a state appears to be a predictor for political violence, internal conflict, as well as for a more aggressive attitude by a state during international crisis.” While there is robust evidence that supports this, there is also research that states that the association is not yet clear. Above all, there is also research arguing that the gender inequality norm, in and of itself, does not have a strong effect on the risk of armed conflict.257

Equally, Alcidi further argues that “systemic and widespread gender-based violence is an indicator that conflict is already happening rather than an indicator of future conflict” and therefore “all forms of gender-based violence are fundamentally a manifestation of the connection between war, militarism and the discrimination against women.” While I can agree with the former, research also points out that ongoing, if latent, conflict and high levels of gender-based violence are more prevalent in formerly colonized spaces.258 These spaces work to exacerbate other forms of structural inequities that form a basis to hinder change if not addressed directly.

Religion and Gender

In the second part of her paper, Alcidi introduces the concept of kyriarchy, by which she means a structure that “rests upon the ideology of male superiority coupled with the assumed natural inferiority of women.” This concept, unlike patriarchy which relies on the duality of the genders, intends to be inclusive and intersectional, “enabling the investigation into the multiplicative interactions of gender, race, class, and imperial stratification” as Alcidi argues. Still, it assumes a universal female subordination, which has largely been dismissed.259

Moreover, the concept Alcidi uses throughout her paper to define and understand the inequities between the sexes is still patriarchy. It is through partiarchy, she proclaims, that the public–private dichotomy arises, each space corresponding to its respective gender. This dichotomic view of gender and the public and private sphere has been criticized as both androcentric and Eurocentric.260 The literature calls for a nuanced view of both. Similarly, when it comes to religion, it is important to understand how it is practiced, and what role processes such as secularism and secularization can have on such practices.261

Yet Alcidi’s reflection on the aspects of the scriptures that most contribute to the matrix of gender inequality is important. For contexts where religion is dominant or influential, it can certainly play a role in subordinating women and exacerbating heteronormativity. However, it is important to contextualize the circumstances and spaces these texts have become influential. In the current securityscape where, for example, the Muslim male is seen as a threat, a certain homonationalism has also been a norm.262

As to her critique of the theology of complementarism, in favor of a theology of egualitarianism as found in the human rights paradigm, it is important to note that the latter has been criticized for perpetuating unequal incorporations of what these rights mean to the world at large. Jasbir Puar, for example, accuses what she calls “the gay and lesbian human rights complex” of proliferating “Euro-American constructs of identity (not to mention the notion of a sexual identity itself) that privilege identity politics, ‘coming out,’ public visibility, and legislative measures as the dominant barometers of social progress.”263 In this, a postcolonial critique, which highlights the hierarchical power of concepts and paradigms, does not allow for the human rights paradigm to be used acritically.

Unholy Trinity

In the paper’s last part, Alcidi argues that engagement with religious institutions regarding gender equality is vital for ensuring human security. She goes on to state that “the potential for the reformation of religions in line with the evolution of our times cannot be overstated.” The use of the concept of evolution to refer to sociality is always problematic. It presumes, though perhaps unintentionally, an idea of directional and hierarchical change for betterment. Reality is seldom linear, as many backlash movements against gender and lgbt rights have shown, even in spaces where these seemed consolidated.264

Alcidi critiques “multicultural liberal arguments,” which she accuses of protecting cultural, ethnic, and religious minorities’ rights that sanction gender inequality, for example by not opposing gender hierarchy in family status laws. In this she is reviving the opposition of the concepts of “culture” and “rights,” quite common in the feminist legal discourse. Sylvia Tamale argues that this approach creates an extremely restrictive framework within which women cannot adequately challenge their domination. Likewise, human rights legislation has had a limited effect in the lives of many women, whereas creative ways of deploying familiar cultural values and norms may be more effective in exacting change.265 This seems to be what Alcidi proposes when she lists the extraordinary contribution of feminist theologists in the reinterpretation of the scriptures towards a more egalitarian ethos.

Finally, Alcidi proposes that states both interfere with and influence religious law, in addition to a larger participation of women in religious bodies, contributing to the overhaul of the interpretation of the scriptures. This has been the case in both religious and self-professed secular states. However, as Bowen argues, this process is not characterized by the state merely enforcing religious law. Rather, “the state and specific individuals and groups with state functions also interpret, modify, and condition the application of religious norms.”266

In this vein, I am concerned with Alcidi’s suggestion that “women’s consent to inequality, including as a result of religious rules, should be subject to enhanced scrutiny by the state.” Does this suggest that there is just one right way to think? Or does it mean that men will also be subject to scrutiny when they consent to inequality? Signe Arnfred is particularly critical of what she says is an “increasingly dominant neo-liberal mindset [that] has reduced the scope of feminist struggle to issues of equality.”267 Arnfred goes on to argue that such equality cannot be achieved universally, but is limited within the same class, for example. Moreover, she adds that the “subordination of women and exploitation of nature are part and parcel of capitalism; radical change cannot take place without a radical change of this economic system.”268

Overall, I find that Alcidi’s arguments, while raising important issues, suffer from excessive legalism. By this I mean she employs a strict interpretation of the written text, whether the religious scriptures or the human rights legislation, which does not always reflect the lived practices on the ground. Alcidi’s paper also lacks contextual diversification, which could inform the different ways the religious aspect interacts with other factors.

While I cannot say that I disagree completely with Alcidi’s arguments, I contend that they need to incorporate the role and contribution of colonialism, capitalism, and neoliberalism in the way religious scriptures are appropriated and practiced, and how this in turn affects notions of gender equality, and the violence that derives therein. Moreover, it is important that Alcidi recognizes that the human rights paradigm emerges within a specific hierarchy of thought and, while it creates opportunities, it also creates limitations.

Response to Comments

I am grateful for the thought-provoking observations made by Alessandra Gribaldo, Elisabetta Grande and Carmeliza Rosario. They allowed me to recognize some of the limitations of my research, to deepen my arguments and to broaden the scope of the analysis.

Given that all three scholars noted the lack of contextualization in my work, I would like to first clarify the boundaries within which my research is situated. The decision to reflect upon the interplay between religion, security and gender derives from my direct experience with the negotiations of the 2018 Ministerial Council Decision on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (osce). Therefore, while some of the reflections apply beyond the geographic scope of the osce, the paper’s core assumptions and scope are situated within the “cosmologies of the Global North”.

At the core of the three comments stands the idea that the way Abrahamic religions influence the security of women cannot be investigated without considering the legacy of colonialism (Rosario), the impact of neoliberal global policies (Gribaldo) and the underpinning epistemological framework (Grande).

I agree with Rosario’s call to “incorporate the role and contribution of colonialism, capitalism, and neoliberalism in the way religious scriptures are appropriated and practiced.” While in my paper I do refer to the “postcolonial perspectives that challenge white feminist biblical discourse,” a more detailed inclusion of such perspectives would benefit the overall analysis. In support of the claim I make in the paper, I find particularly relevant the concept of “spiritual coloniality” employed by Sylvia Tamale to describe the role religion – Christianity in particular – played in efforts to validate the colonial project in Africa:

The imported Abrahamic religions worked hard to entrench patriarchal domination, propagate ideologies of gender inequality and rearrange African societies in a bid to suit the colonial economies.269

In the same vein, Maria Lugones speaks about the “coloniality of gender” to describe the gendered characteristics that accompanied the process of colonial exploitation, namely strict biological dimorphism, heterosexuality and the patriarchal distribution of power.270 Contrary to Grande’s portrait of gender egalitarianism as the product of the Western liberal tradition, Oyeronke Oyewumi describes how a pre-colonial egalitarian era among the Yoruba people271 was followed by the colonial imposition of the binary and hierarchical subjectivities of woman and man.272 The same conclusion was reached by Paula Gunn Allen when she noted that gender subordination resulted from the imposition of Eurocentric capitalism upon many Native American tribes, which wiped out their egalitarian and diverse gender subjectivities, including the recognition of a “third” gender and of homosexuality.273

Neoliberalism, as the most recent iteration of capitalism, was cited by Gribaldo as a locus that “do[es] not repel gender violence”: I certainly concur. In her fascinating gendered reading of the history of capitalism, Silvia Federici describes the witch-hunting phenomenon of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe and in North America as a deliberate policy to discipline women’s bodies, to control their reproductive role and to curtail women’s production of knowledge, including healing, midwifery and birth control.274 At the intersection between neoliberalism, gender subjectivities and monotheistic religions, special consideration should be given to the Christian movement known as Prosperity Gospel, which Tamale suggests is the epitome of neoliberal capitalism in Africa.275 Prosperity Gospel frames the attainment of physical well-being and financial gains as a direct consequence of God’s blessing. This movement is peculiar in that it does not seek to redress social injustices.276 Instead, and in keeping with Grande’s critique of the disruption of collective subjectivities in the name of liberalism, it champions “a belief in the power of the individual.”277 This “theology of consumption” is predicated upon the salvific power of entrepreneurialism, success and wealth,278 which generates an idiosyncratic type of hyperfemininity grounded in the worshipping of beauty and sexual fulfilment within a paradigm of gender complementarity, heterosexuality and submissiveness.279 This religious movement where “postfeminism and Christianity collude with neoliberalism to produce embodied female subjectivities” deserves closer investigation due to its fast-paced diffusion around the world and its potential to attract vulnerable individuals and marginalized communities.280

Grande’s critique of ethnocentrism is premised on a flawed assumption. By depicting gender egalitarianism as distinctive to the Western liberal ethos, Grande is endorsing precisely what she criticizes, namely cultural essentialism and an acontextual dichotomic view of the “west and the rest.”281 This exclusionary framing of gender egalitarianism as “Western” does not recognize the incredible emancipatory use that women’s rights advocates from non-Western contexts have made of this principle, which they consider as a shared patrimony. The events that are currently unfolding in Iran exemplify the relevance of the women’s rights toolbox beyond the Western precinct. Certainly, the portrait of the West as the “source” of women’s rights which gets weaponized to justify “western crusades to rescue the oppressed others” is a sacrosanct critique. However, this framing falsely implies that “the West alone have arrived at the udhr [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] paradigmatic principles and [that] such ideas fall outside the trajectory of non-Western Civilisations.”282 To trace an allegedly linear path linking up the Magna Carta (1215) with the udhr (1945), passing by the English Bill of Rights (1689), the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), the United States Bill of Rights (1789) and the French Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (1789), is to construe a biased “ex post facto retrospective teleology” that does not account for experiences of discontinuity.283 Alternative narratives have demonstrated just as well the Buddhist, Islamic and Hinduism roots to the udhr. The limit of this “essentialist appropriations of human rights” is to overlook its historical contingency.284 It was the horror of the Second World War that prompted a wide and diverse range of state and non-state actors to call for a supranational system of protection of humans against the abuse of the state. The race to ascertain the human rights pedigree fails to recognize that “human rights do not spring from just one homogeneous religion, value system, or culture.”285 Furthermore, because cultures are not immutable constructs but malleable products of contested meaning, we can plausibly entertain the idea of human rights as the locus of a cultural “overlapping consensus.”286 Grande’s claim that the human rights system protects the idea of individual rights at the expense of group rights rests on a partial and static view that does not account for the system’s origin or for its enormous development over the past 50 years. The group rights of religious, linguistic and ethnic minorities, which found their remarkable recognition under the League of Nations, are considered the forerunner of human rights. Moreover, the system has proven to be malleable, expanding beyond its traditional framing based on individual personhood and resisting the state’s abuse of civil and political freedom. The inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights and the right to people’s self-determination was a direct consequence of the pressure from socialist countries and countries emerging from colonial occupation. The development of Indigenous groups’ rights and of collective rights to a clean environment represent the latest emblematic examples of the evolution of the human rights framework. That human rights protect individuals does not mean that groups do not find protection as well. However, “human rights value social groups because of their benefit to people, not the other way round.”287 My research exposes the potential vulnerability of women to “the various kinds of harms inflicted by groups,”288 such as families and religious communities. Certainly, as Grande reminds us, women all over the world show great resilience in “lucidly bargain[ing] with patriarchy,” thus mediating their individual and group subjectivities “by complying with unequal gender rules that in a communitarian collective context match their interests too.” However, this awareness does not prevent women’s rights advocates, as I suggest in my paper, from demanding both state authorities to provide opt-out incentives aimed at reducing women’s vulnerability and religious authorities to follow alternative interpretations of their sacred texts more attuned to the principle of gender egalitarianism. Cultural relativism, of the kind proposed by Grande, “inhibit[s] the ability to critically evaluate social situations, and thus overlook[s] social injustices embedded in given cultural contexts.”289 It runs the risk of turning a blind eye to the power structures within communities, which curtails “the ability of individuals to renegotiate cultural norms.”290 While I value Grande’s appreciation of the diversity of women’s experiences, I remain sceptical about her eulogy of non-autonomous women’s consent to unequal relationships and traditional practices. I also recognize that, on the ground, women’s rights advocates reclaim a cross-cultural human rights theory which rests on a “theoretical position that human rights are local and universal and contested.”291 This theory, by “bringing subaltern subjectivities together” (Gribaldo), attempts to reconcile the universality of the women’s rights framework with the respect to cultural differences and the provision of local responses to the clash between individual (women’s) autonomy and communities’ claims for obedience. In my paper, I have attempted to demonstrate that one of the ways to challenge gender roles that undermine women’s security is to listen to the plea for change that comes from within communities, and I have offered the example of the feminist Catholic theologists as a case in point.


Martin, E. M. (1997) An Exuberant Adventure: The Academic Study and Teaching of Religion. Religious Studies News, n.p.


The full text of the Decision on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women can be found at The osce Ministerial Council was held in Milan on 6 and 7 December 2018; see The osce is a multilateral security-based organization, including 57 member states of the Northern hemisphere, which has its origins in 1975 in Helsinki as a “Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (csce)” and operates primarily in the areas of conflict prevention, crisis management, and post-conflict rehabilitation. The organization works on the basis of the principle of “consensus,” which means that decisions adopted by the Ministerial Council, its most prestigious governing body, have to be adopted unanimously, something which renders the process of negotiation extremely difficult, especially when strong competing views on a topic exist among participating states. This was the case for the Decision on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women.


Such as the reference to the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, to intersectional forms of violence, to harmful cultural and religious practices, and to intimate partner violence among minors.


osce Ministerial Council Decision on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women, adopted on 7 December 2018, page 1, last paragraph.


Tickner, J. A. (2005) What Is Your Research Program? Some Feminist Answers to International Relations Methodological Questions. International Studies Quarterly, 49: 1–21. The author challenges the call for feminist international relations scholars to stick to a quantitative method of analysis aimed at revealing “hard facts and data.” Instead, she calls for scholars to document the experience of marginalized and invisible women in innovative ways that social science has not yet recognized.


Postcolonial feminism is particularly vocal in challenging the idea of nation-building that followed the dismantling of colonialism for its roots in Western cultural and racial stereotypes. Chandra Talpade Mohanty posits that “all women do not have the same emancipation needs and wants” and that there is not only one “female experience.” See Mohanty, C. T. (Autumn 1998) Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. Feminist Review, 30: 61–88.


For a distinction between liberal feminism, radical feminism, and cultural feminism, see Kim. N. (1993–1994) Toward a Feminist Theory of Human Rights: Straddling the Fence Between Western Imperialism and Uncritical Absolutism. Columbia Human Rights Law Review 25: 49–105, p. 52–55.


The term “intersectionality” was first employed by the legal scholar of colour Kimberlé Crenshaw to challenge “the centrality of white female experiences in the conceptualization of gender discrimination.” Crenshaw, K. (1989) Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum 1: 139–167, p. 144. While the initial focus was confined to the intersecting experience of sex and gender, later, postcolonial and critical race theorists broadened this interpretative framework to expound on the complexity of female domination and the ways in which heteronormative, gender, race, and class structures are critically intertwined. Schüssler Fiorenza, E. (2014) Between Movement and Academy: Feminist Biblical Studies in the Twentieth Century. Feminist Biblical Studies in the Twentieth Century: Scholarship and Movement, Society of Biblical Literature, ed. by Økland, J., Fischer, I., Navarro Puerto, M., and Valerio A, p. 10.


Ammons, L. L. (January 1999) What’s God Got To Do With It? Church and State Collaboration in the Subordination of Women and Domestic Violence. 51 Rutgers Law Review, in footnote 9.


Raday, F. (2012) Gender and Democratic Citizenship: The Impact of cedaw. International Journal of Constitutional Law 10, 2, p. 518. See also Raday F. (2012) Sacralising the patriarchal family in the monotheistic religions. International Journal of Law in Context, 8, 2: 211–230.


Nair, R. (1 November 2015) While the Revolution Gently Weeps. dna,, last accessed on 10 March 2023.


Sjoberg, L. & Martin, J. (2007) Feminist Security Studies: Conversations and Introductions. isa Compendium Project, p. 1. A feminist analysis of international relations is at least a century old, as highlighted by J. A. Tickner: “It is rather the field of international relations that has come late to feminism.” Tickner, J. A. & True, J. (2018) A Century of International Relations Feminism: From World War I Women’s Peace Pragmatism to the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. International Studies Quarterly 62, pp. 228, 231.


Particularly relevant in this context is the United Nations s/res/1820 (2008) on sexual violence during wars.


