About the Project


The prediction that secularism would sweep the world has been confounded in recent years as religion has left the place assigned to it (by theories of modernity) in the private sphere and thrust itself into the public arena. What are the social and political implications of religion assuming such prominent and contested public and political roles? Some observers, including many feminists, see incompatibilities between democracy, human rights and gender equality, on the one hand, and a world in which religious issues and organizations have an active presence in public affairs, on the other. Others, however, argue that religion (at its best) can act as a significant counterweight to the otherwise hegemonic institutions of the state and the market, revitalizing public debate on their moral underpinnings and their social outcomes. The task of research, therefore, is to develop analytical and normative criteria to differentiate between the various forms of public religion and their social and political consequences, including the implications for gender equality.

Key Research Questions of the Project

It has been argued that religion can “go public” at three different levels: the state level (e.g. theocratic states; or state religions or state-established churches); at the level of political society (e.g. European Christian Democrats, Islamist political parties); and at the more amorphous level of civil society. This tripartite model, however, presupposes what is broadly recognized as a modern society. But in many contexts it is equally important to conceptualize the interface between what can be labelled “the customary sphere” and formal religion. As far as women’s rights are concerned, it is in that nexus that many of the dangers and challenges lie, with religious precepts being selectively applied or totally disregarded. Similarly, there is a need for a broader conception of civil society, which can include the nature of “society” itself. This is very important because it can explain resistance, or absence of pressures, from below to pluralize and democratize religion.

This project raised three sets of questions:

  1. How can religion and politics become intertwined? Are there distinct modes of insertion in different national and cultural settings?
  2. What are the social and political effects, especially from a gender perspective, of this blending of religion and politics? When is it likely to pose a danger to modern normative structures associated with gender equality and democracy?
  3. How do women in this context, individually and collectively, reinforce, challenge or redefine hegemonic norms, practices and representations?

Based on comparative historical analysis (of mainly European and American experiences), it has been hypothesized that only public religions at the level of civil society are consistent with modern universalistic principles and modern differentiated structures. How well can this hypothesis hold for other contexts? Can this hypothesis be substantiated as far as gender equality is concerned?

Research was carried out in 11 countries – Chile, India, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Serbia, Turkey and the United States – that present maximum variation with respect to (i) religious denominations and (ii) the level at which the blending of politics and religion takes place (e.g., state or civil society). Furthermore, a regional balance has been sought, including at least some developed countries. In terms of religion, the world’s three largest denominations (Christianity, Islam and Hinduism) have been included, as has Judaism. The research process started at the end of 2007 and ended in 2010.


An UNRISD/UNIFEM Expert Group Meeting to discuss the research questions and the proposed studies took place in Bratislava on 28 February 2007. Suitable researchers were identified for the country studies and for two thematic papers. First drafts of their research papers were discussed at a workshop in Istanbul on 14-15 May 2008. The purpose of the workshop was to bring the researchers together to present the findings of research to that date, to draw out the comparative dimensions of the project, and to consider the methodology as well as the expected outcomes of the research reports. The researchers discussed their findings at a research workshop in Berlin on 4-5 June 2009, which was followed by the international conference “Religion Revisited” on 5-6 June 2009. The final research findings have been published online and in a Special Issue of the academic journal Third World Quarterly (Vol. 31, No. 6, September 2010).

  • The country case studies are available here.
  • The thematic paper "A Debate on the Public Role of Religion and its Social and Gender Implications" is available here.

Management and Funding

The project was coordinated by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) in Geneva and funded by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The UNIFEM Regional Office for Central and Eastern Europe provided additional funding for the three European country studies (Poland, Serbia, and Turkey).