Monday, 2 January 2012

The role of religion

Katherine R. Vasquez Tarazona

“(No matter what) never discuss politics, religion or any other upsetting matter on the table.” This is quite a popular saying in many cultures and it has its grounding. Politics and religion are topics that may bring the best and worse from us. Whatever argumentation, no one is ready to give an inch on their belief system. Yet, I have disappointed good manners many times. My huge craving for understanding and further knowledge has led the path to very impolite meals, which fortunately never ended on fights (of any kind). I guess, respect was the main ingredient served during those gatherings.

I have to warn you about the content of this post. I am aware I might raise controversy by discussing one of those forbidden topics. Nevertheless, just like in Economics and Law we discuss the role of the State in society; I believe that in society we must discuss the role of religion on their communities.

2011 left us with a bittersweet flavor on the mouth. True, I have been inspired, moved, and proud. Nonetheless, I have also been disgusted, sadden, and ashamed. One of the reasons for me to react with such strong and dark feelings has been originated in churches or under their names (do please note, I am not addressing one’s religion as such).

Back in November, I heard a lot about Aliaa Elmahdy (20). She’s Egyptian and a blogger. If the name does not tell you much, maybe you will remembered her better when I tell you she was the girl who decided to publish some nude self-portrait photos as a protest to her country’s regime. She calls herself an atheist and claims that the pictures she showed are her revolutionary way to change sexism in her country. Because of them, she has to face the Egyptian justice, yet to decide under which charges. I spent some time on one of her blogs. She is without any doubt very strong on her opinions and helps others, with similar struggles, to expose their voice. Whether you agree or not with her modus operandi, I am sure you concur with freedom of speech and respect. I read most of the menaces that she got and they are quite disturbing. I was even more surprised when I found out that she has been somehow rejected in Tahir square by the protesters, calling her and her boyfriend names and asking them to leave or separate because of their improper manners  (such as having her arm on his shoulder or sharing the same tent).

Shortly after the blogger’s photos went viral, a friend of mine wrote about her and proposed an interesting question: if Aliaa is an atheist why does she have to be judged under the sharia law? Being an attorney myself, I gave her my “legal” opinion about it but, as a community member, I would lie to you if I tell you I felt comfortable with it.

In early December, a report was given to the high-level advisory group in Saudi Arabia stating that allowing women to drive will encourage premarital sex and, therefore, threaten the country’s tradition of virgin brides. (Yes, there is a correlation there and yes, it is also escaping me). Manal al-Sharif (32) was arrested in May, after she posted on youtube a video of herself driving. She spent nine days in jail and was only freed when she agreed to quit the “Women2Drive” campaign (of which, she was a key organizer). On her pledge she said she voluntarily had decided to leave the cause and that she was in deep gratitude to the King for ordering her release. The campaign’s facebook page has not had any activity since June, 1st.

In even more unsettling news, I read that women with attractive eyes may now have to cover them up, if the resolution is passed in Saudi Arabia. The measure is due to prevent women to provoke men through their beautiful regards. Apparently, men lack of self control and it is the women obligation to prevent them from any improper thought. Saudi Arabia’s “committee for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice” deals with cases like this. At this point, I was certain I had heard it all but oh, I was wrong! Thanks to one of my dearest friend I came across the news of an Islamic cleric based in Europe “banning” women from touching vegetables or fruits that could have any sexual resemblance to male genitalia.

At last but not least, let me add to this list this statement: “Gay pride parades resemble KKK marches” –said by Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, USA. I might be losing my comparison’s skills. For those unfamiliar with the Ku Klux Clan, is enough to say that this was a radical movement born in the States in the 60’s and tried to defend white supremacy, “white-nationalism” and eradicate immigration through terror mechanisms. How does this resemble the gay pride parade? According to the Cardinal, the analogy was perfect because they both hate Catholic Church. I am not familiar with stats on the subject, if anyone has run them, but I am pretty sure that most of my homosexual friends are far from hating religion. In fact, their desire to get married is found on their catholic believes. I am sorry Cardinal; the resemblance is quite blurry to me.

