Religious gender biases are probably the oldest issue of inequality that women face.
Whether it’s the religious leadership roles that men vs. women have access to, or the implications that religion has for women – from how they must behave (be in submission to men), to control over their own bodies (abortion and contraception are a sin), to how they may think (suffer not a woman to teach; the man is the head of the wife) – religion remains one of the last (and strongest) defenders of sexism and dogmas which violate the principles of equality and social justice.
One has to ask: Why is this still tolerated?
Remember that in the name of religion, in the name of God, people have:
- Enslaved others.
- Kidnapped and castrated young boys to sing in choirs.
- Practised genital mutilation so brutal that millions of young girls have bled to death.
- Sacrificed slaves / prisoners of war to ensure victory, or to improve the harvest, or to avert natural catastrophes.
- Burned babies alive on altars.
- Devised, approved of, and implemented vicious tortures to extract confession.
- Stoned adulteresses.
- Brutally murdered witches, homosexuals, blasphemers, and heretics – after first torturing them near to death.
- Massacred whole communities of non-believers – Jews, Moslems, Animists, Christians of a schismatic belief, etc.
- Instituted violent crusades and religious wars against those defined as infidels and hence worthy of extinction.
We now identify these behaviours as perverse, cruel, and backwards – we no longer tolerate them as “sanctified” because some individual claims “my God told me so.”
Christian, Moslem, and Jewish believers no longer get to justify racism or enslavement of Africans because their God told them so, with the “Curse of Ham”, which condemned the biblical Ham’s descendants – conveniently identified as Africans – to servitude.
We draw a line and say, “A just society, a modern society, does not accept racism, or slavery, regardless of the religious justification provided.”
However, when it comes to sexism, we not only allow people to practice it in the name of their God, but we actually endorse it: Anti-discrimination laws in modern countries prohibit discrimination based on gender – but often with a special exemption for religion.
We do not grant any religion exemption from child abuse laws, from laws against racism, from laws against homicide. Yet, for some reason, we do not question exempting institutions from behaviours which exclude and marginalize women. As a result, one of the most fundamental rules of modern society – the equality of individuals – may be abridged by anyone claiming women to be inferior because “my God told me so”.
Why do we continue to accept this deplorable rationalization for abusive and backwards behaviour when we no longer accept it in any other area?
Even more importantly, why do we shrink from challenging religions teaching children that females are unequal and inferior creatures, indoctrinating them into misogynistic beliefs, perpetuating discrimination, while stealing from little girls their dignity, their equality, and their chance for a rich and fulfilling future?
Should any entity, just because it says “my God told me so”, be given Society’s permission to teach children that discrimination is a god-blessed activity?
Is that consistent with our beliefs in justice and equality? Don’t our children deserve better? Don’t they deserve the right to grow-up protected from prejudice, in a world free of discrimination, with the right to mature into their full potential, free of any arbitrary barriers to achieving it?
Next, how can full equality and religious faith be inconsistent? Are we not all equal in the eyes of our Creator?
Ahhh, yes, religion replies – we are all equal, but men and women are different, thus justifying different roles.
Let’s leave aside that “different” actually does not justify different roles – the very essence of humanity is our individuality – that one person is different from another tells you absolutely nothing about what they can and should do with their life.
Instead, let’s consider the source of “holy scripture”: What is the origin of these “God-defined roles” for male and female?
Patriarchy means that the recording of our Creator’s wishes has been entirely in the hands of … men.
And not even all men – just the dominant men of their time: A small group of males, who were literate, got to document, interpret, and define “God’s wishes”, to decide what would be in the “holy scriptures” and what would be excluded, to dictate to everyone else what God intends for them.
These were men who bought and sold human beings like cattle; who viewed women as unclean, unstable, untrustworthy, and inferior sub-humans linked to the Devil, sex and sin. These were the same backwards, racist, sexist, violent, vengeful, murderous men who eagerly supported the list of abhorrent activities above as “the will of God”.
The documents called scriptures reflect the social / political beliefs and prejudices of their day. You are not reading the word of God in them – you are reading the convenient texts of the men who wrote, edited, and compiled the documents we now have access to. You are seeing male power and special treatment masquerading as God’s word; and you get to hear men endlessly lecturing women on what it means to be a woman.
The Word of God?
It wasn’t our Creator, but some male – priest, rabbi, imam, religious scholar, etc. – who decided for women, based on his personal feelings that women were unclean and inferior beings, what women could do, what they should do, what they must do … and who got to cite God as the authority for his fatuous beliefs, his prejudices, his fear and loathing of the female sex.
It is this entirely male-based fantasy of God’s wishes which has led to the ongoing, pervasive, scandalous, and destructive abuse of females – their murder, mutilation, beating, confinement (imagine spending your entire life in a COVID quarantine – that’s what purdah is), lack of education, subjugation, and poverty.
But religion, rather than admit its culpability, doubles-down on its misogynistic beliefs, and persists in fighting-off any change. It continues to ignore, and to destroy, the lives, the hopes, the concerns, and the futures of one half the human race.
And, for some unfathomable reason, we let them …
That having been said, like Science, Religion works: Religion can provide deep meaning to life and give hope in the face of death. It can inspire individuals and communities to behave in ways which are admirable – fighting for justice, mercy, and human rights. It is the foundation of the rules, morals and beliefs which underlie so much of our lives.
But, historically, the goodness of religion has been more than offset by the weaponization of God to oppress so much of the human race – the poor, minorities, slaves, women, etc. – and to keep them “in their rightful place” – subservient to a small circle of elite men, who have grabbed power.
Religion has wrought enormous damage based on its questionable use of gender, sex, and race.
It is time to call Religion to task for bad religion – for simultaneously preaching discrimination while shamefully pinning-on our Creator responsibility for that prejudice.
If you would like to explore these matters further, check out these books:
The Handmaid’s Tale (Paperback)
Margaret Atwood’s popular dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale explores a broad range of issues relating to power, gender, and religious politics.
View on Amazon
Valiant or Virtuous?: Gender Bias in Bible Translation
This book explores a systematic bias in translating the Bible and in interpreting its teachings, which suggests that men are inherently suited to be leaders in the home, church, and community, while it is God’s plan for women to submit to men’s leadership. This erroneous understanding of the Bible has been promoted by certain influential evangelical Christian leaders in order to push back the growing influence of feminist attitudes, the expansion of women’s leadership roles, and the increase in egalitarian relationships among evangelicals in English-speaking North America.
View on Amazon
Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free
From a woman who has been there and back, the first inside look at the devastating effects evangelical Christianity’s purity culture has had on a generation of young women – in a potent combination of journalism, cultural commentary, and memoir … Sexual shame is by no means confined to evangelical culture; Pure is a powerful wake-up call about our society’s subjugation of women.
View on Amazon