Women Under Oppressive Regimes: Women and Religious Fundamentalism

By Frances Kissling and Serra Sippel
Winter 2001-02

Religion is one of the most powerful forces in the world. It profoundly influences our world view, and gives meaning to our life experiences. At its best, religion captures the imagination and inspires persons of good faith to work for justice. At its worst, extreme interpretations of religious teaching foster fear and breed irrational hatred as the world witnessed on September 11. Religious fundamentalism is a reaction to people’s worst fears of modernization. As women increasingly gain human and civil rights, this fear is increasingly directed at controlling women. One manifestation is attempts to control women’s sexual and reproductive lives. Although the core principles and values of most religions uphold women’s human and reproductive rights, these universal rights are becoming more and more difficult to express, assist and defend due to fundamentalist pressures.

This article was drafted prior to the U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan when the Taliban’s extreme fundamentalist regime occupied 95 percent of the country. Afghanistan is currently in a state of disarray and soon will undergo a transition in government. The situation of women under the Taliban will always serve as a stark example of how a religious fundamentalist regime deliberately violates women’s human rights–including their right to health care–to maintain authority and control. Whatever the future government of Afghanistan will be, it must not repeat the Taliban’s abuse of women, and must guarantee women decision-making power in the government and in their personal and family lives, especially in regards to their health and human rights.


Understanding Fundamentalisms

When we talk about fundamentalism, especially the political aspects of fundamentalism, we cannot ignore the fact that the roots of fundamentalist political behavior are found in patriarchal interpretations of religious beliefs and values. Fundamentalists claim to be upholding orthodoxy (right belief) or orthopraxis (right behavior).1 They believe that they are protecting and preserving religious culture, traditions, and established ways of life from secular erosion. In spite of their dedication to “the old way,” fundamentalists do this by crafting new methods of control, formulating new ideologies, and adopting the latest political processes and organizational structures for advancing their beliefs in the public domain,2 thereby making these religious movements quintessentially political.

The attempt of fundamentalist religious movements to control the reproductive lives of women stems from the structures of dominance that we find in most of the major world religions. This is particularly problematic for women because when fundamentalists act politically to block women’s access to reproductive health services, state and government officials–who more often than not are men who were educated within patriarchal religious traditions–are more likely to accept the fundamentalist perspective as representative of their tradition. Progressive perspectives, on the other hand, are seen as “new” and less legitimate. Policymakers frequently are able to accept the fundamentalist agenda against women because it is familiar and if they are men–the likely case–it preserves male privileges.


Obstacles Fundamentalisms Present for Access to Reproductive Health

The degree to which fundamentalisms attempt to control the sexual and reproductive lives of women varies. For example, in Pakistan many women are killed by male relatives when they are suspected of “immoral activities.” These so-called “honor killings”–a gross misinterpretation of Islam–are intended to recover family honor and tend to be covered up by families and the government, making it difficult to determine how many women are actually killed. In the U.S.A., Christian religious fundamentalists have employed terrorism to prevent women from having abortions. Clinics that provide abortions have been bombed, some doctors who provide legal abortions and other clinic workers have been assassinated, and packages falsely claiming to contain anthrax have been sent to hundreds of abortion providers as well as reproductive rights advocacy groups. In Nepal, due to opposition from conservative Hindu religious groups, who while very small in number have great political influence,3 the government has imposed one of the most severely restrictive abortion laws in the world. Although the law is currently under review, Nepalese law makes absolutely no exceptions for abortion, and as a result, hundreds of women have served prison terms–including victims of rape and incest who have sought abortions.4 And although there is a law condemning dowry deaths in India, Hindu fundamentalist leaders are apathetic to the growing problem. In Ghana, according to the Trokosi tradition, virgin girls are enslaved by priests as a way of appeasing the gods for crimes committed by relatives.5 These are examples of oppressive–and brutal–policies upheld in the name of religion.


