Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist who often documents the hardships faced by women all over the world, published an op-ed last week in which he argues that although in many cases religion is used to oppress women, it also has the potential to emancipate and empower women.
He proposes this question to his readers:
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?
He points out that while there is no line from Scripture, which, for example, justifies the mass rapes committed by warlords in Congo, nor a verse in the Koran which condones throwing “acid on the faces of young girls who dare to go to school,” these abuses and others arise in an environment in which women are not valued, in which they are, as Kristof says, “second class citizens.” This sort of environment, he argues, is one that “religions have helped shape, and not pushed hard to change.”
Kristof notes that there are many cases in both the Koran and the Bible which support a “theology of discrimination” against women. For example, an Orthodox Jewish prayer thanks God, “who hast not made me a woman.” And he argues that the problem also comes from religious leaders who use passages such as these to reinforce existing social structures instead of “pushing for justice” for women. He gives the example of the influence of conservative Christians in Uganda’s recent proposal to execute gays. Religious figures have attempted to use Christianity to justify this grotesque practice, when they could be speaking up for rape victims, or widows disenfranchised by inheritance traditions.
Yet, there are leaders who are making these connections and calling on religious leaders to end the discrimination perpetuated by their teachings and traditions. Former President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are members of “The Elders,” a small group of retired leaders organized by Nelson Mandela. The Elders’ purpose is to focus on the ways that religion functions to oppress women, and in their fight against this oppression, “they have issued a joint statement calling on religious leaders to ‘change all discriminatory practices within their own religions and traditions.’”
With such well-respected leaders lobbying for women, the hope is that the oppression of women within religious institutions will eventually go the way of slavery—an institution which was once condoned by each of the Abrahamic faiths, and which people of faith fought to dismantle on religious and spiritual grounds.
Kristof signs off with these words of wisdom, calling on religious institutions to stand up for the women they should embrace, and protect:
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.