As a working mother and local activist in Newburyport, Mass.,
Amantha Moore says her heart breaks every time she hears how women
suffer in Afghanistan.
But when she heard a recent radio news report about American
women in Afghanistan urging local women to remove their veils as a
sign of new freedom, she winced even more.
"So we got a good photo for the nightly news to say, 'look at
these liberated women,' " Moore says. "But who are we to make that
suggestion when they might get shot if the wrong person is around?
What happens when the cameras are gone?... I'd be for people in that
country to choose what'd be best for them."
Just a stone's throw away in Amesbury, Barbara Hildt says she,
too, takes pride as a Quaker in practicing religious tolerance. But
the more she learns about how women are treated in Afghanistan,
Africa, and elsewhere, the more she finds many religious ways to be
"When I feel people are suffering and people's rights are being
infringed upon, I have a responsibility to speak up," Ms. Hildt
says. "I think it's important, no matter what religion people are,
to speak out on human rights."
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, calls for
greater religious tolerance and understanding have reverberated from
coast to coast. Many a public forum has emphasized that world peace
may hinge on growing acceptance of religious traditions that once
seemed threatening or just unfamiliar.
Yet for those committed to universal human rights, religious
tolerance poses a problem if it can be used to justify the
unjustifiable. Increasingly, such a posture - which for a century
has been a benchmark of sensitivity and professionalism - is causing
soul-searching dilemmas. It's a particularly touchy issue in the
United States, where an assumed religious tolerance can butt up
against practices that may seem discriminatory.
The discomfort factor
"I ask: 'What would be the most effective way to undermine those
practices?' " said Rita Gross, a historian of religions at the
University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. "I think there are minimal
human rights. If you go the total relativism route [of refusing to
judge others' practices], you have no grounds for opposing
But others say there are limits to pushing for change in others'
traditions. E. Burke Rochford Jr., a sociologist at Middlebury (Vt.)
College, sometimes challenges Hare Krishnas on their treatment of
women. But, he says, "It might not be justified.... I cross that
line, and I feel discomfort crossing it. But if I didn't say
anything, I'd feel discomfort with that, too."
Attitudes toward women are a key place for this conflict to come
into play. At a conference earlier this winter at Middlebury,
presenters displayed graphs and slides to show how women have made
inroads in attaining prestigious clergy roles, becoming Buddhist
instructors, and sitting side by side with men in synagogues.
That didn't lead to single-mindedness about whether to tolerate
religious practices one finds deplorable. Indeed, while scholars
agreed women should be men's equals in religious life and spoke of
the importance of religious tolerance, the question of how to do
both in a world where many religions regard men and women
differently remained unresolved. …