06 November 2012

Religion and Patriarchy (1)

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Female soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces Female soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/09/opinion/sunday/what-happens-when-the-two-israels-meet.mwo4ml?pagewanted=all

I hope you’re breathing a sigh of relief: no picture of a woman in hijab! Seriously, while I have written on “the many meanings of hijab,” and the question of religion and gender equality, I come back to the issue from a different angle: the secular-religious clash in Israel is symptomatic of social dynamics all over the world (though perhaps less dramatic). I’ll throw out some hypotheses as to why there seems to be a connection between religion and the subjugation of women. My main point in this series is that if religion has been (at least) part of the problem, it can also be the solution.


Religion and gender hierarchy

Let me start with the two pieces by Egyptian-American journalist Mona Al-Naggar in the New York Times. One was a short blog about her experience attending a Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored premarital counseling workshop in Cairo. The article on the same topic, "Family Life According to the Brotherhood," is an essay on the Muslim Brotherhood’s teaching on gender roles in the family and society – and how they are using this to recruit new members and rebuild the social order from the bottom up.

The Brotherhood, banned from forming a political party under Mubarak’s rule, still wielded enormous influence through its social welfare services and its many members who ran for parliament as independents. Now in power, president Morsi’s program of “Renaissance” (nahda, same word for Tunisia’s ruling islamist party) aims to strengthen society’s most basic unit, the family. Central to that task is teaching women their rightful place in that unit, they maintain. You can’t have a righteous society without righteous families, and families can’t be godly without women playing their God-given role. Listen to the leader of Al-Haggar’s workshop, Osama Abou Salama, explain this in a discourse that would sound very familiar to many conservative Christians and Jews:


“A woman,” Mr. Abou Salama said, “takes pleasure in being a follower and finds ease in obeying a husband who loves her . . . Can you, as a woman, take a decision and handle the consequences of your decision? No. But men can. And God created us this way because a ship cannot have more than one captain.”


Admittedly, in conservative evangelical circles, it would not be put quite so bluntly. Still, many would follow literally these words of the Apostle Paul: “For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church” (Eph. 5:22-3).

Nor would any western audience (no matter what faith tradition) put up with this: “Women are erratic and emotional, and they make good wives and mothers — but never leaders or rulers.” This is Al-Naggar’s paraphrase of Abou Salamah’s teaching, which provoked absolutely no reaction from his mixed audience. “None of the 30 people in the class so much as winced,” she writes.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, when you come across any theological statement, first go to the sociocultural context to make sense of it. Al-Naggar is right to point out how socially conservative Egyptian society is: most women wear the hijab, cover up even in extremely hot temperatures, and spontaneously segregate themselves from men as much as possible in public. If anything, she argues, “More than any other political group in Egypt, the Brotherhood is fluent in the dialect of the masses.”

On the one hand, this conformist mindset enhances the Brotherhood's chances of success: "By upholding patriarchal and traditional values about a woman’s place in society, it garners popular support, builds political capital and reinforces social conservatism." On the other, this teaching can alienate them unnecessarily from the more secular elements of society – and especially hurt their reputation abroad. In his political campaign, Mursi had promised to name a female vice-president. That is unlikely now, and the published list of 21 senior aids and advisers includes only three women.


Are religious men afraid of women?

Some readers will be saying, “This just confirms what I’ve heard about Islam demeaning women.” Others will retort, “How dare you reinforce the negative stereotypes about Islam and women? Isn’t there enough Islamophobia as it is?”

For one, I’m not highlighting Islam. That’s why I bring up the anxieties of an Israeli secular woman (see below), and why I’ve mentioned Christianity’s lamentable history on this issue elsewhere. Let me add too that patriarchy is endemic in some form or another to most parts of the world in traditional societies. I have a Chinese great-grandmother and my own mother spent much of her youth there. The treatment of women in Southeast Asia, just to mention one area, was rather deplorable. And it wasn’t just the way women’s feet were bandaged up since childhood for the sake of beauty. Clearly, it wasn’t just Confucianism or Buddhism or Daoism that decreed the subordination of women. Religion and culture are too entangled, it seems to me, to blame just one or the other.

Back to Christianity. The Church Fathers were notoriously allergic to the female of our species. In her bestseller on “Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church,” Uta Ranke-Heineman quotes the venerable St. Augustine (p. 88):


“I don't see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes procreation. If woman is not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and a woman cohabitate?”


Jerome, the great fourth-century scholar who produced the great Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate), declared that “woman is the root of all evil.”

It is (sadly) fashionable these days to criticize Islam on the issue of women. But remember, all three monotheistic faiths grew up in the same area – the staunchly patriarchal mideast. True, as Muslim feminists are quick to point out, the qur’anic creation story has Adam and Eve equally responsible for the fall (yes, they were expelled from the heavenly garden on account of their disobedience; and no, this did not affect their descendants – hence, “fall” with a lower case ‘f’). Still, though the Qur’an is relatively moderate in this domain, the hadiths, admittedly, can be quite mysoginistic:


“The woman who dies and with whom the husband is satisfied will go to paradise.”

“Three things can interrupt prayer if they pass in front of someone praying: a black dog, a woman, and a donkey.”


But what about possible causes: why do men seem to despise women? Worse yet, why do they seem bent on dominating them? Is it just that men lust for power and like to control women so so as to make them do their bidding? If that is true, it certainly has theological implications.

