ArticlesVolume 12, Number 1 (2003)

Countenancing the Oppression of Women: How Liberals Tolerate Religious and Cultural Practices That Discriminate Against Women


For centuries, arguments based on religion and culture have been used to justify and perpetuate both sex and race discrimination. In the American South in the nineteenth century, white slave owners justified their right to subjugate the black race based on religious precepts. All major religions in the world have historically supported and justified slavery. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism relied on the Old Testament for the justification of slavery. Most recently, the white minority in South Africa justified its apartheid regime as embodying its divinely ordained supremacy over black Africans. However, notwithstanding the deep religious origins of slavery, these days religion is no longer perceived as a justification for either slavery or for racism in general, and religious and cultural precepts can no longer be used to circumvent criticism and condemnation of racism.

While there seems to be widespread agreement that religious and cultural norms can no longer serve as justifications for discrimination of racial, ethnic, or religious groups, religious and cultural norms continue to be the most prevalent and widely-accepted justifications for discrimination on the basis of sex. Though most countries around the world allegedly espouse equality between the sexes, and this notion is incorporated both in international and national laws, simultaneously there is widespread acceptance of the notion that groups have the right to maintain religious and cultural norms that discriminate against women.