We know that the bible and Qu'ran promote the superiority of men over women so it's no surprise that religions do the same. In July 2007, Nelson Mandela announced the formation of a group called the Elders who would address important world issues. One of their statements has been that "the justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a higher authority, is unacceptable."
Ex US President Jimmy Carter is a member of this group and at the recent "Parliament of the World's Religions" in Melbourne Australia, he re-iterated this point (Video of his speech). He described religious practice as one of the "basic causes of the violation of women's rights. This example set by religious leaders gives an excuse to other dominant males to persecute or abuse or deprive women of their justifiable rights."
Now the Elders are not Atheist by any definition - Bishop Desmond Tutu is included in their ranks and Carter is not atheist but they are supporting what all atheists are saying - that there is no basis for any inequality based on sex. Their campaign is mainly to try to get Religions to change. Probably a lost cause - they will change to the extent that they give up most if not all of their current dogmas.
A couple more of the Elder's quotes are worth repeating:
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former Brazilian President says - "the idea that God is behind discrimination is unacceptable."
Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland, articulates the effect that religion and tradition can have on women's lives: "They are submissive.. .to be well thought of by God they must accept their role. This goes on to more difficult issues like female genital mutilation… traditional leaders reinforce this harmful traditional practice by saying this is our culture. It's not culture - it's harmful traditional practice."
Note that the statement by Mary Robinson (not Iris who is currently in the news) mostly blames tradition and while that may be the case, there are many cases where the tradition and religion get confused. This has been the case with burqas where many defend them as a religious practice when they are really a primitive tradition. But many seem to deliberately confuse the two so that their practices can be justified on the basis of religion.
The joint statement by the Elders on discrimination against women includes "We especially call on religious and traditional leaders to set an example and change all discriminatory practices within their own religions and traditions."
Read their full media release here.
Another take on this subject comes from Nicholas D. Kristof of the NY Times.
... religious leaders sanctified existing social structures, instead of pushing for justice. In Africa, it would help enormously if religious figures spoke up for widows disenfranchised by unjust inheritance traditions — or for rape victims, or for schoolgirls facing sexual demands from their teachers. Instead, in Uganda, the influence of conservative Christians is found in a grotesque push to execute gays.
...while religion is part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution.
Another excellent precedent is slavery. Each of the Abrahamic faiths accepted slavery. Muhammad owned slaves, and St. Paul seems to have condoned slavery. Yet the pioneers of the abolitionist movement were Quakers and evangelicals like William Wilberforce. People of faith ultimately worked ferociously to overthrow an oppressive institution that churches had previously condoned.
Today, when religious institutions exclude women from their hierarchies and rituals, the inevitable implication is that females are inferior. The Elders are right that religious groups should stand up for a simple ethical principle: any person’s human rights should be sacred, and not depend on something as earthly as their genitals.
Recent Article by Elizabeth Payne in the Ottawa Citizen (Jan 15, 2010)
Some quotes from her article:
"I spoke with a friend recently who returned a few months ago from Afghanistan where she was reporting on the war for a major Canadian newspaper.
We talked about the dangers of the job, of course, given the recent death of Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang. And we also talked about clothes.
It is a fact of life for a female reporter in a country like Afghanistan that clothing takes on an importance it seldom does for their male counterparts. What she wore when she ventured out to speak to Afghans became a matter of serious consideration. The wrong choice could brand her as morally loose, or offensive, which could not only make her job more difficult, but could put her in real danger.
But no matter what she wore, she found it was impossible to hide the fact that she was a western woman. Sometimes, in an attempt to blend in, she would wear a burqa. But even covered head-to-toe, she learned, she could not pass for an Afghan woman.
Western women walk differently, she was told. They are more assertive and more confident than Afghan women. And they are not hunched over.
The anecdote was an eye-opening look into what life must be like for Afghan women and girls. Even in a tent-like covering, many of them radiate oppression and fear. Which is hardly surprising."
She goes on to talk about the Elders and Jimmy Carter and quotes more of his speech to the Parliament of World Religions:
'In a speech to the Parliament of the World's Religions last month in Australia, Carter talked about some of the well-documented and extreme acts of violence against women and girls around the world. By perpetuating the view that women are inferior to men, he said, religions must take responsibility for creating a climate in which women are often treated as second-class citizens.
"At their most repugnant, the belief that women are inferior human beings in the eyes of God gives excuses to the brutal husband who beats his wife, the soldier who rapes a woman, the employer who has a lower pay scale for women employees, or parents who decide to abort a female embryo."
Carter broke with his own church, the Southern Baptist Convention, when it decreed women must be subservient to their husbands and could not serve as deacons, pastors or military chaplains, nor could they teach men.
"The carefully selected verses found in the holy scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place ... than eternal truths. Similar Biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers."'