But maybe too, the root cause is fear. American author Peggy Drexler who has taught psychology at Stanford and Cornell, argues that male fear is at the basis of female subjugation and that religion seems to exploit this. She posted a blog on the Huffington Post saying just this: “Fear Factor: The Religious Right’s Problem With Women.” It starts with a scene in Israel:


“The world has seen the terror and confusion on the porcelain face of eight-year-old Naama Margolese, who was insulted and spat on by ultra-Orthodox men as she walked to school in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh. The Haredi, to use Israeli term, found her bare arms so immodest that they screamed "whore!"

The video of a very frightened young girl and the furious, arrogant men, who told reporters they were perfectly justified in their actions, has become a flashpoint in what some are calling a struggle for the soul of a country.”


A Washington Post article (“In Israel, women’s rights come under siege” about a month before her blog had served up a long list of “outrageous” actions taken by the Haredi (Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox). Just for starters, “Women are forced to board public buses from the back and stay there. Billboards with images of women are defaced. Public streets are cordoned off during religious holidays so that women cannot enter.”

But unlike that journalist who is seething because this is happening in a place like Israel, Peggy Drexler is determined to explain the common thread between Haredi and Taliban behavior toward women. The justifications are similar, she contends:


“Find a place where men oppress women, and you’ll hear the same justification: we’re doing it for their own protection. It’s not protection. It’s projection.

The logic: My sexual urges take me away from a focus on God. Women cause me to have those urges. The obvious solution is to beat them down, cover them up, and lock them away. What I can’t see won’t tempt me.”


Admittedly, you might expect a western feminist to opine in that vein. Yet Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi has been writing on this theme for over three decades (see for instance her book, The Veil and the Male Elite). In her view, the patriarchal family in a culture driven by the values of shame and honor fears above all else the chaos produced by female sexuality. Nothing sullies a family’s or a clan’s reputation more than rumors about the “indiscretion” of their women. In its extreme form, this fear is at the root of “honor killings.” Mernissi maintains that this is cultural and has nothing to do with Islam, which, as seen in the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet, is essentially gender-egalitarian.

Still, men are apt to project their own lust onto women – or maybe too, to take out their frustrations on them, as a recent article from the BBC implies (“Egypt's sexual harassment of women ‘epidemic’”). But when it comes to violence against women, no one country or society has a monopoly on the wretched reality of domestic violence and male sexual crimes. If anything, when law and order break down, as has been the case so tragically for a decade in the Republic of Congo, women are the first victims.

But I am still wondering about religion’s role in female subjugation.


Back to the clash of “the two Israels”

The picture above this blog was taken from an article (“What Happens When the Two Israels Meet”) written by an Israeli woman, Shani Boianjiu, who during her military service in 2007 was given the task of training new soldiers to use their weapons. One day, she kicked a male trainee who was crouched with his weapon in order to show him that his position was wrong and therefore unstable. Of course he fell over. But he also muttered something she didn’t understand. Later, the same soldier (an “Ethiopian,” she added) seemed particularly resistant again to her orders. Coming behind him, she shook him by his shoulders, trying to show him he was still off balance. But she couldn’t say anything, because the soldier was yelling at her. She explains what happened:


“I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he was still in training and I was shocked by his disobedience. I thought maybe he was confused, so I bent down in the sand and grabbed his foot, moving it so that his toes pointed forward. If anything, he screamed louder. It was only when the drill ended that I caught what he was saying: ‘I observe touch.’”


In talking with the commander and other trainers later that day Boianjiu found out what that meant. Religious men cannot be touched by a woman. The commander said to her laughing, “It has something to do with girls’ periods or something.” She also discovered that year that some of the religious soldiers could not accept a woman holding a weapon in front of them. Some were not even allowed to hear the voice of a woman singing.

Growing up as a secular Jewish girl in Tel Aviv, this was a starkly different world for Boianjiu – and not a pleasant one in the least. Even though in July 2012 the law that had exempted the Haredi from serving in the army expired, she doesn’t think they will ever serve in the military, no matter what the law might say: “there is no simple way to force an entire community into a life that goes against what they believe.” One reason is that 30 percent of the Israeli army are females.

But listen to the feelings her encounter with these men has sparked:


“My encounter with ultra-religious men in the army was the first time I entered a world in which being myself meant existing in a universe where the rules for what I could or could not do rested primarily on my gender. As a female soldier, the so-called burden equality issue has a flip side: It would mean having to accept the burden of serving alongside thousands of individuals who see me as less than equal. For them, I could never be a soldier first; I would always be a woman, whose actions may spell danger to their most deeply held beliefs.”


In the end, Boianjiu doubted that either community – the secular or the religious – believed in the same nation. This clash, or should I say “spirited internal debates,” is played out with gusto all over the Islamic world, even within the boundaries of very religious, traditional contexts. Though the contrasts are less stark than between Israeli secular versus religious protagonists, the stakes in this existential tug-or-war can seem just as high.

My own takeaway for now: if you claim to worship and love a God who created men and women in his image (also a well-attested hadith) to rule together in this earth as His trustees, then somehow you are obligated to promote the dignity of three and a half billion humans, not only as wives and mothers, but also as citizens, professionals, business people, and leaders in all sorts of contexts, alongside their male counterparts. This starts with the curbing of all violence and harassment at home, in the streets and in places of work. This is a platform Muslims, Jews and Christians – of all people – should stand on.

[To be continued …]