"The worst enemy women have is the pulpit."
- Susan B Anthony
Characteristics of a domestic abuserA man who abuses his partner is jealous and possessive. He demands absolute submission from his partner. If she rebels against his will in any way, he gets angry and his anger is readily expressed in the form of physical violence. To his partner, he is omnipresent in all her physical and mental space. He knows everything that she does and everyone that she sees. He is all-powerful...
The above passage describes common characteristics of domestic abusers and the situations they create for their victims. However, this piece is not about domestic violence- at least not the human kind. The above passage also describes common characteristics of the Abrahamic God and the situation he creates for his followers, especially the female ones.
God as a domestic abuser- it sounds crazy. But the more I think about the relationship women have with their God and religion, I cannot keep this image out of my mind.
BackgroundI started thinking more about religion when I was teaching at a primary school in the UK. As a public school teacher in Canada, religious education is not a compulsory part of the curriculum. However, in the UK, even in secular public schools, a teacher is required to teach religious education at both the primary and secondary levels. As both an atheist and a feminist, I was very uncomfortable with having such an obligation forced on me.
Thus, I went searching on the internet to find a feminist critique of religion that would help me to better articulate my aversion to having to teach it. Although I found some useful essays, articles and websites, on the whole, I found discussion of this topic to be sadly lacking. Even one of my favourite feminist blogs, The F Word Media Collective, only has a few articles and podcasts exploring this theme, and all of them were wanting in critical analysis of the patriarchy that is inherent in all Abrahamic religions.
Why feminists are hesitant to critique religionFear of being labeled intolerant, prejudiced and/or racist is a major reason why many non-religious feminists steer clear of critiquing religion as Amy Clare explains in her article, “Why feminism must embrace reason and shun religion’’. Clare is surprised that even though feminists know that religious ideas harm women, they tolerate it or even apologize for it. “It is as though mainstream feminism has a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to religion”, she writes.
Recent discussions about Islamophobia in Canada illustrate Clare’s point argument all too well. To me, it is bizarre that we are at the point when Conservatives are saying that niqabs are oppressive while feminists are defending a Muslim woman’s "choice" to wear one. I have to pinch myself sometimes to make sure this is really happening. Do feminists really believe that this "choice" is really free- that it is in no way influenced by the families and communities of these women who have indoctrinated them into this system of belief since they were children? Are they ignorant about the reason why Muslim women cover their faces? Do they not see any connections between this practice and victim blaming? Or are many feminists just too scared to tell it like it is because they fear the social and political consequences of criticizing religion?
Religious feministsAnd what about those women who claim to be feminists and followers of major world religions?! How are they able to reconcile their advocacy for equality between the sexes and their “faith’’? Personally, I agree with Guardian columnist, Cath Elliot, that being a feminist and a believer in one of the world ’s major faiths is “an oxymoron’’. All major religious texts are filled with sexist ideas that have been and are still used to justify acts of violence against women. But, most importantly, at the centre of these "sacred texts" is the image of the ultimate patriarch- God. And let us be clear that God, Yahweh, Allah, or whatever you want to call him is a male deity whose words are interpreted by male prophets and whose institutions are run predominately by male leaders. How do religious feminists ignore this reality?
In her article, Amy Clare also examines some of the reasons why religious feminists say they are able to reconcile their faith and feminism. She says (and I quote) there are three main ones:
1) There are other verses/texts in the religion which actually promote equality and women’s rights.
2) The holy texts have been misinterpreted by misogynists and if interpreted correctly they actually promote equality.
3) The texts are irrelevant to the practice of the religion itself.
I will not bother reiterating Clare's insightful analysis of why these reasons just don't make sense as you can read them here. What I would rather do is get back to what I wanted to focus on in the first place: the psychology behind why many women cannot seem to get away from religion.
Victims of AbuseMy brothers they never went blind for what they did
But I may as well have
- Alanis Morisette
And so I come back to the image of God as a domestic abuser. It is although women (as a group) are in the ultimate abusive situation. God controls what they wear, what they eat, where they sit. He often puts them down and threatens to harms them physically. Sometimes he does harm them physically.
Yet, it seems that women are in denial, especially those that identify themselves as religious feminists. They make excuses for God's behaviour, excuses that sound an awful lot like those made by abused women."There are other verses/texts in the religion which actually promote equality and women’s rights." sounds a lot like, "He's not always this way... there's a good side to him too". The argument that "the holy texts have been misinterpreted by misogynists and if interpreted correctly they actually promote equality" resembles a victim's belief that she and the love she has for her abuser will be powerful enough to change him. The last reason, that "the texts are irrelevant to the practice of the religion itself" is ultimate denial. It is reminiscent of a victim pretending that the abusive part of her relationship doesn't exist. She creates her own fantasy version of the relationship in her mind, and this fantasy relationship is also the only one she shows to the outside world. Unfortunately, for her, and all female victims of the misogynistic religious ideas and practices, the reality is, the abuse is real.
SupportLook, I know I am being quite harsh. It's just that... I'm really irritated. The reason why is because I see a lack of critical thinking and questioning when it comes to religion by people in general, but especially by feminists. As an abolitionist feminist, I don't advocate for "harm reduction" in prostitution because I think it is an oxymoron. Prostitution is harm. I also think Christianity is harm. So is Judaism and Islam. Any system of belief that legitimizes the inferiority of women, discourages critical thinking, and promotes absolute submission to male authority does harm and is anti-feminist.
Yet, I do not advocate for laws that ban religion because I know they will do no good in the same way that it would do no good for me to forcibly remove a woman from an abusive situation.(But I will also not apologize for or defend religious beliefs and practices, especially those that are sexist like the wearing of the burqa.) All I can do is help the victim recognize that she is in an abusive situation, provide her with support, and hopefully she will decide to leave on her own. A similar approach should be adopted when discussing the topic of religion with religious feminists and those who defend them.
Building a new lifeImagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
- John Lennon
It is often difficult for a woman in an abusive relationship to imagine what her life would be like without her abuser as he works very hard to ensure that she is both financially and emotionally dependent on him. Very understandably, even if she decides she wants to leave him, she may be too afraid to face what is an uncertain future. Perhaps this too is one of the reasons why religious feminists find it difficult to leave their faith. They are told it is part of who they are. Their family and other social relationships are formed and maintained via religion. Therefore, holding and voicing a dissenting view about one's religion can lead to conflict and an identity crisis. Very understandably, religious feminists may be scared to leave their religion as they also face an uncertain future.
But fear and uncertainty are not a good enough reasons to stay in a bad situation. Once such feelings are conquered, the potential for a bright future lies ahead. When an abused woman finally leaves her abusive partner and begins a new life, she feels much better, more independent and confident. Similarly, when people start leaving religion, the lives of women and girls improve dramatically. And how do we know this? By looking at the least religious countries in the world and comparing them to the most religious countries in terms of gender equality. Not surprisingly, countries like Sweden, Denmark and Norway have highest number of organic atheists also have the highest levels of gender equality. Countries considered to be highly religious, like Pakistan, Nigeria and Iran have the lowest levels of gender equality.Coincidence? Methinks not.