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 thank you very much, our Bibles and our churches do not condone such awful things against women and girls!
“Personal Status” law is a general term for legal provisions that address areas such as marriage, divorce, family life, child custody, inheritance, and property ownership. In most countries, like ours, these laws are rooted in a secular civil code and establish a basic context for equal treatment of men and women under the law, i.e. that there is nothing about being female or male that would abridge or limit one’s ability to marry or divorce or inherit property. Personal “status” is of course not just created by laws but by how society in general tends to rank groups of people and dole out rights and privileges and respect. As we saw during the civil rights movement, any proclivity to put a group into a “separate” category warranting different rights is a dangerous slippery slope.
Sharia law justifiably makes Christians here feel uneasy and judgmental, yet what about the more subtle ways in which our own religious traditions/ideas/church policies create a separate category or “status” for women which warrants abridging their agency, rights, and freedoms in the religious sphere, and by extension, in larger society? That a bill to lower the legal age of marriage from 16 to 9 passed in any formal branch of any government in our world and is now being considered by Parliament… this may seem shocking and outrageous to our contemporary sensibilities, but if you move beyond the initial repulsion it makes more sense when you put it in the larger context that there is still deep within our collective human consciousness an idea that females—because of their not being male—belong in a special category which allows for the abridgement of their basic human rights and movement in society. If you are like me and have spent time in conservative churches here in the US, do we not do the same thing?
We breathe a sigh of relief when we hear of a country raising the minimum age that females can be married, encouraging girls to attend school, and we are so gung ho to fight human trafficking. But we (many of us) still, like our Arab counterparts, accept the underlying idea that female children right from the womb belong in a category that warrants a diminished
agency/sphere in the world. With this separate “personal status” uncritically intact, even when things improve by any measure, a girl/woman/s fundamental rights hang in the balance subject to the whims of the religious/political pendulum swinging back and forth.
Most of us generally presume that the doors of life will be as equally open to our daughters as our sons. Yet right here in one of the most “advanced” countries in the world, right here in our own pews, right here in our own faith-based organizations are there not all sorts of ways in which we implicitly, and at times explicitly, tolerate/endorse things we would not dare tolerate in a secular context which flagrantly diminish the “personal status” of women?
Gender Regressions Exhibit B: A relatively new Ivy League campus ministry (which focuses on leadership development of Christians in society) that many people I know support does not allow women to progress above a certain level in its org chart or have women on its board. Not surprisingly, they do not exactly advertise this openly on their website!
“But even as far as we’ve come,” wrote nun Joan Chittister in the Shriver Report, “women are still one class of people who are set apart, separated, and given less value and worth by multiple religious traditions. Religion has defined women by their maternity—just one dimension of a woman’s multifaceted humanity. Religion has defined women as ‘helpmates,’ as too irrational to lead, too intellectually limited for the public dimensions of life. Though they are endowed with the same degree of sense, reason, and intellect as men, women have been locked out of full humanity and full participation in religious institutions and society at large.
This marginalization of women masquerades as ‘protecting’ them and even ‘exalting’ them. Instead, these attitudes serve to deny the human race the fullness of female gifts and a female perspective on life.” – See more at: http://www.patheos.com/Topics/Women-in-Religious-Leadership/Empty-Pews-Deborah-Dykes-03-12-14.html#sthash.UtaX5MlO.pdf
Regardless of one’s religious affiliation, it can be a useful exercise to reflect on the collective influence of religion on the collective status of girls and women in our world. Each tradition is unique, however they all spring from the same patriarchal soil in the ancient world and bear some similar dynamics and contradictions as they are lived and applied in contemporary society. Paradoxically, faith has been and continues to be both a source of challenge and a source of validation of cultural gender norms that limit and prescribe women’s place in society to a subordinate role/sphere.
As Christians who care about justice, we have to ask ourselves: which of these streams do we want to swim in? How do we want the world to see us? As a source of gender regression in our world or as an unambiguous partner and ally in creating a more just, gender-balanced world where girls/women are honored as full equals in society and can thrive and grow and live into their full God-given potential?
