Women in Islam: Are Gender Equality and Religious Freedom Mutually Exclusive?

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Women in Islam: Are gender equality and religious freedom mutually exclusive?

In 2011, scholar and activist Frances Kissling published a blog in the Washington Post with the powerful heading, “Religion lays foundation for gender discrimination.” An inflammatory claim, but is this overstated or essentially truthful? This is a multilayered issue to be dissected, rather than immediately affirmed or denied. The right to freely practice one’s religion, as protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has long been seen as competing with the promise of absolute gender equality. In most world religions, women and men are not allowed equal rank. In her blog, Kissling pointed out primary evidence of gender discrimination in the lack of female spiritual or congregational leadership across the spectrum of religious traditions. Considering, for instance, Tibetan Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Roman Catholicism, by precedent a woman has yet to reach the upper tiers of the holy job ladder. (Kissling) But this issue runs deeper than structural hierarchies and positions of power. Women are generally pushed to the side in many religious practices, kept separate in their roles and made to feel unequal to men. According to the 1979 Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), “discrimination against women” is specifically defined as: Any distinction, exclusion, or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on the basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms on the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field. (Parker) Based on this definition, gender discrimination has been long embedded in religious institutions. From the separate door a Muslim woman must use to enter her mosque, to the inability of a Catholic woman to be ordained as a priest, defined boundaries exist in most religious traditions to dismiss women’s roles in places of prayer. (Scrivener) Yet a greater worry is how gender inequality within a religious context has permeated into the social, political, and economic fabric of our societies. Does unequal treatment of genders by religion violate the greater guarantee of equality between men and women in a public setting? In societies where religion has been a long dominant force, religious principles have become ingrained in the established cultures, social structures, and even legal standards. This makes it hard to distinguish discriminatory religious practices from discriminatory social customs and traditions. (Pasule) Islamic societies in particular have been criticized by the western world for the ostensible subservience of their women. Muslim women are often conveyed as “repressed” and even “backwards”, as evidenced from their limited roles in marriage to their compulsorily modest dress. (Rommelspacher) In some places, they are spurned for what is seen as a choice to accept subjugation. For instance, in 2011, former French President Sarkozy made it clear that burqa-wearing women were not welcome in France—Islamic population: 5 million—as he judged their coverings to be more a symbol of subservience than religiosity. (Pasule) Overall, gender differences prescribed by Shari’a (Islamic law) are seen to designate women to a separate realm of patriarchal Muslim societies, though Muslim women themselves often deny any androcentric oppression. One wonders if Islam is truly to blame, or if it is being falsely pegged for discrimination against Muslim women. It is here that we find an overarching question: is the gender inequality manifested in religion a private matter, or one of universal public concern? In the arena of human rights, the answer to this question is not obvious. It suggests that when considering the two fundamental but competing rights of gender equality and religious freedom, we...
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