Rethinking religious tolerance

Respect for different traditions butts up against concern about their views on women

As a working mother and local activist in Newburyport, Mass., Amantha Moore says her heart breaks every time she hears how women suffer in Afghanistan.

But when she heard a recent radio news report about American women in Afghanistan urging local women to remove their veils as a sign of new freedom, she winced even more.

"So we got a good photo for the nightly news to say, 'look at these liberated women,' " Moore says. "But who are we to make that suggestion when they might get shot if the wrong person is around? What happens when the cameras are gone?... I'd be for people in that country to choose what'd be best for them."

Just a stone's throw away in Amesbury, Barbara Hildt says she, too, takes pride as a Quaker in practicing religious tolerance. But the more she learns about how women are treated in Afghanistan, Africa, and elsewhere, the more she finds many religious ways to be intolerable.

"When I feel people are suffering and people's rights are being infringed upon, I have a responsibility to speak up," Ms. Hildt says. "I think it's important, no matter what religion people are, to speak out on human rights."

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, calls for greater religious tolerance and understanding have reverberated from coast to coast. Many a public forum has emphasized that world peace may hinge on growing acceptance of religious traditions that once seemed threatening or just unfamiliar.

Yet for those committed to universal human rights, religious tolerance poses a problem if it can be used to justify the unjustifiable. Increasingly, such a posture – which for a century has been a benchmark of sensitivity and professionalism – is causing soul-searching dilemmas. It's a particularly touchy issue in the United States, where an assumed religious tolerance can butt up against practices that may seem discriminatory.

The discomfort factor

"I ask: 'What would be the most effective way to undermine those practices?' " said Rita Gross, a historian of religions at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. "I think there are minimal human rights. If you go the total relativism route [of refusing to judge others' practices], you have no grounds for opposing anything."

But others say there are limits to pushing for change in others' traditions. E. Burke Rochford Jr., a sociologist at Middlebury (Vt.) College, sometimes challenges Hare Krishnas on their treatment of women. But, he says, "It might not be justified.... I cross that line, and I feel discomfort crossing it. But if I didn't say anything, I'd feel discomfort with that, too."

Attitudes toward women are a key place for this conflict to come into play. At a conference earlier this winter at Middlebury, presenters displayed graphs and slides to show how women have made inroads in attaining prestigious clergy roles, becoming Buddhist instructors, and sitting side by side with men in synagogues.

That didn't lead to single-mindedness about whether to tolerate religious practices one finds deplorable. Indeed, while scholars agreed women should be men's equals in religious life and spoke of the importance of religious tolerance, the question of how to do both in a world where many religions regard men and women differently remained unresolved.

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.

"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."

An unsettling pattern?

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."

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