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Forgive Me Father For I Have Sinned

January 13, 2010

Flying Vajra Yogini by Tony III via Echoes Bouncing off Echoes

Is religion holding women down?

Nicholas Kristof thinks so.  Although he alludes to it in his recent bestseller “Half the Sky,” he comes out swinging in a recent column.

Around the world, women are subjugated in social contexts that “religion has helped to shape, not pushed hard to change,” he says.

So whether an active oppressor or a tacit facilitator, Kristof points a finger at religion as an accomplice in not only oppression that women have overcome, but still have yet to supersede.

I mostly agree, but that, of course, does not mean religion doesn’t have redeeming value as a social justice mechanism.

Kristof’s post is short, but the ramifications of what he says are much broader.  Though I don’t disagree with him (it’s hard, in the reproductive rights field, not to see the many ways in which religion has helped to oppress women), I suspect he doesn’t have all his facts.

I heard way too much feminist theology rhetoric in the halls of my divinity school to think that some of the more powerful, intelligent women scholars or theologians I know of might be immersed in a field that is, fundamentally, misogynist.

Then again perhaps there is something doubly empowering about mastering something that proposes you are not worthy or equal.  Simone Weil, for example, was a radical human rights activist and feminist who found strength in Christian mysticism.

And I can’t help but remember the feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s critique of Kristof’s “Half the Sky” chapter, called “Is Islam Misogynist?”:

“Their account of the religious history is too superficial to be useful. Nor do they give a systematic account of the wide range of contemporary movements that are both Islamic and feminist. Along the way, they feed some stereotypes that readers are all too likely to hold.”
– Martha Nussbaum

Finally Kristof offers a possible redemption for religion’s oppression of women, embodied in more “with it” religious leaders like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has so sensationally called himself a feminist.  But I’ve already discussed that here.

I’m less interested in what Kristof has to say than what the fall out or implications might be, for this is a fascinating and necessary conversation to have.  The comments readers have posted in response on his blog, are also worth the read, and help Kristof flesh out his somewhat slender argument.

17 Comments
  1. January 13, 2010 9:16 am

    I have problems with using Weil as any kind of role model since she starved herself to death more or less; a very bourgeois approach to protest when many women around the world face involuntary starvation, and one that emphasizes the particular Christian strain of bodily renunciation that has demonised women’s bodies for so long.

    • Jessica Mack permalink*
      January 13, 2010 9:23 am

      It’s true, Weil is a very extreme model to use. I’m not suggesting she’s a feminist role model writ large, but I do think she’s one interesting interpretation of what that might mean. I agree about voluntary starvation being a difficult contrast to deep poverty and involuntary hunger.

    • January 13, 2010 3:37 pm

      cmkempe: do you mean that voluntary starvation is always a bourgeois approach or that the specific way Weil applied it made it bourgeois?

  2. January 13, 2010 10:53 am

    I haven’t read Half the Sky yet (though it’s sitting on my bookshelf), and don’t know the specifics of the author’s theory, but I agree with you Jessica in that I find Kristof is making a sweeping statement regarding religion and women. I think that yes, there are certain rules and practices in religion that oppress women, but in some cultures women find refuge in religion because other parts of their life are oppressive. I’m curious to read about which religions Kristof uses in his argument (other than, as you mentioned, Islam)? I wonder if his treatment of each religion is the same. Given that he comes from a Western culture, I wonder what he how treats non-Western religions—is he playing off stereotypes (i.e. Islam oppresses women) or does he get into the crux of the matter—the religion itself in texts and practices?

    It’s interesting, because while I look forward to reading what Kristof has to say, I have heard somewhat harsh criticisms from feminists about Half the Sky.

  3. Colleen Hodgetts permalink*
    January 13, 2010 1:02 pm

    Working with domestic violence victims, I struggled with this idea almost every day. We served women who were told by their religious leaders to stay with their spouses despite the abuse. At the same time, many of my clients found a strength in their religion (I can think of examples from every religion across the board) that helped them survive when they had, literally, nothing else. Is the greater problem not a misogynistic manipulation of a nebulous idea of power that can happen with religion, government, or even relationships?