The Cases of The Taliban and the Holy See

The Taliban in Afghanistan and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church provide examples of how two very different degrees of religious fundamentalisms present obstacles to women in need of reproductive health services. The example of the Roman Catholic church’s Holy See presented below exposes how fundamentalist efforts against reproductive health and rights extend their power beyond their adherents. The Taliban example illustrates how difficult it is to reach women living under a particularly severe fundamentalist regime. Both examples illustrate that women’s reproductive health needs are the most susceptible to harm from fundamentalisms and also that meaningful dialogue on religion and reproductive health is imperative for women to gain and maintain their reproductive rights.

The Roman Catholic church is usually not considered to be a fundamentalist movement. But its governing body, the Holy See, does exhibit such traits in its church-state relations and the manner in which it presents its views in political processes that address women’s reproductive health and rights. The official position of the Roman Catholic church on reproductive health matters, as restated in Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, asserts that contraception, sterilization, abortion and fertility treatments are attacks against life and are morally unacceptable. This includes the use of condoms for the prevention of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

In recent years, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has crafted new tactics for preserving traditional family roles–particularly that of women and motherhood–and attempting to impose its position on reproductive health and rights to non-Catholics as well as Catholics. In 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt, the Holy See (which enjoys voting privileges at United Nations conferences due to Vatican City’s nation status) joined forces with other fundamentalist movements to oppose all women’s reproductive rights. Asserting that the conference’s draft recommendations promoted promiscuity, abortion, homosexual unions, and that it also imposed birth control on poorer nations, the Holy See aligned itself with the Islamic states of Iran and Libya, which shared the Holy See’s views. In 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) in Beijing, the Holy See issued official reservations to the entire chapter of the Platform for Action regarding women and health (Chapter 4, Section C) for similar reasons.6

In addition to these efforts to curtail women’s reproductive rights at the global level, the Catholic church has substantial influence at the national level through the work of local bishops and priests. In countries with predominantly Catholic populations, such as Mexico and Poland, the Catholic church asserts its views on women by lobbying successfully for highly restrictive abortion laws and limited access to contraception.

As a result of the pervasive power of the church hierarchy, it is not only Catholic women whose access to reproductive health services is at risk. The reproductive rights of non-Catholic women throughout the world are threatened because the Holy See continuously pressures government delegations at UN conferences, as well as national and local governments at home, to limit–and in some cases eliminate–reproductive health services.

Unlike the Holy See, the Taliban regime is more an extremist militia than a religion. The Taliban, whose name derives from a term referring to Islamic students, claims to follow an imposed, but pure, fundamentalist Islamic theology. However, its harsh treatment of women, which many consider “gender apartheid,” has no basis in Islam. When it seized control in 1996, the Taliban imposed strict edicts that have had serious health consequences for Afghan women: Women, except those working in the health professions, have been forbidden to work outside the home, attend school, or leave their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative. In public women must wear a burqa7, which covers them head to foot, and where women are present in houses or other buildings in public view, the windows must be painted so women cannot look out or others look in.8

According to a 1999 report by the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, there is only one maternity hospital in the entire country of Afghanistan. As a result, Afghan women of childbearing age constitute the most vulnerable group of women.9 Almost two years later, the Special Rapporteur reported that each day in Afghanistan 45 women die of pregnancy related causes and there are over 16,000 maternal deaths each year. Only about 15 percent of deliveries are attended by trained health workers and more than 90 percent of births take place at home.10

Pregnant women in need of medical care are not only underserved, but are vulnerable to the Taliban’s extreme brutality. Women who may have to leave their homes to go to the hospital but are unaccompanied by a male relative are frequently attacked and beaten by Taliban guards. They order the women not to enter the streets again under threat of dire penalties.11

Culturally, family planning is a sensitive issue in Afghanistan and is discussed mainly in terms of safe motherhood. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) provides funds for safe motherhood projects in Afghanistan that include family planning, but due to the Taliban’s oppressive regime, there are few of these projects. In addition to the above-mentioned policies–which also prohibit male doctors from seeing women patients–an ongoing civil war and lack of financial and human resources, make it almost impossible for Afghan women to access reproductive health services.

