March 8th came and went, the 39th observation of International Women’s Day, a day set aside to collectively take stock of how the world’s women are doing. The theme for this year–Equality for women is progress for all–captures the spirit of this day to invite and remind us all that the better world we want to create for girls and women is indeed a better world for us all. This blog asks people of faith to hold a mirror up to ourselves to ask if we are in fact part of this “us”.
By nature an optimist, I do enjoy this day set aside to celebrate women’s accomplishments. Everywhere, women are bravely rising up above patriarchal customs and cruel forms of highly prevalent violence to “lean in” to their own economic and social and spiritual empowerment. There is indeed incredible momentum afoot in our world in so many sectors of society to really mainstream women’s equality/gender balance not just as a “women’s issue” per se but rather as a shared human concern, i.e. what is good for girls/women is also good for global development, good for society, good for relationships, good for families, good for healthy teams, good for organizational dynamics and even good for the “bottom line” of business.
Societies with greater equality between men and women are healthier, safer and more prosperous.
~ The Elders
Yet every year for the past few years as International Women’s Day rolls around, I feel a strange mix of both hope and despair as I hold the gender contradictions of our world close to my heart. Don’t be such a pessimist, I tell myself, be positive! Yet I cannot shake a refrain I have heard again and again from women’s human rights activists working around the world: “Here in our country, we have a decent legal code for women however in recent years we have experienced a backlash that is threatening to undo many of the strides that women have made.” However you fall on the optimist/pessimist scale, it is safe to say that women’s place in the world is still highly tenuous.
Here in the US, most women (and men) take for granted a set of basic human rights (i.e. to vote, own property, to drive, to access basic healthcare, go to school, marry freely, divorce, have custody of children, etc) and we tend to presume that the women’s movement is almost in autopilot marching forward. However, around the world, all these things are still very much up for grabs. Through my travels with the Global Fund for Women and other philanthropic endeavors, I have had the opportunity to meet and interact with some amazingly brave women’s human rights leaders who put themselves at great risk to continue the unfinished work of the women’s movement that exists everywhere in our world. Their perseverance and passion has touched me deeply and I feel their uphill struggle in my own body. Again and again, what I see and hear and observe is that the biggest source of gender regression in our world today (next to maybe the commercial sex trade) is uniformly from within the ranks of religion.
I don’t know about you, but as a person of faith this grieves me deeply. I continue to have faith in fai th as a f orce for jus tice in our world, but if you look with neutral eyes at the impact of religion collectively on women’s ongoing journey toward equality, it is hard to say whether religion/faith is on balance an ally or a hopeless obstacle…
Gender Regressions Exhibit A: The positive buzz of International Women’s Day had barely passed when shocking news came out of Iraq that the Cabinet had passed a bill to amend the “Personal Status Code” of the country which would lower the legal age a girl could marry from 16 to age 9, make it legal for a husband to rape his wife, and also bar women from having custody of their children after a divorce. At times the obstacles to women continuing their march toward equality just seem so massive and immovable. Can women truly advance toward a more equal standing in our world without our religious traditions fully on board?
Anyone who has traveled around the world or who even tangentially follows global events in the news knows that all is not well across the gender divide in our world… As documentaries like Half the Sky and Girl Rising have shown the world, girls and women around the world suffer unspeakable levels of abuse and enslavement that many consider the most grave humanitarian crises of our generation. Even if not an ardent “feminist”, our hearts break as we gain awareness of how low the bar has dropped for girls and women’s basic dignity and rights around the world and even right here in our own backyards.
Despite so much progress on so many levels, across the board on virtually every social indicator, females still collectively occupy a low social and economic status in the world, still bear a disproportionate burden of all of our world’s vexing humanitarian problems, and as you peel back the layers to ask why? this is still the case in the year 2014 you cannot escape the reality that deep within our human consciousness there is still a collectively low valuation of females which makes them/us vulnerable to a host of social ills.
For those of us who are people of faith, it can be a crushing reality to bear that, as we see in this story out of Iraq and countless others like this, religion is the only voice in our world which continues to set as an ideal that women belong in a “special category”—a separate legal and social status—which justifies and warrants a limited agency and sphere in society. You may be saying to yourself, but we Christians do not impose religious “Personal Status” laws on society like those Muslims! What does this have to do with us here? We do not do such extreme things here! And Read More