Leaning In, in Houses of Prayer

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Women are structurally underrepresented and often discriminated against in most of the world’s powerful arenas. The 15 percent female participation rate at the World Economic Forum is just a glimpse of the problem, and the importance of increasing women’s presence in our governments and boardrooms has been on the global agenda for some time now. Yet these are not the only institutions that control, or at least heavily influence, the lives of billions of people. What about houses of prayer?

At a WEF Open Forum session on the subject of gender and faith, Chris Seiple, president of the U.S.-based Institute for Global Engagement, said the responsibility for making sure that growing conservatism does not further infringe on women’s rights lies with religious leaders.

Diarmuid Martin, archbishop of Ireland, was also present at the forum. The archbishop is a relatively liberal religious leader, and he was quoted in the Christian weekly The Tablet as saying, “You don’t write off a candidate for the priesthood simply because he is a gay man.” The problem, though, is that Martin is a contrasting minority in religious circles, and he noted that “our younger priests are much more conservative than those of the older generation.”

However, the presence of religion does not necessarily mean the existence of inequality or discrimination. One example is Sweden’s Lutheran Church, which appointed a lesbian bishop, Eva Brunne, in 2009. “Homosexuals also belong in the church, and I am a symbol of that,” she said in an interview in the Scandinavian LGBT magazine QX.

Another, and perhaps less liberal, example is Ireland. The Catholic country is one of Europe’s religious strongholds, as well as one of the last European states that still forbid women from having an abortion. (Significantly, Ireland recently passed a law allowing abortion if a pregnancy threatens the woman’s life.) Still, Ireland has a higher female labor participation rate than the European average.


Protestors on the streets of Dublin in response to the death of an Indian woman who was refused an abortion.

Whether religions are created by man is an age-old debate, but religious institutions definitely are. Orzala Ashraf Nemat, executive director of the U.K.’s Youth and Women Leadership Centre, was also on the forum panel. She pointed out that female exclusion and discrimination on religious grounds might stem from other social factors and structures. Violence toward women in Afghanistan, her home country, is not a grassroots or bottom-up phenomenon, and “did not come out of Afghanistan’s people or their way of living.” Rather, “extremism is a product of conflicts that are related to geopolitics and global political issues,” she said.

Ashraf Nemat made a further interesting parallel when she discussed the popular view of the burqa as a symbol of oppression. “I wear the burqa sometimes. When I feel comfortable wearing it, I choose to wear it,” she said. “But when the Taliban were forcing Afghan women to wear the characteristic blue burqas with a net covering the eyes, I was protesting it.”

Ashraf Nemat concluded that the burqa can be a symbol of both oppression and choice, and that the garment is problematic only when women are forced by religious leaders to wear it.

The discussion at the WEF forum reminded us that the relationship between gender and religion is a highly complex one, and it also pointed to the importance of allowing women to make decisions for themselves and to gain more influence within conservative religious institutions. Asked a question about government intervention in religious matters, Archbishop Martin easily responded that religious leaders might need to allow increased female authority. But, he noted, “no one wants to be told what to do.”

Group of women wearing burkas.


Group of women wearing burkas.

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