When ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel recently put up signs telling women not to walk past their synagogues, the reaction was swift. Government workers took down the signs and Israel’s leaders denounced the public discrimination.
In Egypt, too, strict Islamic norms that treat women differently in public circumstances or as strictly sexual beings are also under challenge. On Tuesday, a court faulted the military for forcing “virginity tests” on women arrested during protests. The physical exams, done ostensibly to prevent the Army from being accused of rape, violated the women’s rights, a judge declared.
In many countries, discrimination or special treatment of women under religious conventions is often condoned, or even sanctioned, as long it stays within the bounds of a religious institution or in the homes of the faithful. Many Christian churches in America, for example, bar women from being pastors, elders, or priests with no government interference.
But when such gender bias slips into the public sphere or violates the norms of secular rule, a clash can occur that is often difficult to resolve. Many states in the American West are still coping with enforcement of antipolygamy laws against splinter Mormon groups. Such laws are meant to protect women, even though hundreds of women violate those laws in the name of faith.
Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged the difficulty of challenging religious-backed cultural norms in other countries.
She was launching an “action plan” to protect women in conflict zones and promote them as peacemakers. But, she admitted, the United States must be sensitive to differences in cultural norms and “the legitimate concerns that people have about protecting what they value in their own societies.”
That US sensitivity ends, however, when women are in physical harm.
“Beating women is not cultural, it’s criminal,” Ms. Clinton stated, “and it needs to be addressed and treated as such. And then there are those historic practices like female circumcision that have been around for centuries, or honor killings, which served a purpose in a prior time, that we believe we must address by demonstrating how counterproductive, how destructive they are to the very fabric of the society that is being affected by them.”
Women have long been at the center of friction between secular rule and religious interests. Take, for example, America’s four-decade political battle over abortion or the forced marriage of young Hindu girls in India.
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.
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.
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.”