The so-called liberal vision of Women, Peace and Security (wps) enshrined in the UN Security Council resolutions has been criticized by anti-militarist feminist scholars for adding women into militarized structures rather than challenging them. See Cockburn, C. (2012) Snagged on the Contradiction: nato, Resolution 1325, and Feminist Responses. Women in Action: 48–57. Weiss, C. (May 2011) We Must Not Make War Safe for Women. Open Democracy.


Cuomo, D. (2013) Security and Fear: The Geopolitics of Intimate Partner Violence Policing. Geopolitics, 18, 4: 856–874, p. 859.


Tickner, J. A. (1992) Gender in International Relations (New York: Columbia University Press).


Lewis, D. (2013) The Multiple Dimensions of Human Security through the Lens of African Feminist Intellectual Activism. Africa Peace and Conflict Journal, 6, 1, p. 15. See also Tickner, J. A. (December 1997) You Just Don’t Understand: Troubled Engagements between Feminist and ir Theorists. International Studies Quarterly, 41, p. 625.


It suffices to mention here the well-documented misuse of anti-terrorist laws and policies, adopted by numerous states in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack, to target political opponents, ethnic rivals, or marginalized religious groups within states’ boundaries.


Traditional international relations scholarship has framed security primarily in relation to the security of the state. Security is measured in terms of protection of the physical, moral, and legal boundaries of the state against the threats posed by the international system, which is perceived as chaotic and therefore anarchic. See Sjoberg & Martin, Feminist Security Studies: Conversations and Introductions, 10.


Tickner, J. A. (2005) What Is Your Research Program? Some Feminist Answers to International Relations Methodological Questions, pp. 6, 7.


Lewis, D. (2006) Rethinking Human Security: The Implications of Gender Mainstreaming. In State Security to Human Security in Southern Africa, ed. Cheryl Hendrick (Pretoria, Institute for Security Studies), pp. 9–10.


The World Health Organization (who) defines intimate partner violence as any behaviour within an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological, or sexual harm to those in the relationship. who (2012) Intimate Partner Violence: Understanding and Addressing Violence against Women, p. 1, last accessed on 10 March 2023. The terminology “intimate partner violence” is utilized in this paper instead of “domestic violence” as the latter also encompasses child or elder abuse within the family.




Global Database on Violence against Women, at, last accessed on 10 March 2023.


At the upper extreme, more than two-thirds of all women (69 per cent) intentionally killed in Africa in 2017 were killed by intimate partners or other family members, while the region with the smallest share of women killed by intimate partners or other family members was Europe (38 per cent). unodc (2018) Global Study on Homicide, Gender-related Killing of Women and Girls, p. 17,, last accessed on 10 March 2023.


Ibid., p. 19.


Lewis, D. (2013) The Multiple Dimensions of Human Security through the Lens of African Feminist Intellectual Activism, p. 16, citing Meintjies, S., Turshen, M., & Pillay, A. (2001) The Aftermath: Women in Post-Conflict Transformation (Zed Books).


Cockburn, C. (2010) Gender Relations as Causal in Militarization and War. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 12, 2, p. 146; Pain, R. (2015) Intimate War. Political Geography 44: 64–73. Cuomo, Security and Fear: The Geopolitics of Intimate Partner Violence Policing.


Hudson, H. (February 1998) A Feminist Reading of Security in Africa. Caring Security in Africa, Monograph 20, Institute for Security Studies, p. 11.


Meintjies, S. and Turshen, M., Pillay, A. (2001) The Aftermath: Women in Post-Conflict Transformation, p. 3. For the link between war, political violence, and corresponding high rates of intimate partner violence, see Kelly, J., Colantuoni, E., Robinson, C., & Decker, M. R. (2021) Quantifying the Ripple Effects of Civil War: How Armed Conflict Is Associated with More Severe Violence in the Home. Health and Human Rights Journal, 23: 75–89.


Lewis, D. (2006) Rethinking Human Security: The Implications of Gender Mainstreaming, p. 11.


“Gender-based violence is an umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will and that is based on socially ascribed (i.e. gender) differences between males and females. It includes acts that inflict physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion, and other deprivations of liberty. These acts can occur in public or in private.” See unhcr, “Gender-based Violence,”, last accessed on 10 March 2023.


The quote, from Donna Lee Bowen, describes the correlation between what the author describes as the “patrilineal syndrome” and violent political instability. The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide,, last accessed on 10 March 2023, a review of the book Hudson, V. M., Bowen, D. L., & Nielsen, P. L. (2020) The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide (New York: Columbia University Press).


Pain, R. (2015) Intimate War, p. 65, and emphasis added. An emerging field of study focuses on “emotional geopolitics,” which developed following the so-called war on terror launched in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack. It is concerned with the ways in which emotions are used and misused as warfare strategies. Cuomo, D. (2013) Security and Fear: The Geopolitics of Intimate Partner Violence Policing, p. 860.


Hudson, H. (2008) A Feminist Reading of Security in Africa, p. 22.


Cuomo, D. (2013) Security and Fear: The Geopolitics of Intimate Partner Violence Policing, p. 857.


Gray, H. (2016) Domestic Abuse and the Public/Private Divide in the British Military. Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, p. 6.


Distinguishing between “correlation” and “causation” is important here. While correlation between two variables in social and political science reveals how strongly they are related and change together, causation suggests that a change in one variable will determine a change in another as cause and effect.


Tessler, M. & Warriner, I. (January 1997) Gender, Feminism, and Attitudes toward International Conflict. World Politics 49: 250–281. Reiter, D. (2014) The Positivist Study of Gender and International Relations. Journal of Conflict Resolution 59, 7: 1301–1326. Bjarnegård, E., Melander, E., & True, J. (December 2020) The Sexism and Violence Nexus. Research brief, Folke Bernadotte Academy, the Peace Research Institute Oslo, and UN Women. Hudson, M. V., Ballif-Spanvill, B., Caprioli, M., & Emmett, C. F. (2012) Sex and World Peace (New York: Columbia University Press).


Potts, M. & Hayden, T. (2010) Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World (Dallas, TX: Ben Bella).


See in particular the vast bibliography of Professor Ted Gurr, starting from his seminal work (1970) Why Men Rebel, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Gurr, T. (2015) Minorities, Nationalists, and Islamists: Explaining Communal Conflict in the Twenty-first Century. In Political Rebellion, ed by Ted Gurr (Routledge): 95–123.


Caprioli, M. & Trumbore, P. F. (March 2006) Human Rights Rogues in Interstate Disputes, 1980–2001. Journal of Peace Research, 43, 2: 131–148; Caprioli, M. & Trumbore, P. F. (January 2003) Ethnic Discrimination and Interstate Violence: Testing the International Impact of Domestic Behavior. Journal of Peace Research, 40, 1: 5–23.


Caprioli, M. & Boyer, M. A. (August 2001) Gender, Violence, and International Crisis. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 45, 4: 503–518. Caprioli, M. (2005) Primed for Violence: The Role of Gender Inequality in Predicting Internal Conflict. International Studies Quarterly 49: 161–178.


Pillars of Peace: Understanding the Key Attitudes and Institutions that Underpin Peaceful Societies, the Institute for Economics & Peace (2013) p. 31. Bjarnegård, E., Melander, E., & True, J. (2020) Women, Peace and Security: The Sexism and Violence Nexus. Joint Brief Series: New Insights on Women, Peace and Security (wps) for the Next Decade, Stockholm: Folke Bernadotte Academy, prio and UN Women. Caprioli M. and Boyer M. (2001) Gender, Violence, and International Crisis, p. 515.


Bjarnegård, E., Brounéus, K., & Melander, E. (2017) Honor and Political Violence: Micro-Level Findings from a Survey in Thailand. Journal of Peace Research, 54, 6: p. 758.


Fearon, J. D. (31 August 2010) Governance and Civil War Onset. World Development Report Background Paper, p. 37.


Caprioli, M. (2005) Primed for Violence, p. 171.


Galtung, J. (1975) Peace: Research, Education, Action: Essays in Peace Research (Copenhagen: Chr. Ejlers Forlag), 264–265.


Galtung, J. (1990) Cultural Violence. Journal of Peace Research, p. 291.


Raday, F. (October 2003) Culture, Religion and Gender. International Journal of Constitutional Law, 1, 663: p. 665.


“Those who interpret Islam in ways that tacitly condone men’s violent behaviour are complicit in structural and cultural violence,” in Rasool. S. and Suleman, M. (2016) Muslim Women Overcoming Marital Violence: Breaking Through “Structural and Cultural Prisons” Created by Religious Leaders. Agenda – Empowering Women for Gender Equality, 30: p. 40.


