I’ve been re-reading Martha Nussbaum’s brilliant essay and chapter ‘Religion and Women’s Human Rights’ in Sex and Social Justice. In it she discusses the tension between religious liberty and human rights. It’s refreshing, to put it mildly, to read someone who doesn’t pretend there is no such tension. On the contrary; Nussbaum is quite definite about it:
For the world’s major religions, in their actual human form, have not always been outstanding respectors of basic human rights or of the equal dignity and inviolability of persons…these violations do not always receive the intense public concern and condemnation that other systematic atrocities against groups often receive – and there is reason to think that liberal respect for religious difference is involved in this neglect…Liberals who do not hesitate to criticize a secular government that perpetrates atrocity are anxious and reticent when it comes to vindicating claims of justice against major religious leaders and groups.
Nussbaum goes on to detail some of the ways religion does interfere with women’s human rights, and a very thorough job she does of it. And then she raises some searching questions about group rights.
A “group” is, then, not a fused organism but a plurality of individuals, held together in some ways but usually differing in many others. The voices that are heard when “the group” speaks are not magically the voice of a fused organic entity; they are the voices of the most powerful individuals; these are especially likely not to be women. So why should we give a particular group of men license to put women down, just because they have managed to rise to power in some group that would like to put women down, if we have concluded that women should have guarantees of equal protection…?
Why indeed. And why is it that ‘Liberals who do not hesitate to criticize a secular government that perpetrates atrocity are anxious and reticent when it comes to vindicating claims of justice against major religious leaders and groups’? Why do people who don’t otherwise defend atrocity go quiet when the atrocity is religiously based? That’s not a rhetorical question, it’s one I really wonder about. Habit, custom, ingrained inhibitions, reluctance to be rude and hurtful, yes, but why does all that apply to religion and not to other sets of ideas or institutions? What is it about religion and religion alone that makes us feel so squeamish about, say, interfering with its right to oppress and harm and deprive women?
I’m not sure, and I’d like to tease out an answer. But I think the fact that we do feel this hesitation, the fact that we do let religious groups and no others get away with systematic abuse of women (and dalits, and gays, and animals, among others), is one reason I think well-meaning liberals and leftists should stop being so generous with the ‘It’s in that other sphere’ stuff. I think that’s one compelling reason for saying No it’s not, it’s right here in this one, messing with people’s lives, and not being impeded enough. So that’s one reason I’m going to carry on saying that. I might decide to write a book about it, especially if I can persuade my colleague to write it with me.