Protecting Religious Liberty Advances Women's Causes
“It is a dangerous time to be a person of faith.”
These were the sobering words of Callista Gingrich, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, at an event sponsored by the Religious Freedom Institute during the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom sponsored by the State Department. But she went further, observing that “women and girls are uniquely vulnerable.”
Religious liberty has long been a second-class citizen in the human rights arena. Increasingly, its opponents at home place the term in air quotes, as if it were an invented concept. The consequences of this have been borne disproportionately by women, who suffer the most when religious liberty is violated and stand to gain in a particular way when it is safeguarded.
Recent atrocities committed in the name of religion – and at the expense of freedom of religion – make this abundantly clear. Nigerian girls continue to be vulnerable to being kidnapped by Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group in the north of the country. Those whose freedom was achieved by government rescue missions and the few schoolgirls who have escaped on their own, often carrying their newborns in their arms, recount terror beyond comprehension.
The kidnapping and enslavement of Yazidi women (pictured) and other female prisoners by ISIS in the Middle East has allowed for the terrorist group’s entry into the dirty business of human trafficking. Ashley Binetti, a scholar at Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, has also noted that the tactics of traffickers are used by ISIS in its recruitment of young women from the West to serve as female jihadists.
In contrast to the violence women and girls experience where religious freedom is thwarted, countries protecting this freedom are countries where women and girls thrive. Countries that do not force women to convert to their spouses’ or fathers’ religion are countries that allow more space for women’s rights.
And religious pluralism has been a proven antidote to the radicalization that often justifies enslavement, rape, and the trafficking of women. Just as scholars are increasingly noting that religious liberty is positively correlated with economic freedom, it is increasingly clear that the same correlation exists for the legal safeguarding of the dignity of women.
It only makes sense, given that the philosophical roots of religious freedom originate in the dignity of the individual. As the Catholic Church made clear in its Declaration on Religious Freedom, “The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person.” Or as Kristina Arriaga, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, noted recently, “It is the person who is the right-holder.”
A nation that nurtures a strong sense of religious liberty then adds another layer of protection for its women; laws that give greater deference to the most profound rights for all people by nature bolster the status of women.
Further, women of faith are often powerful advocates for change and human dignity. Look no further than Cuba’s Damas de Blanco, who are frequently arrested on their way home from church. Founded in 2003 by wives and other female relatives of jailed dissidents, they protest unjust imprisonments by attending Mass each Sunday wearing white dresses, a universally recognized color signifying peace. Their public witness of faith is a powerful voice against oppression, even though they walk home each Sunday in silence.
Here in the United States, it was strong women of faith who led the opposition to the Health and Human Services mandate that resulted in the largest class-action religious liberty lawsuit in American history. Where religious liberty is protected, women of faith flourish, and those women go on to reinforce a range of other rights that elevate the status of all women.
In the Catholic tradition, this dates to the beginnings of the church, which played a transformational role in uplifting women. Long before society fully recognized women, the church was canonizing women and making them doctors of the faith. Saints Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila were important voices for internal reform. Saints Elizabeth Ann Seton and Katharine Drexel shaped the educational systems of their day. And the selfless charity and compassion of Saint Teresa of Calcutta continues to inspire attention to and care for the poor and suffering.
Religion nurtures strong women who change the world for the better. Advancing the cause of religious freedom advances the cause of women across the globe. And as such, women are in a particularly important position to pressure governments to more fully defend the freedom to believe.