Thursday, January 12, 2012

When Right to Religious Freedom Clashes With Other Rights

The rights to religious freedom often clash with various types of human rights. The most obvious example of this in the United States is Wisconsin v. Yoder, about whether compulsory education should be applied to the children of the Amish, a religious sect which did not desire such an education to their children:
Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972), is the case in which the United States Supreme Court found that Amish children could not be placed under compulsory education past 8th grade, as it violated their parents' fundamental right to freedom of religion.
The partly dissenting opinion in this case notes the potential clash in rights though does not frame it quite in those terms:
On this important and vital matter of education, I think the children should be entitled to be heard. While the parents, absent dissent, normally speak for the entire family, the education of the child is a matter on which the child will often have decided views. He may want to be a pianist or an astronaut or an oceanographer. To do so he will have to break from the Amish tradition. It is the future of the students, not the future of the parents, that is imperiled by today's decision. If a parent keeps his child out of school beyond the grade school, then the child will be forever barred from entry into the new and amazing world of diversity that we have today.
More recent examples of religious and other rights clashing include the cases (in Brooklyn, US but mostly in Israel) where certain religious sects demand the segregation of sexes inside buses and trains, even if not all the passengers in those vehicles follow the same religious interpretations. In practice this means that women are asked to move to the back of the bus.

The back-of-the-bus cases differ from the Amish court case in a very important respect, however. The latter happen at the fringes, in those places where members of a religious group and outsiders are bound to meet, and thus the disputes apply to the question whether outsiders should change their behavior in order to satisfy the religious norms of a particular group. Including their views about women.

In Israel these clashes are with the ultra-Orthodox community. Examples:
But there were no female speakers at the Puah Institute for Fertility and Medicine According to Halacha’s 12th-annual “Innovations in Gynecology, Obstetrics and Jewish Law”conference Wednesday in Jerusalem – there were only 13 rabbis and eight male physicians or PhDs on the podium during the daylong gathering.

Despite the brouhaha raised during the past week in the general media over its “exclusion of women,” and the counterattacks by the haredi world, there were no secular or haredi journalists. But I (who am neither) was there to listen and cover the sessions, as I have been for the past decade.

The discussions, as always, included terminology such as ejaculation and male orgasm, as well as other subjects that would have caused haredi men to blush even without the presence of women, and which are routinely censored in the haredi media. And as with the previous conferences, there was an equal number of women and men (more than 1,000 in all) – separated by cloth-covered dividers – in attendance, and closed-circuit TV screens showing the speakers.

Although nothing had really changed, the audience had more haredim in black kippot, and fewer national religious men in crocheted kippot. And there was tension in the air – resulting from Kadima MK (and gynecologist) Rachel Adatto’s objection last week to Puah’s policy of not allowing women experts to address the crowd.

And the case about ultra-Orthodox taunting and spitting at merely Orthodox schoolgirls:
The spectacle of haredi -- that is, ultra-Orthodox -- thugs spitting on Naama Margolis, an 8-year-old schoolgirl in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh has exacerbated the already frayed relations between the fundamentalist religious sector of the Jewish community, in Israel and elsewhere, and the rest of us, that is, Conservative, Reform, Modern Orthodox and secular Jews.

The Beit Shemesh incident was triggered not only by the zealots' belief that the child, a religious girl from an observant family, was immodestly dressed -- she was wearing a regulation school uniform -- but by their conviction that they have the right to physically and verbally abuse women and girls of whose attire, demeanor or behavior they disapprove.

Another haredi paragon, one Shlomo Fuchs, recently called Doron Matalon, a female Israeli soldier returning to her base, a "slut" on a public bus in Jerusalem. When the soldier pointed out accurately that she protects him and his way of life, Fuchs responded by saying, "She protects me? I sit at shul from eight in the morning till midnight and study, and she's protecting me? I protect her."

Isn't it interesting how very similar the views about women are among all the extremist groups within the three large Abrahamic religions? They amount to an almost-eradication of women. That is done to keep men pure, though the onus for that is completely on women.

But when it comes to how women dress or behave, no amount of modesty will ultimately keep some men from having sexual thoughts. If all women cover their arms and upper legs, then it is the women's ankles which are seen as arousing. If the ankles are covered, it will be the hands or wrists. If those are covered, it will be the faces. Finally, even just the eyes showing may be too much for some men.

That conference example, with the women sitting behind a screen, also reminded me of one of the experiences of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an American suffragist:
The seed for the first Woman's Rights Convention was planted in 1840, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Lucretia Mott at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, the conference that refused to seat Mott and other women delegates from America because of their sex. Stanton, the young bride of an antislavery agent, and Mott, a Quaker preacher and veteran of reform, talked then of calling a convention to address the condition of women. Eight years later, it came about as a spontaneous event.
I predict that we will see more clashes between the right to religious freedom and women's rights in the future, but also clashes which involve other types of human rights and religious rights. Now might be a good time to think about what is at stake.