For way too long, the only meaning I found in my life happened when peering through one specific, religious prism. Then I discovered what’s called the academic study of religion. Observing the many ways people find meaning through their own experiences with God (or their “ultimate concern”) shattered the tightly-sealed insulation around my worldview. Those things that comprise religion (stories, concepts of the holy, ritual, symbols, social structures), coupled with our individual experiences create a powerful reality affecting us individually and communally.
Some of my students identify as agnostic or atheist. They’re happy to have shed (or never put on) garments they perceive as obstacles. Rarely do they realize that religious “truths,” because they are taken to heart by people and implemented into the social fabric, shape the world they inhabit. When we discuss the ways religion affects women within society, they are far more likely to think about women’s lived realities in terms of human rights, not religious identity. Religion is seen as something superfluous (at best) or an impediment towards progress (at worst).
Riffat Hassan (b.1943) in Lahore, Pakistan, teaches with the Religious Studies faculty at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. When she returned to Pakistan (1983-84) and saw the “deluge…of anti-women legislation [and] anti-women literature,” her activism blossomed. Pakistan is an intentionally Islamic (religious) country.
Hassan witnessed Pakistani women protesting publicly, demanding their human rights. They urged Hassan to refute on a point-by-point basis the arguments used by the legislative body to enact laws reflecting women’s less-than-fully-human status. Hassan refused, convinced that appeals to government based on human rights would be ineffective. Instead, she exposed the theological ground where anti-women arguments took root, believing this tactic essential to move towards equitable legislation.
Hassan’s work demonstrated that men’s alleged superiority to women in the Abrahamic traditions holds three theological assumptions:
- God created man first, then woman (derivatively) from man’s rib.
Woman was the primary agent of the Fall, therefore, all “daughters of Eve” are suspect.
Woman was created from man and for man, giving her instrumental, not intrinsic, value.
There’s no Qur’anic basis for these assumptions. Humankind (male and female) was created simultaneously. “That He did create in pairs,- male and female, from a seed when lodged (in its place)” [53:45-46]. The Genesis “rib” and Fall stories became incorporated into Hadith literature. The Hadith contains the gathered sayings and doings of Prophet Muhammad—a voluminous text compiled two hundred years after the Prophet’s death, much like the Talmud in scope. The “rib” and Fall stories, according to Hassan, should have been rejected from the Hadith because “…any hadith…inconsistent with the Qur’an cannot be accepted.” (Muslims believe the Qur’an is God’s revealed speech.)
Most Muslims accept the theological assumptions Hassan articulates, so creating legislation that puts women in an inferior position to men feels right. “Liberating” women from their inferior position using the language of human rights fails because it doesn’t tap into Pakistani society’s belief system.
This essay could end here with a suggestion that if/when the language of human rights is used in countries with clearly-stated, religiously-informed worldviews, the language must dovetail with the people’s belief system to be effective. Hassan’s work focuses on tapping the “correct” theological roots. But I want to explore further.
The United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner, declares: “Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination.”
I often find that people/organizations striving to better women’s lives—from the enactment of equitable legislation to the eradication of FGM (female genital mutilation)—clothe the United Nations human rights document with the authority of revelation much like many religious people clothe their sacred texts.
One difficulty, as I see it, is that human rights are didactic statements labored over by people in committee. They are not stories. They are not poetry. They don’t tap into that powerful, creative space within us where we discover meaning. This is not to say that the right to education and the right to live in freedom from slavery (among other rights) are not admirable. But muscling human rights onto a society doesn’t open up a transformative space that allows change to happen organically.
Masao Abe (1915-2006) taught at Nara University of Education in Nara, Japan. He wrote an essay titled, “Religious Tolerance and Human Rights: A Buddhist Perspective.” I’m neither Buddhist, nor an expert on Buddhism, but I found Abe’s essay accessible, offering some creative thoughts.
Abe asserts that human rights, generally, are viewed anthropocentrically (humanity at the center). In Buddhism, human rights are understood on a broader “trans-anthropocentric, cosmological basis….Both human and non-human beings are equally subject to transiency or impermanence.” Within this paradigm, the self is not absolutely independent nor is it enduring. Without a permanent self, can “inalienable rights” exist?
Abe believes Buddhist thought can contribute to religious tolerance and human rights by “elimination of…attachment to doctrine and dogma.” Dogma comes packaged in creeds for consumption by followers. The Abrahamic religions, understood as divinely revealed, are prone to intolerance based on fixed “truths.” What’s important in Buddhism is not dogma (or doctrine), “but one’s existential commitment to the religious truth, underlying the doctrinal formulation.”
Furthermore, Abe believes emphasizing wisdom rather than justice makes a difference. The Abrahamic bent to enforce justice entails judgment, resulting in punishment. The Buddhist bent towards wisdom entails compassionately affirming everybody in their distinctiveness or “suchness,” resulting in harmony and peace.
Might our conception of human rights as it focuses anthropocentrically on an absolute, permanent self be constricted and rigid? If no absolute, permanent self exists, could understanding people as transient while accepting them in their “suchness” free us to see more broadly and inclusively and therefore more justly? Perhaps a broader perspective on human rights can hold and also facilitate creative solutions to inequality that elude us when peering through a narrow, absolute lens.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.