Religion and Women

Religion and Women


Published: January 9, 2010

All rights reserved with New York Times Company

Religions derive their power and popularity in part from the ethical compass they offer. So why do so many faiths help perpetuate something that most of us regard as profoundly unethical: the oppression of women?

It is not that warlords in Congo cite Scripture to justify their mass rapes (although the last warlord I met there called himself a pastor and wore a button reading “rebels for Christ”). It’s not that brides are burned in India as part of a Hindu ritual. And there’s no verse in the Koran that instructs Afghan thugs to throw acid in the faces of girls who dare to go to school.

Yet these kinds of abuses — along with more banal injustices, like slapping a girlfriend or paying women less for their work — arise out of a social context in which women are, often, second-class citizens. That’s a context that religions have helped shape, and not pushed hard to change.

“Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths, creating an environment in which violations against women are justified,” former President Jimmy Carter noted in a speech last month to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Australia.

“The belief that women are inferior human beings in the eyes of God,” Mr. Carter continued, “gives excuses to the brutal husband who beats his wife, the soldier who rapes a woman, the employer who has a lower pay scale for women employees, or parents who decide to abort a female embryo.”

Mr. Carter, who sees religion as one of the “basic causes of the violation of women’s rights,” is a member of The Elders, a small council of retired leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela. The Elders are focusing on the role of religion in oppressing women, and they have issued a joint statement calling on religious leaders to “change all discriminatory practices within their own religions and traditions.”

The Elders are neither irreligious nor rabble-rousers. They include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and they begin their meetings with a moment for silent prayer.

“The Elders are not attacking religion as such,” noted Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and United Nations high commissioner for human rights. But she added, “We all recognized that if there’s one overarching issue for women it’s the way that religion can be manipulated to subjugate women.”

There is of course plenty of fodder, in both the Koran and the Bible, for those who seek a theology of discrimination.

The New Testament quotes St. Paul (I Timothy 2) as saying that women “must be silent.” Deuteronomy declares that if a woman does not bleed on her wedding night, “the men of her town shall stone her to death.” An Orthodox Jewish prayer thanks God, “who hast not made me a woman.”  The Koran stipulates that a woman shall inherit less than a man, and that a woman’s testimony counts for half a man’s.

In fairness, many scholars believe that Paul did not in fact write the passages calling on women to be silent. And Islam started out as socially progressive for women — banning female infanticide and limiting polygamy — but did not continue to advance.

But religious leaders sanctified existing social structures, instead of pushing for justice. In Africa, it would help enormously if religious figures spoke up for widows disenfranchised by unjust inheritance traditions — or for rape victims, or for schoolgirls facing sexual demands from their teachers. Instead, in Uganda, the influence of conservative Christians is found in a grotesque push to execute gays.

Yet paradoxically, the churches in Africa that have done the most to empower women have been conservative ones led by evangelicals and especially Pentecostals. In particular, Pentecostals encourage women to take leadership roles, and for many women this is the first time they have been trusted with authority and found their opinions respected. In rural Africa, Pentecostal churches are becoming a significant force to emancipate women.

That’s a glimmer of hope that reminds us that while religion is part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. The Dalai Lama has taken that step and calls himself a feminist.

Another excellent precedent is slavery. Each of the Abrahamic faiths accepted slavery. Muhammad owned slaves, and St. Paul seems to have condoned slavery. Yet the pioneers of the abolitionist movement were Quakers and evangelicals like William Wilberforce. People of faith ultimately worked ferociously to overthrow an oppressive institution that churches had previously condoned.

Today, when religious institutions exclude women from their hierarchies and rituals, the inevitable implication is that females are inferior. The Elders are right that religious groups should stand up for a simple ethical principle: any person’s human rights should be sacred, and not depend on something as earthly as their genitals.



Filed under Activism, human rights, Islam, Religion, Rights, Society, violence, Women

10 responses to “Religion and Women

  1. Mustafa Shaban

    Very good article. It is ofcourse due to the misuse and abuse of religion that women are opressed, no religion abuses women, Islam actaully liberated women more than the author stated. Islam is very respectful towards women , it is just that some groups have twisted religion to thier favor and abused women. Unfortunately a goo chink of the masses are ignorant and do not study thier own religion hence they fall into the same line.