What gender “codes” operate both formally and informally in your own church/religious context? What is your faith community throwing out there into the cultural mix of our world which effect in some way the collective “personal status” of women, i.e. how women are valued and treated in all their complexity and individuality vis a vis other groups in society?
Sometimes it is the more subtle dynamics/attitudes that are harder to detect and change…
On a recent family ski weekend, a friend (a Christian) and I did just this. We both have daughters, hers adopted from China so the problem of “gendercide”–an eery term for the systematic preference we see around the world for boys and the vanishing of large populations of females–is close to her heart. We both were sharing our gender angst at the awful things that girls and women endure around the world. We began with China’s one child policy and meandered around the globe from one awful harmful gender custom to another–child marriage, child prostitution/trafficking, FGM, polygamy, land grabbing from widows, etc etc–and came full circle back to our own backyards with her sharing her vexation at seeing women totally covered in burqas strolling around her own town. As mothers of girls, the conversation had a very personal and maternal quality: how can the world treat girls this way?
Gender Regressions Exhibit C: Burqas in the US?! Wow, the world in all its exasperating gender contradictions right here at our own doorsteps. For me, I shared, my first real encounter with covered women was on a women’s donor trip to Istanbul where I kept seeing the same couple–a nice looking young husband walking next to a shrouded wife (who even wore an extra black shroud over her eyes) pushing a baby stroller–walking down the busy tourist strip right near my hotel. It is hard to fathom, that in the year 2014 burqas are not only on the rise in the Islamic world but are becoming more common around the world, even here in the United States.
As Linda Chavez described in a New York Post article, “Two decades ago, it was exceedingly rare to see burqas in public in the United States. But, depending on where you live, burqas are now visible at shopping malls and on the street. What strikes me most when I encounter burqa-clad women is the contrast between their dress and their male companions’. Most of these women are covered in thick, black cloth, even in Washington’s 90-plus degree summers, while the men wear short sleeves and light khakis.” And interestingly, this is not only within Islam, but is a growing movement within conservative Judaism to hide women away under burqas: http://www.yourjewishnews.com/2013/04/jv166 1.html.
Burqas on the rise in the year 2014? Yikes!
How can these women tolerate this? She/we despaired. How can they willingly be part of a religion which treats them so badly? How can they tolerate being covered up in shame like that hidden away from society?
What happens on the other side of the world can feel remote and removed, but directly or indirectly, as the rise of the burqa shows us, things “over there” touch us right here in our own backyard. I too recoil at the sight of a burqa, I admitted. I believe in religious respect and tolerance but when I see a woman covered in a burqa a very visceral reaction overrides any semblance of trying to be tolerant or open-minded: this is simply not ok!… this is not true faith!… how strange and perplexing the things religion can call “holy”…
How in the world could girls like ours not be wanted around the world? And how could women stay in such religions which treat them and their daughters so badly? How could anyone in their right mind think it is holy to cover a woman’s face and hide her from society?
Deep down we all want to belong to something, don’t we? It can be hard to question and challenge something that may marginalize us from the very community that has formed us and been our homebase, in the world.
I hesitated for a moment, but proceeded in one of those open-hearted moments to share with her this strange moment of connection I felt with the burqa-clad woman walking by my hotel in Istanbul with her nice looking husband dressed so casually in contemporary clothes. Beneath the surface of my feminist angst, a softer more tender emotion emerged that almost makes me well up with tears even now writing this… a deep human empathy and solidarity, not of my own making, with womankind, even one hidden under something as foreign seeming as burqa, who are part of religious traditions which they love and find security in, but which continue in various ways to treat them as a secondary, “lesser than” category of humans whose sphere of movement, individuality, gifts and agency in the world is “covered up” and abridged by various ideas and codes which are called “holy”. How hard it is for so many women to navigate all of the contradictions of following a religious path, of belonging to a religious community which in various ways does not fully embrace their full humanity.
