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Does “religion” subjugate women? 14 June 2006

Posted by TwentyTwoYards in Islam and contemporary society.
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Cards on the table – I am going to be cheeky today and pass off my comments on Sabizak's blog as a fresh update. Its fresh enough for the 2.4 readers of Bakkah, so hopefully no one will mind frightfully or throw a fit; as a wider point, the treatment of women in Islam is an issue that I have been asked about separately, so let this be the opening gambit in that long discussion over the coming months…

A comment was made, in reference to Dan Brown's "masterpiece"*, that the book would have been far more worthy had it actually delved more into the issue it raised in passing – namely, the role of religion, over the ages, in the subjugation of women. Sounds a fairly innocuous notion, right? Religion, ie all man-made religions, have been oppressive to women and subjugated them – surely there can be no disagreement?

umm…sorry..there can be. I am not sure if religion has played such a central role – sure, it has been used for this end, of course, but then so has everything else. Historically, have religious societies been more intolerant of women's rights than irreligious ones? I doubt it.

As the context is Dan Brown, let's assume that when we talk of man-made religion, we talk of Christianity – focuses the discussion, instead of letting it roam wildly from Buddhism to Judaism, through Hinduism and Shintoism..and not forgetting Mr Cruise's Scientology!

So let's take Christianity – I do agree that the Catholic church must take a lot of blame in oppressing Christian women over the centuries, but then it has a long list of groups it has oppressed, and women probably come behind Jews and Muslims and gypsies, statistically! However, what was before Christianity, was hardly better, was it? Roman Christianity was preceded by the Greek philosophers and the works of some early Greek philosophers were decidedly disparaging towards women. For instance, Aristotle argued that women were "not full human beings and that the nature of woman was not that of a full human person". So, in his view, "women were by nature deficient, not to be trusted and to be looked down upon". In fact, some writings describe that many of the ancient Greek women had positions no better than animals and slaves.

Hence, the subjugation and oppression of women seems to be inherent in most societies, cultures and philosophies – religion (ie Christianity, in this context) is by no means the only or even the main culprit.

Carrying the discussion into our times, I have not come across any substantial body of research which would indicate that women in current-day pagan cultures or societies have historically had a better deal than those, for instance, in Christian Europe. In fact, women in tribal cultures, eg in sub-saharan Africa, or in 'indigenous' communities, continue to live under some pretty appaling regimes – FGM, witchcraft, etc are not only widely practiced but also encouraged..and religion, at least in the form of the three allegedly monothestic faiths, has nothing to do with it.

I have been careful to focus the above on "man-made" religions; my belief, as a Muslim, is that Islam does not fall into that category, and its divine origins ensure that it is completely fair and just towards everyone, in all instances – men and women; workers and capitalists; the rulers and the ruled; and so on. Islam's justice and fairness would be absolute. Sad that the reality is so different – but then the blame for that is with us as Muslims, is it not?

More on that another day…

*PS: I read Dan Brown's (comic) "book", and unsurprisingly, did not think much of it. Who does? Hardly anyone I know. But everyone's read it nonetheless. It takes a perverse sort of "literary" genius to write trash, get the writing universally acknowledged as mindless tripe, but still, convince the very people who deem it to be tripe to fork out their 7 quid to peruse it. A glorious triumph for marketing, perhaps? Or maybe I am just jealous at Brown's gazillions…

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Comments»

1. sabizak - 14 June 2006

Thanks for dropping by on my blog and leaving such detailed comments. I would like to respond. Let me just gather my thoughts and the one hundred and thirty seven clothes strewn across my room that need to be ironed, and i will be back :)
You write with great force and conviction, btw.

2. orchid - 16 June 2006

You are right, the status of women historically has been no different in societies where some form of religion existed and those where none did. In most cases, isn’t it just a case of taking whatever was the custom before a particular religion was embraced and continuing with it?

Religions can stipulate one thing but it’s upto the followers to interpret and follow them. In the end, those that are powerful and influential get them interpreted the way that suits them best and use it to their advantage. It’s only natural then, that since men have been powerful and influential in most societies, religions (and other things ofcourse) have been used to safeguard their stranglehold.

