Wednesday, August 22

Legitimate concerns

"[W]women, particularly the most vulnerable, have difficulty abandoning religion. They’re less likely to become nonbelievers, because the church, mosque, synagogue and other religious communities promise security that their families might not provide." And so I wrote as a guest for the Washington Post's "In Faith" blog. The blog addresses views on faith and their impact on the news.

The essay is intended as a gentle warning for religious leaders who resist women's interpretations, participation or concerns, and I conclude, "Religions need women more than women need religion." Women are among the most devout in many faiths, and their numbers are currently low among the growing number who count themselves as nonbelievers, agnostics or theists who choose not to practice. But that could change quickly in an era of globalization as alternatives become quickly apparent to all.

One commenter noted that religion was not behind the comment.

I admit to being torn. The vast majority of US Catholic women use contraceptives, and yet the church defies those members and goes as far as to try and impose its restrictions on non-members. Many politicians rely on their religious beliefs for guidance in making policy, and some would deny abortions to rape victims and the women's perceptions of these crimes.

But I also agree that religion can't be blamed, that individual interpretations are also responsible. Religion is a guide to thinking about the world. As a guide, it's a tool, like the internet or the pen, and as I've written before, like conversations or globalization. Any tool can be used by individuals for good or other purposes.

Unfortunately too many religions don't offer an even playing field for their female adherents. And some religions don't let women on the field at all.

Photo of uneven playing field, courtesy of Jorchr and Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, August 17

A simple request

Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, writes the first essay in The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theology:
"The type of world in which women flourish is one where women have political, social, and religious power to participate fully in decision-making processes; where women’s bodies are valued, respected, and protected from demeaning forms of exploitation, abuse, and violence; where women’s labor, particularly the care they provide to children, the elderly, and the sick, is shared by all and honored as economically and socially valuable work; where the natural environment is engaged with respect; where education is open to all; and where the basic material resources that it takes for communities to be healthy and thrive are ensured. This view of flourishing also includes celebrating forms of beauty that women cherish and spiritual practices that women treasure, both of which point to the fact that flourishing involves not just the absence of oppression and injustice but also the positive presence of things that make women happy and fulfilled."
Jones suggests that daily action rather than dogma is required: “changing society requires both changing laws and practices and challenging the categories and process we use to think about life and to make sense of our world." 

She points out that "the dynamics of globalization are creating a world culture in which we often share more than we might expect….”  

Photos of western and eastern hemispheres of earth are courtesy of NASA and Wikimedia Commons

Monday, July 16

Who says?

Texts offer only slightly more guidance than the waiting pen and blank sheet of paper. Interpretation can vary with the individual. Any woman and man can read the same religious text and walk away with conflicting points of view. Eva Sajoo of Simon Fraser University writes about women's struggle to interpret texts: 

"Labeling women who dare to speak up as followers of 'foreign' ideas is a favorite tactic of violent misogynists not limited to the Taliban). Calling them 'un-Islamic' is another. Religion is often used to dignify agendas that have more to do with intimidation than scripture....  This is as true of Islam as of Christianity.

"Leaving the authority of religion entirely in the hands of thugs will ensure that it continues to be a barrier to women’s rights. Enlisting the support of religious figures and principles may in fact be the reformer’s best weapon."

Fear of Beauty warns of adherents who must use their religion to intimidate and control. Insecure, full of doubt that their principles and values alone can attract a following, they must bully free thinkers into submission.  

Photo courtesy of New York Public Library from Esquisses Sénégalaises; physionomie du pays, peuplades, commerce, religions, passé et avenir, récits et legendes,1853, and Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, July 9


Many in the United States are torn about how to handle instability and everyday cruelties in Afghanistan. Should Nato forces exit and allow Afghans to handle Afghanistan, or should they stay and fight?  
"A video apparently showing the Taliban executing an Afghan woman accused of adultery has sparked international outrage," reports Sharon Behn for Voice of America. "The killing highlights ongoing fears of what will happen to women’s rights in Afghanistan once international forces leave." In the same article, Afghan women's rights activist Wazma Frogh is quoted, questioning why police or security forces were not available after the United States, other nations and so many donors have invested millions in Afghan security.

About 20 percent of the Taliban are hardliners, according to British intelligence officials estimates, reports Reuters. In early February, the Pentagon estimated that the Afghan Taliban had about 25,000 fighters, as reported by Spencer Ackerman for Wired.

It's a tough call for the women of Afghanistan. More fighting and war, or allowing for some Taliban control of the nation?

The US envisions a new silk road for Asia, featuring a stable Afghanistan, supported by neighboring states.  Literacy, stability, women's rights, economic projects are essential, and such developments won't happen overnight. Afghanis must decide if this is a plan they can embrace. If so, they must speak up and stand up to extremists - and can't wait for security forces to intercede. 


Friday, July 6


A Globe & Mail editorial on "Buying Progress in Afghanistan" included the sentiments of Human Rights Watch: 

“Donors should make it clear that continued progress on women’s rights is linked to continued international support,” notes Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The decisions that donors make today will have huge implications for the lives of ordinary Afghans in the years ahead.”

Friday, June 8


More is not always better, and that is true for families. But many women in Afghanistan don't realize they could choose to prevent pregnancies. Aunohita Mojumdar writes about a 37-year-old woman with 10 children for the Women's News Network: "Like most Afghan women she has little say in the decision-making of the size of her family, or her own reproductive health. She has almost no concept that the number of children she has could be a matter of choice."

Mojumdar explains the cultural forces that influence large families, including increased earning potential and additional household help.

Of course, many, multiple pregnancies can pose health risks for women and their children, particularly when health care is not widely available. Decisions about whether a woman can use birth control, even for mothers who have health complications, are made at whim by husbands and imans.

"Custom and tradition are often confused with religious edicts in Afghanistan and it has been an uphill battle for health professionals to break down these deep-seated beliefs. In order to do so, they are using religion as the clinching argument," Mojumdar writes. "The Koran, talks, for example, about the need for a woman to breastfeed her child for two years, a natural method of contraception that would ensure a gap of at least two years between delivery and conception. Afghan health professionals are using this as the main argument in favour of birth spacing."

Women find new paths. Above, Fareba Miriam is the eldest in a family of 12 and became the first woman to enroll in a para-veterinarian training program that USAID is running in Afghanistan.

Photo courtesy of USAID.

Tuesday, June 5


The headline to Donald Pennington's opinion essay shrieks that Islam is dangerous. He argues, "Of all the world's religions, Islam has proven time and again to be one of the greatest threats to modern thought, freedom and life."

The essay is brief, pointless provocation. Ideas are not dangerous. Neither are religions. It's what adherents do with those ideas and religions.

Back in 2007, in a review of The Paradox of a Global USA, I made the same argument about globalization:

"Imagine walking into a room, encountering a group of people vigorously debating the pros and cons of 'conversation.' One group insists that conversation delivers wealth, prosperity and good times for all. The others shake their heads and bemoan the unpleasant content that conversations can hold or undue influence they might wield. "The debate would be silly and pointless, and so too is any discourse over globalization that aims to determine whether the phenomenon is good or bad."

Beliefs shared by more than 1 billion people, as reported by, are not dangerous. Intolerance is dangerous. Adherents' intense certitude that they're right, only they are right, is dangerous.

The Islamic drawing of an angel blowing a horn dates from 750 to 1258, the Abbasid Caliphate, and is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.