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Why religious organisations should not be exempt from gender discrimination

Stop Forced Child Marriage

Written By: Ben Thomson 9/8/15

Nicola Sturgeon, has renewed her campaign for gender diversity and the rights for equal opportunities for women. She is right to push equal opportunities for women but if we are to have better diversity and fairer treatment of women in society we need to address the elephant in the room: sexual discrimination in religion.

Religious organisations are exempt from gender discrimination. Schedule 9 of the Equality Act 2010 states that there is an exception for sex discrimination if the employment is for the purposes of an organised religion. If we, and in particular the First Minister and her Government, are truly committed to gender diversity should we not be addressing it at every level of society, including religion?

Perhaps religious gender discrimination is such a blatant exemption in law and has existed for so long that we tend to ignore it. It is far easier to focus on quotas for women on public boards or the number of female chief executives. Even in churches that have accepted that gender discrimination is untenable in the long term still cling to inequality. For instance, the Anglican church will allow women bishops but can’t quite bring itself to allow women Archbishops; where is the logic in that?

The main religions practised in the UK all to some extent discriminate on the basis of gender and it is time we stopped supporting this exemption in our legislation.

The existence of women as religious leaders will help to integrate the culture of these organisations into the ethics of our culture in the UK. Proper gender diversity in religion would quickly change the more obvious practices that are alien to our culture such as genital mutilation or forced marriages and help integrate our society around shared values. It would also help change more general attitudes towards a woman’s place in the family, in work and in society.

Female discrimination in religious organisations goes to the heart of how as a society we value women and, in turn, how women are treated not just in religious affairs but in daily life. There are plenty of examples of how this attitude permeates throughout society but two are enough to illustrate the point.

If there was greater gender diversity in the Catholic church then the management and extent of paedophilia by those in positions of authority within the church would not have been as widespread. There has been a systemic problem with the abuse of children within the church that the last decade has uncovered. Having women as priests and bishops in the church would not have eliminated this problem but the extent would have been less if management of the church had a proper gender balance. In addition, the response to problems when they arise would have been very different and less likely to have been swept under the carpet.

The second example is the sexual grooming of young women in the Midlands by Muslim men. The attitude towards women created by a lack of authority of women in Islam creates a culture that it is all right for men to treat women not as equals and for them, to some extent, to justify their actions. In both the examples the end victims are not necessarily members of the religion but it is the lack of women as part of the leadership in religion that leads to wider problems in society.

If, over the long term, we are going to address the problems of fundamentalism then as part of the solution we need to create better diversity including removing the exemptions in our law that create sexual discrimination in our religions. We need to convince all in our society, regardless of how strong their religious beliefs are, that gender equality should be part of every part of our culture. If want to assimilate Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and the many other religions into our society then, whilst accepting and celebrating their differences, they should also accept that there is a set of ethics that includes prohibiting gender discrimination that should form the basis of every part of our society, including religion.

It would be nice to think that diversity will be so much part of our fundamental values as a society that the next generation won’t even think consciously about diversity when putting together a team of people; it will be second nature to them.

However, if we are to reach this point we must openly tackle the ingrained barriers to equal opportunities. Therefore, whilst admiring the First Minister for pushing the diversity agenda, she and other politicians should be much bolder and, in particular, lead the fight to remove the gender exceptions for religion in our legislation.

Source: Herald Scotland

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