An insightful scholarship describes the “othering logic” underpinning the hierarchical system that opposes men to women. As a result, the “honour ideology,” grounded on the patriarchal idea of masculine toughness, appears to be a reliable predictor of engagement in political violence. Bjarnegård, et al., Honor and Political Violence: Micro-Level Findings from a Survey in Thailand, p. 751. El-Bushra, J. & Sahl, I. M. G. (2005) Cycles of Violence: Gender Relations and Armed Conflict Nairobi: acord – Agency for Co-Operation and Research in Development. See also Breines, I., Connell, R., & Eide, I., eds. (2000) Male Roles, Masculinities and Violence: A Culture of Peace Perspective (New York: unesco).


Jackman, M. R. (1996) The Velvet Glove: Paternalism and Conflict in Gender, Class, and Race Relations (Berkeley: University of California Press), p. 9.


Godenzi, A. (2000) Determinant of Culture: Men and Economic Power, in Male Roles, Masculinities and Violence: A Culture of Peace Perspective, ed. Breines, Connell, & Eide (New York: unesco): 35–50.


unicef (2014) A Statistical Snapshot of Violence Against Adolescent Girls (New York: unicef), p. 17.


Kaufman, M. (1997) The Construction of Masculinity and the Triad of Men’s Violence, in Gender Violence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, ed. by O’Toole L., and Schiffman J. (New York: nyu Press), 30–51. For an interesting analysis on the recourse to “rape culture” by the Incel (involuntary celibates) groups as a way to control women, see Lindsay, A. (2021) Incel Violence as a Reclamation of Masculinity and Defence of Patriarchy. New Zealand Sociology: 25–49.


Confortini, C. (2006) Galtung, Violence, and Gender: The Case for a Peace Studies/Feminism Alliance. Peace & Change 31, 3: p. 356.


Pain, R. (2015) Intimate War, p. 64, word and emphasis added. See also Hudson, V. M., Caprioli, M., Ballif-Spanvill, B., McDermott, R., & Emmett, C. F. (2009) The Heart of the Matter: The Security of Women and the Security of States. International Security, 33, 3: p. 20.


Bjarnegård, E. et al. (2017) Honor and Political Violence: Micro-Level Findings from a Survey in Thailand.


Hudson, V. M. & Hodgson, K. B. (2020) Sex and Terror: Is the Subordination of Women Associated with the Use of Terror? Terrorism and Political Violence: 1556–1836. McCulloch, J., Walklate, S., Maher, J. M., Fitz-Gibbon, K., & McGowan, J. (2019) Lone Wolf Terrorism Through a Gendered Lens: Men Turning Violent or Violent Men Behaving Violently? Critical Criminology, 27, 3: 437–450.


Hudson, V. M. et al. (2009) The Heart of the Matter, p. 26.


Saferworld (2014) Gender and Conflict Early Warning: Results of a Literature Review on Integrating Gender Perspectives into Conflict Early Warning Systems. Briefing Note, p. 6.


Hudson, A Feminist Reading of Security in Africa, p. 18.


Mary-Anne Plaatjies Van Huffel refers to the concept of patriarchy as a “social system that promotes hierarchies and awards economic, political and social power to one group over others. Patriarchy is essentially androcentric and hierarchical by nature.” Plaatjies, M. A. Van Huffel (2011) Patriarchy as Empire: A Theological Reflection. University of Stellenbosch, Department of Ecclesiology and Church Polity, 37 – Supplement, p. 259. See also Walby, S. (1990) Theorizing Patriarchy (Oxford); Code, L. (2000) Patriarchy, in Encyclopedia of Feminist Theories (Routledge): 378–379.


Three Patriarchates of Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria were founded already in the first century while Constantinople and Jerusalem were added respectively in the fourth and fifth centuries.


Cockburn, C (2010) Gender Relations as Causal in Militarization and War, p. 149.


Galtung, J (1996) Peace by Peaceful Means: Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilization, Sage Publications p. 30.


Cockburn, Gender Relations as Causal in Militarization and War.


Wright, H. (November 2019) Masculinities Perspectives: Advancing a Radical Women, Peace and Security Agenda? International Feminist Journal of Politics, p. 655.


Cuomo, C. J. (1996) War Is Not Just an Event: Reflections on the Significance of Everyday Violence. Hypatia Special Issue: Women and Violence, 11, 4, p. 31.


I utilize the term militarism here broadly, so as to refer not only to state-sanctioned military institutions, like the army, but also to so-called rebel armed groups in conflict settings as well as to political violence in countries with heightened levels of instability.


The concept of hegemonic masculinity refers to the complex set of norms, attitudes, and beliefs that rests upon male dominance, achievement (including in financial terms and heterosexual romantic partners), and control over women. This concept derives from the construct of “cultural hegemony” as developed by the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci and further elaborated by the American scholar Robert W. Cox. See Cox, R. W. (1983) Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations: An Essay in Method. Millennium: Journal of International Relations 12, 2: 162–175.


Connell, R. Gender and Power as referenced by Tickner, J. A. (1992) Gender in International Relations, pp. 3–4.


Lopes, H. (March 2011) Militarized Masculinity in Peacekeeping Operations: An Obstacle to Gender. Mainstreaming. Background Paper, Peacebuilding and Conflict Prevention consultation series, p. 4. See also Staub, E. (2006) Reconciliation after Genocide, Mass Killing, or Intractable Conflict: Understanding the Roots of Violence, Psychological Recovery, and Steps toward a General Theory. Political Psychology 27, 6: 867–894.


To be called “a girl”, “a pussy,” or “a gay” in military training remains among the worst possible insult. See Hudson, H. (1998) A Feminist Reading of Security in Africa, p. 18.


Enloe, C. (July–August 1993) Home Fires: The Right to Fight, a Feminist Catch-22. Ms., 4, 1: 84–87.


Whitworth, S. (2004) Men, Militarism, and UN Peacekeeping: A Gendered Analysis (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner), p. 28; Higate, P. (2003) Military Masculinities: Identity and the State (New York: Praeger).


Hudson, H. (1998) A Feminist Reading of Security in Africa, p. 18.


In the context of terrorism, see Windisch, B. (September 2020) Lone Actor Terrorists: The Performance of Hegemonic Masculinity through Acts of Violence. Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California PhD dissertation.


Klein, U. (2000) “Our Best Boys”: The Making of Masculinity in Israeli Society, in Male Roles, Masculinities and Violence: A Culture of Peace Perspective, ed. Breines, C. et al. (New York: unesco), p. 166.


Nagel, J. (2005) Nation, in Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities, ed. Kimmel, M. S., Hearn, J., & Connell, R. W. (Thousand Oaks, CA: sage), p. 403.


Lewis, D. (2013) The Multiple Dimensions of Human Security through the Lens of African Feminist Intellectual Activism, p. 21.


Bjarnegård, E. and Melander, E. (2017) Pacific Men: How the Feminist Gap Explains Hostility. The Pacific Review, 30: 478–493. Asal, V., Legault, R., Szekely, O., & Wilkenfeld, J. (2013) Gender Ideologies and Forms of Contentious Mobilization in the Middle East. Journal of Peace Research 50, 3: 305–318. Bjarnegård et al., Honor and Political Violence: Micro-Level Findings from a Survey in Thailand.


Fanon, F. (2008) Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press): 141–142.


Wendy, B. (2000) Rape in Kosovo: Masculinity and Serbian Nationalism. Nations and Nationalism 6, 4: 653–690. See also Slapsak S. (2000) Hunting, Ruling, Sacrificing: Traditional Malpractices in Contemporary Balkan Cultures, in Male Roles, Masculinities and Violence: A Culture of Peace Perspective, ed. Breines, C. et al. (New York: unesco), 131–142.


There is abundant evidence of perpetrators of domestic violence’s internalization of condoning reasoning for their deeds and shifting the blame onto the victim. “Perpetrators of femicide employ the same standards of propriety, that is, obedience, modesty, and motherhood, in framing murder as a legitimate, understandable, and acceptable reaction to victims’ failure to perform their gender roles properly.” Atuk, S. (2020) Femicide and the Speaking State: Woman Killing and Woman (Re)making in Turkey. Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, 3: p. 297.


Presse, A. F. (6 June 2016) Turkish President Says Childless Women Are “Deficient, Incomplete,” The Guardian,, last accessed 10 March 2023.


Connell, R. (2000) Arms and the Man: Using the New Research on Masculinity to Understand Violence and Promote Peace in the Contemporary World, in Male Roles, Masculinities and Violence: A Culture of Peace Perspective, ed. Breines, C. et al. (New York: unesco), p. 23. See also Bjarnegård, E. et al. (2017) Honor and Political Violence: Micro-Level Findings from a Survey in Thailand, p. 751.


Cornell lists in addition to war, domestic violence, and violent crimes, numerous examples across the entire spectrum of violence, including the engagement in body-contact sports, in dangerous driving and in reckless business decision-making. See Connell, Arms and the Man, p. 22.


Prinz, J. J. (2014) Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind (New York: Norton & Company).


