The world is pensively watching Afghanistan as it is now again under Taliban control. One of the most universal concerns is the fate of girls and women left behind. There is a tremendous justifiable fear that they will once more be subjected to oppressive restrictions hindering their ability to freely be educated, work, travel, and otherwise participate in various aspects of wider society. Despite the Taliban’s assurances that women will be respected, there is significant skepticism, which is fueled not only by the axiom that “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior” but also because of a peculiar qualifier that accompanies the Taliban’s promises: “women’s rights will be respected under Islamic Law.” This clearly leaves wide latitude to interpret the way women’s freedoms may be curtailed. There is a lot of trepidation that the strides of two previous decades, which allowed Afghani women to regain rights, will be erased.
I say “regain” because, unbeknownst to many, women in Afghanistan didn’t first achieve liberation due to the swooping-in salvation of Western interference. In the sixties and seventies there were Afghan women who were allowed to socialize and participate in society. It is true that this wasn’t the case for everyone. A significant portion of the country still faced hardship. But it would be a mistake to believe that the one and only hope for women’s opportunities came on the wings of the West. People tend to forget progress that had been made in Afghanistan decades ago. And they conveniently tend to forget that worsened circumstances for women were caused by Soviet warfare and US-backed mujahedeen warfare. Also often forgotten are all the ways in which America was oppressive towards women during this time. The Women’s Liberation movement rose to prominence then in the United States because American women were subjected to unequal pay (which still doesn’t have legislative remedy), blatant professional discrimination (which is still tolerable in some sectors, e.g. the Adventist church), the inability to engage in sports and education on equal footing (rectified by Title IX), financial limitations, and so much more. Instead of acknowledging these realities, we like to paint the Middle East as a land of perpetual regression, while the West— particularly the USA—is heralded as being an eternal bastion of freedom for all (let’s not even get started on racism).
Western nations like comparing the best version of ourselves with the worst version of others. As Rafia Zakaria writes in her book Against White Feminism, there’s still a long way to go in our collective acknowledgment and rectification of our own faults in the treatment of women. In a recent article, as in her book, she retells an account of her upbringing in Pakistan and her subsequent harrowing teen marriage to an abusive husband. She eventually broke away and was able to forge a new life independent of him, working in the United States. As coworkers heard her story, she was often pitied due to the indignities she suffered at his hand. Yet her peers were oblivious to the ways in which they too inflicted harm. She was often undermined and discriminated against. And while it wasn’t the same as the physical abuse she had previously been subjected to, it was still abuse. Death by a thousand cuts is still death.
I’m sure at this point some dear reader is internally screaming that it’s absurd to compare the way Western nations mistreat women and the way other countries do. After all, we don’t tolerate honor killings or public floggings of women. Girls here can freely go to school. Women can participate in the workplace and so much more! But let’s be reminded of a few things:
1) Many of these freedoms for women in Western nations are relatively new—less than a generation old! There are women alive today who weren’t afforded such privileges and still remember the past.
2) We still have a long way to go to achieve true equality. It’s not about whether our brand of mistreatment is less severe than other types. It’s about coming to the point where we don’t tolerate any “socially acceptable” amounts of mistreatment at all.
This second point is particularly important for those of us who fancy ourselves to be “progressive.” There is a danger in only measuring “progress” against those who we deem “worse” than ourselves. In the secular realm, we can look as recently as the Olympics and other sporting events to see ways in which we still marginalize and objectify women: Breastfeeding mothers who were initially told to leave their infants were later given impractical guidelines in order to bring them. Athletes are financially punished for becoming pregnant. Women’s sports are neither advertised nor compensated at equal rates. Women are denied the use of sporting equipment that accommodate various physical attributes, and female athletes still have to protest to wear uniforms that make them feel more comfortable and less sexualized.
In the financial sector, we’ve already touched on the fact that equal pay is still not American law (although many other nations have achieved this) and it’s still legal to discriminate when hiring. This of course comes to play most often in places like churches. And while some in Adventism have staunchly fought against this, even the most “progressive” among us can retain patterns of harmful behavior. Years ago, a friend was advocating to a conference president to hire a gifted pastor—a woman. During that time this president helmed one of the few conferences to hire women in ministry. His response? “I have fulfilled my quota. We can’t be the only ones hiring women.” What a misguided thought that led to a missed opportunity! Similarly, I recently expressed my disappointment to another leader who has always championed women in ministry, yet could not name a single female pastor he hired while conference president! More recently, I listened to an Adventist historical scholar lecturing about his book detailing the trajectory of Adventism from a church founded in part through the visions of a prophetess to one where women became treated as second class citizens. He emphatically outlined the ways in which women were marginalized in the decades immediately following Ellen White’s death and how the church systemically absorbed the misogynistic moorings of the times. It was clear how much he cared about women’s rights! Right? During the course of his presentation, he remarked on the inequalities that still remain. He shared an anecdote of having a conversation with a denominational leader who revealed that he beat his wife. The presenter treated the story as an aside. Later, during the Q&A time, he was pointedly asked if he actually did anything in light of the church leader’s admission of abuse. He admitted that his only reaction was to reply that he didn’t beat his own wife. When pressed about his inaction, he stated that he declined to do much else because he felt “there were bigger fish to fry.” The comment section erupted at the absurdity of this notion and how contradictory such a statement was with the idea that women deserve equal dignity. Some felt that the discussion was becoming “sidetracked” by focusing on this individual woman. But honestly, isn’t the treatment of individual women the entire point of equality?
When it comes to injustice, we like to turn a blind eye to our own complicit behaviors. It’s less uncomfortable to point out the glaring atrocities committed around the globe. It’s easy to point out the problematic ways that Islamic extremism harms women and ignore the way Christian extremism does. While we may not impose burkas, we are more subtle in our messages of shame, sexualization, and objectification. Thankfully some pastors like Bruce Brewer are willing to acknowledge and change that. But there is always pushback against removing the beams in our own eyes.
Again, let’s be clear that there’s no comparison between being required to wear a one piece at summer camp and being beaten for not wearing a burka. That would be ridiculous. At the same time, our goal isn’t to be “not as bad as.” That low bar is nothing to aspire towards. Equality is not measured merely by clothing options. Our objective should be to work towards an ideal. Christ treated women with dignity (Mark 5:25-34; Luke 10:38-42). He allowed women in spaces others didn’t (Luke 8:1-3; John 12). Both men and women were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27; 5:2). And both men and women are equally endowed with the Holy Spirit (Act 2:17; Joel 2:28). If we believe these things, that’s what we need to promote. While advocating for women facing extreme oppression in other countries, let’s also examine how we can further champion equality where we are. We can and should do both.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and President of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found by clicking here.
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.