Are Religions Unfair to Women? Yes, but This Debate is Still Worth Watching

The Big Questions is a BBC show that tackles you-know-what. The most recent episode asked “Are religions unfair to women?

You can watch the show below:

One highlight: Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Shmuel Arkush, who refuses to shake the hand of the woman sitting next to him (at the 13:50 mark) because “I don’t touch those things that don’t belong to me.” Even though he had no problem shaking the hand of the male host…

Really, just forward through the video and find moments with the Rabbi. He’s trying to cherry-pick reason from completely unreasonable rituals and traditions.

Kate Smurthwaite, who was memorable (for good reasons) on the same program a couple of years ago, is also one of the panelists here. She makes another great comment at the 21:35 mark.

If you notice any other noteworthy parts, please leave the timestamps and summaries below!

(via Atheist Media Blog)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • MD

    So a particular woman BELONGS to the good rabbi? Nice… Not!

  • Coolred

    It only took 4 minutes for “context” to come up. We have to understand what they understood to be true at the time for the text to make sense…except that if it was indeed written by god…then god would better understand then even we do at this point…wouldn’t he? So context wouldn’t be a valid excuse. In other words…they may have believed a certain thing to be true and thus wrote text to assume that point…but since god wrote it…then god would have known it wasn’t true…so no need to assume anything.

  • Baby_Raptor

    “Those things”?



  • chicago dyke

    they don’t have to be, but most of them are.

  • Iduehe Udom

    Lets take it down to the grassroot, if a particular religion is the type that is partial to the female gender, then, they should be excluded from their practices… Religion is a natural right and not given by human who have no authority to subdue the females into any kind of suffering in the name of religion. Please, let me bring this the the whole World that if you are not treating other as you wish them to treat you, then you have lost it on the way. You have to strike a balance on the things you do in your different religion or else you will totally make no difference at last but stand a better chance of being judged without regrets. University of Nigeria

  • Ubi Dubium

    My favorite quote:
    Rabbi: “Let me give you a clear and easy understanding of that”
    Feminist Theologian: “A difficult understanding would be fine, I’m sure I can cope with that.”

  • LesterBallard

    “I don’t touch those things that don’t belong to me.” After reading that I figured it wouldn’t do me any good to actually listen to the asswipe. Except . . . I don’t guess she grabs his head and rubs it over her breasts, does she? I’d like to see his reaction to that.

  • Matt Potter

    Apparently any religious person that justifies their sexist position
    using religious text isn’t reading it correctly. The problem isn’t their
    misinterpretation, it’s that the texts are so ambiguous as to allow it.

  • Regina Carol Moore

    According to the rabbi, women must belong to a man, not themselves. Men belong to themselves, but women do not. That is the epitome of sexism. And exactly what is wrong with not only religion, but society in general.

  • StudentSemipermeable

    This, exactly. If God is really beyond time, and the bible a book of revolutionary revolution, then the bible should have praised gender equality, talked about freeing the slaves, and explained concepts such as germ theory while preaching love, peace and compassion. However, it did not do those things. If the bible is limited by the culture and history it came from, then it was created in that time and context by people. Even if you believe in a God, you must see the context dependent bible as a failed message, because the people could only write down the message through their own perception filters, and as a result the bible is not accurate.

    That aside, if you ever want to stump a street preacher or otherwise, ask them if God wants everyone to read the bible and understand his law. If they say yes, ask them if God is all knowing. If they say yes again, ask them why a crappy DVD manufacture has the foresight to release instruction manuals in several different languages for the sake of clarity, but the supposed all-knowing all seeing GOD picked one language, and picked a language that was unpopular and would only be understood by a absurdly tiny proportion of humanity. If God is really all powerfull, all knowing blah blah, then God should at least be able to communicate better then a shitty tech company.

  • MD

    Watched the whole video. Why am I not surprised that the Catholic Voices lady tried to sneak in the “contraception degrades women” trope.

  • Hat Stealer

    All that’s really needed to bring this debate to its obvious conclusion is to let the fundamentalists talk… they do a better job of arguing that religion is unfair to women than anything the feminists/atheists/not-insane-people could say would.

  • Coolred

    Of course the language thing can be used with the Quran as well. A majority of Muslims in the world do not speak, read, or write Arabic…yet Muslims claim you can’t really be a bonafide Muslim unless you can read the Quran in its original Arabic. I might add that classical Arabic (of which the Quran is a mishmash of with other local languages thrown in) is very difficult for even Arabic readers to comprehend. A sort of Catch 22 situation. You need to understand the original language to “get it” but even those who do “get it” more or less…argue about what exactly they get.

