In 2009, former President of the United States and lifelong Baptist Jimmy Carter severed his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention. As he explained in a public letter, it was a very difficult and painful decision for him to make.
“I have been a practising Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be ‘subservient’ to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.”
Carter’s decision was both courageous and principled. The sad truth is that most, if not all, of the world’s religions have had the view that women are somehow inferior to men. In many faiths, women are prevented from playing a full and equal role.
Tragically, it doesn’t stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. Discrimination like this has provided reasons or excuses in secular states to deprive women of equal rights across the world for centuries.
Before we denounce Muslims for forcing women to wear the hijab, we must also honestly acknowledge that the same practices happen in Western culture. In my own Anglican tradition, the Church of England is still debating whether women can be ordained as bishops. Moreover, it’s been less than 40 years since women could be ordained as priests in the Anglican Church of Canada. Other churches in Canada still do not allow women to be ordained as deacons, priests, ministers, or pastors simply because of their gender.
At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subject to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.
The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.
The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.
Carter goes on to say that, “It is simply self–defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self–serving and outdated attitudes and practices — as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.”
Carter is a member of the Elders. I’ve written about this group of wise, global leaders who work together for peace and human rights before. Part of their work has been to draw attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights. They published a statement declaring that, “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”
They call on all leaders to challenge and change these harmful teachings and practices, and to put an end to this kind of discrimination against women. “We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasize the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.”
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook