Faith Doesn’t Justify Discrimination Against Women

While much progress has been made in the world in terms of equal rights for women, most major religions still place women in a lesser role, and people aren’t doing much about it.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

There seems to be only one fundamental on which the male leaders of conservative Roman Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestant, Mormon, Orthodox Jewish and Muslim denominations all agree: A woman cannot lead their congregations or denominations.

David Waters Writing on

Last winter my wife and I attended a Bar Mitzvah at an orthodox temple in Atlanta, Georgia. Once we entered the sanctuary, it became apparent that we would have to sit on separate sides of an ornate barrier. I had heard about this practice but thought it had been abandoned everywhere but Israel. I noticed as the services went on that the women’s side was filled with people in colorful dress engaging in conversation and even a bit of merriment. This atmosphere was quite different than on my side, where the men were either reading silently or praying.

I wondered why men and women would sit separately in temple in 2015 and engage in quite different activities (at least at this temple). So, I did some research. Historically there were two primary reasons for the separation of men and women in temple. First, the temple is a place to pray and think about God, not the opposite sex. That explanation seems reasonably non-sexist. The second reason, however, is that under the Torah women are supposed to be the primary caregivers and managers of the household. Married women or women with children do not even have to attend temple in the first place. Thus, their prayer obligations and how they are supposed to participate in the services are quite different than the obligations placed on men.

These differing roles did not strike me as innocuous so I did more research into gender and religion. Here are just a few facts: Women cannot be ordained in the Catholic Church and of course the Vatican’s views on contraception and abortion (not to mention divorce) don’t do a lot for the cause of equality; women cannot be rabbis in Orthodox temples, and in Orthodox communities women still labor under numerous discriminatory rules such as a man may force a divorce upon a woman but the reverse is not possible, and only sons, not daughters, may inherit property.

Traditional Islam is full of sexist and misogynist practices starting with the veil. This paragraph makes the point better than I could ever hope to do:

The Muslim woman is always associated with an old tradition known as the “veil.” It is Islamic that the woman should beautify herself with the veil of honor, dignity, chastity, purity and integrity. She should refrain from all deeds and gestures that might stir the passions of people other than her legitimate husband or cause evil suspicion of her morality. She is warned not to display her charms or expose her physical attractions before strangers. The veil which she must put on is one that can save her soul from weakness, her mind from indulgence, her eyes from lustful looks, and her personality from demoralization. Islam is most concerned with the integrity of woman, with the safeguarding of her morals and morale, and with the protection of her character and personality ….

Southern Baptists have similar views on gender roles. The 2000—yes, 2000—official Baptist Faith and Message says the husband “has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband …. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.” It is hard to make sense of the notion that the wife is “equal” to her husband but must also “submit” to him and “serve” him.

I assume (or at least hope) that most reasonable people in our country believe that non-faith-based traditions which dramatically narrow the choices of women and require them to stay in stereotypical and limited roles are not traditions we should relish and approve. Assuming that is true, the next question is whether adding all the history and traditions of the most fundamental sects of the world’s religions changes that value judgment. On the one hand, I understand the need for distinct traditions defining different religious groups. Also, the devout argue that these traditional gender roles aren’t unequal, just different, and, in any event, at least in this country, participation is voluntary.

But, are discrimination and sexism really any less odious because they have been around a long time or are justified by contested matters of spirit and faith? Moreover, in one sense participation in these religions is voluntary but try explaining that to a young girl with deeply religious parents whose identities are wrapped up in thousands of years of misogynist rituals.

So how do people of those faiths in America justify these immoral and outmoded policies toward women? The place to begin, I think, is to recognize that most Americans who identify as Jewish, Catholic, Baptist, Mormon, or Muslim do not embrace the most extreme views of those religions. A good friend of mine who is Catholic (and a loyal member of the Democratic Party) explains it this way: “I could no more renounce my Catholicism than my citizenship. It is who I am. Of course I disagree with many of the Vatican’s policies but I also disagree with many of my government’s policies. I’ll work to change them but those Vatican policies don’t affect my faith or my loyalty to my faith.”

I understand his views but when I ask him whether he is doing anything specific to change the Vatican’s sexist policies his answer is no. But, then again, other than a few rants about the Supreme Court, neither do I, even though I oppose many of my government’s policies. But, I think there’s at least one fundamental difference. According to my research, the very meaning of what it is to be a Catholic would change if women were ordained. For example, “Other Christian denominations, to justify ordaining women, have had to change their understanding of the nature of the priesthood …. But to abandon the 2,000-year-old understanding of the nature of the priesthood would be a doctrinal change. The Catholic Church could not do so and remain the Catholic Church.” My friend may not agree with this idea but it seems to be a fundamental element of his religion. Similarly, at least in many countries outside the United States, wearing the veil is an integral element of being a Muslim woman.

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The exclusion of women from being leaders in the world’s major religions, the notion that women have different (actually fewer) spiritual obligations than men, and the practice of treating women differently than men because of their gender, should be deeply troubling to people of faith who believe in gender equality. Because most change usually comes from within, shouldn’t more modern Jews, Catholics, Baptists, Mormons and Muslims feel a deep moral obligation to try and change these traditions that facially discriminate against women? After all, no religion has continued all of its ancient traditions.

As a man of the law, I know that churches, temples, and mosques in this country have the right to discriminate (and that may be the correct legal result), but as a man of the secular world, I can’t imagine why they would have a moral right to do so. Isn’t it well past time these ancient punishments and disqualifications come to an end?