  • Gus Snarp

    I just couldn’t take much of the women sitting there talking about god as if he actually existed and the Bible as if it describes reality. I just wanted to scream, of course you’ve all got wildly different interpretations, you’re talking about a work of fiction! Might as well argue about Pride and Prejudice. I seriously don’t care about what your damn book says, tell me what you DO and then we can judge whether you’re being fair. And the one talking about what Paul would say today was especially rich. Like Paul would magically become a man of the modern world instead of an authoritarian iron age misogynist? Please. Worst attempt to redeem Paul ever.

  • tinker

    23:45 – “The first person to accept Islam was a woman”. This kid has the gall to suggest that because Islam was ‘founded’ by a woman, it’s okay to oppress women? I would doubt very seriously that if that story is true, that first woman would ‘accept’ the current version of Islam. Of course nothing will beat the good old Stockholm syndrome.

  • Gus Snarp

    I like how that’s abundantly clear, but the Rabbi just blows past any question that would lead to him saying outright that he thinks of women as possessions. He just tries to answer in this simplistic way and switches tack instantly any time something starts leading to the underlying truth, as if no one else there is smart enough to get the game he’s playing.

  • David McNerney

    Fleas arguing over who owns the dog.

  • Gus Snarp

    “You have to understand that this was written at a time when……” Then can we just throw the whole thing out? The Muslim woman argues that some of it is rules for that time, some for all time, but I have to ask how we’re supposed to know which is which. The truth is that believers don’t know which is which, they just take what they like and say the rest was written for that time, instead of saying this book was written by a primitive goat herder for other primitive goat herders and there’s no reason to think any of it applies to our time.

  • Bluenotes

    What really makes these debates worth it is Francesca Stavrakopoulou. She’s brilliant! She’s almost untouchable with her knowledge and always just so right.

  • Gus Snarp

    If you can’t stomach the whole thin, it’s worth a fast forward to about the 58 minute mark to hear the Catholic woman blame birth control for the objectification of women.

  • Carpinions

    What this is is an hour of several religious people trying to justify why women are second-class (perhaps even less than) citizens in the eyes of (at least for 98% of this discussion) Abrahamic religion. There is now way around it.

    I think one of the points the religious in this discussion tried to make is that there is a necessary interpretive aspect to reading their respective holy books, especially given the stark differences between the past and present. This is a good point, and an example or two was given by them of instances where we must interpret other non-religious things in life because there’s no clear answer. While that may be a salient point, the atheist or anti-theist position on this matter is likely to be that the whole point of rejecting religion is that there is no necessary quality to religion/spirituality that then demands the wider secular society must then accept and automatically respect or even give itself over to religion in the hopes of some predictable return on investment that far exceeds any other human endeavor. That is the key.

    And that’s part of the total problem with religion, especially when the pleas to the numinous are offered in its defense. Religions seek to put a definable face on a genuine human emotion, but there is no evidence for that definition beyond blind inculcation in patent nonsense. The god or gods of a religion can literally be anything, and the tendency to put a human or animalian face on them is a construct of human conception of reality, when in reality the concept could apply to a spec of dust. There are so many problems with religion and the ideas that stem from it that it’s very hard to get past the notion that the whole exercise is nothing more than humanity misleading itself by misplacing its trust and power in something that has no power to salve the pains of everyday life.

  • Carpinions

    C’mon, you had to expect that one after the “brutalism of secularism” crack she made a couple minutes prior.

  • Carpinions

    Biggest LAWL moment of the whole thing: “the brutalism of secularism”…

    Let that one set in while we consider that it’s not secular societies that permit FGM or look the other way for an “honor” killing…

  • Gus Snarp

    I count two atheists (Yay!), 5 Christians, 2 Muslims, 1 Hindu, and 1 Jew on the panel. I find this kind of interesting. Particularly the 1 Jew part, and the fact that he was one of two men on the panel. I credit the BBC with stocking the panel with the right people to have this conversation, namely women. But I find it odd that the only Jewish representative is a Lubavitch Rabbi. They couldn’t find a Jewish woman? Or even a Jew who represented a bit more of the mainstream of Judaism? Neither of the Muslim women represented the strictest, most misogynistic, and most fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, but the Rabbi was pretty close to that representation of Judaism.

  • Randay

    In short, Rabbi Shmuel is a schmuck. However old he is it is apparent that he hasn’t learned anything since his childhood. He says according to “tradition” and then says “one tradition is”. So he admits that there are different “traditions”. He chooses a misogynist one. It escapes me how “tradition” can be a rational, reasonable explanation for anything. What is the origin of the Jewish “tradition” for wearing black and a little round useless hat?

