Rethinking religious tolerance
Respect for different traditions butts up against concern about their views on women
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Some felt that a strong principle of live and let live represents the best hope for women, because it enables pioneers of gender equality in religious life to be left alone.Skip to next paragraph
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"I don't think it's my job to convince [conservative Christians] they are wrong," said Rev. Diane Scholl, a United Church of Christ chaplain at Porter Hospital in Middlebury. Yet, by the same token, she said, "Why do I have to honor, accept, and listen to your sexism, when what you are doing is in exact opposition to who I am in my human being?.... I'd rather just see everybody clear the blocks and have the progressive people be together and the conservative people be together."
For the 120 or so attending the "Women in Religion" conference, some "holy ground" felt firm for promoting doctrines of equality. None disputed the efforts of Dr. Gross to elevate the status of women among her fellow convert Buddhists in North America because, as she says, "It's my community, and I have every right to influence my community."
Terrain seemed less secure for those who treaded lightly onto another's religion. Leveraging pressure there as an outside critic meant knowing the pitfalls of impropriety.
"As a scholar, I have a responsibility to be aware of other traditions," said Paula Nesbitt, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley. In addressing Muslims for instance, she said, "I implore you to listen to the feminist voices within your tradition who have gone back to the Koran.... You have voices of women in your tradition. You have a responsibility to listen to them."
Speakers were quick to note that Islam is no pariah, since Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism also cast long, patriarchal shadows. According to Drs. Nesbitt and Gross, women still hold fewer positions of power than men across the board, even in progressive sectors such as American Episcopalianism and convert Buddhism.
Some scholars drew hope from an American pattern in which cultural pressure has led a range of religious communities to demonstrate equal treatment for men and women. Longings to assimilate caused synagogues to discontinue separate seating for men and women in the 19th century, according to historian Karla Goldman of the Jewish Women's Archive in Brookline, Mass.
Similar pressures accounted for women being ordained during the women's-liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s, according to Goldman and Nesbitt.
Yet for those who prize religious tolerance as a top virtue in its own right, the American pattern is unsettling. If all religions must conform when they come to America, then is religious tolerance really practiced here? asks Koby Spio-Garbrah, a Middlebury senior from Ghana.
"A lot of Muslims feel very apologetic here that the women have to wear veils or sit separately," the student says. "The fact that these religions have to change customs just to fit into America.... It sounds antithetical to the very reason America was conceived."