We live in an historic age in which women’s rights are gaining unprecedented traction. But as we approach the tipping point of global change, so are the extremist forces that oppose it. As millions promote women’s liberty around the world, too often the critical factor of religious freedom is overlooked in our conversation about gender empowerment.
Over the years, I have become passionate about religious freedom and its impact on women’s rights. My exposure to religious freedom was birthed in many ways while growing up in a home with an Iranian Muslim father and an American Christian mother.
While the faiths share some things in common, I learned early on that Christianity and Islam are not the same ideologically, theologically, or politically. There are enormous differences at their respective cores. This led to some tensions in my home life. But it was not all negative.
My mother passed away from cancer when I was 14, so her spiritual role in my life was limited. Even though my father was a practicing Muslim, he never pressured me to follow his faith as he did. In fact, he encouraged me to think for myself, explore new ideas, play sports, travel abroad, and determine my own spiritual path. The religious freedom he allowed me became a conduit to uncover my personal faith, talents, vocation, and calling to help empower marginalized women.
From my father, I also learned that people of faith cannot force the next generation to believe as they do. Rather, they must allow their daughters and sons to explore different perspectives outside their circle of influence. And trust that one’s personal relationship with God will guide the results.
Some may say I’m a living oxymoron. I see my heritage as a call to build peace and bridges of understanding. As both religions occupy my personal life, I have come to recognize they have a global influence in our world today. Christians and Muslims must learn to live among each other and live justly.
However, extremist ideologies and hardline dictatorships are on the rise, and many around the world are losing their freedom of religion. As respect for a diversity of ideas, values, religious beliefs and practices vanish, women suffer.
Why is religious freedom good for women’s empowerment?
Studies show that women have more rights and freedoms in communities that uphold religious liberty. “When you have religious freedom, you have a diversity of both viewpoints and how religion is interpreted, which allows for a greater examination of women’s role in society,” a colleague of mine, Brian Grim says. “That means there are greater freedoms and choices for women when there is religious freedom.”
Brian Grim, president of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, and associate of Berkeley Center (Religion, Peace and World Affairs), published an analysis of the correlation. Grim’s data was derived from the most recent Pew Research Center studies and statistics from the United Nations. Grim says he analyzed data on religious freedom and gender equality from both the Pew Research Center and the United Nations. He contends that there is a direct correlation between women’s empowerment and religious freedom.
The bottom line: Women’s empowerment cannot occur without religious freedom. Women around the world must be able to choose their own faith perspective. Religion cannot be handed down to them by male-dominated communities. A woman’s choice regarding religion (and its practices) will be one of the greatest factors that impacts her personal peace and freedom.
“You can have freedom of speech, but if you don’t have religious freedom, that’s only a halfway measure. In the same way, you can’t really have freedom of religion and not have freedom of speech. You have to have the whole package to make all of the freedoms work,” Grim said.
In response to the studies that have found that religious freedom empowers women, the network I direct, Middle East Women’s Leadership Network (MEWLN), and the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation (RFBF) are partnering to launch the Religious Freedom Film Competition.
In our age of media, we believe the important message of women’s rights connection to religious freedom must be shared as widely as possible. Furthermore, we believe we must create visual narratives which encourage indigenous leaders to advance the legal principals of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief for every person without distinction.
The goal of the film competition is to challenge women filmmakers around the world to create short films that showcase how religious freedom leads to innovation, peace, security, entrepreneurship, and human flourishing in communities.
The competition deadline is November 2017, with the grand prize winner receiving $5,000 and a trip to present her work at the 2018 Global Business & Interfaith Peace Awards in Seoul, South Korea, on March 8, 2018.
Strategically, these short films will express that a commitment to religious freedom and interfaith understanding can fulfill the U.N.’s Strategic Development Goal 16: “Promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”
My father passed away recently. I miss my relationship with him. He made the long trek from Tehran each year to visit my family in Los Angeles. He impacted my life in many ways, but mostly I am grateful that he allowed me to choose my own religious identity, from which many of my personal freedoms and life accomplishments flow. I hope the same for the next generation.