The importance of the separation between Religion and State for women’s human rights today.
At a recent concert, I was listening to a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and reading the program notes which stated:
“The Sultan Shahriyar, convinced of the duplicity and infidelity of all women, had vowed to slay each of his wives after the first night. The Sultana Scheherazade, however, saved her life by the expedient of recounting to the Sultan a succession of tales over 1001 nights.”
In this one paragraph I one reads about: 1. the power of the male over life and death of his women; 2. the implication that all women are “duplicitous and unfaithful”; 3. the woman’s cleverness and cunning,- albeit used to save her own life, but males,- beware!
Traditionally, women were always viewed with ambiguity in religion... On the one hand, in the Torah we read Solomon’s verses: “who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.” This is followed by a list of all the wonderful tasks this virtuous woman whose price is above rubies (it would need to be!) would perform. Her reward? “Her husband is known in the gates, when he siteth among the elders in the land.”
Whether in the Bible, old or new Testament, or the Qur’an, women not only have their place alongside and belonging to a male, but the men are admonished to punish them if they “overstep the mark” as it were. In addition, the punishments are described in detail for each offence in the scriptures as though they were God-ordained. Unfortunately, they are humanly imposed. In this way, male power over females is still exercised in many Theocracies and religious fundamentalist communities today. Some of their women, perhaps secure in happy relationships themselves, will assert to be willing participants in such an imposed social order within their communities. Their religious leaders will claim that their religion is protective of women. But are these latter claims genuine and universal? If they were, there would not have been a Holocaust and other atrocities! While for those who do not subscribe to these benign theories, or chained within unhappy relationships, can they opt out? On whose side is the State and its laws?
I pondered on the above when reading extracts of Benazir Bhutto’s book, Reconciliation, which she had just finished before her assassination and as published in The Australian on February 11th, 2008. Under the chapter “Jihad for Women’s Rights”, she stated:
‘Special attention should be paid to organizing women as political, social and economic players in each society. This is especially true for the Islamic world, where women often faced subjugation. This subjugation came not from the message of Islam, which proclaimed the equality of men and women, but from narrow interpretations of Sharia that deliberately promoted subjugation and from political exploitation by ideological clerics.’
This article was followed shortly afterwards by a widely reported comment by the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, who argued during a lecture, for some elements of Sharia law to be introduced alongside British laws. His comments were greeted by universal condemnation and alarm,- not just criticism,- in the world’s English-language media. In light of the above, women were the first to react in absolute horror at the suggestion. While supposedly meant as an individual optional alternative, the women would be the first to be held to ransom within their communities to be bound by their restrictive Sharia laws within the secular Western democracy of Britain.
Why would anyone want that?
The protection of women’s human rights today is dependent upon the separation of religion and State. For this reason in particular, when Justice Elizabeth Evatt chaired a Government Inquiry into “Multiculturalism and the Law in Australia” , NCJWA in 1990 made a submission not to introduce religious exceptions in areas of marriage and divorce to suit particular ethnic groups, (there were even submissions for legalizing polygamy) because where this separation of religion and State does not exist,- women are almost as badly off today as they would have been in the dark ages.
The Americans are absolutely paranoid about their Constitutional right with respect to the separation of religion and State, even though their Constitution invokes the name of ‘God’. However Religion per se is not mentioned. Their Founding Fathers had fled from European Church-inspired persecutions for their religious beliefs. Therefore while they included their belief in “God” within the State’s Constitution, they avoided mentioning the word Religion in all its various human applications. As the recent visiting philosophy lecturer Dr. Zohar Raviv of Israel stated,- belief in a supreme being, i.e. belief in God is not the same as organized religion,- (which he termed to be “dogma” and human inspired, but still important in conveying moral values and promoting social harmony, perpetuating family traditions and so on. )
Today, people are drawn to religion and religious observance more than ever,- particularly since the downfall of Soviet Communism and the rise of globalization with all its uncertainties. Still, there are many areas of conflict between particularly women’s human rights and the various religions’ laws,- especially in the areas of personal status. We find religious restrictions on women’s dress, including their hair and hair coverings; the various marriage and divorce laws; restrictions on women’s inheritance, on their participation in the ceremonial and hierarchical structures of all orthodox religions., etc. There are also many ‘customary laws’ versed in religious terms such as contraception, and female circumcision, abortion, so that women in countries where there are no State laws on any of these issues.Women need to have the means of redress and escape from their fate, ( unless they are wealthy enough to go elsewhere!) .
This is why many immigrant younger women in England whose families escaped from the tyranny of some of the most repressive religious laws in other countries, have reacted with absolute alarm at the comments made by Archbishop Williams. Islamic laws have not been revised since the first millennium and are ruthlessly imposed on the populations of many countries, including stoning to death on accusations of adultery and jailing women for showing their ankles (Iran) and even jailing a woman for being raped, (Saudi Arabia),- all ordered by the Islamic Courts administering Sharia laws. Then there are African countries suffering the ravages of the AIDS epidemic, where the use of condoms for protection of their sexual partners from being infected. is prohibited by the Catholic Church. Infected males therefore offer no protection to their sexual partners from contagion. Interestingly, the Vatican recently announced the modern version of today’s “7 deadly sins”, but infecting one’s partner with the AIDS virus wasn’t among them!
For devout Jews, religious divorce can be very problematic when there is no ‘Get’ granted by either partner, but usually by the male who can use blackmail to gain financial advantages in the divorce process. There are many “‘chained women”’ as a result, ‘agunot’ in Hebrew,- particularly in Israel where all laws of personal status are regulated by the Rabbinate. Many women’s groups are working very hard to get this anomaly rectified from within the religion, particularly the International Council of Jewish Women and all its affiliates around the world. Sadly, the religious male supremacy in the political structure of the State makes it virtually impossible to shift the Rabbinate,- claiming divine authority in the Torah for this law. However, the Israeli State judiciary does have the means to impose heavy penalties on recalcitrant spouses who refuse to grant a Get to their partners.
In Turkey, it has recently been announced that a review of Islamic traditions (apparently not their laws) is being undertaken with a view to bring them up-to-date, i.e. up to modern standards of women’s and all human rights. Turkey is also struggling to maintain its strict separation between the dominant Islamic religion and a secular Constitution established by Gamal Ataturk in the early1920s and jealously guarded by the military.
Tradition, tradition, tradition, -as Tevyeh the milkman cried out. While it is important to maintain our traditions for future generations, we must recognize that some archaic customs and traditions are not worth preserving. The State should guard against them. Unlike Archbishop Dr. Williams, I believe that religion and traditions are the domains of the individual. The democratic State is the repository of the laws to protect our human rights (not always successfully e.g in dictatorships) and the rule of law must reign above all.
Long live our liberal democracies where this exists and women should be particularly thankful to be living in Australia today.
See the transcript of the ABC Radio National 'Background Briefing' program of 13/4/08
Haredi community in Israel.