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New research initiative investigates religion, rights and gender

August 22, 2011

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict’s efforts to advance cross-disciplinary exchanges on religion, conflict and global politics got a boost this past year with a $350,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

The grant supports a two-year project titled “Religion and International Affairs: Through the Prism of Rights and Gender” led by Linell Cady, director of the center and Dean’s Distinguished Professor in the School of Historical, Philsophical and Religious Studies, and Carolyn Warner, professor and head of political science in the School of Politics and Global Studies, both in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Cady explains that the project is part of the Luce Foundation’s initiative to counter a long-standing failure to adequately engage the intersections of religion and international affairs.

“The idea that religion is private or just a screen for other 'real' causes has contributed to its neglect among policymakers and scholars,” Cady said. “But this is now beginning to change.”

The Luce funding is supporting a broad, multipronged initiative that includes a faculty seminar, public lectures, visiting scholars, research awards, international fellows and a conference.

“We chose to focus on gender, human rights and religion because that’s an especially combustible combination,” Cady said.

Cady points out that so often women – how they dress and what they do – are the pawns in larger battles over national, civilizational or religious identity, or all three at once.

Separating out the realities on the ground from the rhetorical uses to which “saving women” are put has become increasingly important, she adds.

To plan the cross-disciplinary seminar, Cady and Warner brought together a larger project team that includes John Carlson, associate director of the center and associate professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, Miki Kittilson, associate professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies, and Rebecca Tsosie, professor of law, Willard H. Pedrick Distinguished Research Scholar and executive director of the Indian Legal Program at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

Sixteen faculty members from diverse fields, including political science, history, law, sociology, women and gender studies, anthropology, justice studies and religious studies, are involved in the faculty seminar. Readings explore topics ranging from the historical and philosophical roots of human rights, to the role of international law and NGOs, to the complex challenges facing women in multiple regions.

The Luce project also includes support for an international fellow to spend a month in residency at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. The Luce international fellow for 2010-2011 was Marzia Basel, a human rights activist and judge in Afghanistan. During her visit to campus, she met with the faculty and students, gave public lectures, visited a number of community organizations, and lectured in multiple classes.

Basel's visit culminated in a meeting with Sandra Day O’Connor in which they discussed the enormous challenges of negotiating customary practices and women’s rights in the emerging legal system in Afghanistan.

Warner said Basel’s visit had a deep impression on the seminar members.

“Her visit gave us the opportunity to talk at length with an activist and professional who was at the intersection of the very topics about which the project is meant to stimulate discussion, research and understanding,” Warner said.

Other visitors brought to campus for the Luce initiative were Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University; Dan Philpott, associate professor of political science and peace studies at University of Notre Dame; Rachel Cichowski, associate professor in political science at the University of Washington; Isabel Coleman, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Eliza Griswold, journalist. They too met with the seminar and gave additional lectures on campus to a wider audience of faculty and students.

Entering the second year of the project, Cady and Warner look forward to the continuation of the interdisciplinary conversations that not only cross academic disciplines, but raise challenging and important questions about the relationship between the academy and social transformation.

The second year also will see the development of new research projects and graduate seminars as a result of seed funding provided by the grant.

"We hope our project contributes to further understandings by policymakers of the nature of human rights, gender and religion based issues in international affairs, and that the project enables academics to gain a better understanding of policy work and the constraints under which it operates,” Warner said.

The Luce project will culminate with a conference at ASU in March 2012. The conference will provide a public forum for the presentation of the faculty research projects, and an opportunity for engagement and dialogue with a broader audience on these complex and challenging issues at the intersection of religion, rights and gender.

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, a research unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the Tempe campus, promotes interdisciplinary research and education on the dynamics of religion and conflict with the aim of advancing knowledge, seeking solutions and informing policy. To learn more,

Story by Nesima Aberra