In 2011, scholar and activist Frances Kissling published a blog in the Washington Post with the powerful heading, “Religion lays foundation for gender discrimination. ” An inflammatory claim, but is this overstated or essentially truthful? This is a multilayered issue to be dissected, rather than immediately affirmed or denied. The right to freely practice one’s religion, as protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has long been seen as competing with the promise of absolute gender equality. In most world religions, women and men are not allowed equal rank.
In her blog, Kissling pointed out primary evidence of gender discrimination in the lack of female spiritual or congregational leadership across the spectrum of religious traditions. Considering, for instance, Tibetan Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Roman Catholicism, by precedent a woman has yet to reach the upper tiers of the holy job ladder. (Kissling) But this issue runs deeper than structural hierarchies and positions of power. Women are generally pushed to the side in many religious practices, kept separate in their roles and made to feel unequal to men.
According to the 1979 Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), “discrimination against women” is specifically defined as: Any distinction, exclusion, or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on the basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms on the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field. (Parker) Based on this definition, gender discrimination has been long embedded in religious institutions.
From the separate door a Muslim woman must use to enter her mosque, to the inability of a Catholic woman to be ordained as a priest, defined boundaries exist in most religious traditions to dismiss women’s roles in places of prayer. (Scrivener) Yet a greater worry is how gender inequality within a religious context has permeated into the social, political, and economic fabric of our societies. Does unequal treatment of genders by religion violate the greater guarantee of equality between men and women in a public setting? In societies where religion has been a long dominant force, religious principles have become ingrained in the stablished cultures, social structures, and even legal standards.
This makes it hard to distinguish discriminatory religious practices from discriminatory social customs and traditions. (Pasule) Islamic societies in particular have been criticized by the western world for the ostensible subservience of their women. Muslim women are often conveyed as “repressed” and even “backwards”, as evidenced from their limited roles in marriage to their compulsorily modest dress. (Rommelspacher) In some places, they are spurned for what is seen as a choice to accept subjugation.
For instance, in 2011, former French President Sarkozy made it clear that burqa-wearing women were not welcome in France—Islamic population: 5 million—as he judged their coverings to be more a symbol of subservience than religiosity. (Pasule) Overall, gender differences prescribed by Shari’a (Islamic law) are seen to designate women to a separate realm of patriarchal Muslim societies, though Muslim women themselves often deny any androcentric oppression. One wonders if Islam is truly to blame, or if it is being falsely pegged for discrimination against Muslim women.
It is here that we find an overarching question: is the gender inequality manifested in religion a private matter, or one of universal public concern? In the arena of human rights, the answer to this question is not obvious. It suggests that when considering the two fundamental but competing rights of gender equality and religious freedom, we must elect one to ultimately trump the other. Both cannot be interpreted absolutely and allowed to undermine one another. If this is the case, I contend that women’s rights should absolutely not be compromised.
Even under the guise of free religious exercise, women cannot be denied their absolute equality with men when it comes to legal rights, status, or treatment. Gender equality is a non-negotiable human right. The human rights principles of religious freedom and gender equality were first generally accepted after the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. (Andreopoulos) This document was a bellwether of human rights; it heralded the recognition of the inherent rights of all individuals everywhere, derived from their own human dignity.
Its 30 articles outline an inclusive listing of civil and political rights (such as the right to freedom from torture, illegal arrest, free speech and freedom of conscience), as well as economic, social, and cultural rights (including work-related rights, the right to social security, the right to education, and the right to an adequate standard of living). (Andreopoulos, Goonesekere) The 30 items highlight the interconnected and interdependent qualities of the distinctive categories of human rights.
Two fundamental ethical concerns underline all chief precepts of the declaration. These are: “a commitment to the inherent dignity of every human being, and a commitment to nondiscrimination. ” (Andreopoulos) These concerns are important to keep in mind. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights came at a significant time in history. Following World War II, atrocious war crimes against humanity made it imperative to acknowledge that certain inalienable rights needed to be actively protected by state powers and international bodies. Raday) Referred to by key drafter Eleanor Roosevelt as “humanity’s Magna Carta”, the declaration arose as the first international human rights instrument. (Andreopoulos)
It is now the primary instrument from which universal human rights are derived. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is significant for emphasizing a rights-based approach to issues such as religious freedom and gender equality, where entitled rights-holders and bound duty-holders are identified as essential players in ensuring the provisions for human rights. Goonesekere) The guarantee of inherent rights not only requires universal recognition, but a sense of obligation by involved parties. Considering dynamic factors such as the role of civil society, the divide between public/private spheres of interaction, and the function of multilateral and bilateral bodies is important in realizing human rights. (Goonesekere)
All individual-based rights are placed within the greater contexts of family, community, state, and international entities –none of which has an exclusive role in their assurance. Goonesekere) The promise of human rights is affected by obligations by many parties. Since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the recognition of individual human rights has led to the inevitable competition between contending rights. (Goonesekere) At their absolutes, some rights are not in harmony. Two critical rights to consider are the equality of men and women versus the freedom of “conscience, religion and the right to manifest religious belief in practice and observance”.
Gender equality is characterized as a secular, competing right when related to the particularities of conventional religious practice—simply because many religions to not hold men and women in the same esteem. (Raday) This calls to question whether gender equality is an undeniable universal or whether it needs to be considered with cognizance of cultural relatives, like religion. Many scholars have expressed concern that the UDHR was formulated with a western bias, and that many assumed universal rights (like gender equality) are in fact oriented toward western values. Raday) It is for this reason that Saudi Arabia refused to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. According to Saudi Arabia, the secular principles considered universal by the UDHR violate Islamic Shari’a Law. The principle of equal rights of men and women is a pillar upon which the United Nations was established, first expressed in its founding charter. (Gooneskere) The core human rights vision proclaims the principle of equality of all human beings.
The Charter states that fundamental freedoms should be available to all, without “discrimination on the basis of race, sex, language or religion”. (Gooneskere) Following the UN Charter, establishment of gender equality is contained within the preamble of the UDHR, and all successive foremost international human rights instruments – most notably and comprehensively in the 1979 Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. (“Short History of CEDAW Convention”) CEDAW codifies rights to equality and non-discrimination as universal standards, independent of the basis of sex. Raday) Rights set forth by the UDHR, subsequent legally binding international covenants, and CEDAW are consequently applicable to all persons, with sex as an impermissible distinction. (“Short History of CEDAW Convention”) The contender, the right to religious freedom, was first directly stated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.
Simply stated, every human being has the right to chose and practice his/her own religion or belief. In 1993, the Human Rights Committee described religion or belief as “theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or relief. ” (Roan) Pope Benedict XV, former head of the Roman Catholic Church, has elaborated on his stance on religious rights in a modern context, bringing to light potential difficulties in their implementation.
In a 2008 speech to the United Nations, he declared, “Human ights, of course, must include the right to religious freedom, understood as the expression of a dimension that is at once individual and communitarian… It is inconceivable, then, that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves – their faith – in order to be active citizens… The full guarantee of religious liberty cannot be limited to the free exercise of worship, but has to give due consideration to the public dimension of religion, and hence to the possibility of believer playing their part in building the social order. (“The Pope’s U. N. Speech”) As the Pope pointed out, the presence of religion in both the private and public spheres has been a source of conflict.
When religion plays a role in “building the social order”, other social rights are potentially compromised. The compatibility of religion with other human rights is called into question. Religion and gender equality have long had a prickly overlapping. Most religions perspectives assume a view of males and females as “complementary” rather than “equal”.
As put by Pope Benedict XV, “Faced with cultural and political trends that seek to eliminate, or at least cloud and confuse, the sexual differences inscribed in human nature, considering them a cultural construct, it is necessary to recall God’s design that created the human being masculine and feminine, with a unity and at the same time an original difference. ” (Benson) This euphemism of “gender difference” has been used to justify gender separation, differing roles, and female subordination in the practice of most major world religions, beyond Roman Catholicism.
While it has been said that the three monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam recognize the full humanity of women, these religions have propagated patriarchal gender relations. Not only are women excluded from the hierarchies of canonical power, but held under male supremacy within the family. (Raday) The Southern Baptist Convention, in its mission statement, goes as far to state that: “a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband. (Benson) Across religious traditions, however, there are various ideas of how gender difference is to be interpreted and how it is actually manifested. Barriers to women’s rights are not specific to region or religion, but “form and severity does vary. ” (Raday) In the religion of Islam, there has been a great debate over whether or not religious principles and practices support or inhibit gender equality, and how to reconcile potential contradictions between gender equality and religious.