In addition, trafficking of women and girls, forced prostitution and non-consensual marriage are on the rise and have increased the need for STD/HIV-testing–a service that is virtually unavailable. Afghan women who are in refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan (which recognizes the Taliban regime) are continuously vulnerable to rape and therefore are in constant need of reproductive health care. But their needs are not being met.


Overcoming Fundamentalisms

Responding to religious movements evokes a wealth of mixed emotions. No one wants to be disrespectful of one’s own or other religions, and it is important to uphold and defend universal religious freedom. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that every person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. How then does one appropriately respond to fundamentalist religious movements?

First of all, we must remember that no religion is monolithic (i.e. without diversity). In each religion there are liberating tendencies and constraining tendencies; there are patriarchal tendencies, and there are those that are woman-centered. There is no religious reason why states and governments should support and encourage the fundamentalist tendencies in religion over the liberating tendencies in religion. When it comes to women’s reproductive health, the Holy See and the Taliban are not advancing a theology. It is an issue of power and control. Effective and appropriate tools to bring these issues to light include public and policymaker education, religious and political dialogue, media exposure, promulgation of feminist religious history–and religious education and ordination of women.


Public and Policymaker Education

Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and most of Judaism and Christianity hold basic teachings of the equality between women and men. Most also understand the use of contraception as a moral good. Prominent religious leaders have asserted that in some circumstances, abortion is permissible. To counter fundamentalisms, NGOs–both secular and religious–should inform each other, the public and policymakers about religious doctrines and assertions that uphold women’s human and reproductive rights. And it is perfectly appropriate–and fair-minded–for policymakers to listen, learn about, and consider these faith perspectives while also being confronted with fundamentalist perspectives.

We need to listen to those who disagree with us, and vice versa. Care must be taken to address religion with respect and to treat it as a positive force in society. Too often, NGOs disregard religion as a generic fundamentalist movement with no redeeming qualities, and therefore do not see a need to address religious matters. This not only undermines the efforts of religious NGOs who work within established religions to counter fundamentalist agendas against women, but it also relinquishes religious influence to fundamentalists like the Holy See.

The most important strategy in combating fundamentalist movements that threaten women’s reproductive health is exemplified in the NGO Forum at the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) in Beijing in 1995, where non-governmental organizations gathered to discuss religious fundamentalisms and reproductive rights, among other issues. These discussions illustrate that open and respectful dialogue is imperative. And dialogue among NGOs, and between NGOs and policymakers, NGOs and practitioners, and practitioners and policymakers, is crucial because they are major players with significant experience and wisdom on the issues.

The media is a crucial and precious resource in the struggle to combat fundamentalisms. A concerted media campaign is the quickest way to bring injustices to light. NGOs must be public in their dissent from the agenda of fundamentalist regimes, and in putting forward their positions. During the last three years, at various UN conferences, the Holy See has strategically positioned itself as the religious voice to shape–and at times dominate–debate over women’s reproductive health and rights. Holy See opposition to women’s reproductive rights generated a great deal of media attention, which provided exposure not only of their viewpoint but also that of groups trying to advance women’s health and rights. It is axiomatic that whoever controls the agenda can best determine the outcome. Clearly, it is in the interest of NGOs in the reproductive health field to work not only with government delegations, but also the media to put forward an agenda that advances reproductive health and rights with respect to religion.

There is a rich feminist history within the world’s religions. Theologians and religious and biblical scholars have recovered sacred texts and traditions that lift up women’s rights. Catholic feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has edited a two-volume feminist biblical commentary, Searching the Scriptures, in which she provides a forum where the different voices and discourses on feminist biblical interpretation can be heard. After Patriarchy: Feminist Transformations of the World Religions is a collection of works by Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish and Native American feminist theologians, who explore core texts and teachings that promote women’s equality. Sisters in Islam, a group of Muslim women in Malaysia, has returned to the Qur’an to study Allah’s actual words. As a result of their research and studies, they have published women-centered interpretations of the Qur’an. Such projects should be supported and used as resources to counter fundamentalisms.

