The Social Lives of Gender and Religion: Implications for Development Policy


  • Wendy Mee

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    1. Department of Social Inquiry, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia
    • Correspondence to: Department of Social Inquiry, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia


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To date, the literature on ‘gender and development’ has remained largely sequestered from that on ‘religion and development’, and consequently the presence of conceptual problems common to the two fields has gone largely unremarked. This paper identifies three such conceptual problems, here termed categorization, identification and representation. The oversight of common conceptual problems has important implications for the assessment of religion and gender in sustainable development policy. One such effect, I argue, is the consolidation of a narrow range of negative and secularist readings of the potential role of gender and religion in sustainable development. To circumvent conceptualizations that may give rise to prejudicial readings of gender and religion, this paper follows feminist and religious studies scholars in arguing that we conceive of gender and religion as permeable categories and non-exclusive identities, constituted by diverse discursive elements. Copyright © 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.


This paper brings together the literatures on ‘gender and development’ and ‘religion and development’. Such an endeavour immediately confronts the often negative evaluations of the gender–religion nexus in development. In response, I argue that sustainable development policy makers and practitioners need to exercise caution in how they conceive of gender, religion and their intersection. My primary objective in this paper is to delineate how particular conceptualizations of religion and of gender predispose us towards negative readings of the place of religion and gender in sustainable development. The paper is most closely concerned with conceptualizations of gender and religion that construct these categories as ‘problems’ for development, i.e. as barriers to goals such as sustainable development, gender empowerment etc. Such conceptual orientations can result in politically loaded representations of gender and religion; they can even endorse a form of secularism, one in which liberation from religion is viewed as a condition for human autonomy and flourishing. 1

There are ways to avoid a prejudicial evaluation of the gender-religion nexus, however. As argued below, many negative attitudes relating to gender and religion in development stem from conceptualizations that conceive of gender and religion as fixed, naturalistic categories and unified, totalizing identities. One way forward, then, is to emphasize gender and religion as emergent and permeable categories, constituted by diverse discursive identifications, including secular ones. A few examples at this point may help to clarify how I propose we (re)conceptualize the categories and identities associated with gender and religion. While these examples refer to Muslim women, the point I wish to make is a general one.

The title of this paper draws from Abu-Lughod's (2013) discussion of the ‘social life’ of Muslim women's rights. In suggesting that rights have a social life, Abu-Lughod argues that rights only exist in ‘social play’ (2013, p. 147), that is, in the social interactions and discursive exchanges where a notion of rights is circulated, transplanted and claimed. As a consequence, she argues, the notion of rights takes on different meanings as it moves through various social networks and becomes entangled with local, state and non-state institutions. Abu-Lughod's insight that concepts have social lives enables us to explore how the concepts of religion and gender similarly emerge in social play and aligns with other studies of Muslim women's activism. Rinaldo (2010), for example, documents how amongst Indonesian Muslim women, for whom Islam has become a primary source of meaning, Islam is variously mobilized to argue for women's equality and to promote an Islamic nation in ways that transform both Islamic and feminist discourses. In turn, secular feminists can draw on religious discourses in such contests. Al-Ali (2000) illustrates how Egyptian secular feminists draw on both Islamic and civil law and human rights conventions, thus problematizing a rigid secular–religious dichotomy. As Badran (2005) concludes, secular and Islamic feminisms are discursive modes that both draw on multiple discourses (such as democracy, modernity, humanism, nationalism, Islam etc.), even when Islamic feminisms may be expressed in terms of ‘a single or paramount religiously grounded discourse’ (2005, p. 6).

This discussion of the social life of rights evident in Muslim women's activism grounds the following discussion of religion, gender and sustainable development in two ways. First, a social life approach highlights the extent to which contestations over gender and religion draw on multiple, overlapping discourses. Notions of gender and religion–as with rights–are invoked in heterogeneous discourses and institutions, which nevertheless can lead opponents to share some of the same scripts and normative goals. A social life approach is further relevant for its understanding of the polysemous, indeterminant and emergent qualities of concepts, including gender and religion, as well as the primacy of context in their instantiation.

