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Does Religious Freedom Trump Gender Equality?

Are women really inferior and impure?

Women and men were pretty much equal during the hunting and gathering phase of our existence, but female status dropped dramatically once we switched to agriculture.

The ability to produce and store surplus wealth created power inequalities of all sorts. Stronger and richer men came to dominate weaker and poorer men. Stronger and richer groups dominated weaker groups. And men established dominance over women.

Only recently, only partially, and only in some parts of the world have women regained anything approaching the equality they once enjoyed.

Women couldn't vote in the U.S. until a century ago. Their pay is still markedly below that of men, despite the recent passage of antidiscrimination laws. And in many parts of the world, a woman can get killed just for wanting to go to school.

My wife and I have had an ongoing debate about these issues. She feels strongly that women deserve equal treatment as a universal, fundamental, civil right—and has no patience for cultures and religions based on the subjugation and denigration of woman.

Half the time, she has me fully convinced. The other half, I wonder if it is really our place to judge (and try to change) unfamiliar cultural and religious institutions that have a history and context quite different from our own.

Is there a middle ground between demanding a universal standard of human rights versus respecting the traditions of alien cultures and religions that espouse discriminatory practices. Is it cowardice to stand by while women are so badly treated in so many other parts of the world and in subcultures of our own world? Or is it parochial (and perhaps colonial) arrogance to presume that our way of life is the only or best way?

The ongoing debate with my wife recently took concrete form when seemingly small events raised very large cultural and religious issues. She will describe the incidents and the issues and we will then together try to find that middle ground.

Donna Manning, also a psychiatrist, is partner in all my work and is also my daily debate opponent. Donna writes:

“I have had several recent encounters with orthodox Jewish men who refused to shake my hand, sometimes with a reflex recoil of obvious disgust. Far from feeling empathic to the ‘religious values’ expressed in such behavior, being at the receiving end made me identify with members of other discriminated against groups. Just substitute ‘African American’ or ‘gay’ or ‘Jew’ or ‘Muslim’ for ‘woman’ in this scenario and the discriminatory element becomes crystal clear.

"More public examples of this brand of gender bias are the many recent instances of women being asked to move to another airplane seat to accommodate the religious preferences of an ultraorthodox Jewish man. Airlines bend over backwards to respect ‘differing values’ rather than look at the situation from the woman’s viewpoint. They often ask the women passenger, who is minding her own business, in no way doing anything offensive, to change seats to ‘accommodate’ the orthodox man’s need to protect himself from his own potential for lascivious thoughts or to prevent him from touching an ‘unclean’ (menstruating) woman. A Delta Air Lines spokesman, stated, 'This is a dynamic of some customers who utilize our service…' (1) Sounds more like a rationalization for discrimination to me.

"Why do we have blinders on when it comes to such obviously biased behavior towards women, when we are now exquisitely sensitized to such behavior when it victimizes minorities based on race or ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation? This form of prejudice hides behind and exploits the patina of religion to justify the domination of one group over another—in this case men over women. To quote the journalist, Amanda Bennett, who was herself at the receiving end of such behavior, writing for the Washington Post, 'Why does respect even for admittedly extreme religious beliefs trump respect for half the human race?' (2)

"And as the numbers of orthodox of all religions grow for obvious demographic reasons and they become an ever more strident and dominant force in their respective religious, ethnic groups, discriminatory acts against women grow in tandem (3).

"This pattern of bias is growing not just in number but in kind, under the rubric of "gender segregation." Women are increasingly being excluded from public spaces in Jewish ultraorthodox areas. In some parts of Israel, they have been intimidated into sitting in the back of so-called Mehadrin buses (sound familiar), and their images on billboard advertising, etc., have been defaced and removed. There are now gender-segregated sidewalks, check-out lines, doctors’ offices, and playgrounds. Religious members of the Israeli Defense Force have pushed to exclude women from various military jobs and even from choirs that sing in their ceremonies. And to add insult to injury, there is also a trend for women to dress ever more "modestly" (4). These restrictions are seen as necessary by their male authors to prevent the triggering of men’s apparently uncontrollable, lustful thoughts and behaviors—protecting men from themselves by sacrificing the dignity of women.

"Sexual apartheid is also, to various extents, practiced by the orthodox wings of the other major religions, and takes similar forms—all using the excuse of the weakness, uncleanliness, or the tempting nature of women as a group. The restrictions, as well as the violence and vitriol used to enforce it, escalates as radical religious fundamentalism increases its numbers and sense of entitlement.

"Protection of religious values must be weighed against the harm caused to women. The message conveyed to the next generation of men should not be that women are unclean temptresses to be cloistered away at every opportunity.

"The U.S. would be a better place if the Declaration of Independence had not restricted itself to "All men are created equal" and if the Constitution had given women the right to vote.

"It was a wonderful breakthrough to have a black president, but anomalous that we haven’t yet had a female president; still have so few women leaders in politics, academics, and business; couldn’t pass the equal rights amendment; and face spurious challenges to Planned Parenthood, which has done so much to further women's health and reproductive rights. Where are the libertarians when it comes to protecting the liberties of women?

"Avoiding a simple handshake is by itself no big deal, but it is a very big deal that we are so blind to the civil rights of women."

Thanks Donna for this and for helping me understand women in so many other ways.

We have focused here on the prejudice of Orthodox Jews against women, not because they represent the worst example, but only the most convenient. Convenient because we have experienced it in some of our everyday contacts, but also because I am Jewish. Somehow, it seems more fitting and comfortable to be critical of my own people, rather than judge cultural and religious customs that are further away from my own origins.

We certainly don't have to look very hard to encounter even more egregious biases against women in all the major religions. Muslem and Hindu fundamentalists impose the harshest of taboos and the cruelest of punishments. And no accident Catholic priests are forbidden the "impure" joys of women and that the "impurity" of women disqualifies them from becoming priests. Or that China, influenced by millenia of Confucian and Buddhist prejudices, has such a demographically disastrous preponderance of men over women.

Problems of female inequality and discrimination are obvious, but solutions are not.

Sadly, there may be little or nothing we can do to directly improve the plight of women living in those countries that are most repressive. The U.S. has been a colossal flop at policing the world or preaching to it. We have neither the power nor moral authority to impose our values on other peoples and even our well intended initiatives usually have harmful unintended consequences. The best we can and should do (but aren't) is very generously support womens' health, education, and family planning in every country that wants this kind of help. And we can also stop participating in dumb and losing wars, whose fallout is always heaviest on innocent women and children.

So if we can't right the wrongs abroad, how do we deal with ourselves—with the discriminatory practices of subcultures like the Orthodox Jews who exist within our own society?

The model here is clear. Women deserve the same civil rights protections we have provided to other groups that historically have been discriminated against because of race, religion, or sexual orientation.

We can't make it illegal for an Orthodox Jew to refuse to sit next to a woman on a plane, but we shouldn't have policies that honor his prejudice—any more than we would provide sanctioned support for a passenger's desire not to sit next to a person who is Jewish, or black, or gay. It is fine if he can switch seats unobtrusively on his own, but otherwise he would have to fit in or decide not to fly at all.

Respect for other people's religious practices does not require being subservient to them, especially when the practices are themselves inherently disrespectful.

1. When a Plane Seat Next to a Woman Is Against Orthodox Faith. By Michael Paulson ,The New York Times, APRIL 9, 2015

2. “Why is it okay to discriminate against women for religious reasons?” By Amanda Bennett April 19 opinion section, Washington Post


4. Growing gender segregation among Israeli haredim seen as repressing women By Dina KraftNovember 13, 2011 10:13pm.