Alison Boden Discusses the Arab Spring and Women's Rights at LISD-Sponsored UN Talk

The Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination co-sponsored a lecture and discussion, “The Arab Spring and Women’s Rights,” on Tuesday, January 22, 2013, at the United Nations in New York City. The featured speaker was The Rev. Dr. Alison Boden, Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel at Princeton University, who discussed ways in which the extraordinary political events in the Middle-East and North Africa (MENA) region have opened new opportunities related to women’s human rights and women’s participation in political processes, but have also created new challenges and threats. 

The event was part of a series of lectures and panels on the UN's Women, Peace, and Security Agenda, organized by LISD's Program on Women in the Global Community, the Permanent Mission of Liechtenstein to the United Nations, and the PeaceWomen Project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

The full text of Boden's prepared remarks and a webcast of the event are available.

In her opening remarks, Boden focused on the notion of women’s rights in a context where state and religion are not separated, as is the case in several MENA countries. Beginning by emphasizing the fact that “no religious or spiritual tradition is monolithic,” Boden indicated how interpretations of religious doctrine complicated constitutional, legal, and political matters in many post-"Arab Spring" nations. The manifold interpretations of Shari’a must be acknowledged because by “[conforming] to the assumption that there is one way to understand Shari’a … we hand power to those people who assert that their particular way of understanding religious law is the only correct way.”

Boden also explored the relationship between human rights, women’s rights, and religious freedom, stating that “religion is a double challenge to the rights of women.” She explicated the basis of equality in the language of human rights, where rights are afforded to all humans on the basis of their humanity alone, and in the language of religion. In the latter, she noted that religions might bestow spiritual equality upon all humans, but simultaneously and practically delineate a divine taxonomy based on gender, caste, faith, race, and sexual orientation. Laws and rights, in this case, must accommodate these differences.

The practical use of the human right to "freedom of religion" to inhibit women’s rights is a common phenomenon in MENA states according to Boden. Problems of ethical imperialism and religious persecution may arise when attempting to develop a legal regime based around women’s rights. Boden also focused on challenges to women’s rights arising from religious parties in the MENA region, from claims to cultural and religious independence, from religious nationalism, and from the selective application of religious law. The issue of respecting human agency in the case of women in MENA states who may agree with rights-limiting laws was also identified as a challenge to the notion of women’s rights in the region.

Boden concluded her lecture by emphasizing the interpretative problems arising by codifying Shari’a as the basis of the legislation, arguing that apart from Salafists and other conservatives, liberal interpreters of Shari’a would have their agency denied. In essence, conservative zeal will misinterpret the non-monolithic religious, spiritual, and political tradition of Islam as monolithic to the detriment of those who might feel differently. With reference to legal and political processes in Tunisia and Egypt, Boden demonstrated how this process of monopolizing the interpretation of Shari’a is occurring.

The Rev. Dr. Alison Boden is Dean of Religious Life and of the Chapel at Princeton University, a position she has held since August 2007. Previously, she served twelve years as Dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and Senior Lecturer in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, and as co-chair of its Human Rights Program board. Boden is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and served as the Protestant chaplain at Union College as well as the University Chaplain for Bucknell University before joining the University of Chicago in 1995. She received her A.B. from Vassar College, her M.Div. at Union Theological Seminary, and her Ph.D. from the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom. She has authored numerous articles and chapters on religion in addition to a book, Women's Rights and Religious Practice (Palgrave 2007). At Princeton and Chicago her course offerings have included such topics as religion and human rights, the rights of women, and religion and violence.

Boden has participated in a variety of capacities with numerous non-governmental organizations, including Religions for Peace, the Institute for Global Engagement, UNFPA, the Parliament of the World's Religions, and the Carter Center, particularly on the topic of women of faith as intentional agents of peacebuilding and security.