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Does Religion Oppress Women?

Nicholas Kristof seems to think so as he writes in a recent New York Times article, “Religion and Women.” Specifically, he asks: “[W]hy do so many faiths help perpetuate something that most of us regard as profoundly unethical: the oppression of women?”

Kristof acknowledges that no religion advocates mass rapes in Congo, bride burnings in India or men throwing acid in the face of schoolgirls in Afghanistan. But, he warns,

… these kinds of abuses — along with more banal injustices, like slapping a girlfriend or paying women less for their work — arise out of a social context in which women are, often, second-class citizens. That’s a context that religions have helped shape, and not pushed hard to change.

‘Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths, creating an environment in which violations against women are justified,’ former President Jimmy Carter noted in a speech last month to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Australia.

‘The belief that women are inferior human beings in the eyes of God,’ Mr. Carter continued, ‘gives excuses to the brutal husband who beats his wife, the soldier who rapes a woman, the employer who has a lower pay scale for women employees, or parents who decide to abort a female embryo.’

Reading an article like Kristof’s always presents a bit of a challenge to me — in part, because we have some real points of agreement.

There are atrocities committed upon women every day. Some religions have promoted or, at the least, tolerated them. The belief that women are inferior human beings does, I believe, contribute to those atrocities.

But when Kristof concludes that, “Today, when religious institutions exclude women from their hierarchies and rituals, the inevitable implication is that females are inferior,” I have to call a “Whoa, Nellie!”

You see, while Kristof is comfortable with throwing all religious belief into the stockpile of “religion,” I am not. The question for me isn’t “Does religion encourage the abuse of women?” but rather “Does a particular religion encourage the abuse of women?” And, more specifically, does mine?

I cannot speak knowledgably about other world religions. I admit that I am baffled by how they treat women. Some would see a woman as so inferior that she may not walk alone or be educated while simultaneously saying that she is such a powerful force that her actions can bring disgrace upon an entire family of males and she must be killed. Truly sickening.

But I have had to question my own belief system, and I have come to understand that accepting leadership structures in the home and church does not give the “inevitable implication” that I am inferior. I am an equally worthy child of God, a fellow heir of grace with my brothers in Christ. Simply because I acknowledge that I was created for different roles than my brothers does not mean that I am a lesser than.

Even Kristof admits what he calls a paradox about Christianity:

[T]he churches in Africa that have done the most to empower women have been conservative ones led by evangelicals and especially Pentecostals.

Perhaps, Kristof writes, churches are the problem but can also be the solution. But what Kristof doesn’t see is that those evangelical churches are doing the same thing in Africa that they are called by the Word to do anywhere in the world: teaching men and women to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul and mind.

When that happens, all women — young and old, single, married or widowed — are honored and protected.

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About the Author

Heather Koerner

Heather Koerner is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer from Owasso, Okla.

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