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Published Date: May 7, 2014

Published Date: May 7, 2014

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Peering under Our Collective Burqa

To read Emily Nielsen Jones’s full article, click here.

Do Our Own Religious Codes Diminish the Full Humanity of Women?

Regardless of one’s religious affiliation, it can be a useful exercise to reflect on the combined influence of religion on the collective status of girls and women in our world. While each tradition is unique, many spring from the same patriarchal soil of the ancient world and bear some similar dynamics and contradictions as they are lived and applied in contemporary society. Paradoxically, faith has been and continues to be both a source of challenge and a source of validation of cultural gender norms that limit and prescribe women’s place in society to a subordinate role/sphere.

On a recent family ski weekend, a Christian friend and I discussed the hidden injustices toward women embedded into our own culture. We both have daughters, hers adopted from China so the problem of “gendercide,” an eery term for the systematic preference we see around the world for boys and the vanishing of large populations of females, is close to her heart. 

Beginning with China’s one child policy, we shared our angst at the awful things that girls and women endure around the world, and came full circle back to our own backyards, as she expressed her vexation at seeing women totally covered in burqas strolling around her town. As mothers of girls, the conversation had a very personal and maternal quality that lead to the question: how can the world treat girls this way?

I hesitated for a moment, but proceeded in one of those open-hearted moments to share with her this strange moment of connection I felt with the burqa-clad woman walking by my hotel in Istanbul with her nice looking husband dressed so casually in contemporary clothes. Beneath the surface of my feminist angst, a softer more tender emotion emerged that almost makes me well up with tears even now writing this… a deep human empathy and solidarity with womankind, even when hidden under something as foreign-seeming as a burqa. These women are part of religious traditions that they love and find security in, but continue in various ways to treat them as a secondary, lesser-than category of humans whose sphere of movement, individuality, gifts, and agency in the world is covered up and abridged by various ideas and codes that are called “holy.” How hard it is for so many women to navigate all of the contradictions of following a religious path, of belonging to a religious community which in various ways does not fully embrace their full humanity.

We meandered from women in burqas to women sitting in our own pews: What about us? Why do we stay in churches and organizations like the ones we have grown up in where women must leave the equality we presume at the doors of our sanctuaries? Why do men and women who presume that their daughters will have equal opportunity in society tolerate closed doors for females when they walk across the threshold of our churches? Is it enough to just try to improve religious patriarchal social structures or for the sake of humankind must we seek to transform them at their very roots?

How can we enlist the highest and the best of our faith traditions in the service of a more just and gender-balanced world? How can we honor our differences as male and female without falling into the dangerous trap of assigning one to a subordinate class or status?

What gives me the greatest hope that positive, sustainable change is indeed happening, is seeing inspired, soulful, and faith-filled change agents doing their part to enlist the highest and the best of our religious traditions in the service of a more gender-balanced and just world. What higher calling as people of faith could we have than to mine our religious traditions for an unambiguous spiritual ideal of human equality and offer this as a beacon, a north star, to all of our humanitarian efforts to uplift the status and dignity of women? I am so encouraged by a growing movement within Christian-inspired NGOs to establish clearly articulated gender policies which affirm the equal partnership and full contributions of women at all levels of the organization. Let us bravely and prophetically lift the world’s collective burqa and set free our full human powers to co-create the better world that lies hidden within creation, within the heart of God, and within each of us.