Can global religious freedom help support women’s rights?
“I raise my voice… not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard… We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”
These are the words of Malala Yousafzai, a 19-year-old Pakistani Muslim woman devoted to the rights of girls. With Oct. 11 designated the International Day of the Girl Child by the United Nations, it is fitting to recall the powerful words and advocacy that helped her become the youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipient in the award’s history.
Yousafzai’s father, Ziauddin, used to operate a local private school in northwest Pakistan and strongly supported educating girls. Sharing her father’s passion, she wrote a blog for the BBC that focused on her life under Taliban occupation; she used a pseudonym, fearing the Taliban militants would kill her and her family if her identity were revealed to the public.
On Oct. 9, 2012, after the Taliban had been officially ousted from the region, militant gunmen shot Malala, hospitalizing her for months. Despite her life-threatening injuries, she recovered and refused to end her efforts to raise awareness of the importance of educating girls. In 2014, her advocacy and unflinching bravery won her the Nobel Peace Prize, of which she used her $1.1 million award to help build a secondary school for Pakistani girls.
The brutal attack on Malala created new momentum, in Pakistan and worldwide, to recognize the plight of vulnerable girls. Suffering depredations ranging from forced marriage to slavery and sex trafficking, young girls in troubled regions lack both the protections of childhood and the rights and status of adulthood.
Often, religion is used as a crutch for these atrocities. The attack on Malala and the Taliban’s flawed interpretation of Islam—the militants claim young girls should not be educated in an environment that brings them into contact with any man—raised serious questions, including the following:
Are the rights of girls and women in conflict with another key human right—religious freedom?
The Taliban isn’t the only group to consider female status and aspiration a lethal threat to its interpretation of religion. Others’ interpretations are often used to justify assaults such as female genital mutilation or severe punishment when girls and women opt for a religion different from their fathers, brothers or husbands or simply resist cultural norms forced upon them. As such abuses are rampant throughout the world, it is understandable that some people feel religion is a barrier to ensuring equal rights for women.
But there is a glaring problem with the argument that religion and religious freedom are inherently a woman’s foe. The problem rests on a faulty understanding of religious freedom and assumes that it protects specific beliefs rather than the persons who hold them.
This could not be more wrong. The right to religious freedom—along with women’s rights and other human rights such as freedom of speech—belongs not to any particular set of beliefs, but to people who speak and act, either by themselves or in community with others. As affirmed by international human rights documents, religious freedom is the inalienable right of all people, acting on their own or together with others, to think as they please, believe or not believe as their conscience leads, and live out their beliefs openly, peacefully, and without fear. No government—or non-state actor like the Taliban—has the right to compel others to act against their conscience or restrain them from answering its call. By the same token, governments have a duty to protect people from being targets of violence for exercising their fundamental rights, be they the rights of women and girls, freedom of speech or assembly, or freedom of religion or belief.
It is thus clear that those who would erroneously call the attack on Malala an exercise of religious freedom—albeit a terrible one—are missing the real issue: It was a violation of religious freedom. It denied Malala’s right to reject the Taliban’s religious interpretation and their attempts to impose it on her. In the end, it was Malala’s religious freedom that was at stake, not the Taliban’s.
Malala has made it clear that her crucial work on behalf of women and girls is empowered by her personal Muslim religious beliefs. She fights for women and girls because she is Muslim, not in spite of it. Seen in this light, religious freedom, rather than holding back girls and women, affirms their right to make their own decisions about what to believe and how to live. The real problem is not religious beliefs, but the failure of so many governments to protect people who are merely exercising their religious freedom.
In fact, religious freedom usually goes hand-in-hand with other human rights. In their book, The Price of Freedom Denied, Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke note this correlation. When one civil liberty is protected, it enhances the chances of all liberties—including the rights of women and girls and minorities—being protected. Across the world, societies and governments that protect religious freedom tend to create vital space for views—religious and secular—that peacefully challenge the status quo of girls and women, creating opportunities for them and their allies to advance their rights. Religious freedom, in essence, helps create a truly open society. And when religious freedom is unprotected, other rights often are as well.
As members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), we see this in a number of nations. Among them is Malala’s native Pakistan, which we recommend the U.S. State Department designate as a “country of particular concern” or CPC. A CPC designation would mark Pakistan’s government as one of the world’s most serious religious freedom violators. USCIRF has recommended this designation for Pakistan since 2002. We feel this is merited due to Islamabad’s continued use of archaic blasphemy laws to convict and imprison people—primarily members of religious minorities. Similarly, the government has continued to stumble over protecting religious minorities from extremists, including but not limited to the Taliban, who assaulted Malala, launched a suicide attack on Christians this Easter, and have repeatedly targeted minority Shia and members of the Ahmadiyya community with impunity.
Clearly, the rights of women and girls and the right to have religious beliefs and act on them are bound together. As we look back at the International Day of the Girl Child, let us stand with the Malala Yousafzais of the world by upholding both religious freedom and equality between men and women.
Arriaga and Jolley are commissioners at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.