Religion should not promote anger statements or reactions against those who do not share their views or believes. This is fundamental to me, may it be call tolerance or just common sense. In Israel, a little girl, Namaa (8), was called a prostitute and spit on by ultra-Orthodox men on her way to school just because her dress did not adhere exactly to their rigorous dress-code. Take a second to realize that a child was bullied, embarrassed and frighten by adult men on her way to school. How is it possible to defend such acts on the name of any religion?

Extremists usually say that women are treated poorly because of their transformation into sexual objects. I agree with that. It is both sad and frustrating to see how some women are portrayed as mere objects but I also found unbearable to observe how some [women] are emptied from all their rights and put under the obligation of taking care on men’s mind, preventing them from sin. In most common ultra conservative societies, women are exposed to harassment and dishonor in a greater proportion than in other.  When one of my friends moved to Cairo, she said she had to be very careful because men will grab her behind (without consent) anytime. When I went to Morocco, a bunch of guys were walking next to me asking me about the origins of my “pretty face”. Back at home, I cannot wear short pants and pretend not to hear men expressions about it. All of these are examples of sexism and have no correlation with religion, none. However, when religion leaders find their way through words to create those fictional links, people tend to defend them as their own and commit unspeakable acts, such as the ones that Namma went through.

Religion is very strong in some communities. They gather people with similar views of life and they defend those from others. I get that, and I respect it. I do not mind seeing someone with a veil (when it’s by their own choice) or with a cross on their hand[i]. It bothers me to see them attempt against human rights, in a passive-aggressive mode or just in a very aggressive way. How is anyone who asks for someone’s death any different from a terrorist or a murderer? Let me step back for a second here. I do not mean that anyone with a spiritual belief is on danger of becoming a hater nor to be brainwashed. I denote that a person, who is filled with anger and cannot respect a human being for what she/he is worth (life), should not use religion as a mean for rage transference. 

What is the role of religion in their communities? To my modest understanding, promote love and respect for life, in spite of one’s beliefs and ways of conduct. Easier said than done, yes; but trying is significant. Religion should not become a channel or a pillar to hinder humanity. If anything, it should be a bridge that brings together, equally, men and women. And maybe, with some luck religion will inspire understanding and serve as an open channel for communication. I have might gotten all it wrong, since I am not a very spiritual person myself; however, I think it is worth the debate.

[i]      I do not want to start the debate on some European legislation on the subject but I have it in mind while writing this sentence.


  1. What a piece, Katherine!! I really like the way you've put it. But if I might add this one thing: I don't think you have gotten it wrong whatsoever. I may not be as religious as many of my counterparts might be, but i believe that religion must remain within the confines of governing the relationship between man and his God. I believe it makes no sense to decide that a certain thing is what "God" ordained. Man and women were created equal, and it makes no sense to decide arbitrarily that a woman cannot do this or that or whatnot!! I love the way you've written this Katherine :) Kudos to you!

  2. Great piece Katherine, I too believe that the objectification of women through religion is getting out of proportions nowadays. Living and growing up in a Muslim country - and with the current rise of political islamism as well as religious extremism in the world, it seems to me that people (read: men) think that they should be coerced into being better Muslims, that they need to be forced into following the "right" path, that if they were left to their own relationship with God, they would be tempted to wander off and become (greater)sinners. So it's about erasing all possible temptations (putting all the blame on women - if the man is tempted to sin, it's because the woman pushed him to, maybe her clothes were too tight, her veil was showing some hair, her skin was too soft, her smile too friendly, her eyes too dark) because if not, men (perverted as they are perceived to be) will ultimately lead undignified lives. Another relevant point maybe is the perception that things that go against religious values (or what they interpret to be religious values) should be very harshly punished to "show the example", perhaps explaining where the aggressivity comes from. My last comment is about Aliaa Elmahdy, you ask "if she was an atheist, why is she judged under Shariaa law?" well, in Islam (to my humble understanding), there is no going back... you are born a Muslim, you grow up a Muslim, you die a Muslim (even if you lead your life as an atheist)... and living in a country that doesn't accept you deciding to live another way, you either act as a Muslim (meaning, you respect those values) or you are judged by a the laws in which religion has been embedded - very harshly.

    Keep up the good work!
    Looking forward to reading more from you,