Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Nicholas Kristof gets it partly right

Nicholas Kristof, an Op-Ed columnist for the Times, deserves a lot of praise for his concentration on the oppression of women. He is perhaps best known for his writings about teenage girls held in slavery as prostitutes, and his efforts to free them by buying them from their captors.

This week's column takes another step in opposition to women's oppression, pointing out how religion across the world, in various denominations, operates to keep women down.

He writes:

Religions derive their power and popularity in part from the ethical compass they offer. So why do so many faiths help perpetuate something that most of us regard as profoundly unethical: the oppression of women?

It is not that warlords in Congo cite Scripture to justify their mass rapes (although the last warlord I met there called himself a pastor and wore a button reading “rebels for Christ”). It’s not that brides are burned in India as part of a Hindu ritual. And there’s no verse in the Koran that instructs Afghan thugs to throw acid in the faces of girls who dare to go to school.

It's good to see a mainstream news outlet publishing such a point.

So why do I say that he gets it partly right?

Simple. He treats pervasive religious sexism as somehow an aberration, a distortion of the true nature of religion. In fact, as Kristof's own words demonstrate, sex oppression is at the very core of the largest religions in the world. Sexual oppression isn't the entirety of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, but it is a fundamental part of all three:

The New Testament quotes St. Paul (I Timothy 2) as saying that women “must be silent.” Deuteronomy declares that if a woman does not bleed on her wedding night, “the men of her town shall stone her to death.” An Orthodox Jewish prayer thanks God, “who hast not made me a woman.” The Koran stipulates that a woman shall inherit less than a man, and that a woman’s testimony counts for half a man’s.

He is right that there appears to be an opportunity for some religions to abandon their sexist natures, but it is no help to pretend that those who oppress women in the name of religion are not doing so in line with the central principles of those very religions.

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January 13, 2010 6:56 AM  

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