In 2011, I was privileged to attend the Human Rights Defenders Initiative Policy Forum on Religion, Belief, and Womens Rights, held at the Jimmy Carter Center. It is is a yearly gathering of top diplomats, scholars, and activists. Keynote speakers included former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. It was, to say the least, some of the biggest names in women’s rights from all over the world. Unfortunately, there was very little accomplished, and as I review my notes and compare the world of today to the one being described then, little has changed. With great sadness, I observe that we are still afraid to look the monster in the face and call it by name. We are still far too polite about the root causes of religious abuse and violence against women.
Consider something one of the speakers had to say:
I wanted to be a social worker and went to school, but my husband wanted to start a church… so… that’s what we did.
These are the words of one of the experts on ending the abuse of women. She was one of the people we were turning to for answers, and in her opening sentence, she seemed utterly blind to the patriarchal religious abuse she had suffered by giving up her career for Jesus in the guise of her husband.
Over the course of the event, there was lock-step agreement on the existence of a nearly ubiquitous problem. Every panelist who spoke showed deep conviction and a strong desire to facilitate real change, and sadly, none of them had any answers.
What would happen if women started suing religious leaders for their abuse? In some countries, there would be difficulty, but for international courts, there might be ways to bring these people to justice. They continue to kill. So what do we do to bring them to justice? Increasingly, I believe that unless we do that, they will continue to do this, and we will continue to perpetuate it by doing nothing. There are corporations being brought to justice. Why is it we can’t bring religions to justice the same way? — Pauline Muchina, UN Programme on HIV/AIDS
A very good question. Unfortunately, there was no reasonable plan suggested for breaking through the religious immunity to prosecution. And that was the theme repeated over and over. Everyone acknowledged the problem. Many women gave moving testimonies of horrific abuse justified by religious custom and law. Female genital mutilation, rape, execution for the crime of being raped, dismemberment, disenfranchisement, losing parental rights… The list of abuses was terrifying.
From the perspective of a nonbeliever, I saw an immediate and glaring problem: Nobody was willing to address the philosophical underpinning of religion. Nobody wanted their faith put on trial, so nobody called anyone else to task on theirs. In fact, the general attitude towards religion was quite benevolent:
“This is in clear violation… of the teachings of Jesus… Paul, Mohammed… the founders of other religions, all of whom have called for equal treatment of all the children of God.” – Jimmy Carter
Religion can be misused by those that would manipulate it. Saying it’s human is to say that no interpretation is beyond reproach, and must be defended. – Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im
The way the scritptures are being interpreted.. for our own benefit, not the way it should be. I’m leading a movement of denominations to re-interpret the scriptures, the way they should be. Jesus was a human rights defender, and a defender of women. Remember the woman caught in adultery. Even the last atheist believes in something. I don’t believe in real atheists. There is a lot more of change that we can bring. The religious system is failing us. Every public figure identifies himself with a religious belief. But it’s the Imams and the pastors on the pulpit, but they don’t guide the decision makers. I’m appealing to church leaders to help us become guiding forces for politicians. – James Byensi
This was the unassailable mantra: There is nothing wrong with the scriptures. People are interpreting them poorly, and THAT is the cause of the violence.
During the morning session on Tuesday, I almost felt sorry for moderator Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im. At least four times, he asked a speaker for an example of how religion had been used to end violence against women. Each time, he received horror stories of religious abuse that ended when the population was educated as to their international human rights, and shown that they didn’t have to listen to religious authorities.
Despite frequent assertions that religion can help end religious violence, every example highlighted the need to defy religious authority in the name of human rights.
There was a glimmer of hope at the end of the day. Randall Bailey, of the Interdenominational Theological Center, had this to say:
We think we can use abusive texts in a sanitized way to prevent violence. And so… how do we… what is it about what’s happened to us that we want to sidestep those issues? If we continue to sidestep those issues, we are furthering abuse not only on those we want to help, but also on ourselves… What is this notion we have in religion that there is a spirituality that can be anti-human rights? What can even condone that as an option? I think until we unpack that then what we’re really doing is pimping religion to help us deal with this problem.”
I think Dr. Bailey is very close to the answer. There is a problem with the texts. They are abusive, and in many cases, it takes a high degree of credulity and some pretty creative cherry picking to consider them “pro-human rights” or “pro-women’s rights.” For a person of conscience to be a Christian or a Muslim and also stand for women’s rights and international human rights, the impetus must come from internal feelings of human empathy. The scriptures must then be bent to the will of the reader. The bulk of the Old Testament, the Quran, and Paul’s epistles must be either ignored or “re-interpreted.”
Only one delegate attempted to answer this criticism. Diane DiaKite, of Emory University, suggested that we “have to devise a new pedagogy.” She stressed careful analysis of class structure and “hermeneutical frameworks.” She wondered aloud, “Why won’t we create the space to do this kind of work… become scholars in residence… where we can teach a pedagogy? That is a responsibility we have as scholars.”
To put that in more accessible language, she was basically suggesting that the Ivory Tower scholars should have more “on the ground power” to teach abusers that they’re interpreting the scriptures incorrectly.
Thus, the Achilles’ Heel is exposed. The only answer the religious have is to refer back to the texts and plead with abusers to kindly interpret the holy books a little more humanely. They can appeal to innate compassion, and hope that it overrides the literal mandates of culture, tradition, and text. But in the end, they are left with nothing but their impassioned assertions that they are the bearers of the “true religious ideal.” Or, more bluntly, they have exactly the same argument as the abusers.
Can religion become humane in its attitudes toward all people? I suspect that if the answer is yes, the secret lies in a cultural reframing. Could we begin to only respect religions which respect others? Do we have the audacity to conclude that any abusive religion cannot possibly have originated from a loving god? Over the din of tens of thousands of voices, all declaring a different version of God’s Will, perhaps there is a more secure philosophy on which we could base our lives. Maybe we could leave the afterlife to whatever tutelary specters might inhabit that anagogic ether. Here in this life, maybe we could declare that human rights come first, and whatever gods exist will have to respect that decision.