by Diana Sands.
To begin, I would like to borrow an exercise popularized by a very creative teacher and writer*. Below I have copied a quote from a human rights advocate. All clues to the identity of the writer, the writer’s religion, and the writer’s country of origin have been obscured. Please read the following three paragraphs and try to guess which religion is referenced, which country the writer is from, and if you’re really daring, who wrote it.
“I have been a practicing [religious faith] all my life and a [lay leader and teacher] for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with [my religion], after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the [religion’s highest] leaders, quoting a few carefully selected [religious text] verses, … [declared] that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as [religious leaders].
This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries…
The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of [prophets] and founders of [the] great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of [God]. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.”
Can you guess? I am sure that the media, which is truly a global influencer these days, must have had some sway over your guesses. Be honest with yourself. Did you guess the writer was a formerly Muslim woman from the Middle East or Central Asia who was fed-up with the politics of Islamic leadership in her community? Maybe you sensed a trick question and guessed a formerly Muslim woman from the West? Well, the writer is former United States President Jimmy Carter writing about why he is leaving Christianity. This exercise can show us lots of things about ourselves – I think primarily it shows that Islamophobia in the Western media is influencing us in very divisive ways. We have been distracted from the reality that women suffer subjugation and dehumanization at the hands of so many religious leaders across faith traditions. We have almost forgotten that opportunities for interfaith solidarity and cooperation around women’s rights are indeed possible through progressive and respectful dialogue.
President Jimmy Carter wrote the quoted piece, called “Losing My Religion,” as a member of The Elders, an independent group of global leaders who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering, and promote the shared interests of humanity. Carter goes on to explain,
“[The Elders] have recently published a statement that declares: “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.” We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasize the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.”
The R.E.M. hit song which made the expression of “Losing My Religion” an internationally recognized phrase, was written about unrequited love – and the expression itself comes from the American South meaning that a person has run out of patience. I think President Carter is suffering a broken heart after so many decades of having faith that the teachings he worshiped as a Southern Baptist could help make the world a better place, especially for women. As Carter notes in his essay, every religion suffers corruption at the hands of selfish people, and he has decided that the change needed in the religious tradition he called home cannot be realized form the inside. I appreciate that in the process Carter is demonstrating a way to examine sexism in our faith communities.
My problem with Carter’s essay is that he leaves a religion, which he shows is complicit in fostering a culture of justification for violating of women’s human rights, in order to try to change how it is practiced. Just by the very nature of religions as (sometimes very exclusive) member-based organizations, this is hard for me to understand. Who but those who are members of a religious community can hold to account religious leaders who preach gender-based human rights violations?
President Jimmy Carter is now directing his faith toward human rights and the United Nations community. I hope that he will encounter the same responsibility in this forum as he did as a Southern Baptist: UN community members must hold their leaders to account where human rights are concerned. Only this time, as many of us who work in human rights advocacy know, there is no quitting when leaders shamelessly try to justify human rights violations. That is when we need to join forces, dig in, and demand justice.
*I would like to acknowledge Naif Al-Mutawa, Kuwaiti psychologist, writer and also creator of the 99 (a group of superheroes based on Islamic archetypes), for his idea for the exercise at the beginning of this post.
Diana Sands is LGTB Program Associate at the Unitarian Universalist UN Office. The views in this blog do not nescessarily represent the views of UU-UNO or EW.