Martha Nussbaum Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Women's Rights, Religious Freedom, and Liberal Education: Conversation with Martha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Professor of Law and Ethics, University of Chicago; September 14, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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The Role of Religion

In your work in India you come up against the importance of religion as a defining feature of the environment that makes implementation of some goals difficult, if not impossible. Talk about the insights you developed about religion and the way one had to lay out the conflict between religious rights and this new agenda of women's rights.

I think it's obvious that traditional religions have given women a second class status in pretty much every case, and it's only very recently that you have reform movements within all the major religions that are trying to give women a more equal status. I guess it's a cliché of feminism that religion is per se bad for women; I don't actually believe that. As religion was a source for social justice in our civil rights movement, I think it can also be a source of energy for feminists, and it has been. But religion is a part of culture, and all traditional cultures have been sexist, and so all traditional religions have been sexist. What one has to ask is how far do we make concessions to people who maintain sexist practices just because they cite a religious basis?

That was the question that I posed in the book. I think there are two extremes that you can go to. One extreme would be to say, well, we don't pay any attention to the fact that it's religion, it doesn't make any difference to us at all. I think that's wrong. Our knowledge of religious persecution is such that we see that people very often are too inattentive to religious claims, even when the stakes don't seem to be high for public order and other people's rights. So, for example, work days: people will work on Saturday but they won't work on Sunday, and if somebody has a religious reason for not working on Saturday they often have great difficulty maintaining a job, getting unemployment compensation, and so on. In those cases, the religious reason should be taken very seriously. I also think when somebody doesn't want to do military service because of religious reasons that should be taken seriously.

These claims are often very deep in people's lives and they should be listened to. In India, for example, the drug laws are routinely suspended for the religious holiday of Holi because you are supposed to use marijuana and hashish on Holi. It's easy to do that because Hinduism is the majority religion, but if it was a minority -- the Native Americans have had this problem in the U.S. -- well, you can bet people would say, "Oh, drugs, this is really terrible." So, these religious claims, wherever the rights of others and public order and safety are not at stake, should be taken very seriously.

The other extreme, however, is to say that religion always trumps other concerns. What I try to argue in the book is that a certain threshold level of these ten capabilities on my list is essential for a life with human dignity. I've successfully argued that we certainly don't think it's a decent society unless people are allowed to have all of those, because that's not a life with human dignity. Well, then I would say those ten, if the argument has been well made, trump religious reasons.

For example, any practice of child marriage which is a great offense to women's education, to their bodily integrity, and so on, would be ruled out by that kind of principle. On the other hand, a woman chooses to wear a veil, well, then the issue of choice becomes very complex and we start having to ask about parents' rights over their children. But up to a point, I think that one can defend that practice so long as there are sufficient guarantees of education, employment options, property rights, and exit options from that religion. Those are the things that make it a choice if a woman is going to have a life of veiling.

This is the way I think about it, that you look at the overall menu of the opportunities that the woman has, and if she really has the ten capabilities on my list [but] she leads a life that we don't like (because we think it's too authoritarian, she submits herself to an authoritarian religion, an authoritarian relationship), well, if the political situation that she lives in has really provided her with those ten capabilities, which would include primary and secondary education, political rights and liberties, healthcare, and so on, then I think that's her choice.

Of course, some people do choose to serve in an authoritarian group like the military and we don't think that people who choose to be career military people are always not choosing, although of course there too there's an issue of economic constraint. If they're constrained into that life because they don't have any other options, that's bad. But if they choose that life, then that's not so bad. That's the way I think about it, and what I see in India is that that's basically what the women's movement is working for. They do not want to portray themselves as hostile to Hinduism or to Islam, but in fact women are working within these religions to achieve changes.

Hindu women in India, this year, just succeeded in reforming the unequal property laws so that women have equal shares in agricultural land. This was a big deal, and it really is highly correlated with other rights and opportunities. So, those are the sorts of things that they're working for, but they don't say that we have to junk Hinduism. They just reformed the Hindu property law.

The difficulty doing this is that male clerics play a big role in society, as in every country, and so, for example, Christian women in India got the right to divorce on the grounds of cruelty only in the year 2001 because the different kinds of Catholic priests and Protestant ministers resisted change for many years. When they decided change might be good, then they had to all get together and agree on some formulation. The Protestants and the Catholics and the ones from Portugal and the ones originally from some other place all had to get together. It took a long time, and it's ridiculous. Actually, Christian rights of women have been particularly slow because they come from so many different religions and so many different origins.

Muslim women had that right earlier, but the Muslim women have a similar problem which is that there's a thing called the Muslim Personal Law Board which is a bunch of unelected, self-perpetuating male clerics who decide what the rules should be, and because they're not accountable they don't listen enough to the voices of women.

So, there are these struggles in every religion, and then of course after that, they have to persuade parliament to pass the right reform law and that takes another five years, and so on. So, there are these problems, but I think one should not say, and I don't see women saying, that we want to just junk religion per se.

You're raising some interesting points, and there are two insights that I found in your discussion of religion that I think are useful in other areas. One is the role of power, which you were just talking about, but also the inability or incapacity to see diversity of thinking within a religion. The two of these together can further the possibility of change, which is important as we deal with religions that we don't understand in our involvement in [other cultures].

Oh, yes. When Americans look abroad they often talk about traditions, or the Indian tradition. Now very often it's absurd to even use the phrase "the Indian tradition" -- it makes no sense at all because it's such a heterogeneous country, with 350 languages and so many different regional cultures and so many different religions, not just Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity but also there're Parsees, there are Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains. And within each of these we have diversity.

Often I think people think it's a good, pluralistic thing to do to say, "It's their tradition so we mustn't criticize it." But often what that means is you're just conceding that the voices of the currently powerful men should rule, and you're not even listening to the voices of women who probably haven't learned to read and write and therefore they're not recorded as part of the dominant tradition.

Interestingly, this is what the British did when they were ruling over India. When native Indian reformers said, "We don't want child marriage anymore," the British judges said, "Oh, but it's the Hindu tradition." Of course, they were deferring to the powerful men in the community. Why were they doing that? Because they had the shrewd idea that if you give them control over women, then they might be less antsy about rebelling against the British. The man who can be a king in his house is less likely to notice that he's not a king in the rest of the world. So, the British played up cultural relativism as a tool of their own power.

That's an example we should think about, because Americans sometimes make similar errors out of naïveté. They think, well, the tradition of Hinduism is X, or the tradition of Islam, but all of these have had argument and debate for years. Islamic feminism in India has a very old history, and wonderful works and novels, and so on, written by women, and so too with Hindu feminism. Do you know the recent movie "Water" by Deepa Mehta?


Well, it's a movie made by a Canadian émigré who left India at the age of twenty, and it portrays Hinduism as monolithically terrible in its attitude toward widows. All widows have to go to this ashram and live a miserable life and only Gandhi could save them from this terrible life. Now in fact, starting in the nineteenth century already, women themselves were taking the lead in rebelling against the treatment of widows, there were conferences on widowhood, there were women who set up schools for widows. All of this is left out. I think any account of a culture needs to begin by listening to the voices of dissent within that and understanding that it's always a scene of contestation. What would you expect? The family is always a scene of contestation, as we know very well. Why should a tradition be any different? It isn't. It never is.

Next page: The Role of Law

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