Got democracy? From Egypt to the U.S., religion and secularism must embrace women’s rights

Morsi opponents in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The photograph in the back is of Egyptian Army Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who … Continued

Morsi opponents in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The photograph in the back is of Egyptian Army Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who announced Morsi’s ouster in a televised address Wednesday. Khalil Hamra / AP

The complicated relationship among religion, secularism and the state is perhaps the issue of the 21st century, where religion is globally more and more active in political life.  ”God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World“ by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge makes this argument.

Current conflicts in Egypt illustrate this, but it is clearly not just a question for Egyptians, but for many countries including the U.S.

If you want to understand what has to change for countries to negotiate religion, secularism and the state, look to the struggle over the role and status of women. This is the indispensible litmus test for discerning where and how both religion and secularism need to change in order to engage a robust public space that respects the religious and the non-religious alike, and what has to change for these complex relationships to function adequately in a democracy.

Egypt provides an example.  It appears that Egyptians are in deep conflict over the relationship of religion, secularism and the state. On Saturday, Egyptian state media announced, then subsequently rolled back, that Mohamed ElBaradei, a former chief of the U.N. nuclear agency, had been appointed Egypt’s interim prime minister.

ElBaradei is considered a “secularist,” and apparently his reported selection was a bridge too far for leaders in the ultraconservative Salafist Nour party. Now Nour has withdrawn from the fragile coalition trying to form a government amid reports of violence against pro-Morsi protestors.

But secularism alone isn’t the problem for Egypt, or for many countries, nor is it alone the solution. Instead, these conflicts are within both religion and secularism themselves. We have to ask: Can a religion find a way, within its own belief system, to accommodate a diverse public square? Can secularism become more dynamic and better engage diversity?

These questions, and others, are the subject of a forthcoming book from Palgrave Macmillan, “Secularism on the Edge: Contemporary Church-State Relations in the United States, France and Israel,” edited by Dr. Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University, based on a conference held at Georgetown in February of this year.

In my conference presentation, and my forthcoming chapter, I make the argument that if you want to see what has to change in both religion and secularism for democratic states to accommodate a wide range of participants in the public square, you have to pay particular attention to the rights of women.

In my view, the role and status of women is a key test for religions and secularisms alike. In the eyes of patriarchal forms of religion, I argue all women are regarded as vaguely secular in the sense that they are not considered equally “sacred” in their bodies, minds and spirits.  This can easily be discerned in their exclusion from religious leadership in the world’s diverse religions.  Secularism can also fail women, however, when they are considered less “rational.” Women are very underrepresented in secular movement leadership.

The basic problem is that women are not considered fully human, fully equal, and worthy of respect.

Here’s a simple rule: Democracies cannot function unless all persons are respected.

Look what happened in Egypt during the demonstrations in Tahrir Square that led to Morsi’s removal: while thousands and thousands of Egyptians were dancing and singing in the square, 80 women were subjected to mob sexual assaults. Since the beginning of the demonstrations, at least 169 sexual mob crimes have been committed.

The crowds in Tahrir were diverse, though representing the anti-Morsi coalitions, thus presumably including some “secularists.” These attacks on women in Egyptian demonstrations reveal the deep problem of getting to a robust public square where equal rights and equal political participation are respected, either from religious or secular directions.

The United States is not exempt from this struggle.  In fact, the U.S. is perhaps now moving to the forefront of challenges to a robustly pluralistic public square where women are considered equal human beings and their persons are respected.

The dramatic stand taken by Texas Senator Wendy Davis to filibuster a bill that would have severely restricted access to safe abortion in that state made huge headlines.  But Texas is not alone in these efforts to drastically restrict access to abortion, and women exercising reproductive choices in general. Despite evidence that a perceived “war on women” lost Republicans women’s votes in the 2012 presidential election, 2013 has seen a huge surge in restrictions on women’s access to safe abortion, as well as demeaning requirements like mandatory ultrasounds such as in the bill Gov. Walker of Wisconsin recently signed into law.

What many people fail to realize is that anti-abortion efforts are about religious establishment.  People hold differing religious and secular views on defining the status of the fetus; in religious terms, there is disagreement on whether there is a “soul” from the time of fertilization. Making abortion illegal means establishing one religious perspective on this vastly complicated issue. In religious or secular spheres, reproductive choices must be a matter of individual conscience.

Of course, making abortion illegal will not make abortion stop.  It will just make abortion unsafe for women, and some women will be maimed and will die as a result.

But until women’s lives are valued as equal human lives, this assault on their ethical choices about their bodies will continue and American democratic pluralism will continue to decay as a result.

