Can Women Get God on Their Side?
Former president Jimmy Carter and other world leaders issued this statement: "The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable." What's your reaction to these statements? Are 'male interpretations of religious texts' to blame for the 'deprivation of women's equal rights?'
There's not much debate about the continuing oppression of women in many, if not most, traditional societies and their modern offshoots. The important question, as the Buddha noted long ago, isn't why the house is on fire but how to get out of it as quickly as possible. In the West, where women have escaped the worst restrictions of sexism and enjoy something approximating equal rights, the key issue historically was the Catch-22 of chivalry. As heirs of the medieval Christian ethos coupled with romantic ideals, women were expected to depend upon the loving kindness of knight errants, men who retained all the power, did all the fighting, and bestowed the rewards as largesse on women. The catch was that any woman who claimed her own power violated the romantic-Christian ideal and had to pay the price. (Hence the slow transformation of women executives from power-hungry bitches to men's respected equals. A transformation by no means complete in the workplace.)
Outside the Western tradition there's a complex mixture of tribal forces that keep women from assuming power and equality. God hasn't been much help in this regard. Whatever the founders of world religion intended, the authority of priests has colluded in keeping women weak. I'm not sympathetic to the notion that religions embody equal rights at their core, and that present-day oppression is simply a deviation from that pure path. Every scripture is more favorable to males than females, at least all the ones I've encountered. When women are worshipped or venerated, their status has been idealized. The feminine principle may be beautiful, but your own wife and daughter can stay at home, barefoot, ignorant, and ready to bear children at your whim. That's the social reality imposed in tribal societies, and modernism has been slow to overturn its gross inequalities.
So back to the salient question: what can women do to change the situation? A touching story emerged recently about girls in Afghanistan and their eagerness to be educated. That's always the first step, along with basic consciousness raising. Basic means convincing women that they are worthy. The blood ran cold at those mass rallies organized under the Saddam regime in Iraq when screeching, irate women called for the punishment of Kuwaiti "whores" by a good Muslim man like Saddam. Interpretation: If a women strays from the tribal fold, her sisters, so called, are the first to drag her back into oppression.
Education and self-worth can do a lot, but eventually women confront a power barrier. No one cedes power willingly, all the more when the rise of the weaker sex is interpreted by men as the castration of the stronger sex. On the power front, situations get reduced to particulars, and every case must work itself out according to which men face which women. It helped Hillary Clinton in 1992 that a forceful women's movement was on her side, but she still had to go through the fire alone when it came to her remark about not staying home and baking cookies. The majority of American women call themselves feminists, or at least feminist sympathizers who want more equality, yet it was women as a voting bloc who gave Bush the White House a second time -- in an ironic throwback, he became their knight errant protecting them from the dragon of Islamic jihad.
There are no magic formulas here. Education, consciousness raising, and individual claims to power are tried and true steps if women want to attain equality. Will God ever be on their side? In reality, yes, of course. An omnipresent God doesn't discriminate. We are all in God and of god. But insofar as religion was organized by males, interpreted by males, presided over by males, etc., I find myself believing in the power of consciousness much more than the benevolence of the pulpit.
July 21, 2009; 11:24 AM ET
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