Religion and culture are abused when they are employed illegitimately to justify the suppression of women and the denial of their equal humanity, human rights lawyer Chrie Booth argued yesterday in a lecture at Chatham House in London.
Ms Booth, who is married to former British prime minister Tony Blair, said that unequal gender treatment often arose from the partial interpretation of religious texts and traditions by predominantly male leaders.
“We have come a long way since enslavement but there are many societies where women are treated in almost every respect as men’s property,” Ms Booth declared.
She gave examples from Egypt, from some orthodox Jewish communities and from south Asia and Africa - but avoided Saudi Arabia, whose King Abdullah received a lavish welcome from the Queen and PM Gordon Brown on a state visit to Britain widely criticised by human rights activists, politicians and anti-arms trade campaigners.
The issue of gender equality is "a matter of simple justice or, to be unfashionably unapologetic about it, a matter of right and wrong", Ms Booth told her audience at the international affairs think-tank in London.
The event was also connected to the 50th anniversary of the BBC Radio 4 'Today' news programme, which Ms Booth was interviewed on in the morning.
"I believe our shared humanity prescribes equality and that any limitation based on this equality is a direct insult to our dignity," she declared. "It's about something as fundamental as a universal ethic that cuts across all cultures and all religions."
Ms Booth added: "It's an imperative for all of our shared humanity. Simply put, it's the right thing to do."
She also said that in some countries, "twin distortions of culture and religion" can perpetuate the view of women as "powerless beings dependent on men for protection, worth and status".
She cited separate and unequal divorce systems for men and women in Egypt, the situation in some orthodox Jewish communities where only men can initiate a divorce, and the treatment of widows as "second class citizens or the bearers of bad luck to the community" in some south Asian and African countries.
Asked if Britain should be officially welcoming King Abdullah, Ms Booth said: “I think we certainly should be engaging in a dialogue because there are plenty of people in Saudi Arabia who are interested in their country modernising and changing and they are the people who respond to a dialogue.”
She would not be drawn on the issue of a state visit, but talked about her own trip to the Saudi kingdom to advocate for women's rights in a public speech.
Regarding the contentious issue of the veil for women from Islamic traditions, she told the 'Today' programme: "I think we can get very hung up about women's clothes. The question is whether we honour people's religious beliefs or not. I am happy to honour people's religious beliefs, provided they are freely undertaken."
She went on: "Women covering their heads, women dressing modestly, I have no problem with at all. I think, however, that if you get to a stage where a woman is not able to express her personality because you can't see her face, then you do start to have to ask whether this is something that is actually acknowledging the woman's right to be a person in her own right."