“Discriminatory gender norms are not only upheld through the rules of behaviour in everyday life that children quickly internalise … but also by wider social institutions. These include organised religions, traditional social structures, education systems and the media.” See Marcus, R., Harper, C., Brodbeck S., & Page, E. (August 2015) Social Norms, Gender Norms and Adolescent Girls: A Brief Guide, Toolkits, p. 6.


Raday, F. (2003) Culture, Religion and Gender, p. 667.


Women are by no means the only group affected by discriminatory religious rules. Traditional gender norms are detrimental to the security of queer people as well.


Quote attributed to Marie de France and later popularized by George Weinberg. First appeared in print in an article written for the 23 May 1969 edition of the American tabloid Screw. The quote has become a symbol of the atheist movement and of some feminist groups.


By male superiority or supremacy, I refer to the belief that privilege, power, and dominance should be granted to men by virtue of their assignment of biological attributes; see Ammons, L. L. (1999) What’s God Got To Do With It?, p. 1218. See also Wade, N. (2009) The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures (New York: Penguin Press).


The theologist Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza suggests replacing the term patriarchy with the more inclusive term “kyriarchy” (from the Greek noun “kyrios,” master, and the verb “archein,” to dominate). She posits that such a term does justice to the eco- and post-colonial feminist movements by embracing the intersectional analytical framework and thus “enabling the investigation into the multiplicative interactions of gender, race, class, and imperial stratification instead of resting on an essentialist, ahistorical, and hierarchical dualistic system.” Schüssler Fiorneza, E. (2014) Between Movement and Academy, p. 12.


As Kathleen A. McDonald puts it: “The structure is a highly-stratified hierarchy that dictates who has access to which positions (…). Ideology is the means by which the dominant group utilizes internal controls to force acceptance of the structure and to prevent the subordinate group from rebelling.” McDonald, K. A. (1989) Battered Wives, Religion, & Law: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, p. 265.


Dobash, E. and Dobash, R. (1979) Violence against Wives (New York: The Free Press), pp. xii, 339.


Ross, L. E. (2012) Religion and Intimate Partner Violence: A Double-Edge Sword? Catalyst: A Social Justice Forum, 2, 3: Article 1, p. 5.


Christians and Jews share a common religious text, the Bible, a collection of scriptures which are considered to have been revealed by God as a product of divine inspiration. Those books included in the Bible, which certain groups view as the true representation of God’s word, are defined as canonical. The canonical Hebrew Bible overlaps with the canonical Christian Old Testament. The New Testament, which is the most recent part of the Bible for Christians, is a collection of books by the Jewish disciples of Jesus Christ. Among them, the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) narrate the words and deeds of Jesus Christ culminating in his trial, death, and resurrection.


Silva, E. R. (Summer 1994) Matricidal Patriarchy: Some Thoughts toward Understanding the Devaluation of Women in the Church. Dialogue, 27, 2, p. 148.


The quote is from Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, as mentioned in Ross, L.E. (2012) Religion and Intimate Partner Violence, p. 6.


Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza recognizes that “In all three Abrahamic religions, sacred Scriptures and traditions have been formulated and interpreted from the perspective of privileged men and therefore reflect neither the perspectives nor the experiences of wo/men, the poor, or enslaved peoples.” Schüssler Fiorenza, E. (2014) Between Movement and Academy, p. 16.


Ross, L.E. (2012) Religion and Intimate Partner Violence, p. 5.


Confortini, C. (2006) Galtung, Violence, and Gender, p. 339.


Jacobson N. S. & Gottman, J. M. (1998) When Men Batter Women: New Insights into Ending Abusive Relationships (New York: Simon & Schuster), p. 55; Ammons, L.L. (1999) What’s God Got To Do With It?, p. 1223. See also Horton, A. L. & Williamson, J. A. (1988) Abuse and Religion: When Praying Isn’t Enough (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books), p. 235: “… the degradation of women is a cornerstone of most religions.”


Dobash and Dobash, Violence against Wives, pp. 33–34 as cited in Knickmeyer, N., Levitt, H., and Horne, S. G. (March 2004) Responding to Mixed Messages and Double Binds: Religious Oriented Coping Strategies of Christian Battered Women. Journal of Religion & Abuse, p. 94.


See Tkacz, C. B. (2006) Are Old Testament Women Nameless, Silent, Passive Victims? Catholic Answers. Available online at:, last accessed on 10 March 2023.


This, as presented in the first part of this article, stands at the core of feminist security studies’ critique.


Raday, F. (2012) Sacralisation of the Patriarchal Family in the Three Monotheisms, p. 220.


1 Timothy, verses 2:11 to 2:15.


Ruether, R. R. (1983) Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon), pp. 168, 169.


Koosed, J. L. (2017) Reading the Bible as a Feminist. Brill Research Perspectives in Biblical Interpretation, 2, 2: p. 48. Noteworthy, and notwithstanding the presence of many other references to constraining gender roles, in Islamh the man and the woman are considered equally faulty for the disobedience to God’s injunction.


1 Timothy, verses 2:12, which excludes women from teaching or having authority over men in the Church.


Mattox, M. L. (2003) Luther on Eve, Women and the Church. Theology Faculty Research and Publications Marquette University, p. 457.


Ibid., p. 460.


Leviticus 20:13.


The belief that homosexual relationships are “unions not ordered to the Creator’s plan” has been recently reaffirmed by the Vatican, in the “Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to a dubium regarding the blessing of the unions of persons of the same sex,” published in Rome on 22 February 2021.


Ross, S. A. (2005) Can Women Become Priests? A Catholic Feminist Perspective. Journal of Hindu–Christian Studies, 18: article 5, p. 8.


Tourjee, D. (16 December 2015) Why Do Men Kill Trans Women? Gender Theorist Judith Butler Explains. Vice Broadly,, last accessed on 10 March 2023.


Ross, S. A. (2005) Can Women Become Priests? p. 8, words and emphasis added. The letter specifically mentions that: “Through the celibate life, the priest redirects his sexual attraction to the opposite sex toward another ‘body,’ the church, which is a ‘bride’ in a complementary spousal relationship. He exercises a spiritual fatherhood and lives a supernatural spousal relationship as a sign to the church of Christ’s love for her.” Baker, A. R. (September 2002) Ordination and Same Sex Attraction. America, 187, 9.


Excerpt from Hosea 2:2.


Excerpt from Hosea 2:5 and 2:6.


Jeremiah 13:22; Ezekiel 23.


Fragoso, M. (2002) Feminicidio sexual serial en Ciudad Juárez: 1993–2001. Debate Feminista, 25, p. 286, word added.


Preston, C. B. (Spring 2003) Women in Traditional Religions: Refusing to Let Patriarchy (or Feminism) Separate Us from the Source of Our Liberation. Mississippi College Law Review, 22, 2: 198–199. Sussman, D. (1 March 2002) Who Goes to Church? Older Southern Women Do; Many Catholic Men Don’t. abc News.


Scholars have extensively documented the comforting role religions and religious communities play as the main point of contact for women subject to ipv. McDonald, Battered Wives, Religion, & Law, p. 290.


Boyle, K. & Sheen, J. (1997) Freedom of Religion: A World Report (London: Routledge), p. 57. See also Aghtaie, N., Mulvihill, N., Abrahams, H., & Hester, M. (2020) Defining and Enabling “Justice” for Victims/Survivors of Domestic Violence and Abuse. Religion and Gender, 10, p. 157.


Most Protestant churches allow women to become ministers or priests, including the Anglican Churches, most of the Lutheran Churches, the Episcopalian Churches, the Pentecostal Church, some of the Presbyterian Churches, and many others.


This includes the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches, the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many others.


Fox, M. (1988) The Coming of the Cosmic Christ (San Francisco: HarperCollins), p. 28.


See, for example, Kroeger, C. (December 2017) The Neglected History of Women in the Early Church. Christian Daily Journal; Torjesen, K. J. (1988) The Early Controversies Over Female Leadership. Women in the Early Church, 17; Furlan, N. (March 2011) Institutionalized Christianity and the Question of Gender Hierarchy. Društvena Istraživanja / Journal for General Social Issues, 20, 1: 233–248.


In her famous book In Memory of Her: Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (1983), Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza depicts the early history of the Church as a women’s history and in so doing she restores women’s narratives while also reclaiming this history as the history of both women and men.


The conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantin marks the institutionalization of the Church in 313. The Edict of Milan between the Roman emperors Constantine I and Licinius in February 313 granted freedom to worship and recognized the legal rights of formerly persecuted Christians, including the return of confiscated property.


1 Corinthians 14:34 and 14:35.


“Inter Insigniores, on the question of admission of women to the ministerial priesthood,” published in Rome at the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on 15 October 1976, emphasis added.


In addition to that, Jesus Christ’s maleness, the Declaration argued, represents an ontological character which only male priests can share, as further demonstrated by the fact that Jesus Christ himself chose his Apostles from among men only.


