Secular Authorities Need to Win Fights With Zealots Over the Rights of Women.
Faith in equality a must
January 2, 2012
Secular authorities need to ensure they win fights with zealots over the rights of women.
LAST week in Israel, a news story shocked the nation. It concerned Naama Margolis, an Orthodox Jewish girl, who was shown crying and quaking at the prospect of taking the 800-metre walk from her home to school. The reason for her distress? The harassment and intimidation she has been subjected to by a roving band of ultra-Orthodox men who felt that her long-sleeved shirt and below-knee-length skirt were insufficiently "modest".
The men called Naama a slut. They spat on her and made her fear for her safety. Naama Margolis is eight years old.
The story has gone global. But so far few of the male "experts" who have been asked to comment appear to have a clue what is truly at stake, not just for women or Israel, but for all pluralist secular democracies.
What Naama's story reveals is the unavoidable clash between the sexist edicts of religious extremists and the state's guarantee of full human rights to all its female citizens.
Behind this clash is a far older and more fundamental one. Namely, who will decide how women will live - the church or the state?
Whatever god or gods they believe in, adherents of orthodox religious sects share the view that they - or their undemocratically appointed male leaders - have exclusive access to the wishes of the one true God.
This absolutist and arrogant view makes them wholly intolerant of fellow citizens of no faith, other faiths and even - as was the case with Naama - those of their own faith whose beliefs or practices differ from their own.
To ultra-orthodox adherents of every religious tradition - Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish - the rest of us are not fellow humans whose beliefs are entitled to the same respect and licence they demand for their own. At best, we are ignorant dolts worthy of pity. At worst, we are sinners deserving damnation or death.
Muslim author Salman Rushdie, well-known atheist Christopher Hitchens and former US president Jimmy Carter have been among those who have noted the persistent relationship between religious extremism and the often violent oppression of women. Of the Islamic republic of Pakistan, Hitchens wrote: "Here is a society where rape is not a crime. It is a punishment. Women can be sentenced to be raped … if even a rumour of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk.''
Carter, who left the Southern Baptist Church several years ago over its treatment of women, said the ''view that the Almighty considers women to be inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or tradition … The truth is that male religious leaders have had - and still have - an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women …'' He added: ''They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter."
It would be nice to see the men who run the world's religions do an about-face on the gender issue. But forgive me if I don't hold my breath. More disappointing is the refusal of leading liberal men - opinion makers, legislators and adjudicators - to prosecute gender justice with anywhere near the enthusiasm they dedicate to attacking racial inequality.
In Israel, it would be unthinkable for black Jews (known as Falasha) to be forced to the back of public buses to appease the sincerely held views of ultra-Orthodox men that this is where they belong. Yet, this is precisely what is happening to women. In fact, Israeli legislators have had to pass a special law to overrule Israel's standing requirements for gender equality to ensure the demands of ultra-Orthodox men for segregated buses could be accommodated.
The Americans are no different. In 1983, a US court vindicated the tax office's refusal to give exempt status to Bob Jones University because the Christian college's admission policy was - on what the college deemed the advice of God - racially discriminatory. In contrast, American courts continue to stand by while scripture is cited as justification for the church's refusal to hire women for senior pastoral roles or pay them the same rates as men.
Australian lawmakers are just as supine, something that might surprise those who remember the claim by then treasurer Peter Costello that gender equality was what distinguished Australia from societies governed by sharia law. But Australia's Sex Discrimination Act offers extensive exemptions to religious bodies that wish to discriminate against women for no other reason than that they are women - the very definition of unjust bias.
Whether it is in the training, educating and appointing of senior ministers or "any other act or practice," male church leaders can do as they please when it comes to women, if that's what they claim God demands. Sexism is unjust and unfair. It is as debilitating to the life chances and self-esteem of women - and to the societies that sacrifice the talents of its citizens on the altar of bigotry - as racism.
Secular authorities have been tussling with religious rulers over who makes the rules for a long, long time. To prevail, democratically elected rulers must understand and enforce the limits of a tolerant society. Indeed, in my view, Australia needs a far more militant democracy - one linked to core values such as secularity and equality and buttressed by pre-emptive constitutional protections against such foundational values, or democracy itself, risks being overridden or given away.
These values should apply to all democracies, Israel included. Naama, like all females, whether they be little girls or women, deserves to live in a society that defends her freedom and her opportunities, and insists she be judged on the content of her character.
To achieve this she is going to need political leaders who don't just talk about gender equality to score political points, but in the face of religious bigotry and intimidation, have the balls to defend it.
Dr Leslie Cannold is an ethicist and the author of The Book of Rachael (Text).
"Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. The rest is poetry, imagination." Max Planck