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The Monitor's View

Women on the front lines of faith vs. state

As recent events in Israel and Egypt show, religious norms that treat women differently or as inferior can irritate those who want fair, secular rule. And Hillary Clinton tries to define a fine line between faith-based bias and human rights.

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Equality of the sexes is a core belief of most monotheistic faiths, based on the creation of male and female in the image of God. But a tradition of patriarchy has long prevented that belief from being put into daily practice in many countries.

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Even in democracies built on liberal, secular democracy, there is a tolerance for discrimination against women within religious communities if it remains largely invisible or if a group’s identity is rooted in treating women and men differently.

Some feminist scholars raise questions about whether women in strict religious communities really have the ability to exercise freedom of choice if they are held subordinate and inferior with little autonomy. They argue that a public acceptance of faith-based sex discrimination only creates conditions for larger social oppression of women.

Yet other scholars contend that breaking up religious norms that violate women’s rights can create a backlash that only leads to reinforcing those norms.

The best way out of such dilemmas is for women held in mental or even physical bondage by a religious group to be their own agents of change. Many Christian and Jewish women broke the norms of their faiths in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, it is Muslim women in the Arab Spring who are setting the pace for their own liberation from inhibiting norms. Many Arab female scholars, for example, are challenging male Islamic leaders about interpretations of the Quran and women’s role in marriage and society, just as Bible scholars have recently challenged presumptions of women’s role in Christian churches.

In Yemen, the protests have been led by a woman, Tawwakul Kirman. She was awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, one of three female recipients.

The authoritarian rulers in the Middle East know that women protesters pose a particular threat to their rule because suppression of women helps justify general suppression of all. That fear may be the reason that Egyptian police dragged a female protester half-naked down a street earlier this month.

Muslim women are defining a new boundary between liberal ideas of government and a religion’s hold on individual behavior. One good example is Samira Ibrahim, who filed the legal suit against the military-run government for forcing a virginity test on her.

After standing up to a cultural norm and winning, she told CNN: “These tests are a crime and also do not comply with the Constitution, which states equality between men and woman. I will not give up my rights as a woman or a human being.”

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