Even in the initial stages of addressing this issue the most prominent concern seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the rights afforded by Freedom of Religion or Belief (FORB). This misconception is prevalent in religiously based reservations that member states at the UN make in response to conventions and treaties. FORB “does not protect religions per se (e.g., traditions, values, identities, and truth claims) but aims at the empowerment of human beings, as individuals and in community with others.” Like any other right, FORB is a human right, a right granted to the individual who in no way protects or provides immunity to religious institutions, laws or even states.
In essence, the religious reservations of member states are in fact a misuse of the right, and the states must be called out on this use of cultural or religious relativism to evade their responsibilities to protect the human rights of its citizens, including those of women. As the Special Rapporteur on FORB states:
“Prima facie, it seems plausible to assume that freedom of religion or belief protects religious or belief-related traditions, practices, and identities, since this is what the title of the right appears to suggest. This assumption, however, is misleading, because in line with the human rights approach in general, and article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in particular; freedom of religion or belief always protect human beings in their freedom and equality in dignity and rights. To cite the frequently used short formula, freedom of religion or belief protects the ‘believer rather than belief.’”
The vessel of the right is the individual that holds, professes and develops religion freely. In this context, FORB does not recognize doctrines, truth claims, practices and value systems independently, but only about the individual holder. Thus, member states must be discouraged from misusing the essence of the right. FORB, in theory, does not grant them the capability to make these reservations.
The inherent antagonism derives in part from the fact that the sources which grant the two rights were formed from distinct lobbying and constituencies, and disregard one another. Human rights doctrines, conventions, and treaties that hold up the right to FORB generally do not mention women’s rights.
“The normative standards upholding FORB are article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), article 18 of the ICCPR, and the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. These provisions make no mention of women’s equality or even of non-discrimination by sex.”
It is also vice versa for those recognizing women’s rights:
“The main legal source dedicated to the advancement of women’s equality is CEDAW- an extensive 30 article binding treaty. It makes no mention at all of the FORB or indeed of religion. It does not even contain a standard non-discrimination provision calling for no discrimination based on religion or another status.”
Generally speaking, the two seem to take insufficient account of one another, which can lead to the perception of them as contesting rights. Another aspect of this is the misuse of religion in general: “religion is among the asserted grounds for women’s rights violations, though the invocation of religion may well be covering a range of socioeconomic, traditional, political, and other objectives for states and have a tenuous relationship with ‘religion’ as such.” This becomes a difficult distinction to make, as it requires the spate analysis of religion and culture, which are often deeply embedded within one another, but it is a crucial element in defining what can and cannot be justified using religion.
Distinguishing between religion and culture has become a crucial methodological instrument for reformers, including feminists within various groups who are attempting to redefine the boundaries of religion and culture. Women's rights can be promoted through distinguishing the elements of religion from those of traditional norms.
“For any analysis of conflicts between religious traditions and human rights principle of equality between men and women it remains utterly important to bear in mind that religion and culture, albeit interwoven in manifold ways, are not identical and that their relationship can be exposed to critical questions and reform agendas, often based on the initiatives that originate from the midst of religious communities themselves.”
Not all assertions of FORB can be accepted as a manifestation of religion or belief. "It has to be established that the religion or belief itself is a certain 'cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.'" This does not alter the gravity of these violations, but it does provide insight into often harmful practices including genital mutilation, forced marriage and honor killings. While these destructive practices are carried out in the name of religion, they are usually points of considerable controversy even in the religious traditions that are used to justify them.