Isobel Coleman: Is Religion Good for Women?
Around the world, and throughout history, religion has had a strong impact on the rights and status of women. Religious arguments have often been used to restrict women’s rights and actions, to maintain women as subservient to men, and at times to reinforce and justify harmful cultural practices. But religion has also been a force for positive change. Recognizing its moral influence and role as cultural touchstone, reformers have long turned to religious arguments to generate support – among men and women – for an expansion of female educational, social, economic, and political opportunities. Religion can both impede change, and facilitate it.
Today, religiously-oriented debates that affect the status and rights of women occur across various societies. In particular, contentious disagreements about women’s access to reproductive health and family planning are often infused with religious arguments. In the Philippines, for example, the Catholic Church has undertaken particularly active efforts to block access to contraceptives, putting the Church in opposition to many of the faithful. (Around 70 percent of people in the Philippines favored a bill that would extend access to contraceptives and support the teaching of sex education in schools). When the parliament of the Philippines finally passed legislation in December 2012 to increase access to contraceptives, it was in spite of the strongest objections from the Catholic Church.
Friction over the appropriate role for women in society also plays out – often with tremendous urgency and even violence – in conservative Muslim-majority countries, where women’s rights remain deeply contentious political and ideological issues, often cloaked within a religious discourse. The Taliban’s terror tactics against girls’ education in Afghanistan and Pakistan are one of the most extreme manifestations of this battle. With devastating results for society, the Taliban uses religious arguments to justify their harsh practices.
Many proponents of greater women’s rights, however, are also using religious arguments to support expanded female opportunity in conservative Muslim societies. They argue that Islam, at its core, is progressive for women and compatible with modern living. By firmly grounding their arguments within Islamic discourse, these reformers seek a culturally and theologically acceptable way to improve and sustain the status and rights of women.
One such activist is Sakeena Yacoobi, the founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL). Yacoobi is a pioneer in providing health services and education for women and girls in Afghanistan, even during the Taliban years. Over the past decade, AIL has touched almost one-third of the Afghan population. In addition to operating health clinics and schools, Yacoobi and her staff have developed a carefully orchestrated curriculum on human rights for Afghan women. The curriculum familiarizes women with the Quran, and focuses on such critical day-to-day issues as marriage, inheritance, education, and health - issues of immediate importance and relevance to women’s lives. Yacoobi works closely with local mullahs to make sure they have no objections to her teaching materials. By carefully positioning her arguments within an Islamic framework, she disarms her enemies and builds local support.
The important question is not whether religion is “good” or “bad” for women, but how to harness its indisputable power and influence for positive change. Increasingly, women’s rights activists in some of the most religiously conservative communities recognize that they ignore religion at their peril, and are trying to actively engage with religious leaders and sacred texts to promote greater opportunities for women and girls. In many ways, the future of society depends on the success of their efforts.
Isobel Coleman, PhD, is a Senior Fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations and author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East.
The Tony Blair Faith Foundation in collaboration with the Washington Post On Faith is honouring International Women’s Day through our series entitled Is religion good for women? We hope you enjoy these contributions from experts around the world. Tweet us your thoughts @TonyBlair_TBFF or @OnFaith.