  • LoudGuitr

    Listening to this nonsense being debated, as if any of it had any relationship with reality, is tiresome and pointless. It’s like watching a dozen people argue about the correct interpretation of Jack and the Beanstalk. What a colossal waste of human energy and intellect.

  • Daniel Brown

    I’ve always had a huge crush on Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou. Not just because of the awesome name… she’s super cute, very well spoken, I love how she presents information in interviews and in her specials, she’s smart, witty, charming, brave…

  • ShoeUnited

    I think the best part, is that the woman arguing Paul would be different is and the other arguing Paul would be the same.

    Paul Different – Christina Rees ArchBishop’s Council, Elected by the House of Laity

    Some Background:
    Two lay people elected by the House of Laity… The Council was created in 1999 to provide a central executive body to co-ordinate and lead the work of the Church.

    So, Ms. Rees is a respected member of the Church whose function is to be a cheerleader, an accountant, and an outreach officer. More or less. She’s the mom at the bake sale.

    Paul Same – Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion in the University of Exeter’s department of Theology and Religion.

    Some Background:
    The main focus of her research is Israelite and Judahite history and religion.

    Her DPhil from the University of Oxford, which examined the creation of an imagined past within the Hebrew Bible, was subsequently published with the title King Manasseh and Child Sacrifice: Biblical Distortions of Historical Realities.

    Her second book was Land of our Fathers: The Roles of Ancestor Veneration in Biblical Land Claims. She has also co-edited Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah and Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives. She was a junior research fellow at Worcester College, Oxford, before moving to Exeter.
    Stavrakopoulou is the secretary of the British-based Society for Old Testament Study, and a member of the European Association of Biblical Studies and of the US-based Society of Biblical Literature.

    So. While Ms. Rees clearly has good intentions, and is adamant about how her beliefs are. Prof. Stavrakopoulou actually knows what she’s talking about.

    Conclusion: Paul is a dead man. Miss him, miss him. Er… I mean, I’m going with the person who’s dedicated their life and are globally acclaimed for their work in, this field of study.

  • ShoeUnited

    Clearly, it was an allegory for the lowly serf (Jack) to educate themselves thereby gaining the wealth of the rich (giants) and to be willing to gamble for a better future.

  • ShoeUnited

    I think there’s some things lost in translation. I think I know what you’re trying to say, but some hiccups translating to English makes a couple lines read opposite of what you intend.

    Also, religion is a bad thing.

  • Joe Goodrich

    This is excruciating.

  • Daniel Brown

    06:30 – It doesn’t matter if it’s literal or figurative?! That’s a HUGE difference! 06:46 – Girl has no idea what chapter her argument comes from. 07:00 – What a bunch of mental gymnastics. Being taken from the head or feet isn’t fair. The ribcage is perfect. Why be taken from ANY part of Adam instead of being created in full by god the same way Adam was? 07:27 – Girl talks about ‘The Fall’ but if the story is figurative than Jesus’ death is meaningless!

    The rabbi asked about verses in Leviticus. Here you are:

    22:30 “Religion is not doing that to women, men are.” WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE? Religion was made by the very same men! It’s all due to men! What Cole Moreton is saying then is that men are using their man made belief system to unfairly treat females. Cole wants to think that religion is some living/breathing entity that came about on it’s own – completely separate from humans. Sorry, but humans, MALE humans created the religions and generations of men since have repeated the atrocities.

    23:53 – “The greatest woman in creation is, Mary.” Okay, so Christianity has a list of the best females in creation… so? How does putting a rating system on the females help their stance with men? And how does having a rating system coincide with humans all being created equal? How can there be a “greatest” female or male if we’re all supposed to be equal? Such hogwash!

  • Gus Snarp

    I could have listened to Professor Stavrakopoulou shred people on their Biblical ignorance all day. Best part of the whole thing.

  • StudentSemipermeable

    This is true, for accuracy I could have easily said any preacher and X text. I had a recent argument on my mind when I wrote this, so the language I used reflected dealing with a Christian, but it could be applied to any tradition claiming all knowing enlightenment that did not have have foresight to include all possible languages in his/her/its holy text.

  • Regina Carol Moore

    Yes, yes a thousand times yes! I keep thinking how much better off humanity would be if these people studied real science and things that would actually relieve human suffering!

  • LoudGuitr

    We think alike, Regina.

