03/08/2013 11:02 am ET Updated May 08, 2013

A Religious Take on International Women's Day

I sense a new tone of determination, sometimes an edge, in the annual outpourings of wishes and hopes that have come to mark March 8, International Women's Day. The occasion's socialist origins have rather receded in the mists of time and today this event is plainly about us, in the here and now. In the Facebook era, the day (and month, also, in theory dedicated to women's causes) offer both a chance to celebrate progress (with shades of Mother's Day) and to lament how far there is to go. There's an energy that's well reflected in the 2013 theme: "Gaining Momentum."

Outrageous attitudes toward relationships between men and women that surfaced during the 2012 U.S. elections galvanized women who had relaxed their activism on the assumption that such thinking was a thing of the past. Anne-Marie Slaughter's reflections on how managing the realities of life at work and home opened floodgates of debate as has the Yahoo brouhaha on telecommuting and Sheryl Sandberg's new book, "Lean In." The buzz around Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn's influential "Half the Sky," which highlights the challenges facing millions of women in poor communities, is helping to focus both attention and priority on women's strengths and vulnerabilities. Domestic violence is smack on the agenda, though the evidence that things are changing is still pretty thin.

Amid an avalanche of messages marking international women's day 2013, one that arrived early this morning in my inbox struck a special chord because of its honesty and because it offers some clear markers to help move forward. It came from the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists, a Chicago based organization headed by Tariq Cheema, and it focused less on celebratory comments and assertions than on some real challenges. Noting that problems go deeper than the rapes, honor killings and other horrors that dominate headlines, the statement went on: "There exist, however, more subtle and pervasive forms of gender bias in Muslim societies, such as the lack of understanding of women's basic legal and religious rights, the gaps in knowledge, and the lack of tools women need to improve their lives and empower themselves and their peers."

As to the way forward, here's their solid and sensible diagnosis and suggestion: "The WCMP asserts that a rational discussion will be effective only through a convergence of four key components: i) the discussion must be lead by Muslims themselves, ii) the religious dimension must be addressed upfront, iii) the diversity of cultural perspectives on gender must be acknowledged and accepted; and iv) the Muslim male must become enlightened on the religious as well as constitutional rights of women."

WCMP focuses on Muslim communities but the issues go well beyond and they focus on the many ways in which the gender challenges for 2013 have links to religious beliefs, teachings, and practice. These links are obvious (the sight of all male cardinals preparing for the Conclave in Rome is a constant visual reminder of what patriarchy looks like) and subtle. Ideas families and societies hold about girls, women and sexuality are certainly not all about religion. But neither can they be reasonably discussed without taking religion into account.

In this discussion surely it's important to probe beyond simplistic understandings. Many religious traditions cling to historic patterns where men ruled societies and households. At worst women were (and still are) chattel. This is not history. In many parts of the world women's obedience is not just prized -- it is demanded, and the consequences of infractions can be death. But some religious traditions came to an understanding of women's full equality far earlier than the society overall and their leaders and communities led campaigns for women's rights. Women inspired by their faith (and surveys suggest that women are often more deeply committed to their beliefs and living their faith than men) are leaders in many places. As Benedictine sister Joan Chittister commented: "Women are the boldest and most unmanageable of revolutionaries."

As we look beyond this day of rare focus and promises, we need to push our discussions of the religious dimensions of contemporary women's issues beyond the "safe" territory of politically correct language and bland assumptions. WCMP's suggestions offer an excellent framework. The conversations need to begin within each religious tradition, with purpose and care. They also need to extend beyond, to interfaith fora but also in the broader media, academic and policy worlds. The religious dimensions of gender issues need to be more directly acknowledged and tackled in general discussions about women's issues and rights. The complexities involved (the diverse nature of families, for example) call us to beware of pitfalls that presume a one size fits all culture and understanding of what equality means. And women's rights and roles are as much about men as they are about women and a respectful and very inclusive common conversation is the only way to move ahead.