In Egypt, in the U.S., or anywhere else around the world where people are struggling to make democracy work, the key to getting and keeping a robust public square where all voices are equally represented is securing support for the equal dignity and worth of women in both religion and secularism.

This isn’t Egypt’s problem alone.  It is a world-wide issue and one we face right here in the U.S.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and author, most recently, of “Occupy the Bible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power.”

  • JDale_123

    I was wondering, the further I read through this piece, just what the agenda of the author was, as they tried to tar secularism with the same brush as religion with respect to women’s rights. I should have realised it was written by a female theologian, and one who has no qualms about her obfuscation of the truth.

    Anyone who can write “Secularism can also fail women, however, when they are considered less “rational.” Women are very underrepresented in secular movement leadership. The basic problem is that women are not considered fully human, fully equal, and worthy of respect” either truly is less rational, or is just incredibly dishonest.

  • JDale_123

    I was wondering, the further I read through this piece, just what the agenda of the author was, as they tried to tar secularism with the same brush as religion with respect to women’s rights. I should have realised it was written by a female theologian, and one who has no qualms about her obfuscation of the truth.

    Anyone who can write “Secularism can also fail women, however, when they are considered less “rational.” Women are very underrepresented in secular movement leadership. The basic problem is that women are not considered fully human, fully equal, and worthy of respect” either truly is less rational, or is just incredibly dishonest.

  • WmarkW

    The United States has obviously reached a high level of societal development, when it’s a severe imposition on women’s rights to limit elective abortion to 20 weeks (when virtually all are performed anyway) or not provide free contraception. In Egypt, it’s estimated that 75% of women are genitally mutilated.

    We don’t have a war women, we have feminist extremists with expectations of privilege.

  • WmarkW

    The United States has obviously reached a high level of societal development, when it’s a severe imposition on women’s rights to limit elective abortion to 20 weeks (when virtually all are performed anyway) or not provide free contraception. In Egypt, it’s estimated that 75% of women are genitally mutilated.

    We don’t have a war women, we have feminist extremists with expectations of privilege.

  • cricket44

    No, we have a war on women. But keep howling.

  • cricket44

    No, we have a war on women. But keep howling.

  • Catken1

    When you consider control over your most intimate organs to be a “privilege” rather than a “right,” we’ll talk.
    Till then, I have no patience with someone who considers it “extremist” to argue that women are every bit as human as men, and not to be treated as property.

  • Catken1

    When you consider control over your most intimate organs to be a “privilege” rather than a “right,” we’ll talk.
    Till then, I have no patience with someone who considers it “extremist” to argue that women are every bit as human as men, and not to be treated as property.

  • 3vandrum

    “Making abortion illegal means establishing one religious perspective on this vastly complicated issue”
    When it comes to abortion all religions are same, they all totally prohibit abortion. Some Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism etc may not have a stand on this issue but still they would not approve. The problem is all religions. There is no way to negotiate secularism, religion and the State. How do you “change” these religions to accommodate a diverse public square? You cannot, you ignore them and move on to 21st century. Otherwise you will be practicing hypocrisy and not truly following any of these religions.

  • 3vandrum

    “Making abortion illegal means establishing one religious perspective on this vastly complicated issue”
    When it comes to abortion all religions are same, they all totally prohibit abortion. Some Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism etc may not have a stand on this issue but still they would not approve. The problem is all religions. There is no way to negotiate secularism, religion and the State. How do you “change” these religions to accommodate a diverse public square? You cannot, you ignore them and move on to 21st century. Otherwise you will be practicing hypocrisy and not truly following any of these religions.

  • David Thompson

    It ain’t your body.

  • David Thompson

    It ain’t your body.

  • Catken1

    It is the pregnant woman’s body that is being inhabited and used by the fetus, and her right to determine whether such use should continue. Or are you arguing that a woman who gets pregnant thereby becomes property, owned by another person, something to be used rather than someone with agency herself?
    If someone needs to use your blood, bone marrow, or kidneys to live, would you like to be required to give, because their body isn’t yours, and therefore you have no right to kill them by withholding a costly contribution from your own body and body parts? Why is my uterus less mine than a pint of your blood is yours?

  • Catken1

    It is the pregnant woman’s body that is being inhabited and used by the fetus, and her right to determine whether such use should continue. Or are you arguing that a woman who gets pregnant thereby becomes property, owned by another person, something to be used rather than someone with agency herself?
    If someone needs to use your blood, bone marrow, or kidneys to live, would you like to be required to give, because their body isn’t yours, and therefore you have no right to kill them by withholding a costly contribution from your own body and body parts? Why is my uterus less mine than a pint of your blood is yours?