As Christians living in the West, we cannot help but feeling uncomfortable even outraged! seeing women’s faces covered under black (or blue) cloth and reading about laws like this one being debated in Iraq. As a whole in the West, we have benefited from a mélange of cultural/religious values which we take for granted which have raised the bar for women’s basic human rights. So much so that we easily forget that it was less than 100 years ago that women earned the right to vote and that the chief arguments against women’s suffrage (and for) were taken from the Bible. Like everything in life, even across the dissimilarity and the vast dividing lines of religion and culture, there is a thread of similarity that unites us in our shared human journey. As we encounter gender practices and norms in other religions, we can easily find ourselves repelled and even judgmental. Yet in honest moments, do we not see a little hint of our own reflection (shadow) in that which repels us?
We meandered from women in burqas to women sitting in our own pews: What about us? Why do we stay in churches and organizations like the ones we have grown up in where women must leave the equality we presume at the doors of our sanctuaries? Why do men and women who presume that their daughters will have equal opportunity in society tolerate closed doors for females when they walk across the threshold of our churches?
She affirmed that women are very well treated in her church and are respected and considered equal to men but because they “follow the Bible” women cannot serve as elders or pastors or teach men and the man is the “head of the household” and thus the primary decision-maker of the family. Hmmm…
I wondered outloud, how can we with our own patriarchal religious codes have any moral platform to challenge or question another religious tradition’s patriarchal gender “status” code? My holy book says women can’t do this, your holy book says women can’t wear that. I might think your gender baggage is worse than my own, but at its core is it not all of the same fabric? Cherry-picking passages out of an ancient holy book, treating them as timeless and universal and wrenching them from the larger themes of faith (you know, all those good things like justice, freedom, love, equality, etc), and acting like God has forever put women into a social caste or “status” not meant to enjoy the full expression of what it means to be fully human: i.e. to be free to chart one’s course in life, to be equal, to share power and decision-making, etc, etc. Is it enough to just try to improve religious patriarchal social structures or for the sake of humankind must we seek to transform them at their very roots?
How do our own religious ideas, interpretations of our holybooks, practices, and policies place a veil over women’s full humanity? How do all these well-meaning abridgements bit by bit serve to limit the female face of God in our world and create a lower social status for women?
Gender Regressions Exhibit D: Even in the liberal state of MA, I am amazed at this whole vast network of start-up churches, many very hip and millennial, which are popping up all over the place which do not allow women to serve as elders or ministers and which define as one of their core founding distinctives a model of exclusive male leadership.
Gender Regressions Exhibit E: Last year before going away on a mother-daughter getaway, I got online to look for a good “raising girls” book. Without intending to, I stumbled upon a whole cadre of distressing Christian parenting resources (including one affiliated with the campus ministry I was a part of in college) which under the “raising girls” parenting section had article after article about raising boys to “step up” to their rightful place as leaders in relationships and in society (like this one which repeats the phase “he must lead her” over and over again in giving advice about how to find and groom a potential son-in-law: and a new men’s movement with this pyramid on its marketing materials:
How do we in our own way continue to create social pyramids which continue to give divine sanction for limiting the agency/equality of another?
Even the most ardent “complementarian” generally does not justify any form of abuse of girls and women. Yet I continue to be amazed at all of the eery stories of abuse coming out of highly patriarchal churches.
Gender Regressions Exhibit F: The examples are too numerous to name, but one that stands out is radio evangelist Bill Gothard whose story of abuse Rachel Held Evans recounts in a recent blog post: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/patriarchy-abuse
In the spirit of International Women’s Day, the whole month of March has become a time to reflect on both the accomplishments of women around the world to rise up above patriarchal customs and enslaving social practices, and a time to take stock and evaluate where more work needs to be done to keep “bending the moral arc” for a more just world for girls and women. It doesn’t help anyone to wear rosy glasses! We are moving forward in so many ways, yet at this deeper level of attitudes—where faith is such a driving force—as people of faith we have much work to do to transform the deeper roots of the invisible structures which continue to disempower and “cover” the full humanity of female human beings.
