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Religious And Secular Forces Clash Over Women’s Status In Mediterranean World

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New Book by Authors of American Religious Identification Survey: The Mediterranean world is a region in flux and under strain and poses striking challenges to the many peoples who live there. That was the conclusion of a group of researchers from nine countries who gathered in 2007 at what has been called “an extraordinary meeting” of scholars representing “all of the major faiths that crowd the Mediterranean shores.”

At that meeting on Trinity College’s Rome campus, which was organized by the school’s Institute for the Study of Secularism In Society and Culture (ISSSC), women’s issues emerged as a central theme. The result of the scholarly debate and research is an intriguing new book, Secularism, Women & the State: The Mediterranean World in the 21st Century.

The editors of the book, which consists of 16 unique essays, are Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, director and associate director, respectively, of the ISSSC. It is the third in a series of books edited by Kosmin and Keysar on secularism, the first being Secularism & Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, and the second, Secularism & Science in the 21st Century.

Kosmin and Keysar also have done groundbreaking research on religion in the United States. Their survey of the religious views and affiliations of 54,461 U.S. adults, called the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), was released in March and has garnered worldwide attention. The survey, which found, among other trends, that the Catholic population of the U.S. has shifted from the Northeast and towards the Southwest and that secularity is growing in all regions of the country, was carried by thousands of media outlets in this country and abroad. The much-acclaimed survey also was the third in a series conducted by Kosmin and Keysar, with the first one published in 1990 and the second in 2001.

The 2007 meeting in Rome began with the premise that the peoples who live in the diverse nations that abut the Mediterranean Sea often seem to share little except a common history of classical civilization and the deep blue sea itself. What does a Muslim in Algeria have to say to a Jew in Israel? What common ground is there between the populations of Egypt and France, or those of Spain and Lebanon, or Greece and Turkey and Italy?

The scholars discovered that the peoples of the Mediterranean do indeed face similar challenges and have much to learn from each other, and that genuine communication is possible across the vast gulfs of religion, politics, and economic and social status. The scholars at the ISSSC meeting represented the major religions in the Mediterranean region: Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and secularists.

Women’s issues emerged as a core topic during the interactions between the participants. “We explored the question of whether at the turn of the 21st century the status of women is higher in more secular states as a result of the influence of state secularity on demographic policies. We found that in general, women have made the greatest advances in the countries where religion has the smallest role in reproductive decision-making,” said Keysar. “Yet fertility rates are falling throughout the region, suggesting that even in countries where women remain oppressed, change may be coming.”    

Of the 16 essays, some are cross-country comparisons, while others zero in on particular countries. The scholars found that there are sharpening conflicts between religious and secular forces in Muslim nations and in Western European nations with growing Muslim minorities. The region’s other religions are hardly less embroiled. In each case, women play multiple roles: as nurturers of traditional faith; as fighters for gender equality; and even as lawmakers and leaders of states.

“One conclusion that emerges from this book,” said Kosmin, “is that though perhaps there can be secularism without democracy, there can be no democracy and social progress without some commitment by the state to separating itself from religion and to ensuring freedom of conscience and also equal rights and treatment for women.”

The essays in the book primarily deal with turbulent contemporary issues in Algeria, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Spain, and Turkey, as well as the Mediterranean region as a whole.

By the end of the book, the editors assert, readers will have better insight into “how scholars from different cultures are groping toward a common understanding of the challenges” facing this part of the world. The book, which is divided into two sections – Secularism and the State, and Women and Society – can be downloaded free of charge at www.trincoll.edu/secularisminstitute. The paperback can be purchased for $10.

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