  2. Milind Kher

    Do away with the naqab. Do away with seclusion of women. Allow men and women to mix.

    The Holy Prophet (SAWA) stood powerfully for the empowerment of women. If some mullahs want to negate that, boycott them.

  3. yasserlatifhamdani

    Seclusion in Islam is actually of Abbasid origin and is not found in the earlier centuries of Islam.

  4. rex minor

    What an article, let us blame all the religions for unequal treatment of women, and ask all the religious groups to stand up for……………………..

    He also refers to Nelson Mandela who every now and then needs a new woman for his old genitals, and refers to the faminist Dalai Lama, no wonder; he is known to spend more time with women than men. Jimmy carter is going bonkers, “The belief
    that women are inferior in the eyes of God”. Whose belief? Spit it out Jimmy carter. Is he referring to his faith or the faith of Mary Robinson? Then why do’nt they spell it out. They drag all the religions in slavery simply because the Jimmy carter forefathers were involved. They have just started discovering the underworld of the christian religion, particularly among the so called celibate priests who have been abusing married women and little children for the last twenty five years in Mary Robinson’s country. And what about the new Pope, he tried to curb the criminal activities of the Priests instructing their transfer to other parishes. O’h yes, transfer to another Parish so that he can continue his activities in a new community, not reporting the culprit to the police for prosecution. Why we do’nt we just follow the advice of a German Chancellor to Mrs Thatcher. Every one should clean in front of his own house.
    @Milind Kher
    Do away with the NAQAB? How? And I thought we were talking about equal rights for women. They tried to do this in Afghanistan during Zahir Shah’s rule without success. He was advised to bring his entire family without Naqabs in front of the public so that his people would follow the King’s example. No sir, it did not work out, and it is spreading like a pest. The young women born in the west have started wearing Hajabs and now naqabs as part of their culture, disregarding the local traditions and the struggle the European christian women made to get rid of the veils in their society.

  5. Milind Kher

    @Rex Minor,

    The naqab is the greatest symbol of inequality. it is a misguided sense of piety that makes women in theWest adopt the naqab.

    There can be an entire thesis devoted to the fact that Islam never recommended these things, with adequate reference from the Holy Qur’an and hadith.

    Unless the Ummah is able to grow beyond this medieval mindset and tune in to the ultra modern mindset that the Holy Prophet (SAWA) advocated, it will never progress.

  6. rex minor

    @Milland Kher
    I fully agree with you, but you still have not answered the question. How should we all get rid of this masqurade?

  7. really good post, thanks for sharing this…

  8. Mustafa Shaban

    @Milind Kher: You are absolutely right, the Niqab has nothing to do with Islam, it is purely cultural. The Prophets wives in special circumstances used to cover thier face otherwise it was never recommended to muslim women. On this topic there is an amazing lecture given by Sheikh Ammar Nakshawani regarding the Niqab and whether it is in Islam.

  9. Mustafa Shaban

    Here is the link the lecture

    He talks about the Naqab contreversy.

  10. bushra naqi

    N.Kristoff’s Article is very explanatory and lucid. His reasoning is very balanced and he includes all religions in his analysis. He mentions the organization, ‘Elders’ who do not belong to the school of orthodoxy, and can interpret systems with an open reasoning and can renounce unjust laws and beliefs to usher change. They are humane people motivated to do a service to humanity by doing away with beliefs which inflict only misery on people and do not uplift societies.
    Such organizations could be very beneficial in liberating societies from oppressive laws sanctified by religion.

    An example of such laws which have become a bane for women is the hudood ordinance promulgated by Zia-ul-Haq, which gives license to any miscreant to rape a woman and get away with it.
    N.Kristoff’s example of Deutronomy’s assertion that ‘a woman who…..can be stoned to death’, is so ridiculous and horrific in our modern times. Like wise the hudood ordinance and blasphemy law are an aberration of the fundamental rights and dignity of all human beings and consequently cannot be given the cover of religion, for they too have to be in harmony and consistency of contemporary times and norms.

    The orthodox literalists have failed to interpret religion in the light of contemporary times, and therefore it becomes mandatory for the intellectuals and learned people to take on the task of ushering a rennaisance for the oppressed
    and misguided denizens of the state.