U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) hosted Women in FoRB: Making a Difference

“Bridgebuilders and Peacemakers” – Women in Freedom of Religion or Belief Sound the “Never-Silent Bell”

Adam, according to Genesis, was made of the dust of the earth. Not so Eve. Adam’s better half was fashioned from one of his ribs—from bone.

The Rabbis remind us that if you put dust into boiling water, it does nothing, remaining silent and motionless. But put a bone in the same pot, and it will crackle. Thus, the women who never stay quiet, who sound the alarm, who first cry out the warning that things are not as they should be. This is why, according to legend, Adam, upon waking and beholding his future wife, exclaimed, “This is my never-silent bell!”

Then, now and all the centuries in between, women have taken on Adam’s welcome as a challenge and a duty. Through the ages as never-silent bells—from Harriet Tubman to Eleanor Roosevelt—they have raised their voices in defense of—and in demand for—human rights and religious freedom.

Earlier this year, a group of women gathered to sound that bell—to speak, discuss and urge under the sponsorship of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Moderated by USCIRF commissioner Susie Gelman, the event was titled “Women in Freedom of Religion or Belief: Making a Difference.”

Ms. Gelman opened the panel by bringing up two points: the prevalence of discriminatory laws against women across the globe, including the restriction of education, employment, healthcare and political participation, often with religion as the justification, and the fact that women comprise over half of the world’s population, so this is not a “minority” issue. Authoritarian governments understand women’s inherent power and influence—and, therefore, the threat that women present to their consolidation of power. Consequently, under the pretext of “protecting” women in the name of religion, such governments often infantilize them and usurp their autonomy. It’s not protective, Ms. Gelman explained. It is sexist, paternalistic and unlawful.

If these two points are included in the world conversation, then progress can be made in freedom of religion and belief.

Elizabeth Lane Miller, the Chief Research Officer of the Gender and Religious Freedom global network, weighed in, suggesting two possible gambits to make the egregiousness and near ubiquitousness of religious abuse of women real to the listener. The first is for women to tell their stories. Stories cut through our tendency to deny and not listen. The second is to take action to fight against the ripples of religious persecution, no matter where and no matter who or what the target is.

Rushan Abbas, founder and Executive Director of the Campaign for Uyghurs, agreed. “All of us have our stories,” she said.

And the panelists told their stories.

Director of Outreach of the Multi-Faith Neighbor’s Network, Hurunnessa Fariad, is a hijab-wearing Muslim. Citing her diminutive stature, she spoke of the palpable tension she nevertheless feels when she boards a plane. To lighten the atmosphere, she speaks loudly in English to a crew member, a passenger helping her, to anyone. Ms. Fariad says she can feel the tension deflate, which makes her feel safer. Then, she sits in the middle of the aircraft, never at the back. That way, she’s always visible, never hidden, just in case “something” happens. Reminding her fellow panelists and audience that Muhammed protected Jewish people’s rights in Medina, she learned to follow the Prophet’s example and advocate for other faiths, not just her own. “It’s in human nature to be able to say, ‘Well, what’s happening to these people is wrong,’” she said.

UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Nazila Ghanea, appearing by video, said that women are often under surveillance, silenced and policed in their own communities, supposedly in the name of religion. Yet for women, Freedom of Religion or Belief, she says, “entails the rights to be able to debate, to understand, to exchange religious belief, to be able to interpret religion or belief and choose how to manifest their own conscience, their own understanding of what that belonging means. Women and girls, she added, “are the bridge builders of the community in many instances. They are the peacemakers.”

Tschika McBean Okosi, Human Rights Officer for the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Relations, picked up on Ms. Ghanea’s point and referred to the Baha’i sacred texts. “There are [Baha’i] scriptures that speak to the importance of women in building justice and peace within the world,” she said. “The most important aspect of ensuring universal peace and international arbitration is the inclusion of wƒomen.” In Iran last October, she said, 15 Ba’hai women were sentenced to a collective 83 years in prison for the crime of being Baha’is. Another Baha’i woman was taken from her toddler and sentenced to five years for inquiring as to the whereabouts of her mother’s remains.

In 2018, Rushan Abbas detailed China’s persecution of the Uyghurs in a public forum. Six days later, her sister and one of her aunts disappeared from their homes in northwest China—in what Abbas believes was retaliation for her exercising her freedom of speech. “Wanting to practice one’s religion is not extremism,” she said. “It is a basic human right. The pursuit of women’s rights requires courage and commitment. This is a fight between right and wrong, good and evil. The conscience of the world is being tested.”

Abas then addressed her fellow panelists directly. “You all have the ways, you all have different platforms, organizations, so please try to speak out. Because if we don’t speak out now, then the only voice that will be left to speak is one of regret.”

Adam counted on Eve to speak out as his never-silent bell. The Women in Freedom of Religion or Belief forum continues that tradition.