Ross, S. A. (2005) Can Women Become Priests? p. 5.


“Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: On Reserving Priestly Ordinance to Men Alone,” published in Rome on 22 May 1994.


Ross, S. A. (2005) Can Women Become Priests? p. 6.


“In the past women were refused entry to the priesthood because of their alleged ‘inferior status’. Now they are accorded a ‘state of eminence’, but the inference is identical.” Van Eyden, R. and Schüssler Fiorenza, E. (2001) Olhares feministas sobre a Igreja Católica (São Paulo: Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir). Available at:, last accessed on 10 March 2023.


“Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: On Reserving Priestly Ordinance to Men Alone.”


McElwee, J. J. (1 November 2016) Pope Francis Confirms Finality of Ban On Ordaining Women Priests. National Catholic Reporter,, last accessed on 10 March 2023.


“Ad Tuendam Fidem,” published in Rome on 18 May 1998.


Stuart, A. (2010) Freedom of Religion and Gender Equality: Inclusive or Exclusive? Human Rights Law Review, 10, 3ß, p. 441.


He was the head of the Catholic Church from 1978 until his death in 2005.


Genesis 3:16.


Apostolic Letter “Mulieris Dignitatem” of Pope John Paul ii on the dignity and vocation of women, published in Rome on 15 August 1988. The emphasis is in the original text.


Hamington, M. (1995) Hail Mary? The Struggle for Ultimate Womanhood in Catholicism (New York: Routledge), p. 74.


Ross, S. A. (2005) Can Women Become Priests? p. 6.


Van Eyden, R. and Schüssler Fiorenza, E. (2001) Olhares feministas sobre a Igreja Católica.


Genesis 2:18.


“Letter of Pope John Paul ii to women,” issued in Rome on 29 June 1995. The emphasis is in the original text.


Ibid. The area of reproductive rights and its impact on women’s security is where the most profound divide exists between the Catholic Church and international human rights law. On the one hand, the Catholic Church depicts abortion as a sin, and on the other the lack of access to abortion is described as tantamount to torture by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. Méndez J. E. (2005) Report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Presented at the Human Rights Council on 1 February 2013, a/hrc/22/53 para 45–50. See also K.N.L.H. v. Peru, Human Rights Committee, Communication No. 1153/2003, para. 6.3 which deemed the denial of a therapeutic abortion a violation of the individual’s right to be free from ill-treatment.


“Letter of Pope John Paul ii to women,” issued in Rome on 29 June 1995.


Ibid. The emphasis is in the original text.


Van Eyden, R. and Schüssler Fiorenza, E. (2001) Olhares feministas sobre a Igreja Católica.




Raday, F. (2003) Culture, Religion and Gender, p. 665.


Diehl, C., Koenig, M. & Ruckdeschel, K. (2009) Religiosity and Gender Equality: Comparing Natives and Muslim Migrants in Germany. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 32 278–301, as mentioned in Lussier, D. N. & Fish, M. S. (2016) Men, Muslims, and Attitudes toward Gender Inequality. Politics and Religion, 9, 1, p. 34.


This statement, which has become famous beyond the religious circle, derives from the author’s study on the condition of agunah (pl. agunot), which refers to a Jewish woman who is separated from her husband but is unable to obtain a legal Jewish divorce. Greenberg, B. (1981) On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition (Jewish Publication Society), p. 142.


Ammons, L. L. (1999) What’s God Got To Do With It? p. 1273.


McDonald, K. A. (1999) Battered Wives, Religion, & Law, p. 292.


The idea of cognitive dissonance describes the psychological struggle faced by individuals holding conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes.


McDonald, K. A. (1999) Battered Wives, Religion, & Law, p. 292.


Ross, L. E. (2012) Religion and Intimate Partner Violence, p. 8.


Ibid., p. 6.


See, for example, Rev. Dr Marie M. Fortune with Abugideiri, S. and Dratch, R. M. (2010) A Commentary on Religion and Domestic Violence, available on the website See also Anglican Church UK Archbishops’ Council Responding to Domestic Abuse (2006) Guidelines for Those with Pastoral Responsibilities, Canterbury Anglican Church; Catholic Bishops’ Council of Victoria (2016) Domestic Violence: Committing to Prevention and Response, available on:, last accessed on 10 March 2023; The Church of England (March 2017) Responding Well to Domestic Abuse: Policy and Practice Guidance.


Gillum, T. L. (March 2006) The Importance of Spirituality in the Lives of Domestic Violence Survivors. Violence Against Women, 12, 3, p. 248. Rasool, S. & Suleman, M. (2016) Muslim Women Overcoming Marital Violence: Breaking Through “Structural and Cultural Prisons” Created by Religious Leaders Agenda Empowering women for gender equity, Volume 30, p. 43.


Knickmeyer, N. et al. (2004) Responding to Mixed Messages and Double Binds, p. 109; Eidhamar, L. G. (2018) My Husband Is My Key to Paradise: Attitudes of Muslims in Indonesia and Norway to Spousal Roles and Wife-Beating. Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations, pp. 241–264.


Tukker, M. E. (2013) Where Sexuality and Spirituality Meet: An Assessment of Christian Teaching on Sexuality and Marriage in Relation to the Reality of 21st Century Moral Norms. Theological Studies, 69, 1: 1343, p. 2.


Aghtaie, N. et al. (2020) Defining and Enabling “Justice” for Victims/Survivors of Domestic Violence and Abuse, p. 175.


“What God has joined together, let no man separate,” Gospel of Mark 10:9.


Eidhamar, L. G. (2018) My Husband Is My Key to Paradise, p. 251.


In religious law, a get or gett (/ɡɛt/; Hebrew: גט) is the document which renders effective a divorce between a Jewish couple. The religious requirement for a get foresees that the document be issued by a husband to his wife.


Ammons, L. L. (1999) What’s God Got To Do With It?, p. 1269. See also Alsdurf, J. & Alsdurf, P. (1989) Battered Into Submission: The Tragedy of Wife Abuse in the Christian Home (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock). Paul the Apostle writes: “beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Book of Romans 12:19.


Gillum, T. L. (2006) The Importance of Spirituality in the Lives of Domestic Violence Survivors, p. 241.


Knickmeyer, N. et al. (2004) Responding to Mixed Messages and Double Binds, p. 101.


Ross, L. E. (2012) Religion and Intimate Partner Violence, p. 8.


Gillum, T. L. (2006) The Importance of Spirituality in the Lives of Domestic Violence Survivors, p. 241.


Nelson, J. R. (2017). From the Narratives of Survivors with Disabilities: Strengths and Gaps between Faith-Based Communities and Domestic Violence Shelters, in Johnson, A. J., Nelson, J. R., & Lund, E. M. (2017) Religion, Disability, and Interpersonal Violence (Springer International Publishing/Springer Nature), 203–224.


Ross, L. E. (2012) Religion and Intimate Partner Violence, p. 7.


Chief Judge Richardson in Poor v. Poor. This was a case involving a woman who sued her husband for divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty. Judge Richardson denied her petition for divorce and concluded that “[h]er remedy is to be sought, then, not in this court, but in a reformation of her own manners.” By sweetly and patiently submitting to her husband, a woman could make her path of duty “a path of peace and safety.” Poor v. Poor, 8 N.H. 307 (1836), at 312.


Okin, S. (2002) Mistresses of Their Own Destiny: Group Rights, Gender, and the Realistic Rights of Exit. Ethics, 112: 205–230.


Okin, S. (1989) Justice, Gender and the Family (New York: Basic Books), p. 66.


Stuart, A. (2010) Freedom of Religion and Gender Equality, p. 443.


This can be the case not only in theocratic systems but also in secular ones. In the US, for example, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hasidic communities, which abide by extremely seclusive rules and gender hierarchical norms, has managed to win a number of court cases attributing the guardianship to the parent remaining within the community instead of to the one quitting. In these extreme cases, rebelling against gender hierarchical rules may mean losing the guardianship of the children. See MacFarquhar, L. (30 November 2020) When One Parent Leaves a Hasidic Community, What Happens to the Kids? The New Yorker,, last 10 March 2023; Otterman, S. (25 May 2018) When Living Your Truth Can Mean Losing Your Children. New York Times,, last accessed on 10 March 2023.


Wang, M. C., Horne, S. G., Levitt, H., & Klesges, L. (2009) Christian Women in ipv: An Exploratory Study of Religious Factors. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 28: 224–235. Eidhamar, L. G. (2018) My Husband Is My Key to Paradise, p. 253.


Seedat, F. (2016) Women, Religion and Security. Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, 30, p. 7.


In the context of abusive relationships within Muslim families, feminist scholars question the idea of “agency” in the face of women’s normalization of marital violence. See Khan, M. B. (2016) How Religious Extremism Compromises Women’s Security, Agency and Mental Health: Conversation with Sarah Eltantawi. Interview, Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, 30, p. 15.


