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The Curse of Religion

In December, a 28-year-old Jewish woman boarded a bus in Israel and was promptly ordered by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man to sit at the back. Tanya Rosenblit refused to sit where she was told (sound like a familiar scenario?)—whereupon her male harasser refused to allow the bus driver to close the doors and take any of the passengers to their desired destinations.

Two weeks later, same thing (more or less) happened again when Doron Matalon, an 18-year-old soldier, took the No. 49A bus after an overnight shift at her Jerusalem base. Upon seeing her at the front of the bus, a member of Haredi, an ultra-Orthodox sect (most of whose adherents refuse to serve in the Israeli military), ordered the weary IDF soldier to move to the back. When she refused, all hell broke loose. Now, the young soldier has told the media, she is no longer willing to ride the bus at all. She is afraid of what will happen when she is seated.

“Until yesterday, I was sure I lived in a free country,” wrote Rosenblit on a news website. “It’s still hard for me to believe that in 2011 there are men who believe they must not sit behind a woman.”

In other words, as Israel’s Rosa Parks discovered, there are men—most often those who describe themselves as devoutly religious—whose demands consistently prevail over the rights of the many.
Last week in Washington, Bishop William Lori, of Bridgeport, Connecticut, speaking on behalf of all Catholic bishops, attempted much the same sort of tactic. Lori told a congressional committee that President Obama’s compromise proposal to require insurance companies to pay for and provide contraception to employees of Catholic universities and hospitals just wouldn’t work, as far as the Catholic Church was concerned.

Why?

“Because the costs of providing those services are borne some place,” said the bishop, addressing a panel that included no women witnesses. What the bishop meant was that American citizens, the vast majority of whom use birth control, will, in one way or another, be helping, under Obama’s twist to the new health care plan, to fund free contraception to employees. And that the Catholic Church in the US will do everything in its power to prevent these contraceptives from being made universally available at no cost to women employees because it’s not a big fan of birth control.

In other words, until yesterday I was sure I was living in a free country.

The problem, as I see it, arises not when outrageous countries—Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain, Afghanistan, for example—deny, abrogate or reduce the rights of their female citizens in the name of religion. The world is, unhappily, used to this sort of behavior from the men who control not merely the politics of these nations but also the faithful within their borders. We expect it. In fact, there is virtually no separation between faith and politics in most Islamic countries. We have, alas, grown to expect that too.

You could argue, and many do, that it isn’t really religion or even fundamentalist Islam that causes the problems of these nations; that the religious superstition, general cruelty, ignorance, insane policies, and belligerence of their governments are really prompted by the widespread poverty or illiteracy of the governed.

But I would argue just the opposite. I would say it is religion itself, religion run amok, that is producing the sort of brutality and general craziness we see in those countries. And that it is no coincidence that in every instance where religion is embedded in a particular regime or permitted to hold too much sway, it is women who suffer most from its implementation. Bit by bit, their rights are shattered. A woman’s right to an education, abolished by the Taliban in Afghanistan. A woman’s right to drive. A woman’s right to protect herself and her health from the depredations of constant childbearing. We have seen it before, usually in countries inimical to the West. Religion, state-sponsored, is the right arm of tyranny.

No, the ultra-Orthodox are not running Israel. And no, the Catholic Church is not running the US government. But they have both taken unhealthy steps, invasive, intrusive steps, into the backyard of democracy. Religion has to learn its place in a democracy.

It should move to the back of the bus.

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