Thursday, November 01, 2007

Cherie Blair's speech on Women's Human Rights in the 21st Century

Culture and religion cannot be used as an excuse for discriminating against women, Cherie Blair has argued in the second BBC Today/Chatham House lecture.

The human rights lawyer, wife of former PM Tony Blair, said all the major world faiths shared "an insistence on the dignity of all God's people".

In a speech, she said discrimination on religious grounds was a "distortion" of the true message of some faiths. (The link to the BBC report provides a link to the speech itself if you click on "Chatham House" on the right side and then on the speech headline).

In some parts of the world, domestic violence was still not regarded as a crime, widows were ostracised and women were treated effectively as their husbands' property, she said. In many areas "proclaimed adherence to a specific religion or system of belief or culture is intimately tied to women's continuing discrimination and abuse," said Mrs Blair.

And she bluntly rejected any suggestion that such practices could be justified by reference to religion. Where religion is seen as an excuse to deny human rights, this is due to cultural pressures and the interpreters of religious traditions rather more than to essential principles, she argues.

"We can be certain that the overwhelming majority of people in our country, along with legal experts and campaigners, would be appalled if they thought that such mistreatment was taking place within their family or local community," she said.

"But what is striking is that 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."

Is it adequate to ascribe discrimination against women in religions to the way (male) practitioners interpret religious traditions? Would it not be more accurate to investigate whether religious traditions perpetuate or indeed actually are misogynist?

Here's an example from my own tradition. In Her Share of the Blessings: Women's Religions Among the Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman World, Ross Shepard Kraemer (Oxford University Press, 1992)

"The classic New Testament expression of misogynism, 1 Timothy 2:11-16 forms the basis of most later Christian restrictions of women, together with 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36. The author of Timothy writes,

I desire then that women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes but with good deeds, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

In 1 Timothy, the proper sphere for Christian women is carefully delineated. Good Christian women keep their mouths shut, exercise authority only over their households and children and never over men, and generally confine themselves to the private, domestic sphere. When and if they become released from their household obligations by virtue of widowhood, they are not to avail themselves of the inherent opportunities for freedom, but are to continue to confine themselves to private prayer. The text of 1 Timothy clearly evidences precisely the opposite behavior on the part of some Christian women and a compulsive concern to keep Christian communities in conformity with perceived Greco-Roman norms of ordered and orderly households." pages 150-151

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