Research & Teaching

In recent times, 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. The notion that human rights and religion are antithetical has been part of a larger narrative about modernity that casts secularism as a liberating force for escaping unenlightened pasts dominated by religion. It is within these larger narratives of rights and gender that this project uses seed grants and awards to advance new research and teaching initiatives concerning the ability of human rights principles and international law to offer a strong, viable, and effective discourse for oppressed women.

Research Initiatives

Justice and Dignity without Rights?  Implications for Women's Rights and Gender Equality

John D. Carlson, Associate Professor, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

In the last sixty or so years, human rights ideas have dominated virtually all discourse about justice and human dignity.  It is difficult to contest or critique the ascendance of human rights as a universal principle based in international law because the discourse of human rights has provided such clear and consensual standards for condemning the most grievous injustices.  But are there not other discourses of justice, both within and beyond western culture, that do not explicitly invoke rights? This project explores the work of scholars who critique the ascendance of human rights ideas and put forth alternative approaches. This comparative study will yield important insights concerning the implications for women and gender equality raised by different accounts of justice and human dignity.

Women Religious Leaders and the New Sanctuary Movement

Roxanne Lynn Doty, Associate Professor, School of Politics and Global Studies

In recent years, a "security only" approach to unauthorized immigration has come to dominate U.S. border policy.  Specific gender and religious elements are present in the responses these policies have elicited. Local and national immigrant rights groups have contested current immigration policies and the principles they are based upon. Many of these groups are faith-based and have become prominent players in efforts to both protect undocumented migrants and their families, and to call for comprehensive immigration reform.  This project explores how female religious leaders act as catalysts for change by looking at their involvement in the New Sanctuary Movement. How does gender intersect with the ways this movement uses rights discourses and with how it draws upon religious as well as secular ideas?

Beyond Secular? Women's NGOs, Religion and International Norms

Miki Kittilson, Associate Professor, School of Politics and Global Studies

Women in countries outside the West are not only influenced by the international women's rights movement, but are also increasingly active in participating in it.  A map of contemporary women's rights organizations might undermine traditional assumptions about the overwhelmingly Western and secular roots of human rights.  This project will examine women's rights discourse with a set of women's rights NGOs affiliated with the United Nations (UN). Information will be collected on each women's rights NGO and analyzed to determine whether the group defines itself as faith-based.  In order to develop a systematic yet inclusive set of criteria for identifying faith-based organizations, the terms that three faith-based groups use will be examined more in-depth to assess their reliance on faith-based discourses.

Human Rights: Is there an Islamic Perspective?

Yasmin Saikia, Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies
Shahla Talebi, Assistant Professor, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

The concept of "human rights" is often critiqued as a Western imposition. But are rejections of human rights discourses grounded in Islamic history?  "The Constitution of Medina," authored by the Prophet Muhammad, laid the foundation of rights and duties of Muslims alongside non-Muslims.  Ali ibn Talib, the fourth Caliph of Islam, wrote a document to guarantee the rights of subjects-- men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims. Why then in the twenty-first century do some Muslims argue that "human rights" is a Western construct?  In what way does the Cairo document of Human Rights in Islam (1990) offer continuity with and/or a departure from these early documents in Islamic history?  This project explores the debates over women's rights as advocated in documents from early Islamic history.

How Gender Shapes Insurgency: An Examination of the Roles and Influence of Women in Insurgencies, 1975-2005

Reed Wood, Assistant Professor, School of Politics and Global Studies

Insurgency and civil war are typically conceived of as male-dominated events. Women usually only come into play as victims of collateral damage, sexual violence, or abandonment. Yet women often have important and active roles in insurgent movements. Religion is often a complex part of this process, serving to either deter or encourage women's participation.  This project examines the role of pre-conflict gender norms and group ideology in influencing the level of female participation within guerrilla movements. It also explores the manner in which women shape group conflict behavior, including respect for the rights of noncombatants, the use of sexual violence, and the bargaining process between the government and guerillas. Finally, it looks at how wartime experiences of female guerrillas shape their post-war status and rights.



Graduate courses created under this initiative are aimed at developing insight and awareness about how the interplay of religion and international affairs influences and informs the development and impact of policy regarding human rights and gender in a global age.

Religion, Gender, and Human Rights: Theoretical Discourses and Lived Experience

Spring 2012
Stanlie James, International Relations and African-American Studies
Sally Kitch, Women and Gender Studies
Shahla Talebi, Religious Studies

This course addresses issues around the evolution of an international human rights theoretical perspectives and how these perspectives are played out in local venues around the world. The course juxtaposes knowledge generated in interdisciplinary areas of international human rights, gender and religious studies.

American Power on a Global Stage: Religion, Gender and Human Rights

Spring 2012
Tracy Fessenden, Religious Studies
Miki Kittilson, Political Science

This graduate-level course will examine the ways in which discourses of women's rights have been mobilized in the exercise of American power in the world, and the role of religion in shaping these projects.  For over a century and particularly in the last decade, secularist, evangelical Christian, classical-liberal, and other perspectives have all been enlisted in support of interventionist projects that are feminist in name, but that can serve in addition a variety of political ends. How does the discourse of women's rights, as an American export, function in the world?  What role does religion play in the project of internationalizing women's rights?  How do American projects of safeguarding women's rights in global contexts fare in their confrontation with different ways of articulating, advancing, or constraining women's freedoms?  When and how have various political actors used women's rights discourse, religious discourse, or both as the frame for the vision of American internationalism they pursue?  We will draw on literature in religious studies, political science, international relations, and women's studies.