    • January 13, 2010 2:33 pm

      A similar experience that I had with the irony that you mentioned was with Islam and how it treats women. It was during the Peace Corps when I lived in Morocco that I experienced it first-hand. It was the women who were told by their religious leaders that they had specific roles in cleaning the house and taking care of their family. Women weren’t encouraged to go to school because of these strict gender roles. But these women were devoted to their religion. I was so caught up with this contradiction about women praising Allah yet it limited them to the home without an education. I finally understood (somewhat, still don’t completely understand) that many of these gender roles are not stated in the Quran. These rules were put into law many years later through Sharia law, written by (men) Muslim scholars.

      Colleen, you pose a great question. I’m not sure what kinds of “relationships” you are referring to (romantic, friendship, work-related, any/all, etc.) but in terms of religion and government, but we must remember that men ultimately started both concepts where they were and still are consistently mandated by the majority of men—as shown above (though we are seeing more and more women’s influence in religion in government). This influence does not mean that religions and governments are inherently sexist because of this, but due to the lack of cultural standpoint from the men there is a chance that inequalities between men and women in both of those institutions tend to negatively affect more women than men.

      That might be too broad of an answer. But I understand the predicament, and perhaps irony that you have in your experience with DV victims in their relationships with religion.

      • Jessica Mack permalink*
        January 13, 2010 9:36 pm

        Right now I’m reading “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and she’s struggling with exactly this: she’s completely devout and obedient in her younger years, as she’s expected to be but simply cannot understand how, if Allah is just, as the Koran says he is, women are expected to be obedient in ways that men are not. It is a simple issue of justice buried beneath complicated layers of social and cultural expectations. Although she is living her life out in many exemplary ways, as you know, as a strong and outspoken woman — not just about social and political issues, but also the way that Islam has been used to oppress women — she must live with the protection of armed guards wherever she goes.

  4. Connie De Vincent permalink
    January 13, 2010 4:21 pm

    The word religion is one I do not really care for…….Religion is of man he has taken parts of the bible and ways of the Lord and made a Religion out of it…be it Catholic ,Baptist or whatever……Go to the real source the most popular book ever written the Bible……Realize that we must all learn to leave according to the scriptures……This book will give us very good advice about living healthy well balanced lives every way …..Both physically and spritually which combined together makes up our body….This book does not oppress anyone following the rules makes us all better people….Just stop and think about it for one moment for how many years have you been living your life your way……and how many of you are pleased with the results……Try it his way the way of God……refuse to follow your cardinal feelings let them go…..Just try it….

    • January 13, 2010 4:28 pm

      Connie, since you are talking about the Bible specifically, I wanted to know your thoughts on how Christianity does not oppress women? Please be specific in your thoughts.

    • January 14, 2010 4:33 am

      You do realise that the Bible was written by men and, indeed, which parts of the Bible are canonical was determined by councils of men, right?

  5. Connie De Vincent permalink
    January 13, 2010 4:54 pm

    Christianity does not oppress women…….It makes us stronger more independent humans…….Our body is a temple it houses our sprit…When we follow the word we begin to understand how important we as woman really are…….We are not objects that have been created for the enjoyment of others…..If we just start by thinking about how intricate our bodies are…..The great design that no human on this earth could have ever even began to grasp the thought of……So we should not trust the instruction manual that has been provided to us when we entered into this world?

    • January 13, 2010 5:06 pm

      Connie, I understand your point of view, but could explain why, giving specific examples? I’m curious…

      • bee stein permalink
        January 14, 2010 7:52 pm

        Emily, the bible teaches that women should be subservent to their husbands. However, it also says that husbands should give their lives for their wives. This important distinction is not said in today’s society.

      • January 14, 2010 9:07 pm

        bee stein, I agree with you, and know examples of how and why the bible teaches that women should be subservient to their husbands. I just wanted to know Connie’s opinion, but she didn’t give any examples.

  6. Connie De Vincent permalink
    January 13, 2010 5:16 pm

    I will reply but must leave for now….

  7. Connie De Vincent permalink
    January 13, 2010 10:28 pm

    What type of examples are you talking about…….It says if you lust with your eyes pock them out…..That is true for men or women….however people read it as meaning men…….What we read in the bible is not certain parts for men and some for women it is for all of mankind……..You please explain to me……Thank you

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