Women today are also enrolling in increasing numbers in seminaries and theology programs–some in hopes of ordination, and others who seek other forms of ministry. Religious education and ordination of women is a crucial aspect of overcoming fundamentalisms. Through reading and interpreting sacred texts, religious teachings and laws, women will gain the necessary tools to develop well-formulated and sound religious arguments for women’s reproductive and sexual rights, and to engage in theological dialogue with adversaries.


Some Successful Interventions

People are talking about and confronting fundamentalisms very openly at the global level, so there is great hope for the future. As mentioned above, NGOs came together at the Cairo and Beijing conferences to discuss and, in many crucial areas, defeat fundamentalisms. This exemplifies what needs to happen–we must be intrepid in our continuing dialogue about how religious fundamentalist movements attempt to control human reproductive capacities and how their strengths may be breached. Successful efforts to counter fundamentalisms can be measured by the outcomes of such dialogue, global conferences, national successes and international solidarity movements.

Since Beijing, there have been numerous projects, publications and articles that address fundamentalisms. Following the Beijing conference, Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF) issued WAF Journal No. 7, which addresses the Beijing conference, fundamentalism and reproductive rights. Reproductive Health Matters dedicated an entire issue to fundamentalisms and women’s reproductive rights (Number 8, November 1996). In May 1998, the International Rule of Law Center at the George Washington University Law School organized a conference on religious fundamentalisms and the human rights of women. As a result of this conference, the book entitled Religious Fundamentalisms and the Human Rights of Women (St. Martin’s Press, 1999) was published.

In June 2000, the Twenty-third Special Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted by consensus the document, “Further Actions and Initiatives to Implement the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action.” Even though there was a significant amount of fundamentalist pressure during negotiations, for the first time in an international document so-called “honor crimes” and forced marriage were addressed. The final document lists among actions to be taken at the national level that governments: “Develop, adopt and fully implement laws and other measures as appropriate, such as policies and educational programs, to eradicate harmful customary or traditional practices including female genital mutilation, early and forced marriage, and so-called honor crimes.”12

This is a success and good news for the women of Pakistan and Ghana, who as mentioned above, experience the attempts of fundamentalist groups to control their sexual and reproductive lives.


National Success Stories: Bolivia and Nepal

In late spring of 2000, a 12-year-old girl in Cochabamba, Bolivia, who was raped and impregnated by her stepfather, was granted a legal abortion–only the second legal abortion in Bolivia. The judge granted the abortion to be performed in Cochabamba, however, doctors at the hospital refused the judge’s order because of moral and religious beliefs. Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir en Bolivia (Catholics for the Right to Decide) and other national women’s rights organizations petitioned the judge to grant permission for another hospital to perform the abortion. The judge eventually permitted the girl to have the abortion in La Paz, and consequently, the Catholic church in Bolivia threatened excommunication for the judge, the girl’s family and members of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir.13

In September 1999, Min Min Lam, a 14-year-old girl incarcerated for having an abortion in Nepal, was released thanks to efforts of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and the Family Planning Association of Nepal (FPAN). At the age of 13, Min Min was raped by a relative, became pregnant, and had an abortion. Because abortion is illegal in Nepal, she was given a 20-year prison sentence. The rapist was charged, but was soon released. IPPF sent a Mercy Petition to Nepal’s King, His Majesty King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, requesting that he grant Min Min amnesty.14 IPPF and FPAN have worked incessantly to change Nepal’s abortion law and in October 2001, Nepal’s House of Representatives voted for the first time in favor of partially legalizing abortion. The bill will have to be passed by the Upper House of Parliament, the National Assembly, and be sent to King Gyanendra for his official approval before it can become law.15


International Solidarity

Solidarity among groups and individuals is an effective strategy to overcome fundamentalisms. In response to fundamentalist efforts to impede the ICPD Programme of Action, members of the international, inter-religious group Religion Counts16 met in Rome to draft and issue the Rome Statement on the International Conference on Population and Development (January 5, 1999). The statement articulates inter-religious support for ethical approaches to population and development issues, and specifically demonstrates their solidarity with groundbreaking agreements made at the 1994 ICPD. Similarly, Catholic Voices, an initiative of Catholics for a Free Choice, issued Catholics and Cairo: A Common Language, which offers Catholic support for the ICPD Programme of Action.17

