Religion and Human Rights


The Human Rights Program is cognizant of the role religion plays in shaping public policy debates and the complex interactions and tensions between religious beliefs, protection of religious freedoms, and standards of human rights protection. Freedom of religion is a human right; however, differences in religious belief can also be a source of human rights violations. HRP faculty and staff work on multiple sides of this complex spectrum.

In recent years, the International Human Rights Clinic has engaged with issues at the intersection of religion and international human rights law in different regions of the world. This has been particularly relevant in contexts where a role for religion is entrenched in local constitutions and where religious-based arguments are commonly used as a basis to restrict human rights protections. Since 2016, the Clinic has worked in collaboration with Musawah and other local NGOs and grassroots activists across different Muslim contexts to advance gender justice and protection of women’s rights under the law. With the supervision of Islamic law and gender experts, clinical teams worked to map areas of discrimination in the laws and practices of 31 Muslim majority and minority countries and to develop legal reform proposals using a holistic framework that integrates universal human rights principles, Islamic teachings, constitutional rights guarantees, and women’s lived realities.

HRP and Clinic faculty and staff also work on the intersection of antidiscrimination and religion. Over the last few years, staff have worked with partner organizations to advocate for the Rohingya population, a persecuted Muslim minority group from Myanmar. Gerald Neuman, HRP Co-Director and J. Sinclair Professor of Foreign, Comparative, and International Law, also has a particular interest in antidiscrimination law. Neuman convened a workshop in spring 2020 exploring the right against discriminatory impact based on religion.

Selected Highlights

  • In April 2020, HRP’s Academic Program hosted an online workshop exploring indirect discrimination and religion from a comparative perspective. The workshop was a collaboration with the Harvard Human Rights Journal. The workshop was the first in a series exploring antidiscrimination law. A future event exploring sexual orientation and gender identity will address religion’s role as a source of discrimination.

  • Gerald Neuman’s edited collection, Human Rights in a Time of Populism, addresses the intersection between religion, human rights, and populist leaders, including in Myanmar, Turkey, and Poland.

  • Between 2017-2019, clinical teams worked with Musawah and women’s rights advocates in Nigeria, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Mauritius to draft and submit shadow reports to the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), advocating for legal reforms and measures to remedy gender-based discrimination and gaps in the legal protections for women, with a particular focus on family law reform and gender-based violence. In particular, these reports incorporated arguments based on Islamic teachings and examples from across the Muslim world to demonstrate the compatibility of women’s rights protection with Islamic law and to respond to often-cited religious justifications for perpetuating discrimination against women.

Experts: Gerald Neuman and Salma Waheedi

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