International (MNN/ODM) – Open Doors joined some of the world’s top female leaders last week for the 63rd annual meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
Some of the main thrusts discussed by the 45 UN Member States who are members of the Commission: Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality, and the empowerment of women and girls.
Helene Fisher is the Open Doors expert around gender religious persecution. “One of the intersectionalities that are under-explored is where the freedom of religion or belief meets the infringements on women’s rights. At the Open Doors research unit, we have been exploring that and seeing the ways in which Christian women are, in particular, under pressure for their faith in hostile environments.”
Elevating the Voices of Our Sisters
Their latest report examines how the freedom of religion or belief empowers women. Women disproportionately suffer the effects of religious persecution. According to the 2019 Open Doors World Watch List, while men experience focused religious persecution that is severe and visible due to socioeconomic ostracism and brutal physical violence, women are doubly vulnerable.
“Religious persecution is gender-specific. The way men and women experience religious persecution is directly associated with their socio-culturally accepted gender identity and roles. Women have virtually no means legally or in society to stand up for themselves and fight against these human rights violations,” says David Curry, president, and CEO of Open Doors USA.
Fisher explains that in certain regions, women have a lower social ranking, less value, and their voice weighs less before the law. It means that changing this dynamic requires a societal shift as well as a legal approach.
As it stands, she says, “Out of a choice, for example, of two women that somebody might choose to assault, then they would choose the Christian woman or out of a choice of two Christians to assault, then they would choose the women as opposed to the men, because they can attack the women with impunity more so than the men.”
Twice the Victim
For these women, notes the Open Doors report, persecution is more violent, hidden and complex from sexual violence, forced marriage, and rape. Rape was common in 47 percent of the 50 countries surveyed among women who identified as Christian.
Even if a country has signed some kind of international treaty, how it is enforced within its context, she asks. “That is the interest for us, as a faith-based organization before the United Nations, to request that they actually implement these laws, they actually look at how they are handled in practice, and that they would recognize this intersectionality or double vulnerability.”
Rita, a Christian woman from the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh, is still suffering from the hidden wounds of persecution. She was 26 when Islamic State militants invaded and took her captive (she was one of the Iraqis who stayed and resolved to not leave her elderly father).
Over the course of four years, Rita’s abductors sold and bought her four times as a sex slave. She endured beatings, rape, mockery, intimidation, isolation, etc., before freedom came in 2017. Islamic State militants see Christian women as goods they can buy, sell and torture for disobedience, she said.
In 59 percent of the 50 countries surveyed, sexual assault is a characteristic of religious persecution. Christian women who do not dress like Muslim women (spotted by the lack of a hijab) can be subject to sexual harassment on the street.
Attackers who want to intentionally to dishonor Christian women and their community use sexual violence to do so. Women will bring shame upon their families if they fail to uphold high norms surrounding their sexuality. If a woman converts to Christianity, she is much more prone to sexual violence. Attackers often use rape is a deliberate form of punishment in reaction to conversion to Christianity.
Both men and woman face shaming or shunning equally as a means to dissuade them from their chosen faith. This is an especially powerful means of social pressure. The shame aspect in an honor/shame culture plays a role in how the body of Christ responds, too.
Fisher says it’s not just a governmental burden. ”We have a responsibility as well because, unfortunately, without meaning to, we can be implicit in granting immunity to perpetrators of these violent acts.”
She goes on to explain that by trying to protect the victim, sometimes Christians inadvertently end up protecting the person who has attacked her. ”We usually do this because we’re trying to protect the young woman after she’s been attacked. We are trying to hide what we would agree within society, has been a shameful attack on her, we’re trying to protect her reputation, but by doing so, we will not call out the person who has attacked her.”
Fisher adds that learning how to respond differently requires a paradigm shift, but notes that it already has the guidebook included. “At some level, it’s as simple as returning shame to the person who has carried out the act, as opposed to the shame being placed on the person who has been the victim of the act. We can look at that from a very biblical standpoint and explain why that is the case and why the shame resides with the person who has committed the act.”
A Paradigm Shift
How to be part of the solution? Acknowledging that many of these issues just aren’t on the forefront or in the headlines, she says, ”It’s always difficult to pray into situations that seem so foreign to us. We find it difficult to imagine what it would be like.”
However, Fisher encourages us to think about the challenging situations in our own lives and how that tests our own faith because the response is similar wherever there is a body of Christ. “It causes us to call out and say, ‘Lord, are you with me? Lord, do you see me? Lord, do you love me?’ We can pray that God would answer those prayers in any of the situations.”
She urges believers to stay informed on issues like these, and ask the following questions: ”What is happening to the Church in that country? What does that mean for my brothers and sisters in Christ?”
Then, adds Fisher, ask God to answer both of these and send someone to be their help. Maybe that will be you. “’Lord, how would You like me to be part of this solution? What is it You are calling me to do?’ I just look forward to seeing how God will speak to each person’s heart in answer to that prayer.”
Header photo courtesy United Nations/Ryan Brown