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Chapter 4

Conflicting Human Rights Under International Law:
Freedom of Religion Versus Women’s Equality Rights

On This Page

Introduction to the Chapter

When freedom of religion conflicts with women’s right to equality and the question is which

should take precedence, many would intuitively respond that the right to religious freedom

should prevail.  Perhaps this is because religion is seen as “sacred” and therefore something that

cannot be questioned under international law.  We have already seen how Islamic beliefs shaped

Afghanistan law both before the Taliban and during its rule.  Similarly, we have seen how Catholic

beliefs shaped Spanish law which then influenced laws in the Philippines and Peru.  This chapter

explores the role of these religions and others – Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism – in forming

laws that discriminate against women, particularly regarding their role within the family.  It then

explores the U.N. Treaty, the UDHR, the ICCPR, and CEDAW and their perspectives on each of

these rights.  Do they provide any resolution of this most basic conflict?

Documents from the Chapter

Each document has its own box.  The box contains, on the top bold line, the name of the document. 

This is followed by the legal citation (not in bold).  Under these lines, the box contains one or more

sources for opening the document.  In the left-hand column (“HTML”or “PDF”), the reader can access

the official document copy, hosted on RossRights.  This permits rapid access to the document.  In the

right-hand column (“External Link”), the reader can access the same document on an official website. 

This link will often take more time to appear than the PDF or HTML copy, but should be used for official

legal citations. Asterisks accompany links where additional steps to reach the document are required.

For all United Nations Treaties, the source marked "Original" contains the UN General Assembly

Resolution (G.A. res.) adopting the relevant treaty, which is found in the "Annex" following the

Resolution.  The source marked "UN High Comm'r for Human Rights" contains the relevant treaty,

without the G.A. res.

         West Africa) Notwithstanding Security Resolution 276


Courtney W. Howland, The Challenge of Religious Fundamentalism to the Liberty and Equality Rights of Women: An Analysis Under the United Nations Charter,

35 Colum. J. Transnat'l L. 274-378 (1997).

Ross Rights/Hein Online PDF

Charter of the United Nations,

June 26, 1945, 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. 993, 3 Bevans 1153, entered into force Oct. 24, 1945.

UN High Comm'r for Human Rights PDF


Universal Declaration of Human Rights,

G.A. res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc A/810 at 71 (1948).
Original PDF
UN High Comm'r for Human Rights PDF

*Scroll to and click on 217(III).


Statute of the International Court of Justice
International Court of Justice HTML


Legal Consequences for States of the Continued Presence of South Africa in Namibia (South West Africa) Notwithstanding Security Resolution 276,

1971 I.C.J. 16, 56-57 (1970).

International Court of Justice PDF*

   *The document is written as alternating pages of French and English; the pages are

translations, and add nothing different from one language to another.

Map of Namibia and South Africa

Namibia is located in Southern Africa, bordering the South Atlantic Ocean, between Angola

and South Africa. It is also located west of Botswana. South Africa is located in Southern Africa, at the southern tip of the

continent of Africa.


South Africa

       Dutch Reformed 6.7%, Anglican 3.8%, Muslim 1.5%, other Christian 36%, other 2.3%,

       unspecified 1.4%, none 15.1% (2001 census)

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,

G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force Mar. 23, 1976.
Original PDF*
UN High Comm'r for Human Rights PDF

*The ICCPR begins on p. 52.


Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,

G.A. res. 34/180, 34 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 46) at 193, U.N. Doc. A/34/46, entered into force Sept. 3, 1981.
Original PDF
UN High Comm'r for Human Rights PDF


Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties,

1155 U.N.T.S. 331, 8 I.L.M. 679, entered into force Jan. 27, 1980.

United Nations PDF


Human Rights Committee, General Comment 28, Equality of rights between men and women (article 3),

U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.10 (2000).

UN High Comm'r for Human Rights HTML


Human Rights Committee, General Comment 22, The right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (article 18),

U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4 (1993).

UN High Comm'r for Human Rights HTML


E.E.O.C. v. Fremont Christian School,

781 F.2d 1362 (9th Cir. 1986).

RossRights HTML



Additional Maps and Photos

Map of France

France is located in Western Europe, bordering the Bay of Biscay and English Channel,

between Belgium and Spain, southeast of the UK; bordering the Mediterranean Sea, between

Italy and Spain.

       minorities overseas departments: black, white, mulatto, East Indian, Chinese, Amerindian

       unaffiliated 4%  overseas departments: Roman Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Muslim,

       Buddhist, pagan

Other Developments

Below is an article from Human Rights Watch which explores women's status and the role

of religion in Saudi Arabia.


Saudi Arabia: Women's Rights Promises Being Broken,

Human Rights Watch: Saudi Arabia: Women's Rights Promises Being Broken, Human Rights Watch, July 9, 2009, available at http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/07/08/saudi-arabia-women-s-rights-promises-broken.

Human Rights Watch


Also below is a report from Human Rights Watch which exposes the human rights abuses

women face in Saudi Arabia as a result of pervasive sex segregation in Saudi society. The

report contains interviews with more than 100 Saudi women.


Perpetual Minors,

Human Rights Watch: Perpetual Minors: Human Rights Abuses Stemming From Male Guardianship and Sex Segregation in Saudi Arabia, April 19, 2009, available at http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/04/19/perpetual-minors-0.

Human Rights Watch PDF


Below is a report and an article which advocate allowing Muslim women to wear the veil,

even as it becomes more unpopular in Europe.


Discrimination in the Name of Neutrality,

Human Rights Watch: Discrimination in the Name of Neutrality: Headscarf Bans for Teachers and Civil Servants in Germany, February 26, 2009, available at http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2009/02/25/discrimination-name-neutrality-0

Human Rights Watch PDF


Beyond the Burqa,

Liesl Gerntholtz & Gauri van Gulik, Beyond the Burqa, July 2, 2009, available at http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/07/02/beyond-burqa

Human Rights Watch

Decisions Related to French Case Study

Sahin v. Turkey,

Application No. 44774/98, Eur. Ct. H.R., (2004), available at http://www.law.georgetown.edu/rossrights/docs/html-orig/turkey-veil.html

European Court of Human Rights HTML

*Search for "Leyla Sahin"


R v. Headteacher and Governors of Denbigh High,

(2006) UKHL 15 (U.K.)

R v. Headteacher and Governors of Denbigh High School (UK) PDF


Below is a link dealing with how to do more effective legal research concerning religious legal systems. It is prepared by Georgetown Law Librarian Marylin Johnson Raisch.

Religious Legal Systems in Comparative Law: A Guide to Introductory Research