Religion’s Harm to Women

Religion’s Harm to Women November 16, 2006

In our society, it is still widely considered rude to criticize opinions and practices that arise from religious belief, no matter how evil or abhorrent they are. Even when it comes to the murderous fanatics who kill in the name of Islam, politicians and other public figures who criticize them often take pains to label their actions as arising from a twisted or self-serving interpretation, as though it would be impossible for a legitimate and sincere interpretation of any religion to inspire believers to commit evil acts.

However, the reality is that sincere religious beliefs and legitimate interpretations of scripture can, and very often do, cause immense evil and harm. And when a more enlightened future age arrives to tote up the harms done by religion, I am certain that the systematic oppression and denial of basic rights to one-half of the human race will rank near the top. Back in March, I wrote “That Monstrous Regiment” about the extreme denigration of women in the Christian tradition, but there is more to be said. This net can be cast wider, and it is time to do so.

Every major world religion – without exception – is intensely patriarchal. Every one of them engages in the systematic devaluation of women, in the systematic exclusion of women from positions of authority, and in the systematic oppression and even enslavement of women. I have yet to find a single major religion that bucks this trend. Considering how little many of these religions have in common otherwise, this is a truly remarkable pattern. A few denominations, influenced by the feminist movement and other moral advances, are only now beginning to redress this glaring inequity, but for the most part progress has been extremely slow and the vast majority of religions still treat women as less than human.

Despite its having been housebroken by the Enlightenment, Christianity is one of the worst offenders. Although some Christian denominations have taken faltering steps towards women’s equality, all those denominations still believe in and endorse the Bible, which is without a doubt one of the most misogynistic books in existence.

In the book of Genesis, for example, the very existence of women is depicted as a divine afterthought, and the fall of the human race out of original Paradise into a world of toil and death is unambiguously depicted as a woman’s fault. The text makes it clear from the very first that women are expected to be obedient and submissive to men:

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

—Genesis 3:16

The Ten Commandments proclaim wives to be their husband’s property, listing them together with livestock and servants as “thing[s] that [are] thy neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17). The Torah states that women who give birth to daughters are “unclean” for twice as long as women who give birth to sons (Leviticus 12) and values women’s lives at half the value of men’s lives (Leviticus 27:3-7). It rules that women who are raped in cities and do not cry out are to be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:22-24), while those are raped in the countryside are merely required to marry their rapists (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).

The New Testament joins in the denigration of women as well. It endorses the Old Testament’s subjugation of them to men, saying that “the head of the woman is the man” (1 Corinthians 11:3). It also commands women to remain silent in church, saying that it is “a shame” for women to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), and adds that women must “learn in silence with all subjection” and must never be allowed to teach or hold authority over men (1 Timothy 2:11-15).

And then there is one of the most subtly and pervasively sexist ideas in Christian thinking: the Trinity. The early Christians had three gods to choose from and made every one of them male. I often wondered, when I was a child, why the set of three contained Father, Son and Holy Ghost and not Father, Son and Mother. That seemed like the logical arrangement to me, but I did not grasp then, as I do now, that this doctrine was invented by an exclusively male and misogynist church hierarchy that sought to deny the female gender any role in creation or in the divine. (Indeed, a recent Harris poll found that over one-third of Jews and Christians believe God is male, while only 1% believe God is female. What would it even mean for God to have a gender?)

Many modern denominations have followed these anti-woman verses to the letter. The Catholic church, one of the worst offenders in this regard, still denies women the ability to join the priesthood, even despite a crippling lack of trained clergy to fill many available posts. The Southern Baptists have likewise declared that women should be submissive and obedient to their husbands, as though it was exclusively the man’s job to command and a woman’s job to follow. The Russian Orthodox church has stepped into the act as well, with a prominent bishop’s recent claim that the idea of equality between the sexes is “destructive” to families (source). It is astonishing to me that Christians who claim to be “pro-family” go out of their way to disparage the gender that makes the existence of families possible.

The offshoots of Christianity have followed a similar path. Most notable is the Mormon church, which from its beginning endorsed polygamous marriage – for men only, of course; it was considered an unspeakable sin for a woman to attempt to take multiple husbands. The institution of polygamy in Mormonism reduced women to little more than property, intimidating them into being obedient and submissive lest their husband decide to take additional wives as punishment, or worse, lest they be damned, for Mormon doctrine originally held that women who opposed the doctrine of polygamy would be condemned to Hell. Mormon belief also holds that a woman cannot access Heaven alone, and that only through marriage can a woman be saved – by her husband, who will “pull her through” to the other side upon her death (source). (One wonders what happens to women who die before their husbands.) Though the Mormons were forced by external pressure to disavow polygamy, many of their other sexist beliefs and practices remain in effect.

These abstract beliefs have had a concrete and devastating effect on women’s rights in the real world. As Jon Krakauer writes in Under the Banner of Heaven:

…perhaps the greatest rift between Mormon general authorities and advocates for women’s rights occurred when the LDS Church actively and very effectively mobilized Mormons to vote as a bloc against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (despite a fact that a poll published in the church-owned Deseret News in 1974 showed that 63 percent of Utahans approved of the ERA). Most political analysts believe that had the LDS Church not taken such an aggressive position against the ERA, it would easily have been ratified by the required thirty-eight states, and would now be part of the U.S. Constitution.

Religious sexism occurs in Judaism as well, especially the conservative sects. Orthodox (male) Jews are taught to pray to God in thankfulness every day that they were not born as women, and some ultra-Orthodox sects refuse to send their children to school when the school buses are driven by women. In accordance with Biblical law, Orthodox women having their menstrual periods or who have recently given birth are considered unclean and forbidden to have any physical contact with a man. Orthodox women are often strongly discouraged from taking any public role in a position of leadership, or from acquiring an education beyond the most basic aspects of religious observance and homemaking.

Islam, too, is one of the worst offenders when it comes to women’s rights. Consider the following verses from the Qur’an, which, like the Bible, considers women as less valuable than and inferior to men. It states that men are to control women, while good women are obedient to men, and it explicitly gives men permission to beat disobedient women:

“Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other… So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them.”


The Qur’an also states that a woman’s testimony is worth only half as much as a man’s, and her inheritance likewise is only half that of a man:

“And call two witness from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not at hand, then a man and two women…”


“Allah chargeth you concerning (the provision for) your children: to the male the equivalent of the portion of two females…”


And when fundamentalist Muslims gain political power, the repercussions are far too obvious. Despite the overthrow of the Taliban, there are still many Islamic countries that implement the evil and barbaric law code known as sharia, which has many cruel effects on men as well but degrades women by far the most, reducing them to slaves and nonpersons. The sharia code denies women their right to an education, to medical care, or to go out in public unaccompanied by a male relative, in addition to many other inhumanities, and punishes transgressions with barbaric acts such as flogging and stoning. In many Muslim countries, the practice of “honor killing” – murdering female relatives who have been raped, as a way to cleanse the shame they have brought on their family by being the victim of such a crime – still occurs. And then there is the best-known manifestation of Islam’s inhumanity to women: the suffocating shrouds of black cloth designed to strip them of their individuality and to make them faceless, invisible and less than human.

Even the supposedly more enlightened Eastern religions are not much better when it comes to treating women as equals and as human beings. In Hinduism, the most infamous example is probably the practice of sati, in which widowed women were expected to burn themselves to death on their husband’s funeral pyre. Although this was allegedly a voluntary act, in practice it was often involuntary, with women drugged, bound or otherwise restrained before being committed alive to the flames. As recently as 2002, incidents of this nature have been reported in India (source). Other Hindu traditions, less violent but still terrible, enforce seclusion and isolation on widows in the belief that some sin of the woman caused her husband’s death, and expect her to atone by spending the rest of her life in silence and destitution. This rule, which I mentioned in a post from June titled “Why Do We Care?” and dramatized by the filmmaker Deepa Mehta in her 2005 film Water, was applied even if the widow was a young child in an arranged marriage who had not even met her husband prior to his death.

Buddhism, as well, despite its reputation as a socially progressive faith, has its share of discriminatory teachings about the role of women. In one passage from the Theravada Buddhist tradition, the Buddha’s own aunt, Prajapati, shaves her hair and walks barefoot for many miles to meet with the Buddha and entreat him to permit women to join the sangha, the Buddhist monastic community. The Buddha at first refuses her plea outright, and only relents when his disciple Ananda persuades him to change his mind; however, he imposes a set of eight rules upon nuns that are stricter than those demanded of monks, and in some variants, warns that the sangha will only last for five hundred years due to the presence of women, when it would otherwise have lasted for a thousand. (See here, here and here for some retellings of this story.) In modern Buddhism, Thailand in particular has shown strong patriarchal tendencies, refusing to allow women to be ordained.

It is tragic, but understandable, why so many men throughout history have supported these sexist and patriarchal belief systems. More incredible is how many women have willingly taken part in their own subjugation by joining and participating in religions that have done their utmost to deny them the full equality and equal rights which they deserve. Many, perhaps, have fallen prey to the ancient and transparently obvious deceit that by doing so, they will gain access to an eternity in Heaven. (Although, given that most religions straightforwardly extend their earthly conceptions of hierarchy to the afterlife and picture Heaven as an eternity of male dominance and female submission, one wonders just how appealing that promise could be.)

Not all women have been taken in by this con, however, and there have been and are many women who work for reform and equality within their own religious tradition while continuing to believe in it. This is a noble effort, but I believe it is ultimately misguided. Religion in general, especially the large, institutional, male-run churches like Catholicism, is too dogmatic and too oligarchical for any progress to be made soon enough to help the millions of women who are still suffering under sexist yokes. And as long as people continue to believe in books and traditions that contain these sexist injunctions, the seed of bigotry will always lie dormant, waiting to be rediscovered and reborn. There is only one realistic way to end religion’s harm to women, and that is to cut it off at the source: every feminist should be an atheist.

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