What is yours to do to keep things moving forward for female-kind? Where do you see an abridgement in your church context that creates a separate “personal status” category for females? How can you work to change this, if not for the women in the pews for the little girls whose psyches are taking it all in?
How can we enlist the highest and the best of our faith traditions in the service of a more just and gender-balanced world?
What is ours to do to change the very widespread dynamic of polarization that we see everywhere between religion and elevating the status of women to become equal participants in society?
How can we honor our differences as male and female without falling into the dangerous trap of assigning one to a subordinate class or status?
What gives me the greatest hope that positive, sustainable change is indeed happening to gender-balance our world is seeing inspired soulful and faith-filled change agents doing their part to enlist the highest and the best of our religious traditions in the service of a more gender-balanced, just world. What higher calling as people of faith could we have than to mine our religious traditions for an unambiguous spiritual ideal of human equality and offer this as a beacon, a north star, to all of our humanitarian efforts to uplift the status and dignity of women? I am so encouraged by a growing movement within Christian-inspired NGOs to establish clearly articulated gender policies which affirm the equal partnership and full contributions of women at all levels of the organization.
Yet at times, the patriarchal Goliath just seems too big and too powerful… Women around the world are so strong and brave, but at times I just wish it were not so hard… is sad enough to see things like early marriage and burqas on the rise in the Islamic world, but the chorus of patriarchal religious voices amping up right here in our own country to reclaim the “masculine feel of Christianity”… this seems so careless. What about the very baseline morality of the Golden Rule? If you were on the other side of the gender divide, how would this feel to you?
As people of faith, what can we do with the angst we feel as we encounter foreign and uncomfortable gender customs in another religious traditions? What can we learn about ourselves by looking at the ongoing gender struggles we see in in other faith traditions? Let us in humility and in solidarity build a bridge across our religious divides to access the highest and the best of faith to co-create the better world that we all deep down seek, not only for girls and women but for our human family that shares this planet.
In honor of Internationa l Women’s Day, during this month of March hold in your ! heart theprecarious conditions that continue to surround women’s day-to-day lives around the world.
Whether you travel across the globe to Africa or the Middle East or stroll through the mall in your town, the world in all of its tensions and tragic complexity—its challenges and its opportunities—is right at the doorsteps of each of our hearts. The theme song this year, “One Woman” (http://song.unwomen.org/), conveys the collective intent of this day to see yourself—your mother, your sister, your daughter, your friend—in the woman hidden under the burqa, the girl working in the brothel, in the countless women who bear the scars of patriarchy on their bodies and their souls. Women’s unfinished journey toward full human equality is a collective human struggle. It is yours. It is mine.
As defensive as we may feel even thinking that something like child marriage or face/head coverings or female genital mutilation, etc etc, has anything to do with us as contemporary Christians, that women’s “personal status” is still up for grabs in our world and right in our own pews suggests we have more work to do to give our daughters, and their daughter’s daughters, the better world they deserve.
Let us not let another International Women’s Day slip by without removing our rosy glasses to embrace the highly mixed bag that faith/religious plays in creating the highly precarious condition of womankind in our world today. Progress won’t happen without each of us bravely and prophetically, male and female alike, doing our part to no longer turn a blind eye to even the subtlest form of human diminishment knowing that one little abridgement over here makes a larger abridgement over there even easier.
If we are not moving forward, as we see around the world, it is all too easy to slip backwards.
Before we start a campaign to rescue girls from human trafficking, let’s make sure to do our part on the theological level to remove the separate ontological category that still hovers around females in our churches and around the world. Let us together affirm first and foremost—unambiguously—our common humanity as co-imagebearers of God, different yes, but of the same spiritual substance worthy of equality and freedom and shared power in the world. Let us bravely and prophetically lift the world’s collective burqa and set free our full human powers to co-create the better world that lies hidden within creation, within the heart of God, and within each of us.
Another world is not only possible, she’s on the way and, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe.
~ Arundhati Roy
May it be so.