  • Miss_Beara

    Women having control of their own body somehow objectifies them. Perhaps she doesn’t know the definition of objectifies…

  • Carpinions

    Never mind the fact that the forces of god on earth have at times expressly forbid the common folk from trying to read and understand the Bible’s contents

  • Carpinions

    Yyyyyepp. That’s religion. Causing people to haggle and kill over unevidenced nonsense. Now imagine the amount of human progress that was disallowed through all the centuries of religiously imposed restrictions on behavior.

  • Feminerd

    Wearing the yarmulke is a sign of respect for God. I don’t remember the exact reasoning, something to do with modesty and covering one’s head in the presence of a king, and since God is everywhere, you wear it everywhere.

    It’s purely religious/cultural/ritual reasoning and doesn’t make sense to anyone outside the religion. Heck, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to the less Orthodox within the religion. All Jewish traditions have reasons, exhaustively documented in the Talmud, along with the reasons for and against their existence and the final consensus of the rabbis at the time.

  • Anon

    … How did she go from childbirth/male circumcision blood to bringing up FGM?

  • MD

    Mary, the greatest woman in creation because she was sooo obedient. I’m on a campaign to be the worst woman in creation, then. And happily so.

  • Patrick

    Because it’s a debate about religion and women, and she was offered the chance to speak? Just a thought.

  • Anon

    I guess, but the main subject at the time was uncleanliness, male circumcision was only brought up briefly (as a way of saying the blood from it lessens the uncleanliness) and none of the religions discussing at the time practice FGM.

    (sorry if this double-posts it didn’t seem to be going through the first time)

  • DavidMHart

    It has long been my impression that a lot of hardcore Judaism appears to be a game of ritual oneupmanship: you can honour God by not eating pork? Well guess what? I can do that, and I can honour God by also not eating meat with milk! Oh really? Well I can do all of that and never light a fire on Saturdays! …etc.

    But the yarmulke looks a little hard to explain on that hypothesis. It appears more like a matter of “Hmmm. So God requires me to wear a hat at all times. But I can’t be bothered with that. What’s the least possible amount of hat I can get away with?”.

    I’m sure there are more sophistimacated explanations available though :-)

  • Feminerd

    Lol, no, a lot of things are following and not-following the rules at the same time. For example, carrying things on Shabbat is forbidden. However, keys are a little important if you’re going to walk to shul; you want to lock the door after all.

    So tie them to your belt! Now you’re not carrying them, you’re doing something else. Problem solved. That sort of rules-lawyering is very much an Orthodox tradition.

  • Adam

    Actually all of those are all just basic traditions. If you do one of those things you generally do all of them. There’s not a lot of Jews who eat cheeseburgers but not pork. If you keep kosher you probably observe the Sabbath. There are no “hardcore” Jews who eat milk with meat. Orthodox Jews do all of the things you mentioned.There’s pretty much Jews who do all of those things, and then Jews who do none of them.

  • P.J. Lowry

    Kate clearly has more self control than I do… I would have called ‘Bullshit’ several times during that recording. People trying to make excuses and create different interpretations of what are religions that do and still repress women. Women are not allowed to become priests or clerics or bishops. That is unfair! That question wasn’t even answered and for good reason, there is no good reason for that kind of blatant sexism! I would have been a lot more vocal, obviously because I have less tolerance for that kind of rubbish.

  • DavidMHart

    Yeah, I know, but I’m talking about how such traditions might have arisen in the first place – once the whole set of taboos had crystallized into orthodoxy, then they would be an all-or nothing thing, but I find it hard to imagine them all being invented simultaneously.

  • DavidMHart

    Interesting. So when you actually reach the door, presumably you’re allowed to hold the keys, but not move your feet, as ‘holding’ is not the same as ‘carrying’? Sounds a bit like basketball to me.

  • Leiningen’s Ants

    Oh great, now I picture a bunch of zebra-striped referees blowing whistles all over Jerusalem. :D Thanks actually~!

  • jenbo

    What the blazing he!! is the new convert to Islam wearing? Is that a hat with fake floppy dog ears on it?

  • jenbo

    I wish this question would have been posed: Is it just a coincidence, then, that the nations which have accepted enlightenment values and put superstitious bullshit behind them happen to treat women with the most fairness and dignity?
    And all this arguing about exact wording of holy books doesn’t matter! If we look at the REAL world, which is what MATTERS, these books are most definitely used to degrade and stifle women (and any other perceived inferiors).

  • Earl G.

    12:05 brings up the question of whether there is gender in heaven and whether men would still be in charge of women there. The Christian layperson woman in the show punts on this, of course. But I’d love to hear Christians in general answer this one.