When extremists bomb houses of worship, who are in those churches and schools? Women and girls.
Social science tells us that women are more religious than men, by almost any benchmark and study. Whether you measure belief in God, belief in a supreme being, attendance at religious services, personal prayer and religious practices, teaching religious values to children, raising a family within a faith tradition—by any of these benchmarks, women consistently, across time and cultures, rank as more religious than men. These results are so consistent and accepted that academic debates now tend to focus no longer on whether they are more religious but on why this is the case.
Because women are more religious than men, religious repression, persecution and violence affect women most. When churches are bombed, who are hurt and killed? Women. When people are forced to flee religious persecution as refugees and internally displaced persons, who are those refugees and I.D.P.’s? Predominantly women and their children.
When religious organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Internationalis find their work curtailed or banned because of their religious affiliation, who are hurt most? The women who make up most of the bottom billion of the world’s impoverished, who rely on the activities of those religious organizations. Seventy percent of these billion are women and girls. Seventy percent of the youth not in school are women and girls. Girls are three times more likely to be malnourished. When faith-based organizations are curtailed in their service work, women and girls are harmed. Women are the primary victims of violations of religious freedom.
Women are also on the front lines of those responding to violations of religious freedom. Women lead nongovernmental organizations, women like Carolyn Woo, the president of Catholic Relief Services and a former refugee herself. Women refugees advocate for other refugees; women teachers and health care workers report violations and work with victims; women lawyers take up the cases in international venues.
But the female face of faith is often not seen. When victims of religious persecution or violence are counted, they are counted as Christians or Muslims, civilians versus security forces. Women are not counted because, in too many parts of the world, women simply do not count as fully human.
Oct. 27 is International Religious Freedom Day. A recent conference sponsored by the Institute of Policy Research at Catholic University, and recent reports, document a rising trend of religious repression. Seventy-five percent of the world’s population live in countries with high restrictions on religion. Yet none of the otherwise excellent annual reports on religious freedom mention the female face of faith.
This is problematic. We cannot effectively protect religious freedom unless we understand who are the most vulnerable groups. Groups concerned with religious liberty and groups focused on women’s issues typically do not work together. Domestically, their common cause is lost in the debates over how to implement the Affordable Care Act.
But the larger context is lost. Internationally, the war on religious freedom and the war on women are the same war. When religious freedom is violated, women suffer, because women are more religious.
To protect religious freedom internationally, we must see the female face of faith and work accordingly to build unlikely alliances across religious, political, gender and bureaucratic divides.
The Catholic moral and religious imagination help us. Jesus is our model, reaching out to build bridges among unlikely allies, prostitutes, tax collectors, gentiles and foreigners. In our sacraments of Communion and reconciliation, our beliefs in a relational, triune, resurrected God and our institutional structures that seek to make real these relationships of local and global church, the body of Christ, in Catholic social teaching about protection of human life and dignity and preference for the poor, we regularly exercise moral muscles for the common good, a moral imagination the world needs to protect religious freedom and save lives and human dignity.