Equality Means Equality, or Does It?

Responding to: Religion and Women's Equality

By: Katherine Marshall

August 24, 2016

When a baby is born, the most common first question is “boy or girl?” Gender difference is perhaps the most obvious identity distinction that cuts across all cultures. But there the commonalities can end. “Equality means equality,” for some is a rallying cry, one that downplays differences. But more importantly, it reflects a sacred principle: that all human beings are, truly, born equal. Yet “vive la difference” is a common and joyous cry also, celebrating both the wonders of diversity and, particularly, the supposed core differences between women and men that give meaning to life.

A feature of engaging on the topic of women’s equality is recurring debates about language, and it starts with the word "equality": Need equality mean “the same”? The term equity, with its fascinating and complex etymology, is used to emphasize the fundamental importance of fairness and balance and can take some of the sting out of a literalist interpretation of “equality.” But interpreting “equity” is never simple. And debates swirl around the term “gender,” leading down a veritable field of rabbit holes.

And what does religion have to do with it all? Lots. Understandings of gender roles are deeply embedded in every religious tradition, but everywhere they are intricately intertwined with cultural traditions as well as pragmatic responses to daily life. Raging debates about the practice of female genital cutting (FGC, also called mutilation or circumcision) illustrate how difficult it is to assign religious roles: Widely different religious leaders condemn the practice, denying that it has religious legitimacy, yet many local religious leaders support the practice and, most importantly, many families do it because they believe their respective religious tradition requires it. Yet studies on these practices point to justifications that center on controlling women’s sexual desires, ensuring cleanliness, or distinguishing the committed from the uncommitted.

The FGC debates highlight the complexity of religious beliefs that shape attitudes and behaviors, and above all how far family life, with its daily interactions, stories, admonitions, and divisions of labor, is colored by religious teachings and beliefs. We know far too little about how such religious influences shape gender attitudes—a critical area for research and analysis.

There’s another practical and knotty challenge around religion and sex differences: Who is at the table? On the panel? Cited as an authority? It is ironic that by many measures, women are more religious than men, and certainly play critical roles in keeping religious institutions and beliefs going from generation to generation, yet in many religious traditions they are invisible in leadership, barred by “stained glass ceilings” from holding formal positions as clerics. The all-male composition of many religious gatherings is a constant reminder that “equality” is far off.

The irony goes further: Some of the most remarkable work in support of peace, justice, and human welfare is in fact led by women whose affiliations and motivations have deep religious roots (see for example the stories of women peacebuilders here). But because of preconceptions and attitudes, as well as formal barriers, their work is often invisible. Shining light on it, documenting what they do, celebrating it, and channeling support in their direction is vital.

This brings back the question of language and vocabulary as emblematic of attitudes and debates. Because religious leadership is so often a male province, where women are simply invisible, different terms are needed if women are to be included on an equal and meaningful basis. That explains the use of the term “religious actors,” as opposed to “religious leaders.” Broadening the understanding of leadership to “religious actors” can recognize and invite to the table the many women who are stalwart, courageous leaders but do not hold formal positions within religious institutions. They may, for example, be community leaders who exercise the moral authority that mark the finest religious leaders, or who run social services or charitable enterprises.

A further irony is that “religious” and “non-religious” women’s organizations often have uneasy relationships. The long-standing understanding of many religious traditions and institutions as deeply patriarchal, skeptical, or hostile to women’s full equality is one reason, as are different styles and vocabulary. Activist religious women can view their more secular counterparts as hostile to their deeply-held religious beliefs. Building bridges through encounters and honest dialogue can work wonders, however, in highlighting common concerns, values, and agendas. And that brings up two final words that have deep significance for these debates: dignity and respect. Women arguably bring special qualities to the solution of difficult problems, both in their knowledge and in their style. Many are gifted in appreciating the qualities of the other, and in healing hurt and pain.

Whatever it takes, women, both religious and non-religious, belong at every table.

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Equality Means Equality, or Does It?