The failure to attend to the social lives of concepts is a key feminist objection to some institutionalized approaches to gender in the field of development. Less recognized is the similar conceptual weakness in the emerging ‘religion and development’ literature. Informed by feminists and religious studies scholars, this paper outlines three problems in the conceptualization of gender and religion in sustainable development, relating to categorization, identification and representation. My central argument is that negative representations of religion and gender that posit them as counter to or outside the goals of sustainable development may be the outcome of particular conceptualizations of the category and the identity associated with gender and religion. Consequently, it is not my intention to debate or analyse how actual gender and religious relations and identities are associated with specific examples of gender subordination. The important critical evaluation of empirical gender and religious relations belongs elsewhere. Rather, the purpose of the paper is to draw attention to how the conceptualization of gender and religion as categories and as identities can operate to prefigure our evaluation of the likely contribution of religious and gender relations to sustainable development.

The next section further positions the paper by reviewing different approaches to gender and religion in scholarship on sustainable development. This is followed by an analysis of the link between negative representations of gender and religion in sustainable development and particular conceptualizations of the categories and identities associated with gender and religion. Starting with difficulties in the categorization of gender and religion, the analysis turns to consider issues in our conceptualization of gender and religion as identities, before concluding with a discussion of representations of gender and religion as ‘problems’ for development. The final discussion reiterates the need to recognize the infusion of multiple discourses and identifications in the construction of categories and identities of gender and religion. It affirms the value of a ‘social life’ approach to the conceptualization of religion and gender in order to avoid narrow and secularist evaluations of them as barriers to sustainable development.

Religion, Gender and Sustainable Development

While scholarship on the relationship between religion and development may have blossomed in the past decade (Rakodi, 2012a, p. 621), there has been less consideration of the intersections of religion and gender in policies relating to natural resource management (Tomalin, 2008, p. 249). This neglect is surprising, given that grassroots women's organizations have long worked with ‘religious leaders and organizations to improve women's lives' (Tomalin, 2013a, pp. 185–186). Yet, it is also unsurprising, given that one principal reason for women's involvement here has been to ‘resist the [gender] implications of conservative religiosity’ (Tomalin, 2013a, p. 186).

In this section, I briefly review critical literatures on both gender and religion in development. In the space available, I cannot do justice to the history and internal contestation of each of these scholarships. My aim is merely to provide sufficient background for the subsequent analysis of the three conceptual problems common in approaches to gender and religion.

Feminist interventions in the discussion of sustainable development took root in the 1980s and 1990s. Informed by ecofeminism, WED, 2 GED 3 and feminist political ecology, feminists set about documenting how women's and men's gender-differentiated roles, activities and identities are critical variables in shaping their differentiated access to, control over and knowledge of environmental resources and processes. Differences were also apparent across broadly feminist approaches. While ecofeminists claimed that women possess a special spiritual affinity to nature and to the protection of their environment, the more generally agreed proposition was that women and men have different rights and responsibilities to the natural environment, as well as distinct environmental vulnerabilities shaped by the intersection of gender, class and community in the context of capitalist transformation. Agarwal (cited by Sachs, 1996, p. 41) suggested the term ‘environmental feminism’ to encompass the claim that women are ‘likely to be affected adversely in quite specific ways by environmental degradation’ while simultaneously ‘in the course of their everyday interactions with nature, they acquire a special knowledge of species varieties and the processes of natural regeneration’.

Feminist scholarship on gender and the environment produced a groundswell of carefully documented studies, which considered women's productive use and management of their natural environment; the important link between women's farming and household food security; women's agency in the protection of their environment; and the negative consequences for women and their dependents when women are excluded from environmental projects and extension services (Sachs, 1996; Rocheleau et al., 1996; Resurreccion and Elmhirst, 2008). This opened the door to the widespread acceptance of gender mainstreaming approaches designed to include women as users and managers of natural resources in environment- and, more latterly, climate change-related policies and programs.

In contrast, religion has not achieved the widespread endorsement and institutional mainstreaming that gender has received in sustainable development policies and projects, being regarded with some suspicion in the institutional structures of the field (Narayanan, 2013, p. 132). Nevertheless, religion and spirituality have been important in the articulation of alternatives to development and sustainable development discourses. For example, religion and spirituality have been central to critiques of growth-oriented/mainstream development, where the call to revive religious and spiritual values is aligned with a critique of Western models of science, technology and growth. Tomalin (2013b, p. 175) notes the presence of religious environmentalist discourses in the 1960s environmental movement, and Zwissler (2012) documents the important intersections between feminism and Christianity in North American social movements, feminist theory and feminist theology. Religious organizations also participated in all major environment initiatives, including the first UN international environment conference in Stockholm in 1972, the 1992 UNCED Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the Earth Charter launched in 2000 (Tomalin, 2013b, pp. 177–179).

Furthermore, non-Christian religious traditions that endorse the sacredness of the natural world have been promoted as ethical frameworks from which to respect nature and the means to counter environmental destruction. Neo-Gandhian scholars such as Claude Alvares, Ashish Nandy, Ziauddin Sadar and Vandana Shiva variously have sought to counter environmental and social crises through an exploration of Hindu and Islamic science and philosophy. Their writings have found a receptive audience in the West among eco-centric scholars and activists interested in both spirituality and ecology. Often accompanied by a strong desire to unshackle sacredness and holiness from institutional religion, ‘deep green’ scholars seek to recuperate and learn from pre-modern and non-Western spirituality to advance environmentally sustainable practices and philosophies (Merchant, 1992; Taylor, 2009).

Amongst approaches that consider the relationship between humans and nature as quasi-sacred, women are seen to have a strong spiritual affinity with the Earth/Nature. Women's bodies and their presumed attachment to the cycles of nature are treated with the same reverence as shown towards the Earth and Nature (Merchant, 1992; Tomalin, 2013b). Closely aligned with this viewpoint, but delivering a pronounced feminist punch, are the writings of ecofeminists. For ecofeminists, patriarchal/androcentric Western imperialism is linked to both women's oppression and ecological devastation (Shiva, 1988; Merchant, 1992; Sturgeon, 1999). Ecofeminism has generated controversy within feminist circles and faced criticisms of biological essentialism, idealism, selectivity and detachment from the actual practice of adherents (Jackson, 2001, pp. 24–29; Leach, 2007; Tomalin, 2013b, p. 188). In reply, Sturgeon (1999) bemoans critics' tendency to present a caricature of ecofeminism that denies the diversity of positions within this approach and notes the positive outcomes for Third World activists able to build coalitions with Western ecofeminists in struggles over land use and environment. Over time, more radical feminist claims concerning women's privileged connection as sacred custodians of the Earth have softened. 4 A spiritual link and stewardship roles may still exist, but these are more generally viewed as socially constructed and, at times, politically deployed as strategic essentialisms (Rocheleau et al., 1996; Low and Termayne, 2001).

Tackling the economic, social, political and technical aspects of environmental degradation and climate change demands an interdisciplinary approach, one that does not reject a priori the significance of religion and spirituality to understanding women's and men's gendered relationships to the environment and natural resources (Tomalin, 2008), nor preclude the belief that material measures of human well-being are only ever partial (Narayanan, 2010). It also requires, I argue, a careful examination of our conceptualizations of our concepts, including those of gender and religion.

Categorization, Identification and Representation

Turning now to conceptual debates within the respective literatures on gender, religion and sustainable development, this section focuses on conceptualizations of gender and of religion that treat them as ‘given’ categories associated with unitary, stable identities. Criticisms of such conceptualizations are well rehearsed in feminist and religious studies. These criticisms are worth further reflection, however, in this discussion of their intersection in the context of sustainable development. Here, conceptual problems in relation to gender and to religion compound to reinforce the supposition that religion and gender–particularly, in relation to women and girls–are at odds with the goals of sustainable development. The following analysis is organized around three problems of conceptualization that I classify as categorization, identification and representation.


In this paper, the problem of categorization is closely aligned with the conceptualization of gender and religion as fixed, unitary and naturalized categories. In the case of gender, such conceptualizations have combined with a number of powerful assumptions within the study, policy making and practice of development to create monolithic constructions of ‘Third World woman’ and ‘First World woman’ (Mohanty, 1991). This has given rise to a number of ‘gender myths’ and ‘feminist fables’ (Cornwall et al., 2007) that characterize women in the global South as defined by their common poverty, lack of agency and vulnerability, while simultaneously extolled as model targets for Northern assistance because of their honesty and reliability.