Marcus et al., Social Norms, Gender Norms and Adolescent Girls, p. 6. See also Munoz Boudet, A. M., Petesch, P., & Turk, C., with Thumala A. (2012) On Norms and Agency: Conversations about Gender Equality with Women and Men in 20 Countries (New York: The World Bank); Wade, The Faith Instinct.


Nadar, S. & Gerle, E. (2016) Mediating the “Sacredness” of Religion, Culture and Law in Contexts of Sexual Violence. Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, 30, p. 112. Similarly, a feminist reading of the interplay among law, politics, and religions imposes a rejection of the fundamentally flawed assumption: “that the law and those who interpret and enact the law are impervious to religious and cultural values.” Ibid, p. 112.


See the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (emphasis added). It is important to emphasize, though, that at the time of the udhr’s adoption, slavery, colonialism, and cultural imperialism were still thriving, thus severely limiting the scope of application of such egalitarian ethos beyond the white, male, and middle-class cohort of Western countries.


Art. 16 udhr: “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.”


“Patriarchal and hierarchical structures result in separation and domination, which has been responsible for the construction of gender stereotypes and for many theologians … is the principle cause of gender-based violence.” In Klaasen, J. (June 2018) Intersection of Personhood and Culture: A Narrative Approach to Pastoral Care to Gender-Based Violence. Scriptura Journal for Contextual Hermeneutics in Southern Africa, 117, 1, p. 2.


Reconstructionist feminism is characterized by a liberating theological stance for women within the Christian tradition, while also aiming at effecting profound transformation or reconstruction not only of church structures, but also of society.


Ruether, R. R. (1983) Sexism and God-Talk, p. 66.


cedaw Article 16 established full equality in particular in regard to the following: entry into marriage; free choice of spouse; choice of family name; rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution; rights and responsibilities as parents, and with regard to guardianship, wardship, trusteeship, and adoption of children; and the same rights for both spouses in respect of the ownership, acquisition, management, administration, enjoyment, and disposition of property.


Raday, F. (2012) Gender and Democratic Citizenship: The Impact of cedaw. International Journal of Constitutional Law 10, 2: p. 515.


One hundred and eighty-nine countries have ratified or acceded cedaw; United Nation Treaty Collection.


Cook, R. J. (1990) Reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, p. 643.


Sheen, J. (2004) Burdens on the Right of Women to Assert Their Freedom of Religion and Belief, in Facilitating Freedom of Religious Belief: A Deskbook, ed. Lindholm, T. et al. (Springer), p. 513.


See the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, “Report Nineteenth Session” A/53/38/Rev.1. (1998), pp. 47–50. See also Art. 19 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which defines the limits within which a state’s power of reservation to a treaty can be legitimately exercised.


Raday, F. (2012) Gender and Democratic Citizenship: The Impact of cedaw, p. 517.


Ibid., p. 516.


Articles 5(a) and 2(f) of cedaw; Article 18 (3) of iccpr.


Article 18 (3) of iccpr.


Article 5 (a) of cedaw.


Historians have emphasized how Luther’s focus on the “Christian home” resulted in women having less freedom outside marriage than before. By categorically rejecting the unmarried status, Luther indirectly shrank women’s opportunities for freedom in places such as convents and brothels, where they had traditionally exercised some power independently from men’s authority. See Ozment, S. E. (1983) When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).


Mattox, M. L. (2003) Luther on Eve, Women and the Church, p. 458.




Schüssler Fiorenza, E. (2014) Between Movement and Academy, p. 15.




The wave metaphor, which describes the evolution of feminism, is often criticized for representing as a linear trajectory a phenomenon which is instead characterized for its complexity and the coexistence of movements, values, and ideas more often than not in conflict with each other. See essays in Laughlin, K. A. et al. (2010) Is It Time to Jump Ship? Historians Rethink the Waves Metaphor. Feminist Formations, 22, 1: 76–135.


Emerging at the end of the nineteenth century, the first wave of feminism is emblematically characterized by the suffragette movement, consisting by and large of white middle-class women, and their fight for a woman’s right to vote. Alongside the surging of the civil rights movement, from around the 1960s to the 1990s, the second wave of feminism focused on issues such as pay equality, reproductive rights, female sexuality, and domestic violence. The third wave of feminism, in the 1990s, challenged female heteronormativity and underscored the importance of “intersectionality” (see above). Finally, a fourth wave of feminism is emerging over the past decade in connection with the MeToo movement and as a reaction to the backlash women’s rights are facing around the world. It aims at further deconstructing gender norms.


The suffragettes believed that by exposing herself to accusations of blasphemy and heresy, Cady Stanton had jeopardized the cause of their movement. See Koosed, J. L. (2017) Reading the Bible as a Feminist, p. 15.


Ibid., p. 14.


In the case of Genesis 2–3, for instance, she contends that the creation of the “man” should be replaced by the creation of the “human being” and that Eva’s genesis is triggered by the need to provide the first person with a “companion” rather than with a “helper.” Ibid., pp. 52, 53.


See footnote 133 Schüssler Fiorenza, E. (1983) In Memory of Her.


See footnote 8.


Walker, A. (1980) Coming Apart, in Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography, ed. Lederer, L. (New York: William Morrow), footnote on p. 100.


Dube, M. W. (2000) Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (St. Louis, MO: Chalice).


Judith Butler’s masterpiece Gender Trouble (1990) for the first-time challenges in very radical terms the heterosexual matrix linking sex, gender, and sexuality. Her observation leads to the reversal of the relationship between the standards of sex and gender, the former as biologically ascribed while the latter as sociologically constructed. Butler suggests that the classification of our bodies into the two binary categories of male and female sexes is, in and of itself, the result of the gender construction of masculinity and femininity, rather than being its premise.


Hornsby, T. J. and Guest, D. (2016) Transgender, Intersex, and Biblical Interpretation (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature). See also Bernadette Brooten’s (1996) Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), who demonstrates that lesbians existed in the early Christian centuries.


“Trans people do not fit into the world of Gen[esis] 1 except … as individuals whose fluidity threatens the narrator’s ideology of a God-ordained, ordered, binaried world.” Hornsby & Guest, Transgender, Intersex, and Biblical Interpretation, p. 22.


Koosed, J. L. (2017) Reading the Bible as a Feminist, p. 24.


The Council was called in 1958 by Pope John xxiii and took place between 1962 and 1965. Among the most practical changes were those that affected the liturgy, with the priest turned around to face the people during Mass and the liturgy being delivered in the vernacular rather than in Latin.


McDonald, K. A. (1989) Battered Wives, Religion, & Law, pp. 291, 292.


Preston, C. B. (2003) Women in Traditional Religions, p. 197. See also Fox-Genovese, E. (1999) Catholic and Feminist: Can One Be Both? A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, 2, 4: 11–26.


Within the Muslim tradition, by far the most prominent feminist reformist theologian is Amina Wadud. In her masterpiece, Inside the Gender Jihad, she rejects any literal interpretation of Q 4.34, the most famous (and only) passage of the Qur’an that refers to the husband’s right to discipline his wife(s) by beating them.


McDonald, K. A. (1989) Battered Wives, Religion, & Law, p. 294.


Feminist Biblical Interpretation, Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation, last accessed on 10 March 2023.


Karlsen, C. F. (1998) The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York: Norton & Company).


Ammons, L. L. (1999) What’s God Got To Do With It?, pp. 1241, 1242.


Beyond the scope of this paper’s analysis, but not less threatening for the security of women, are all the forms of violence women face in the public space. They range from micro-aggressions such as catcalling, mansplaining, including in the workplace, to harassment, stalking, including online, to sexual violence, including gang rape.


Ammons, L. L. (1999) What’s God Got To Do With It?, p. 1275.


Raday F. (2007) Claiming Equal Religious Personhood: Women of the Wall’s Constitutional Saga, in Religion in the Public Sphere: A Comparative Analysis of German, Israeli, American and International Law, ed. Brugger, W. & Karayanni, M. (Springer, Max Planck Institute).


Fineman, M. and Mykitiuk, R. eds. (1994) The Public Nature of Private Violence. Routledge; Merry, S. (2010) Gender Violence: A Cultural Perspective. Wiley-Blackwell; Mulla, S. (2014) The Violence of Care: Rape Victims, Forensic Nurses, and Sexual Assault Intervention. New York University Press.


Merry, S. (2016) The Seductions of Quantification. Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking. The University of Chicago Press.


See among others Fassin, D. ed. (2011) Juger, réprimer, accompagner. Essai sur la morale de l’État. Seuil; Tazzioli, M. (2019) The Making of Migration: The Biopolitics of Mobility at Europe’s Borders. Sage.


