Religion 'is no excuse for inequality'

AS HER husband works to bring about peace between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims, Cherie Blair yesterday put both religions in the dock over their unequal treatment of women.

With characteristic aplomb, she attacked the continuing inequality of women's role in world religion and said differences of culture or religion could not be used as a justification for denying equal rights.

She denounced the treatment of women on religious grounds as a "distortion" of the true message of faiths such as Islam.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Casting aside suggestions by some human rights advocates that the emancipation of women could not occur in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia because of cultural and religious sensitivities, Mrs Blair said women's rights were a "universal ethic that cuts across all cultures and all religions...and imperative for our shared humanity."

Mrs Blair, whose husband, Tony, became Middle East peace envoy after stepping down as prime minister in June, is a leading human rights lawyer and, in a speech at Chatham House in London, she acknowledged that Britain and other western nations had more to do to deliver equal pay and career opportunities for women.

But she highlighted new laws in Egypt that give men and women different rights on divorce, as well as Orthodox Jewish practices, under which a woman cannot divorce without her husband's consent. In some parts of the world, domestic violence was still not a crime, widows were ostracised and women were treated effectively as their husbands' property, she said.

Mrs Blair - a liberal Catholic who has criticised the Vatican for its view of women as "workers" rather than "thinkers" - stressed no such practices could be justified by religion. "There remain those who try to justify or excuse such discrimination and denial of human rights elsewhere by reference to different cultural or religious standards. We simply can't go along with this view," she said.

She rejected the widely-held opinion that Islam was innately discriminatory towards women, and suggested the application of Sharia law in some Muslim countries went against the true precepts of the faith. "It is not laid down in the Koran that women can be beaten by their husbands or that their evidence should be devalued, as it is in some Islamic courts," she said.

Mona Siddiqui, professor of Islamic Studies at Glasgow University, said: "I agree women should be given an equal voice, but it is a matter many cultures and religions are still struggling with. Equality is not the same in everyone's eyes. Women in different areas of the world have different opinions on what equality is and what it should be; too often they are left out of that dialogue."

Morag Mylne, of the Kirk's Church and Society Council, said: "Worldwide, it's clear there are examples where women are not just discriminated against, but suffer and are at harm because their rights are not recognised."

The Catholic Church said: "Cherie Blair's assertion that women and men are equal human beings and deserving of equal respect is absolutely correct." It added: "Reserving certain roles within the Church exclusively to men or exclusively to women in no way contradicts or conflicts with this principle."


Hide Ad
Hide Ad

ISLAM is fraught with contradictions on the issue of women's rights.

While the Koran notes the religious and moral equality of the sexes, Sharia law differentiates between the roles and rights of men and women.

Islam gives women the right to own, which entitles them to have personal possessions. While women have fewer financial obligations than men, some of their financial rights are limited.

Scholars agree that a woman should act and dress in a way that does not draw sexual attention when she is in the presence of someone of the opposite sex. Some scholars specify which areas of the body must be covered; most of these require that everything besides the face and hands be covered, and some require all but the eyes to be covered, using garments such as chadors or burkas.

In Islam, there is no difference between men and women's relationship to God; they receive identical rewards and punishments for their conduct, yet women's right to take a full part in their religion is still subject to restrictions.


IT IS not only its stance on abortion and birth control which has elicited criticism over the way the Roman Catholic Church regards women.

The internal workings of the Catholic Church have repeatedly been attacked over the limited roles available for women, particularly their lack of participation in influencing church policies and decision making. The official position of the Church, as expressed in its current canon law and catechism, is that "only a baptised man validly receives sacred ordination".

A spokesman for the Church said yesterday: "There are obvious examples in the Catholic Church of roles that are open to women, and others that are not. These are very clearly based on scripture." This requirement by scripture, the Church emphasises, is simply a matter of divine law, and thus doctrinal.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

However, the Catholic Women's Ordination, a group dedicated to having women ordained, points to many examples of women fulfilling leadership roles in both the Old and New Testaments.


THE Church of Scotland, the nation's main exponent of Protestantism, prides itself on its gender equality. Since as early as 1968, all ministries and offices have been open to women and men. However, it was not until three years ago that a woman, Dr Alison Elliot, was chosen to be Moderator of the General Assembly. In May this year, the Rev Sheilagh Kesting became the first female minister to become Moderator. Morag Mylne, of the Kirk's Church and Society Council, said: "In the past, women were not equally represented. Nowadays, the Church reflects men and women equally. It's important not because of gender issues, but in terms of a Christian's relationship with God."


ACCORDING to Halakha (Jewish law), women are exempt from most time-bound positive mitzvot (commandments), as well as a few other mitzvot, such as the study of Torah or the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. Orthodox Judaism prescribes different roles and religious obligations for men and women. According to some, men and women have complementary, yet fundamentally different roles in religious life, resulting in different obligations. In the area of education, women were historically exempted from any study beyond an understanding of the practical aspects of Torah. However, most Modern Orthodox women attend college.


SIKH history portrays the role of women very prominently and depicts them as equal in service, devotion, sacrifice and courage. From the religion's earliest days, women were simply seen as unequivocal equals. The scriptures state that the Sikh woman is considered to have the same soul as man, and an equal right to grow spiritually.

The Sikh woman is allowed to lead religious congregations, to take part in the Akhand Path (the continuous recitation of the Holy Scriptures) and to participate in religious, cultural, social and secular activities. According to Sikhism, man and woman are two sides of the same coin of the human race. Man takes birth from a woman, and woman is born of a man. This system is interrelating and inter-dependent. Sikhism believes that man can never feel secure and complete in life without a woman: a man's success depends upon the love and support of the woman who shares her life with him, and vice versa. However, high principles set by prophets and religious leaders have always been very difficult to implement and put into practice.


WIDELY disputed, the role of women in Hinduism varies according to different sects. Some traditions revere the goddess Durgaas as a female form of god, while others consider the Hindu god to be of both male and female aspects. There are many other female saints and gurus.

Parts of the Manu Samhita, or sacred law, state that women have generous property rights, with the sole right to certain finances or property. Yet the Manu contradicts itself by elsewhere declaring that a wife has no property, and wealth earned is for the husband alone.

As a whole, in a Hindu marriage, both husband and wife are regarded as two parts of one, complementing each other and becoming one in their spiritual journey, though in modern times, the Hindu wife has traditionally been viewed as someone who must remain chaste or pure. Both Manu Samhita and Arthashastra, an ancient treatise on economic administration, say that, if the husband is impotent, a traitor, has become an ascetic or an outcast, or absconds, the wife can leave him and remarry.