Press release

Secular feminists should not reject faith actors working for global gender justice, MP says

A former candidate for the leadership of the Labour party has warned against the outright rejection by the secular feminist movement of religious institutions working for gender equality around the world.

Jess Phillips MP – a feminist and campaigner - was speaking at the launch of a new gender justice report by Christian Aid.

The new report - Equality At All Levels – argues that people of faith and religious institutions who believe in gender justice should join forces with secular feminist groups to fight against a rising tide of regressive politics which is threatening progress on women’s rights globally.

It was officially launched in the House of Lords today, at a round-table discussion which included Professor Tina Beattie, who also criticised religious institutions for at times failing to further women’s rights.

Professor Beattie, a theologian, academic and contributor to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, spoke of the challenge in getting past the male gatekeepers within religious communities in order to increase female participation. She said: “I think that is a real political challenge, and it’s a challenge that women within religious traditions need to rise to.”

Ms Phillips, the MP for Birmingham Yardley, said: “The secular feminist movement can go a little bit all or nothing at times. The trouble is it can get to a form of total rejection of any sort of religious institutions. – I became very pro-nun when I worked with prostituted women, because the people doing all of the work on the ground in some of the most diverse parts of Birmingham, were all nuns who were out there, doing the actual graft.”

In discussing the perceived global roll-back against women’s rights discussed in Christian Aid’s report, Professor Beattie said: “There is a fragile struggle for justice that never ends, and if you blink for a moment you’ve lost it. So I don’t believe in ‘progress’ – I believe we gain fragile ground, and we must be constantly vigilant, because it will go.”

Professor Beattie, who is Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton, added: “I do think when secular feminists and religious feminists come together on these issues, it must be a playing field of mutual learning, because what concerns me often, is that there is a kind of attitude – and I am generalising here – but that, religious women have to play catch up, whereas often religions do have wisdom and they do have insight, that has been lost to secularism. We have religious traditions that have enormous historical insight, and they don’t survive by force. Millions of women like me are in religions because we’ve made informed, conscious choices to be there, and the secular alternative doesn’t always look that much better. So there is a need for dialogue where we are able to engage with mutual respect and mutual learning, and I think religious feminists have learned an enormous amount from secular feminists and continue to do so, but it is not always the other way around.”

Ms Phillips agreed with Professor Beattie, saying: “Non-religious secular life is also patriarchal.” The round-table discussion, which included attendees from across faith, development and political sectors, followed International Women’s Day [Sunday 8 March] and also included Mandy Marshall, an anti gender-based violence campaigner and the Co-Founder and Co-Director of Restored, and Patrick Watt, Director of Policy, Public Affairs and Campaigns for Christian Aid.

Ms Phillips added: “I see…the lessening grip on the state certainly in this country through austerity, the relationship between religious groups and feminist groups or any sort of lobbyist group, has grown hugely in this country, because of need – so where there is need people can put aside all sorts of differing values, where there is a job to be done. And I find in progressive religious organisations, and some not so progressive religious organisations, the need to do something actually unites people: The ‘needs must’ attitude. The concern for me always when talking about religious norms and values that hold back women, and how we can find a way through, is there is a real sense that we can step on a landmine – not literally…metaphorically speaking you can tread on a landmine and they become isolated from each other.

“I hope always that we can find a way of feminist organisations globally, and secular civil society globally, to work – because it is the only thing that is going to work in huge swathes of the world – including here, in the UK.”

Professor Tina Beattie said: “I certainly agree that in times of austerity, in times of horrendous global injustice, children freezing on wards… there must be a combined commitment among feminists of all faiths and none, to resist and to practise resilience.”

The Christian Aid report – Equality at All Levels: Strengthening the role of faith-based actors in promoting the Beijing +25 agenda – was due to be launched at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) on 10 March, which was postponed due to the Coronavirus. CSW is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the rights of women.

The Equality at All Levels report invites faith actors to commit to specific actions to tackle gender inequality, including:
  • Ensuring female leaders rise to positions of power and are able to sustain those positions
  • Address unequal access to education and training within church structures
  • Support and deliver action to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls within churches
  • Promote and protect the human rights of women through sermons and theological interpretations
  • Resource and/or implement intersectional approaches to development
  • Encourage and accompany the creation and implementation of protocols for the prevention, detection and attention to sexual violence and gender-based violence inside churches and faith-based organisations
  • Work on theological and faith understandings which are critical to deconstructing the gender stereotypes that limit women’s rights and agency
  • Guarantee an increase in female faith leaders and feminist theologians who have power and connect with the lived experience of women and provide a more nuanced analysis of the role of religion on promoting gender equality
Download the full report at: