Countenancing the Oppression of Women: How Liberals Tolerate Religious and Cultural Practices That Discriminate against Women

Article excerpt


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. …


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