Feminists writing in the field of sustainable development have also noted the prevalence of foundational myths that define women's relationship to the environment in categorical terms. Leach (2007, pp. 67–68) identifies the prevalence of ‘earth mother myths’ and ‘ecofeminist fables’ in donor, NGO and policy documents, which characterize women in less developed countries in terms of subsistence, domesticity, environmentalism and their dependence on the natural resources of their environment. Arora-Jonsson (2011) and Resurrección (2013) observe a resurgence of these constructions in policies and documents on climate change and climate-related disasters. Two constructions of women dominate these arenas. First, women as a group suffer the most from climate change (i.e., they are ‘vulnerable’), and second, women as a group have the lightest ecological footprint and are the most climate sensitive (i.e., they are ‘virtuous’). Supporting these constructions are assumptions about the ‘essential’ reality of poor women's lives. As a group, they are typecast as excluded from the decision-making bodies that produce and (fail to) regulate climate change and possessing an environmentalism not evident in men (Arora-Jonsson, 2011). Akin to Leach (2007), Resurrección (2013, pp. 38–39) notes a level of feminist complicity in the simplification of gender identities and interests in order to insert ‘gender agendas’ into climate change discussions.

One of the effects of such categorization is that women as a group have been targeted in climate mitigation and environmental projects, without due consideration of the demands of time, effort and responsibility that their involvement may entail: ‘climate change has brought environmentalism to the mainstream political debates… [yet] equity and social justice are not always on the agenda’ (Arora-Jonsson, 2011, p. 744). Echoing earlier reservations about ‘the feminization of poverty’ debate and the targeting of women in poverty eradication programs (Cornwall et al., 2007; Chant, 2010), targeting women not only places the responsibility of environmental sustainability on women's shoulders, but may not be an effective solution in any case. As Arora-Jonsson (2011, p. 746) argues, ‘we need to examine the specific form of vulnerability and discrimination that people face in order to respond to it effectively’.

The concern over essentialist and naturalized conceptualizations of gender evident above parallels a discussion within religion and development debates. As with gender, religion may also appear natural and its essence fixed, and, like gender, religion requires a deconstructive touch to reveal how the meaning and significance of religion emerges out of processes and practices at a variety of scales (household, community, political, economic etc.).

Wendy Tyndale (2000) exemplifies a view of religious communities as caring, coherent and internally homogenous. An early proponent of religion in development, Tyndale sought to establish closer ties of cooperation and understanding between multilateral institutions and faith-based communities. For Tyndale (2000), the benefits are clear, but expressed in such idealist and generalized terms that differences between religions and their internal divisions are papered over. ‘All the faiths denounce greed, hoarding, and the exploitation of some individuals by others’ (Tyndale, 2000, p. 11) is just one typical example.

In response, scholars interested in exploring the religion-development nexus have noted how important elements of what we could term the ‘social lives’ of religions are overlooked in such constructions. To being with, not all religions suit the nomenclature of ‘faith’ and we cannot infer that a religion (or faith) is ‘a relatively unproblematic unitary and homogeneous phenomenon that can be analysed and compared across time and space’ (Beckford, 2003, cited by Tomalin, 2013b, p. 50). Rakodi (2012b) amongst others argues that attitudes vary not only between but also within faith communities-including the attitudes of religious leaders and adherents over issues such as women's rights and gender equality. A final concern is an over-reliance on institutional voices to define the precepts and practice of any one religion. Tomalin, citing again the sociologist of religion James Beckford (2003), argues that the focus on official and organized religion risks ‘implying that all participants in these organisations think, feel and act alike’ (Tomalin, 2013b, p. 86). It also leaves unexamined the ‘complex space that exists between value statements and people's adoption of particular values’ (Devine and Deneulin, 2011, p. 62).

White et al. (2012) provide a compelling example of the myriad problems associated with approaches to religion that efface such issues. Religious identities and practices, as shown in their multi-sited study of different religious communities in India, are highly diverse and mutually constituted by relations of gender and caste. Religious organizations are shown as not necessarily close to the poor or concerned with their welfare, and the moral leadership provided by religious elites also varied across and within religious communities (White et al., 2012, p. 657).

As discussed above, singular and monolithic categorizations of religion and gender obscure the contextually emergent qualities of these concepts and circumscribe our appreciation of the diverse experiences of and contestations within them. The remaining two conceptual issues are closely linked to this matter of categorization. Indeed, the problems I identify in relation to identification and representation are premised on the categorization of gender and religion in fixed and intrinsic terms.


The problem of identification addressed here primarily reveals itself when gender and religious identities are afforded too much weight, when they become the meta-theories of people's lives: for example, when women are viewed first and foremost as gendered subjects, determined by gender roles and gender ideologies, or when the actions and behaviours of religious adherents are explained principally with reference to their religious identity, excluding other social relations and identities. While gender and religion are also forms of identity politics, we need to recognize that this is not how all individuals relate to or identify with their gendered and religious selves (Jones and Petersen, 2011, p. 1293).

Leach (2007) refers to this problem in her analysis of iconic women, environment and development (WED) images of women. These images, she argues, portray women interacting with their natural environment in ways that represent women ‘purely as “women’”, that is, uncomplicated by reference to men, family, relationships or differences (Leach, 2007, p. 67). Nightingale (2006) likewise notes the tendency, in mainstream responses to climate change, to identify women with the state of vulnerability, and in so doing ignore the complex and dynamic social processes that create women's (and men's) vulnerability.

Religious identification within religion and development debates can also assume this all-encompassing identity. One example comes from the oft-cited book by Deneulin and Bano (2009) on religion and development. While the authors emphasize the extent to which internal disagreement, divergent views and potential for change are inherent in the religions they discuss (Christianity and Islam), they posit religion as a totalizing identity when they argue that ‘religion constitutes a total way of life for adherents and selective engagement is not an option’ (2009, p. 26). This may be the case for adherents, who have adopted a ‘declared religious identity’, but it does not capture the range of religious commitments, including those whose religious identities are ‘ascribed’ or ‘chosen’ (Peek, 2005).

An explicit rejection of privileging religious identity was made by Muslim participants in workshops run by Oxfam in 2004 and 2006 (Marshall and Taylor, 2006, cited by Tomalin, 2013a, p. 193; see also Balchin, 2010). The participants agreed that religion needed to be considered in projects relating to Muslim women's rights–even endorsing the strategic use of Muslim feminism–but they warned that it was ‘crucial not to prioritize religious identities over other identity markers or to assume that Muslim women were particularly religious’ (Tomalin, 2013a, p. 193). Similarly, White et al. (2012, p. 658), in the study noted above, found that only within religious movements did religion play a more encompassing role in people's lives. For a majority of women, family and household responsibilities were viewed as central to their lives and fulfilment, and, while religion was drawn on to endorse the importance of family, women's sense of well-being was grounded in ‘everyday customs’ of household life (White et al., 2012, p. 658).

Numerous examples attest that people's religious identification is complex. Palmer's (2011) analysis of Islamic Relief Worldwide's management of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh demonstrates the deep cleavages of class and nationality that divide Bangladeshi aid workers and Rohingya refugees despite their common language and Sunni Islam. These and other examples confirm the importance of not ‘essentialising religion as the most important source of values and personal and group identity’ (Rakodi, 2012a, p. 623).

Totalizing gender and religious identities has resulted in the some of the most profoundly contested but long-lived tropes in development-such as the need to rescue the ‘Third World woman’ from the oppression of poverty, gender–and now–religion (Mohanty, 1991; Leach, 2007; Abu-Lughod, 2013; Barakat and Wardell, 2002). That these tropes have proved hard to shift is arguably a testament to the strength of the third conceptual problem discussed here, namely, representation.


The core issue of representation that is relevant to this discussion of religion, gender and sustainable development revolves around the word ‘problem’: both gender and religion are represented primarily in mainstream development discussions as ‘problems’ to be mitigated or overcome. This does not preclude more positive readings of the potential boons to development planners of gender (e.g. women as trustworthy microcredit clients) and religion (e.g. faith-based organizations as service providers). These gestures, however, tend to be closely aligned with instrumentalist approaches that seek to selectively harness religion and gender to ‘do development better’ (Jones and Petersen, 2011, p. 1291). They do not alter the general impression that gender and religion are associated with some of the most entrenched barriers to development.

To understand how gender represents a problem for development, we need only consider representations of non-Western women as victims of male control and poverty (Lazreg, 1988; Mohanty, 1991; Chant, 2010), or mainstream environment and climate-change documents that equate femaleness with vulnerability (Arora-Jonsson, 2011; Leach, 2007; Resurrección, 2013). These uphold the conviction that gender constitutes a problem that needs to be reformed or transformed.

The factors contributing to religion's reputation as a problem for development are manifold (Clarke, 2006, 2007; Jones and Petersen, 2011). One important example is the scrutiny given to religious influences in the politics surrounding sexual and reproductive rights (Tomalin, 2013a, pp. 188–191). The situation is complicated, however, by ‘the secularist and materialist leanings of both development studies and… gender and development (GAD) approaches’ (Tomalin, 2013a, p. 185). Development as a post-WW2 enterprise is closely tied to modernization theory, a set of ideas that viewed development as capitalist economic growth and social secularization. Here, religion was viewed as redundant or a potential barrier if it reproduced ‘traditions’ counter to modernizing processes (Clarke, 2013, p. 3).

