02/07/2013 09:19 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

Women and Men

'Our religion, laws, customs, are all founded on the belief that woman was made for man.' - Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Letter to Susan B. Anthony, [June 14, 1860].

It was wonderful news for women when the French arrived in late January to drive out the Islamists who had been imposing Sharia law on the residents of Timbuktu, Mali. Rukmini Callimachi of the Associated Press described the elation of Hawi Traore, a 12-year-old girl. When the Islamists left her hometown she "folded up her veil and tied on a vibrantly colored wraparound dress. The next day she wore heels. The day after she got her hair braided and slipped on sparkly earrings." Those were all things that had been banned by the extreme Islamists who took over the city a year earlier. Hawi still has a scar on her arm where she had been whipped by the Islamic police for not properly covering herself. A leaflet found in the dirt in front of the building that had been the Islamic Tribunal's headquarters described the rules drafted by the men that told women how they should wear the prescribed veil. Among other things, it said the entire body had to be covered, the veil could not be transparent and it had to be colorless. The rules were drafted by men who alone can interpret for women how the deity, to whom they all owe allegiance, believes women should behave. It is further useful since these men know that women being women cannot decide those things for themselves.

Hawi's story was especially noteworthy because it was told the same week that the Obama administration proposed a new set of rules dealing with the health care law. The new rules that were proposed were to address the fact that under Obamacare, insurance coverage for contraception is required to be provided by health insurance plans. The Roman Catholic Church, an organization ruled exclusively by men, believes that women should not use contraception and therefore does not want that coverage to be included in insurance plans for which they pay. That coverage would have the undesirable result of giving their female employees affordable and ready access to contraception.

It is not only the Catholics who object to providing contraceptive coverage for women. Certain other religious institutions, as well as employers who are not religious institutions but personally do not favor contraception, want to exercise control over the lives of the women who work for them by denying them contraceptive coverage in the government mandated insurance plans required to be carried by those employers. In an effort to meet those concerns the Obama administration has twice before issued regulations to address those who believe that for religious reasons (like the Islamists) they should be permitted to impose their view on women who work for them or belong to their churches. Those regulations did not satisfy those wishing to control women's access to contraception.

In announcing the third set of regulations, Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, said the new proposal would insure that women could have free birth control while "respecting religious concerns." Commenting on the new proposal, Kyle Duncan, a man and the general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, said the new rule "does nothing to protect the religious freedom of millions of Americans." The religious freedom to which he refers does not include the freedom for women to obtain comprehensive health care coverage. A woman who is denied access to contraception for whatever reason must be very careful when having sex, avoid the act altogether or face the risk that she will conceive and give birth to a child she did not want nor plan to have. That is not the same as being whipped for not properly wearing a veil.

Of course, men ruling women is not restricted to health care coverage when it comes to the Vatican. Reports early this year disclosed that the Vatican had begun a crackdown on uppity women in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an organization for nuns that represents about 80 per cent of the 57,000 nuns in the United States. The Vatican's "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" (CDF), a group comprising only men, concluded, after a two year investigation, that the nuns "focused their efforts on serving the poor and disenfranchised, while remaining virtually silent on issues the church [men] considers great societal evils: abortion and same-sex marriage." According to the CDF, the nuns also never revoked a 1977 position statement that questioned the male-only priesthood. (A BBC report in 2007 said that in Morocco women preachers known as The Mourchidat are now permitted to perform the functions of male Imams except for leading prayers. The Pope would not approve.) In order to help the women correct their transgressions the Vatican has appointed a group of men who will review the women's transgressions and will revise the statutes governing their organization and vet the speakers and publications put out by the women. The women could probably do it by themselves except for the fact that they are women.

Hawi was thrilled when she could fold up her veil and tie on a colored wraparound dress. If men would quit telling women in the United States what they can do in their personal lives, they would be as excited as Hawi -- for good reason. Christopher Brauchli can be emailed at For political commentary see his web page at