Sustainable development goal V aims at “achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls”. (https://www.ohchr.org/en/faith-for-rights/faith4rights-toolkit/module-5-women-girls-and-gender-equality).
Two recommendations from CEDAW address some of the areas of concern with respect to this:
Recommendation No 35: “One of the primary challenges in the elimination of harmful practices relates to the lack of awareness or capacity of relevant professionals, including front-line professionals, to adequately understand, identify and respond to incidents or the risks of harmful practices. A comprehensive, holistic and effective approach to capacity-building should aim to engage influential leaders, such as traditional and religious leaders”.
Recommendation No 36 acknowledges that “the discriminatory and harmful practices of child and/or forced marriage, associated with religious or cultural practices in some societies, negatively impacts the right to education.”
Women’s oppression is often justified on the basis of cultural norms and/or religious beliefs, even though at times these two are at odds with each other. Religious ideologies about creation, religiously sanctioned practices like polygamy, cultural beliefs around education, violence, forced marriages, women and property ownership, as well as cultural practices such as circumcision have informed cultural and religious decisions to justify the oppressive injustices experienced by women in many places.
In a story attributed to Joan Chittister, we see how such injustice and inequality has many faces. ‘A merchant in the Middle East went from bazaar to bazaar buying rugs to export. One day he passed a stall where an elderly woman sat on a tiny rug before a very large hand-woven rug. He asked the old lady whether the rug behind her was for sale. Without looking up she answered that it is for sale. He asked her how much she wanted for the rug on which she replied: ‘One hundred rupees, sir. One hundred rupees’. Again he asked her to confirm the price on which she replied: ‘One hundred rupees. Not a single rupee less’. He looked at her and said: ‘Old lady, I have never seen a rug that beautiful’. She nodded and said: ‘I know that, sir. That’s why I’m selling it for One hundred rupees and not a single rupee less’. The merchant then said: ‘In the name of Allah, old lady, if you realize how beautiful your rug is, why would you ever sell it for only one hundred rupees?’ Shocked at this question the old lady looked up for the first time, and after a moment of silence she answered: ‘Because, sir, until this very moment, I never knew that there were any numbers above 100’.’ (http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222019000100009)
Where governments, religious institutions or civil society organisations seek to address social reforms that impact people’s private lives they face immediate backlash. To challenge traditions like polygamy, genital mutilation, inheritance rules or males’ authority over women requires a deep commitment to justice. I recall so many of the women activists in Pakistan who paid a heavy price in seeking to address the injustices perpetrated by these practices.
Where institutions and individuals seek to address the injustices written in religious laws, they face an even greater backlash. Governments fall, organisations and individuals are slandered, attacked and threatened, some even killed for seeking to ‘break the code of God’. That which is considered sacred is immutable. That God who is just could perpetuate injustice seems lost on those who feel they must protect God.
While we may want to think religion addresses issues of justice, religious laws and social norms make a lethal cocktail used to deny justice and equality to many women. Not only do women need those who will fight on their behalf, they need those who will enable women to raise their voices. But it will come at a cost.