Dr. Riffat Hassan, a feminist theologian and professor of religious studies at the University of Louisville, has been engaged for twenty-five years in research on the position and rights of women according to normative Islam. Since 1990, she has been translating her findings into on-the-ground projects on Muslim women’s empowerment. In February 1999, Dr. Hassan appeared on ABC’s “Nightline” program on so-called “honor-killings” of girls and women in Pakistan. Dr. Hassan clarified that such crimes are not sanctioned under Islam, but are the result of patriarchal interpretations of Islam. As a result of the program, Dr. Hassan received a large amount of correspondence from women and men who were outraged by the violence against women in Pakistan. Consequently, Dr. Hassan took the initiative of setting up the International Network for the Rights of Female Victims of Violence in Pakistan (INRFVVP). The network seeks to create worldwide awareness of the degree and nature of violence against girls and women in Pakistan.

Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) is a network of women whose lives are shaped or governed by laws drawn from interpretations of the Qur’an and tied to local traditions. WLUML was founded in 1984 at the “Tribunal on Reproductive Rights” in Amsterdam. Today, WLUML provides information to women and women’s groups in Muslim countries and communities and disseminates information received from them. The group facilitates interaction between women from Muslim countries and communities and progressive and feminist groups at-large. Equality Now is an international human rights organization dedicated to the civil, political, economic and social rights of girls and women.

Equality Now addresses issues such as reproductive rights, rape, trafficking, female genital mutilation (FGM) and gender discrimination. Its publication Awaken is a forum for information and discussion to promote a better understanding and more effective strategies for the eradication of FGM. Equality Now is active in a campaign against the anti-abortion laws in Nepal that have led to high maternal mortality rates, and that impose strict prison sentences on women who undergo abortions.

Sakyadhita is the International Association of Buddhist Women, founded in Bodhgaya, India. Sakyadhita works to create a communications network for Buddhist women throughout the world, to encourage and help educate women as teachers of Buddhadarma, to provide improved facilities for women to study and practice the teachings, and to help establish the Bhikshuni Sangha (a community of fully ordained Buddhist nuns) where it does not currently exist. Similarly, Women’s Ordination Worldwide is an international network to promote the ordination of Roman Catholic women to a “renewed priestly ministry” in a democratic church.



There are currently two campaigns that target prominent religious fundamentalist movements: The “See Change” Campaign seeks to change the status of the Holy See at the United Nations, and the Stop Agenda Apartheid Campaign seeks to end human rights abuses against women and girls in Afghanistan. These campaigns are significant in the struggle against fundamentalist efforts against women’s reproductive rights. Sympathetic activists, policymakers and practitioners should obtain information on these campaigns and become active.18


To activists:

  • Build coalitions among secular and religious NGOs who work on issues of women’s reproductive health and rights and develop strategies to counter religious fundamentalist efforts that block access to reproductive health services.
  • Work with progressive theologians and scholars within institutional religions who support and promote reproductive health and rights in order to become better equipped to address religious opposition to reproductive rights.
  • If your NGO has consultative status with ECOSOC, attend UN conferences that address issues of women’s rights and population and development and use these conferences as fora to collaborate with other NGOs to counter religious fundamentalist attacks on women’s reproductive rights.
  • Communicate with the media when opportunities arise to alert governments, religious institutions and society in general on issues of reproductive health and religion.
  • Produce research and scholarship on religious threats to women’s reproductive rights that is accurate and credible.
  • Document cases of successful opposition to religious fundamentalists’ attempts to restrict women’s reproductive health and rights; these cases provide models and encouragement to others.

