The Issues

In the cover story of its July 29, 2010 issue, Time magazine featured a photo of an 18-year old Afghan woman, Aisha, whose nose and ears had been sliced off as punishment for trying to escape her abusive household. The sentence was ordered by a Taliban commander and carried out by Aisha’s husband and brother-in-law. The cover starkly symbolized how human rights concerns—women’s rights in particular—have become pervasive and inextricable elements of international political life. The accompanying article also argues that behind these rights violations, powerful religious actors, ideas, and interpretations are at work.

"...women’s rights in particular—have become pervasive and inextricable elements of international political life."

This story of Afghan women is but one illustration of a far-ranging, complex array of issues converging in international affairs around the nexus of human rights, religion, and gender. It is this convergence of concerns that ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict has set out to explore under the auspices of this two-year Henry R. Luce Foundation initiative. For while there is near universal revulsion expressed over Aisha’s brutal treatment (and the plight of other Afghan women more generally), the publicity surrounding the Time story also invited critical questions about how human rights violations are portrayed, perceived, or used for different purposes—for example, to protest the government of Afghanistan’s efforts to reconcile with the Taliban, to legitimate American interventions in Afghanistan, or, as in France, to justify laws that ban the veil or the burqua. Beyond that, too, one wonders how carefully the many facets of religion are considered and conveyed in popular media. Traditional paradigms and assumptions that have guided modern thought about religion, gender, and rights are now in flux. Advocates for gender equality have drawn heavily from secularist human rights discourses, while those seeking to preserve “traditional” gender roles have grounded their positions in religious discourses and scriptural appeals. This presumption that rights and religion are antithetical has been part of a larger narrative about modernity that casts secularism as a liberalizing and liberating force for escaping unenlightened pasts dominated by religion. Assumptions such as these are entrenched in modern scholarship and widely inform the lives and institutions of individuals, governments, and civil societies.

The Questions

But is this way of thinking empirically correct? More importantly, is it the only or the best way to gain purchase on women’s contemporary struggles for dignity, justice, recognition, and equality? Among the guiding questions this project explores are these: Who are the actual users of human rights discourse? Are human rights ideas irretrievably rooted in Western history and political thought? What other idioms, religious traditions, and ethical discourses —about justice, human dignity, or good governance—do women and men draw upon to support women’s concerns? How and where do “local dialects” translate—or fail to translate—into the global lingua franca of human rights? What are the critical similarities and differences among them? Do human rights extend primarily to the public sphere, or do they—should they—also protect human beings (women especially) in private spheres such as the home? What assumptions about religion, secularism, family, individual rights, and the state underwrite these public-private distinctions and the challenges to them? Are human rights necessarily good for women? That is, do the moral-legal principles established in the UDHR and the attendant body of international law offer a strong, viable, and effective discourse for oppressed women? Or do certain rights principles, presumptions, and institutions come at the expense of some women? Does rights discourse truncate a more robust vision of human flourishing or impose a certain view of self and society to which certain women object?

The Project

This project is not committed to any single answer to these questions or any particular account of the interrelations of rights, religion, and gender as they play out in international affairs. Rather, it provides the intellectual context, cross-disciplinary exchanges, and resources to address these issues more fully and deliberately than popular discourse or any single disciplinary approach can do. The project will explore the intersections of religion and international affairs through the prism of rights and gender through the following programs and activities:

Faculty Seminar

Visiting Scholars and Practitioners

Luce International Fellows

Interdisciplinary Graduate Seminars

Research Awards

International Workshop