<preform>Faith & Reason: Why do the faiths let the subjugation of women continue?</preform>

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The Independent Online

There was a cheap laugh to be had this week from the news that Anglican and Orthodox theologians had discussed a report on women's ministry. The press release was accompanied by a photo of the conference, the luxuriant beards of the Orthodox party now matched by that of our Dr Rowan Williams, the most Orthodox (at least in the upper-case sense) Archbishop we have ever had at Canterbury. The Anglicans normally try to insinuate a woman into these photographs, but I didn't spot one.

There was a cheap laugh to be had this week from the news that Anglican and Orthodox theologians had discussed a report on women's ministry. The press release was accompanied by a photo of the conference, the luxuriant beards of the Orthodox party now matched by that of our Dr Rowan Williams, the most Orthodox (at least in the upper-case sense) Archbishop we have ever had at Canterbury. The Anglicans normally try to insinuate a woman into these photographs, but I didn't spot one.

The treatment of women in the various faith communities is a useful test of whether they're worth following. The situation is not a good one: most faiths have an inbuilt bias against women simply because their doctrine and traditions date from periods when women were routinely oppressed. But this is no excuse. A faith worth its salt ought to be working towards the liberation of all, with or without the support of the surrounding culture. This is not just a liberal Western journalist imposing his views on people of other faiths. Wherever in the world women have been offered the chance of more freedom, they have jumped at it. They want to be as well-educated, as free to wear what they wish, as available for work, as safe, as well-paid, as mobile, and as respected as men are.

For the Christians, the exclusion of women from positions of authority continues to damage the Church's credibility. It cannot campaign for women's equality with any effectiveness while women are absent from its leadership. Things might start to change in the autumn, at least in the Church of England, when a working party reports back on the subject of women bishops, but it's a slow and grudging business.

The orthodox section of the Jewish world is currently exercised about the use of wigs. Devout Jewish women keep their hair hidden in public, usually under a wig. A month ago, a rabbi ruled that wigs made in India might have been made with hair offered to a deity, and were therefore not to be worn. What is going on anyway, when women crop their own hair and wear something equally glamorous, but false?

This leads us to Islam. The US feminist Elinor Burkett spent a year travelling through Muslim lands. She spoke to a woman in Afghanistan who had been beaten and crippled under the Taliban because she had tripped in her burqa and shown an ankle. She travelled on the back of buses in Iran, because that was women's alloted area. She heard of young women forced to marry uncles in Turkmenistan. She said this week: "The problem isn't the content of Islamic law but the tribal traditions of desert people." Be that as it may, the driving force behind the subjugation of women are the Islamists, not secular Arabs.

The picture, though, is not straightforwardly bad. Rajasthan is still wrestling with suttee, the Hindu custom whereby a widow immolates herself on her husband's pyre. It has been outlawed for many years, as has the "glorification" of suttee. Earlier this year, a court acquitted 11 men accused of glorifying suttee. Their alleged motivation was Hindu; on the other hand, the crowds protesting about the acquittal were also Hindu.

Another half-mark in religion's favour is that, when faith is officially removed, the position of women can deteriorate further. The horrific tales told by Xinran in The Good Women of China (2003) - rape, paedophilia, beatings - show how women become the natural victims in a state of moral lawlessness and ignorance. Ignorance is the one and only reason for the appalling incidence of female genital mutilation in Africa.

An estimated 91 per cent of women in Mali have had bits sliced off their sexual organs, and the practice extends to another 27 countries. The custom predates the arrival of Christianity and Islam, and these two faiths are campaigning against it. A conference in Nairobi heard from a woman called Shuriye, a reformed cutter, who had driven off all those who tried to persuade her to spare the girls in her village. It was only when the local imam came to tell her how wrong the practice was that she listened. On a smaller scale, the Church of England's General Synod, meeting in York next weekend, will debate domestic violence in the UK. The churches in South Africa have developed programmes to combat the staggering incidence of rape and violent treatment of women.

The tragedy is that so much still needs to be done. Over the millennia, the faiths have not, on the whole, demurred from the general subjugation of women - despite many cues in their scriptures to do so. This is a brutal world in which the physically weaker half of the population perpetually suffers at the hands of the stronger half. What have the faiths been playing at for so long to let this continue?

Paul Handley is editor of the 'Church Times'

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