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Letters & Op-Eds - 1990s

religion news service

Women, Religion and Human Rights

Frances Kissling

October 1997

Concepts and our understanding of human rights have changed and expanded dramatically in the 50 years since 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights was set forth. Newly formulated human rights have evolved and been accepted by the international community. Moving beyond the specifics of political and civil rights we have come to understand that there are social and economic rights; "green rights" related to the environment; that much of what we include among women’s rights is also human rights; that human rights are not located solely in the public sphere, but also exist in private and family life. We are also beginning to understand that human rights has both a legal and a moral dimension. In the legal sphere we tend to concentrate on rights in relation to the obligation of the state to act in ways that recognize and protect the human rights of all within the territory of the state.

The ability to express one’s spirituality, moral values and religious beliefs freely—without interference by the state—has long been understood as a fundamental human right. Without doubt, governments have violated the human rights of individuals and groups based on religious beliefs.

Government violations of freedom of religion have recently achieved high prominence in US human rights policy. A lobbying effort led primarily by conservative Christians concerned about the persecution of Christians in countries like China and the Sudan has resulted in significant changes in US foreign policy. For example the State Department has added freedom of religion to the human rights categories it includes in the annual State Department report on human rights violations worldwide, a state department advisory board on religion and human rights, which includes a number of conservative Christians leaders has been created. Moving its way through Congress is a bill which would create a White House Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring, with a director to be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Where this office and congress concur that a country is engaged in religious persecution, mild economic sanctions would result. On the surface, this appears to be an advance in human rights advocacy.

I have been struggling with my own reactions to this effort. Why, as a human rights advocate and strong supporter of religious freedom, do I find myself so troubled by it? Of course, some things are obvious. The emphasis on the persecution of Christians, particularly in Muslim majority countries combined with the fact that the push for these efforts comes most strongly from conservative groups like the Christian coalition sets off warning bells.

But I know something deeper disturbs me. For centuries, it has been clear that at least as frequently as the state has violated the human rights of religious believers, religious institutions have violated the human rights and personal dignity of their own members or members of other faith groups—especially their women members. Moreover, human rights theory has simply not, at this stage, advanced to the point that discrimination within a religious institution is seen as an issue of public justice, an appropriate cause of state or legal action. Similarly to the belief of ten or fifteen years ago that held that spousal abuse occurred in the private sphere and was not an appropriate matter of human rights concern, the belief today is that religion is a private and personal matter. Disputes within a religion are not the business of the state—or even of human rights advocates, even when those disputes result in religious preferences in the law. For example, the Supreme Court has ruled that religious institutions can demand that all employees adhere to the religious beliefs of the employer. Recently, a Roman Catholic nun and theology professor was fired from her job at a Catholic University because she signed an advertisement in favor of the ordination of women to the priesthood. This woman has no legal recourse against such an injustice.

For the past twenty years, and in some cases for centuries, faith based women—in almost all the world’s major religions—have been struggling to apply the principles of human rights to the internal life of their churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. They have sought to do this by changing the structures of decision making so that women are welcomed at all levels if ministry. They are working for changes in religious doctrine related to women’s lives such as reproductive health, marriage and divorce, custody of children, and the right to travel without their husband’s or father’s or son’s legal permission. Finally, they are working in political life to ensure that secular law is based on democratic principles not on religious positions.

From a human rights perspective, it is particularly troubling to see the extent to which secular governments will bend to the will of powerful religious bodies, primarily those that hold conservative views of women. In Afghanistan, the Taliban leadership has banned women almost entirely from the public sphere, incorrectly citing Islamic texts. In some Latin American countries, the Catholic church has prevented the legalization of abortion and limits on family planning. Orthodox Jewish influence in Israel limits women from praying at the Wailing Wall and from getting a secular divorce without their husband’s permission.

These religious institutions are the first to claim that their religious laws and disciples cannot be subject to state review. They are also quick to point out their commitment to the dignity of life and their public support of human rights, always ignoring the violations of human rights within their own "house". I suspect that current efforts by Christian conservatives to highlight religious persecution is part of a strategy to counter women’s criticisms of discrimination against women within faith groups. And it comes at a time that religious women’s claims and plight are gaining political and public support.

Within the human rights community, there needs to be a growing recognition of the need to treat the question of religious persecution more broadly. This means addressing not only on the legal dimension of human rights, but lifting up the moral principles that are the foundation of human rights theory. It means standing with faith-based women in their work to ensure that human rights are honored within religions as well as in the secular world.

This article courtesy of Religion News Service.