Despite Nietzsche’s famous declaration that “God is dead,” religion is occupying a large place in today’s international public discourse. This is evident here in Canada by the discussions and debate surrounded the Quebec Charter of Values, one attempt to define religion’s place in today’s globalized world. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights sets out to protect “inherent dignity” and “inalienable rights.” One of these rights is the right to freedom of religion as outlined in article 18:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in a community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
While the right to freedom of religion may be clearly provided for, what is unclear is when one right takes priority over another when two are in conflict. Article 1 of the same charter sets out to protect equality of all human beings. Similarly, the third millennium development goal is to promote gender equality and empower women. For many, this raises a very important question: should gender equality or freedom of religion, both protected by the UDHR, take priority in protection when the two are in conflict?
This dichotomy though is false. In fact, choosing just one automatically creates an imbalance. By selecting freedom of religion as a more important freedom, subjugation of women within some religious groups will result, thereby making equality impossible. If equality is chosen above religion, women, such as Muslims who wear hijab, may have to give up their religious expression, automatically placing them on an unequal level with men who would never have to make this choice. Therefore, the only solution is to work with religious and cultural groups to promote gender equality within the framework of religion for those facing this challenge.
Mere provision for religious autonomy alone is inadequate. Shachar’s paradox of multicultural vulnerability demonstrates that when space is made for groups, rights for weaker populations within the group may be compromised; such tension too can only be solved through education. This highlights an unprecedented need for religious education and understanding. Article 28 of the UDHR claims that, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” Therefore, in order to create and protect the said international order to achieve a suitable consensus to protect everyone within or without religioun should be a priority on the international human rights agenda.
One practical example of religious law that treats women unfairly comes from the clear disadvantage women have when it comes to traditional Jewish divorce. In Orthodox Jewish religious man must be provided with a contract or get from her husband. If she does not receive one, any subsequent marriage or children are considered illegitimate or mamzer. Therefore, in Orthodox Judaism, like in other religions, this law is in conflict with societal views of gender equality. Thus, women must choose to remain within their religion but give up equality, or seek equality by choosing to leave this sect of their religion, which is not equality at all. Therefore, the only way to solve issues such as this one are to work within the religious systems, although cases such as Bruker v. Marcovitz can serve as a temporary fix.
Religion can connect instead of divide people, can solve problems instead of cause them, and can be a means by which to decipher universal ideas of justice. Values of morality and compassion are inherent in religion, and this morality can be galvanized. We need to find and appeal to a shared morality, a sense of interconnectedness of all people to breed not homogeneous, but engaged “global citizens,” and religious faith can help. It is through this religious power that we should strive to promote equality within groups particularly with regard to gender equality. This is necessary to protect the vulnerable within religious or cultural groups rather than working against religions further alienating and forcing a choice between equality and freedom of conscience and religion for those within these vulnerable groups. If some must give up rights to get others then that cannot in good faith be called equality.
If we seek true equality, and we seek universality for this equality, we must work with religious leaders and beliefs not against them. This is also not limited to gender equality, any other factors protected by the UDHR may conflict with religious laws including sexual orientation. So now, the real question becomes how can this be realistically tackled and what should be the next steps in order for there to be a viable international social order as provided for in Article 28 that can in fact protect all inalienable human rights for everyone.