Rubin, G. (1975) The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex. In: Rayna R. Reiter, ed. Toward an Anthropology of Women. Monthly Review Press, 157–210.


Abu-Lughod, L. (2013) Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Harvard University Press; Mahmood, S. (2005) Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton University Press.


Two thirds of the population, according to Robert Vachon in Droits de l’homme et Dharma,


Alliot, M. (1980) Modèles sociétaux. 1. Les communautés. Bulletin de Liaisons du lajp, 2: 87–93, pp. 88–89.


Vachon, “Droits de l’homme et Dharma.” On Chinese kinship-based subjectivity, currently strongly combined with a rights-based individual subjectivity, see Ruskola, T. (2013) Legal Orientalism. China, United States and Modern Law. Harvard University Press, especially Chapter 6.


Strathern, M. (2004) Losing (out on) Intellectual Resources. In: Pottage, A. and Mundy, M. eds. Law, Anthropology, and the Constitution of the Social. Making Persons and Things. Cambridge University Press, pp. 223–234.


See the Republic of South Africa’s South African Governmental White Paper on Social Welfare (1997), which defines “Ubuntu” as “The principle of caring for each-other’s well being … and a spirit of mutual support … Each individual’s humanity is ideally expressed through his or her relationship with others and the latters in turn through recognition of the humanity of the individual. Ubuntu means that people are people through other people. It also acknowledges both the rights and responsibilities of every citizen in promoting individual and societal well being.”


Grande, E. (2016) “I’m Doing It for Myself!” The Aggressive Promotion of the Individual Self as the Dark Side of Women’s Rights. In: De Lauri, A. ed. The Politics of Humanitarianism. Power, Ideology and Aid. I.B. Tauris, pp. 84–85.


Strathern, M. (1988) The Gender and the Gift. Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. University of California Press.


Paragraph 14 of cedaw General Recommendation 21 states that “polygamous marriages contravene a woman’s right to equality with men and can have such serious emotional and financial consequences for her and her dependents that such marriages ought to be discouraged and prohibited.” cedaw, General Recommendation 21 on Equality in Marriage and Family Relations, UN gaor 1994, Doc. No. A/47/38.


Griffiths, A. (2001) Gendering Culture: Towards a Plural Perspective on Kwena Women’s Rights. In: Cowan, J., Dembour, M.-B. and Wilson, R. eds. Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, p. 114. For a critique of the liberal discourse of freedom and individual autonomy from a comparative point of view see Nader, L. (1999) Num Espelho De Mulher: Cegueira Normativa E Questões De Direitos Humanos Não Resolvidas. Horizontes Antopólogicos, Porto Alegre, 5(10): 61ff; Nader, L. (2013) Culture and Dignity. Dialogues between the Middle East and the West. Wiley–Blackwell.


See Narayan, U. (2002) Minds of Their Own: Choices, Autonomy, Cultural Practices and Other Women. In: Antony, L.M. and Witt, C. eds. A Mind of One’s Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity. Routledge.


Mahmood, S. (2005) Politics of Piety. The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton University Press.


For a description of the socially “thick” world of an indigenous community living in the Northern Territories of Australia and a fascinating attempt to move beyond the binary concepts of individual freedom and social constraint, respectively termed “autological subject” and “genealogical society,” see also Povinelli, E. (2006) The Empire of Love. Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality. Duke University Press.


For a deeper analysis on the questions approached in this commentary, I take the liberty to refer the reader to my chapter: Grande, E. (2016) “I’m Doing It for Myself!” The Aggressive Promotion of the Individual Self as the Dark Side of Women’s Rights. In: De Lauri, A. ed. The Politics of Humanitarianism. Power, Ideology and Aid. I.B. Tauris.


Goldstein, D.M. (2010) Toward a Critical Anthropology of Security. Current Anthropology, 51(4): 487–517, p. 499.


Forsberg, E. and Olsson, L. (2021) Examining Gender Inequality and Armed Conflict at the Subnational Level. Journal of Global Security Studies, 6(2).


Brown, L.J. et al (2022) High-Risk Contexts for Violence Against Women: Using Latent Class Analysis to Understand Structural and Contextual Drivers of Intimate Partner Violence at the National Level. Journal of Interpersonal Violence.


Moore, H. (2000) Whatever Happened to Women and Men? Gender and Other Crises in Anthropology. In: Moore, H. ed. Anthropological Theory Today. Polity Press.


Oyěwùmí, O. (1997) The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. University of Minnesota Press; Bargetz, B. (2009) The Politics of the Everyday: A Feminist Revision of the Public/Private Frame. In: iwm Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conference Proceedings, xxiv, 9.


Bowen, J.R. (2017) Religions in Practice: An Approach to the Anthropology of Religion, 7th edition. Routledge.


Puar, J.K. (2007) Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Duke University Press.


Puar, J.K. (2013) Rethinking Homonationalism. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 45(2): 336–339, p. 338.


Hertner, I. (2021) Gendering European Politics: A Story of Progress and Backlash. Journal of European Integration, 43(4): 511–17.


Tamale, S. (2008) The Right to Culture and the Culture of Rights: A Critical Perspective on Women’s Sexual Rights in Africa. Feminist Legal Studies, 16(1): 47–69.


Bowen, Religions in Practice, p. 85.


Arnfred, S. (2022) Rethinking Feminism: From Critique of Capital to Decolonial Analysis. Kvinder, Køn & Forskning 33(1): 117–125, p. 123.


Arnfred, Rethinking Feminism, p. 123.


Tamale, S. (2020) Decolonization and Afro-Feminism. Daraja Press, p. 113.


Lugones, M. (2010) Towards a Decolonial Feminism. Hypatia 25(4), p. 744.


This West African ethnic group resides in parts of Nigeria, Benin and Togo.


Oyewumi, O. (1997) The Invention of Women. Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. University of Minnesota Press, p. 124.


Lugones, M. (2007) Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System. Hypatia 22(1), p. 196.


Federici, S. (2004) Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia. The persecution of witches represented “foundational moments in the devaluation of women’s labour and the rise of a specifically capitalist sexual division of work”. Federici, S. (2018) Marxism and Feminism. Debating Capitalism & Perspectives for the Future of Radical Theory, p. 473.


Tamale, Decolonization and Afro-Feminism, p. 116.


Machado, D. L. (2010) Capitalism Immigration and the Prosperity Gospel. Anglican Theological Review 92(4), p. 729.




Maddox, M. (2013) Prosper, Consume and Be Saved. Critical Research on Religion 1(1), p. 110.


Maddox, M. (2013) “Rise Up Warrior Princess Daughters”: Is Evangelical Women’s Submission a Mere Fairy Tale? Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 29(1): 9–26.


Sullivan, K. R. and Delaney, H. (2017) A Femininity that ‘giveth and taketh away’: The Prosperity Gospel and Postfeminism in the Neoliberal Economy. Human relations, 70(7), p. 859.


Mayerfeld, J. (2016) The Promise of Human Rights: Constitutional Government, Democratic Legitimacy, and International Law. University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 26. Bielefeldt, H. (2000) “Western” versus “Islamic” Human Rights Conceptions?: A Critique of Cultural Essentialism in the Discussion on Human Rights. Political Theory 28, p. 94.


Sundaramoorthy, L. (2016) Is the Idea of Human Rights a Universal Concept? Merici, p 25. See also Sen, A. (1998) Universal Truths: Human Rights and the Westernizing Illusion. Harvard International Review 20(3): 40–43.


Mende, J. (2021) Are Human Rights Western – And Why Does It Matter? A Perspective from International Political Theory. Journal of International Political Theory 17(1), p. 42.


Bielefeldt, H. “Western” versus “Islamic” Human Rights Conceptions?, p. 99.


Mende, Are Human Rights Western – And Why Does It Matter?, p. 42.


The concept of “overlapping consensus”, which was originally developed by John Rawls in his Political Liberalism (1993) to describe his political justice’s project, has been widely employed, thereafter, in the human rights field. Donnelly, J. (2007) The Relative Universality of Human Rights. Human Rights Quarterly 29(2), p. 289. See also An-Na’im, A. A. (1997) The Contingent Universality of Human Rights: The Case of Freedom of Expression in African and Islamic Contexts. Emory International Law Review 11(1): 29–66.


Mayerfeld, The Promise of Human Rights, p. 21.




Wangila, M. N. (2010) Religion, the African Concept of the Individual, and Human Rights Discourse: An Analysis. Journal of Human Rights 9, p. 340.


Higgins, T. E. (1996) Anti-Essentialism, Relativism, and Human Rights, Harvard Women’s Law Journal, 19, p. 111. See also Mende, J. (2018) Normative and Contextual Feminism: Lessons from the Debate around Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. Gender Forum 17(68), p. 57.


Ackerly, B. A. (2001) Women’s Human Rights Activists as Cross-Cultural Theorists. International Feminist Journal of Politics 3(3), p. 312.

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