Many of these claims require further qualification. For example, Rakodi (2012a, p. 622) views the ‘accusation that religion is neglected in development studies and policy’ as ‘oversimplified’, while others have noted the long involvement of faith-based organizations in development (Clarke, 2006, 2007; Jones and Petersen, 2011; Clarke, 2013, p. 10) Nevertheless, religion has been predominantly represented as external or redundant to development. As suggested above, this reflects the influence of a modern secularist political ideology, one that pits ‘universality and reasonableness’ against ‘the narrowness and fanaticism of religion’ (Jakobsen and Pellegrini, 2008, p. 3) in the field of development. Such secularist representations of religion then intersect with representations of gender to position particular categories of women (and men) as more or less ‘modern’ subjects of development.


The above observations demonstrate the need not only to go beyond the recognition that there are culturally diverse forms of gender and religion, but also to acknowledge the extent to which gender and religion are internally heterogeneous and highly permeable categories. As concepts, gender and religion only acquire meaning in relation to discourses, relations and material interests that are–analytically speaking–external to them. This point has been made by feminists critical of binary categories of gender difference and totalizing gender identities that do not give attention to the intersectionality of identity. In principle, the same is true for religion. Religious tenets, for example, never simply determine religious dispositions, because religious tenets are only one of the discursive resources and material considerations that shape people's relationship to and understanding of their religion. For these reasons, we need to eschew fixed, naturalistic categorizations of religion and gender that fail to appreciate the ‘social lives’ of these concepts, that is, how the notion of gender and religion emerge through women's and men's relationships with their society and environment–relationships that are given meaning with reference to a rich seam of ideas, values and discourses.

These conceptual limitations have particular implications for the approach to religion within development, where multilateral organizations, many donors, some NGOs and other agents of development are important institutional carriers of secularity and often behave as if the religious and the secular exist only as polar opposites. The Muslim women at the outset of this paper suggest that many religious people hold secular convictions, although they may recoil from secularism. The general point here is that we need to inquire into the mutual infusion of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ discourses on religion and gender that results from our entanglement in discourses and practices that connect people and institutions across difference. Not only are we more than our gender and religious/non-religious identities, but it is difficult to conceive in the contemporary era that there is not some infusion of religious, gender and secular aspirations and understandings in our ways of being in the world.

This resonates with broader calls that we critically appraise the religious–secular dichotomy and different modalities of the secular (see, for example, Casanova, 2011) in ways that recognize the diverse landscapes of a heterogeneous modernity (Wohlrab-Sahr and Burchardt, 2012). Not to do so may privilege one modality of the secular (that of secularism) with the result that religion–but not secularity–is viewed as optional to development.


This paper argues that our evaluation of the intersection between women's and men's gendered and religious lives, and issues of significance to sustainable development, are often distorted by problematic conceptualizations of gender and religion. Specifically, the paper indicates problems of categorization, identification and representation evident in the conceptualization of both that compound the suspicion that religion and its intersection with gender is incompatible with the goals of sustainable development. In response, I suggest that religion and gender are better conceptualized in terms of a ‘social life’ approach that recognizes religion and gender as informed by a range of ideas, aspirations and discourses. This, I argue, provides a more robust platform from which to evaluate religion, gender and their intersection in development contexts.

Finally, in addition to calls that development researchers, policy makers and practitioners improve their religious literacy, I make a parallel plea: that we hone our ‘secular literacy’. Developing a secular literacy is not only important to our engagement with nominally ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ communities and organizations. It also constitutes an important reflexive attitude, one that encourages us to explore how our own participation in development institutions and scholarship contributes to the circulation of particularistic expressions of secularity.


  1. 1Casanova (2011, p. 56) refers to this as ‘secularist secularity’ and differentiates it from two other modes of Western secularity: ‘mere secularity’ (where religion remains a normal viable option in a secular world) and ‘self-sufficient and exclusive secularity’ (where living without religion is a normal, taken-for-granted condition).
  2. 2Women, environment and development.
  3. 3Gender, environment and development.
  4. 4See for example Shiva's (2012) later writings. Her critique of neo-imperialism and dominant Western models of development remain as strong.