According to the Pew Research Center, 83.4 percent of women around the world are affiliated with a religious tradition. This figure alone implies the importance of religious freedom for women, but in practice religious freedom and women’s rights are often viewed as competing interests. This view is likely derived from the idea that religion is oppressive.
I am among the women of faith who are questioned for our devotedness to a religion that many outside the faith perceive to be restrictive and gender-biased. I am also among those who seek to elevate women around the world. I don’t find the two to be in conflict. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom agrees with me. In a recent report they stated, “While a common misperception persists that women’s rights to equality and freedom of religion or belief are clashing rights, the two are actually indivisible and interrelated.”
My suspicion is that the misperception of conflict is derived from a fundamental misunderstanding of religious belief and experience. I once heard a comedian defend his atheism by saying that if all the records in the world were destroyed and we had to start from scratch, the religious writ would not look the same, but the science and the facts would. This argument is profoundly flawed because it assumes that religion is a human device. By sharp contrast, people of faith believe that religion comes, not from the imagination of people, but from God.
The choice not to acknowledge actual divinity in religion (or in religions that are different from one’s own) may be why many find religious freedom and women’s freedom at odds. Divorcing religion from actual divinity implies that women are trapped into a contrived net. It is disrespectful and degrading to assume that women are only religious because they are unenlightened or are socially cornered into it. With this new lens, suddenly religious freedom becomes fundamental to the elevation of women around the globe.
When we protect religious freedom, we protect over 80 percent of the women in the world. To strip women of their religion in order to save them from perceived oppression is to become the oppressors. We elevate women when we respect their religious identity.
Written by Elisabeth S. Weagel