By Meg McEwen
“Our rights spring from our own human dignity. This is profound, and this is why we can fight unjust laws. This is the reason we can fight governments,” Lou Ann Sabatier explained to the small crowd of NeW women at the brunch in D.C. this past Saturday.
It is easy to get lost in the noise of media, to become numb to the countless stories of bombings, hostages, sex trafficking, and abuse, but Sabatier made the realities of religious persecution feel much more real to all of us that brisk morning.
Sabatier brought with her a with a vivid poster of a woman, one of many women who endured brutal persecution and exile for the sake of the gospel. Like many, the woman in the photo had been driven from her home and persecuted by the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram. She shared with us how Christian women clung to their faith in the midst of unspeakable evil. Another woman, Gloria, was raped in front of her own children and blinded by her rapists. She survived and continued to minister to hundreds of other people and orphans. Doctors restored her eyesight in the United States.
“Christian women in communities under pressure for their faith face many forms of discrimination and violence,” Sabatier explained. Many women encounter discrimination for their beliefs, ranging from limitations placed on dress and movement, employment and legal discrimination, false charges, reprisals for conversion, sexual harassment, forced marriage, kidnapping, rape, and other forms of sexual violence.
Sabatier spoke with a passion that only increased as she shared more stories, driving her ultimate point home: countries that have robust religious freedom also maintain robust protection for women.
“Islamist extremists are also targeting wives and daughters as a way of intimidating and demoralizing Christian pastors, many of whom are male, in areas of religious conflict,” said Sabatier, explaining how the extremists leverage women against their own families for their faith.
At the brunch, I learned about a major misconception regarding international religious freedom: the idea that religious freedom protects the religion, not the person. Sabatier believes that religious rights ultimately protect the rights-holder, the person. For this reason, such rights are so essential to the protection of women’s rights in nations around the world. “Our rights spring from our own human dignity. This is profound, and this is why we can fight unjust laws, and this is the reason we can fight governments,” says Sabatier.
At the end of her speech, Sabatier proposed the development of a balancing test, adopted by the international community, wherein “a person’s sincerely-held religious beliefs are balanced against the compelling interests of nations to protect human rights.” She maintained that it should be done delicately, with minimal government interference, but with complete intolerance for non-state actors that violate the rights of women. For example, Google Earth has already identified many of the camps where women are being held hostage, as sex slaves – yet the Nigeria government has yet to make a move.
I felt a profound contrast between the situation of those brave women and my own circumstances at the end of Sabatier’s message. I sat in a crowded upscale restaurant in the nation’s capital, munching on delicious blueberry pancakes. I drove to the restaurant in my own car. Many women cannot enjoy even the simplest of freedoms that I take for granted almost hourly. I realized how lucky I am to live in a country that protects both religious freedoms and freedoms of individuals. I’m grateful for the opportunity to hear about the stories of those brave women through Sabatier because it reminded me to pray for the persecuted and to respect the value of religious freedom. I’m excited for the opportunity to discuss such issues with other like-minded women through NeW.