Countenancing the oppression of women: how liberals tolerate religious and cultural practices that discriminate against women.

AuthorStopler, Gila

    For centuries, arguments based on religion and culture (1) have been used to justify and perpetuate both sex and race discrimination. In the American South in the nineteenth century, white slave owners justified their right to subjugate the black race based on religious precepts. (2) All major religions in the world have historically supported and justified slavery. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism relied on the Old Testament for the justification of slavery. (3) Most recently, the white minority in South Africa justified its apartheid regime as embodying its divinely ordained supremacy over black Africans. (4) However, notwithstanding the deep religious origins of slavery, these days religion is no longer perceived as a justification for either slavery or for racism in general, and religious and cultural precepts can no longer be used to circumvent criticism and condemnation of racism. (5)

    While there seems to be widespread agreement that religious and cultural norms can no longer serve as justifications for discrimination of racial, ethnic, or religious groups, (6) religious and cultural norms continue to be the most prevalent and widely-accepted justifications for discrimination on the basis of sex. (7) Though most countries around the world allegedly espouse equality between the sexes, and this notion is incorporated both in international and national laws, simultaneously there is widespread acceptance of the notion that groups have the right to maintain religious and cultural norms that discriminate against women. (8)

    Though modern liberal theory is commonly understood as guaranteeing similar rights to both men and women, I will argue that there exists a tremendous gap between this understanding of liberal theory and the reality of both liberal theory and liberal practice in relation to discrimination against women. (9) A similar gap exists between the liberal attitude toward sex discrimination and the liberal attitude toward racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination. My main focus will be on why there is such a considerable gap between the ostensible liberal stance on discrimination against women and the liberal practice regarding such discrimination, especially when the discrimination stems from religious and cultural practices. Even more important, I will attempt to give some insight into how this gap is maintained and how the acceptance of what sometimes amounts to blatant discrimination against women can be promoted as liberal concern for human rights.

    In particular, a major reason that sex discrimination due to religious and cultural norms is perceived as almost benign and far less insidious than discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and religion, is the erroneous and detrimental manner in which the situation of women is compared to that of racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Those who conclude that discrimination against women due to cultural and religious norms either does not exist or is not as insidious as discrimination against racial, ethnic, and religious groups do so without taking into account the structural, political, sociological, and psychological differences between women as a group and racial, ethnic, and religious groups. It is imperative to understand the differences in the way these groups are structured, in the way their members are situated vis-a-vis each other and vis-a-vis their oppressors, and in the way the discrimination against them is justified, perpetuated, and inculcated. Also, discrimination against women is so enm eshed into the fabric of society that it sometimes becomes invisible and therefore uncontestable. Only by understanding this can liberals come to realize the true insidious nature of sex discrimination, and recognize that religious and cultural norms can no more serve as justifications for sex discrimination than they can serve as justifications for racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination.

    In this article, I will discuss various aspects of discrimination against women due to religious and cultural practices in three liberal democratic countries: India, Israel, and the United States. While these countries differ markedly in their histories, cultures, and the structure of their respective societies, they are all liberal democracies that espouse equality for women on the declaratory level. (10) Nevertheless, as I will explain, in all these countries discrimination against women due to religious and cultural practices persists, and rather than being challenged by the state, it is at times sanctioned and perpetuated by it.

    Part II of the article will briefly discuss the feminist critique of liberalism and will argue that discrimination on the basis of sex is as insidious as discrimination on the basis of race. Part III will include an examination of international and national laws and how they deal with the intersection between race and sex discrimination, and religious and cultural practices.

    Subsequent parts of the article will examine various reasons and mechanisms that can account for the different attitudes toward race and sex discrimination that are a result of religious and cultural practices. The first mechanism, explored in Part IV, is familial ideology. As the basic unit of society, the structure of the family and the traditional gender roles in the family have played a crucial role in defining women's status. At the same time, the centrality of the family in all religions and cultures, as well as its definition as a private sphere in which the state should not interfere, have made the familial realm a central site of oppression for women. In the time of slavery, slaves were considered the private property of the patriarch along with the patriarch's wife and their children, and the patriarch was presumed to treat them with love and care as part of his extended family. (11) While the falsity of this construct has long been exposed, the construct of the wife as the property of her husband and a beneficiary of his unqualified love and care still plays a significant role in many contemporary models of the family.

    Part V will discuss a second mechanism that is especially pertinent to women--the rhetoric of choice. One of the strongest myths that obstruct feminist struggles is the myth that many of the infringements of rights women suffer are the result of their own choices. Respecting choices made by free autonomous individuals is a fundamental tenet of liberal theory, which is based on individual autonomy. (12) Cultural and religious groups that do not place any value on the free choices of their members have exploited this aspect of liberalism to counter feminist attacks on violations of women's rights that are committed by the group. (13) Questions about how choices are made and how they should be examined are crucial to evaluating women's acceptance and endorsement of religious and cultural practices that subjugate them. Similar choice and consciousness problems can arise for religious, ethnic, and racial minorities that suffer from discrimination. However, for reasons that I will discuss, such problems are less se vere in those circumstances and, more often than not, third parties do not perceive them as legitimate justifications for the continuation of those types of oppression.

    Additional issues that affect the treatment of religious and cultural justifications for sex discrimination and for race discrimination will be the subjects of Parts VI and VII. In Part VI, I will discuss how, unlike racial, ethnic, and religious groups, women comprise a group, but they are not a community. The implications of this include: a lack of space for women in which to form an awareness of their oppression, minority women's forced choice between loyalty to their minority group and their rights as women, the different effects on women as opposed to racial and ethnic minorities of the essentialization of sameness and difference between groups and inside groups, and the different effects on women as opposed to racial and ethnic minorities of the essentialization of religion and culture. In Part VII, I will discuss the role of politics and its effect on the acceptance of religious and cultural justifications for sex discrimination, as well as its effect on the rejection of such justifications for racial discrimination.

    Part VIII of the article looks at suggested remedies for the problem of the wide acceptance of sex discrimination due to religious and cultural reasons.


    1. Liberalism and Women's Rights

      Liberalism is generally understood to be a political theory that places the individual at the center and sees each individual as a free and equal person. (14) Recognition of every individual's uniqueness and humanity lies at the core of liberalism, which sees all persons as deserving of mutual respect, civil and political liberties, and decent life chances. (15) Liberalism promotes tolerance and protects freedom of conscience, religion, speech, and assembly. (16) While many liberal theorists believe personal autonomy is the fundamental tenet of liberalism, other liberal theorists regard tolerance as liberalism's fundamental principle. (17) Notwithstanding the egalitarian basis of liberalism, critical legal scholars, post-colonial theorists, and feminists have all criticized liberalism as exclusionary and as maintaining the hegemony of dominant groups.

      Though liberal political theory has rarely put the issue of women's equality at the center of its concerns, (19) it has espoused the notion of equality between men and women, at least on the declaratory level. However, most liberal theorists have been much more concerned with equality among men than with equality for women. (20) One of the manifestations of this attitude toward women's rights is the belief shared by many, including many liberals, that discrimination against women is not as harmful or as...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT