Sunday, January 10, 2010

Women and religion

In the New York Times, Nicholas D Kristof asks,
Religions derive their power and popularity in part from the ethical compass they offer. So why do so many faiths help perpetuate something that most of us regard as profoundly unethical: the oppression of women?
Mr Kristof's question betrays a commonly held naive point of view and an ignorance of history.

Anyone who's taken more than a passing interest in the development of religion, particularly monotheistic religion, will have observed that most of it is a form of organised misogyny and a convenient way to legitimise the theft and control of women's bodies and property. I first took an interest in the feminine in mythology as an art student in the '60s, when I made goddess figures in two and three dimensions and read about them in art history.

"Faith" is part of a con. It usually requires the faithful to submit to a higher male authority, which is effectively the manifestation of a collective wish for power. Hence the monotheists' obsession with sex; it's only by enforcing control over procreation that one can be reasonably sure that your progeny really are yours, and that your goods and chattels will be inherited by the right male heirs. Throughout most of the history of Christianity, society has been ruled by ecclesiastical law that determined what women could or couldn't do. Women were (and still are) regarded as second or even third class citizens, forced into marriage by their male relatives, unable to inherit, always the guilty party in cases of sexual indiscretion. This is still true in Islamist states, while British law regarding women's rights has only been changed in our favour relatively recently.

In the pre-Judeo-Christian era, religion in and around the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was matriarchal. Women were equal or even dominant. The paternity of children wasn't considered important or even recognised, as the whole community cared for them. Modern Pagans still value the feminine and treat women with respect, unlike adherents of the newer religions who portray Paganism as uncivilised. It's interesting how, as Merlin Stone pointed out, the history of matriarchal religions has mainly been written by male historians, whose interpretations of the sources were heavily biased.
Every religion oppresses women. I talk about the Koran because I know this book best. It allows for torture and other mistreatment, especially for women. And I despise the Sharia laws [the code of law based on the Koran]. They cannot be changed. They must be thrown out, abolished.

Taslima Nasrin (1962- ), Bangladeshi physician, poet, feminist and novelist.

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