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Religious Fundamentalisms and the Human Rights of Women.

Edited by Courtney W. Rowland. New York: Palgrave Publishers, 2001. 326 pp. $24.95 paper.

This book examines the challenge that religious fundamentalist movements are posing for women's equality and liberty rights around the world. It approaches the subject from four perspectives: an international human rights perspective aiming to strengthen women's rights; a national law perspective that deals with remedies/issues in individual countries; a grass-roots perspective that looks to non-legal remedies; and a theological and philosophical perspective that offers alternatives to fundamentalist interpretations of religious doctrine. The book is based on a conference on religious fundamentalism and the human rights of women whose agenda was "to establish women's rights at the heart of human rights jurisprudence." It is divided into seven sections: social and political science perspectives; responses to religious fundamentalist assertions of cultural relativism; conflict between human rights of women and religious freedom of fundamentalists in an international legal framework; sexuality and reproduction and the war over women's bodies; non-legal remedies, resistance, and exit; and religious challenges to religious fundamentalism.

Although a plurality share a legal background, the authors represent a variety of disciplines and professional work experiences from a diverse set of countries and cultures. Two themes of particular interest emerge from the many interesting discussions. One is how fundamentalist movements co-opt the language and concepts of progressive movements and reinterpret them in a way to suit their own discourse. One example is multiculturalism. Fundamentalists interpret women's exercise of "free choice" as the destruction of families and the encroachment of Western culture on indigenous cultures, i.e., an assault on multiculturalism (Freeman). Another example is from India where secularism has been interpreted by Hindu fundamentalists as requiring all citizens to abide by a uniform state law code (which is in fact based on Hindu norms); the protection of minority (here Muslim) rights is dismissed as appeasement and violation of the constitution. Allowing Muslims to be governed by their own Muslim laws (which is guaranteed by the constitution) is interpreted as favoritism and a breach of secularism (Kapur).

A second theme is that the struggle for women's rights may be achieved more effectively by working within the religious tradition rather than outside it by invoking universal jural norms. This theme is applied to Buddhism in Thailand (Peach) where scriptures regard women as attached to the material, sexual, and emotional world (thereby giving support to the sex trade). Women are not seen as individuals with rights but rather as members of families and communities. But Buddhist scriptures and the life of Buddha (Satha-Anand) support religious reinterpretations that point to the possibility of women's enlightenment and joining the Sangha (the organized monastic orders) and thereby achieving high status. The same possibility for reinterpreting the scriptures from a feminist perspective exists for the Quran (Helie-Lucas).

It must be said that this very interesting collection of essays will appeal to a wide variety of academic specialists as well as workers in the trenches of women's rights, and that it does not attempt to understand why fundamentalist movements have arisen or what their dynamics or main attributes are. For that, other reading is necessary.
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Author:Antoun, Richard T.
Publication:Journal of Church and State
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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