To policymakers:

  • In evaluating public policy positions on sexuality and reproductive rights (whether the policy is suggested by a religious group or any other group), use the following criteria:19 
    a. Whom does this group claim to represent, and does that constituency agree with the group’s position?
    b. Does this group present accurate and valid facts?
    c. Do the policy suggestions of this group respect the rights of all within society and serve the common good? Are the policy suggestions respectful of other religions, of pluralism, and of tolerance?
    d. Will the policy position work?
  • Assign government officials and NGO representatives to their delegations at the United Nations who have an understanding of the threat of fundamentalisms to reproductive rights.
  • Condemn in the strongest terms fundamentalist regimes that oppress women, particularly the Taliban in Afghanistan.


To practitioners:

  • Become informed about progressive religious perspectives on contraception use, sexuality, abortion, and fertility treatments, and share that information with colleagues and those you serve.
  • Train other practitioners and technical assistants to assist women who experience conflict between their religious faiths and their reproductive health needs.
  • Develop and foster contacts with religious leaders who support women’s reproductive rights to whom you can refer those in need of spiritual direction when making decisions about their reproductive health.

Frances Kissling is the president of Catholics for a Free Choice. Serra Sippel is senior associate, International Program.

Adapted from Reproductive Health and Rights: Reaching the Hardly Reached, eds. Elaine Murphy and Karin Ringheim, forthcoming 2002. Women’s Reproductive Health Initiative, PATH, Washington, DC. Reprinted by permission.



1 Gabriel A. Almond, Emmanuel Sivan, and R. Scott Appleby, eds., “Fundamentalism: Genus and Species,” in Fundamentalisms Comprehended, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 402.
2 Ibid., 402.
3 “Nepal: Fighting to Change a Harsh Abortion Law,” International Planned Parenthood Federation website, sar/rl/issue3/change.html, August 17, 1999.
4 In October 2001, Nepal’s House of Representatives voted for the first time in favor of partially legalizing abortion. The bill will have to be passed by the Upper House of Parliament, the National Assembly, and be sent to King Gyanendra for his official approval before it can become law. See “Nepal parliament votes to partially legalise abortion,” Agence France Press, October 10, 2001.
5 Equality Now, “Slavery in Ghana: The Trokosi Tradition,” Women’s Action 14.1, March 1988.
6 Mary Ann Glendon, “Reservations and Statements of Interpretation of the Holy See,” (statement by the head of the delegation of the Holy See at the concluding session of the fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, P.R. of China, September 15, 1995).
7 The burqa is a shroud that covers women from head to toe, with only a piece of mesh to see and breathe through.
8 Zohra Rasekh, MPH, et al., “Women’s Health and Human Rights in Afghanistan,” The Journal of the American Medical Association, 280 (August 5, 1998): 449-455.
9 United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Interim report on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, prepared by Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights Kamal Hossein, September 30, 1999.
10 United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Question of the Violation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in any Part of the World, Report on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, submitted by Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, Kamal Hossein March 9, 2001.
11 Zieba Shorish-Shamley, Ph.D., “The Plight of Women and Health Care in Afghanistan,” Women’s Alliance for Peace and Human Rights website ( html).
12 Twenty-third Special Session of the General Assembly entitled “Women 2000: Gender, equality, development and peace for the twenty-first century,” Further actions and initiatives to implement the Beijing declaration and the Platform for Action, 10 June 2000, 103.d.
13 Tegan Culler, “Paper Justice,” Conscience 21, no. 2 (Summer 2000), 16-17.
14 “Min Min’s Story,” IPPF Annual Report, 1999.
15 “Nepal parliament votes to partially legalise abortion,” Agence France Press, October 10, 2001.
16 Religion Counts is an independent, international inter-religious group of scholars, experts, and leaders convened by the Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith, and Ethics and Catholics for a Free Choice.
17 Catholic Voices is a forum that provides space for progressive Catholic leaders to reflect, research, and participate in national and international discourse on women’s human rights, sexuality and reproductive health.
18 For information on The “See Change” Campaign visit the website at For the Stop Agenda Apartheid Campaign, visit
19 For a developed explanation of these criteria see The Vatican and Politics of Reproductive Health, by Frances Kissling, (Catholics for a Free Choice, 1997).

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