3. Abu Abdur Rahman - 16 June 2006

Sabizak – thank you for the comment and look forward to your reply. Hope the ironing is progressing well :-)

Orchid – you are right to an extent, that in the case of the ‘false religions’, it really is “a case of taking whatever was the custom before a particular religion was embraced and continuing with it” so blaming the religion would be misplaced (only to an extent, one could argue that the religion should have prevented such outrages) – of course, this statement of yours does not extend to Islam, in that the pre-Islamic and ignorant customs were completely negated and stopped by Islam, not only in theory but also in practice. That was the case not just in Hijaz (Western Arabia) but also many other regions of the world – though I do agree that in Hijaz, almost all the pre-Islamic customs and rites were rooted out; unfortunately, the transformation was less perfect and relatively incomplete in some other regions, notably parts of sub-Saharan and Central Africa as well as South Asia.

It’s only natural then, that since men have been powerful and influential in most societies, religions (and other things ofcourse) have been used to safeguard their stranglehold.

I think that’s too much of a generalisation – every society and culture has had its elites and these elites (which include the men and the women) have used whatever tools they had to continue their preeminent position – to understand this as “women v men” is to trivialise it; the issue is oppression and subjugation, and the usurpation of the legitimate rights of the vast majority of mankind (og all races and sexes) by a tiny minority.

Actually, this is the reason that those who accept the message of any Prophet, whether its Musa (Moses), Eesa (Christ), Nuh (Noah) or the Noble Messenger Muhammad (sallalaahu alaihi wassalam) are first and foremost the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, whether men or women, and those who vehemently oppose this message are the elites of the respective societies. This is because the message of Islam, whether in the time of Eesa or Musa, or in the time of Muhammad, or in our time, is revolutionary by its nature and not something the entrenched elite would find too palatable, unless they fear Allah.

4. knicq - 17 June 2006

Surprisingly, I just wasted my 35 dirhams on the Dan Brown trash, and then wasted two perfectly good days reading it… by the time I was finished though I was wondering just what the hoopla was about?

Here’s a guy propogating paganism, bizarre sexual rituals, and essentially making it all holy and sacred. A lot of trash has been written before this, and a lot more will be written. What is surprising is that this book was made into the phenomenon it has become today…

Was it because it promised to touch upon some serious questions when it made for the skeletons in the Vatican’s closet?
I am still amazed by the fact that something started out with such a reasonable premise, and a book that raised some potent questions in the beginning lost its way so frightfully so as to end up condoning paganism.

The book kept me in its grip for two days, and it was fun trying to solve the mystery, and it would have been a very good mystery novel for me, had it not assumed religious overtones… but once it did, it became drivel. What after all was the conclusion?

And why after such an absurd conclusion did it become the best seller?

Is one to think that the spiritual vacuum in the modern world that has resulted from the clergymen hijacking religions in all parts of the world has become so big that even such gibberish presumably asking spiritual questions is so readily accepted?

5. the olive ream - 17 June 2006

Personally, I believe that the subjugation of women or even minorities (for the sake of discussion), stems from a personal inadequacy; an inferiority complex perhaps. The desperate need to restrict, reform, correct and confine another is deeply rooted in the need for upmanship, to feel powerful, to desperately fill the void to be right and to be in control.

Majority of the times it is the flawed / archiac traditions of a culture that are followed without questioning. Ethnocentricity, Arrogance, Ignorance and intolerence are the real reasons for subjugation, which are then justified with skewed interpretation of and inappropriate labelling of ‘Religion’.

Great topic for discussion, and a highly relevant post. A great read!

6. Abu Abdur Rahman - 18 June 2006

Knicq – a pleasure hearing from you and I am sure Mr Brown will be delighted to read the kind words about his “masterpiece”. You hit it square on the head when you say: “A lot of trash has been written before this, and a lot more will be written. What is surprising is that this book was made into the phenomenon it has become today… ”

The success of this book probably says a lot more about the world we live in; how it yearns for spirituality but only gets quacks and witchdoctors; how it tries to complicate and overanalyse even the simplest of emotions and the most obvious of facts; how a conspiracy is imagined in everything; how people look for answers to the questions of life, but end up with more questions then they started out with… but then you have said that already!

This book is nothing more than a tatty and low-grade eulogy to paganism… but the daft plotline, the demented dialogue and the trashy rituals just make it so much more unbearable :-)

7. Abu Abdur Rahman - 18 June 2006

the olive ream – that's some sound analysis; you have succinctly summarised in a few sentences what I would have struggled to do in many rambling pages, long-winded paragraphs and through countless detours!

It's also a good idea to include all minorities as opposed to just women in this discussion about subjugation, as you have done; I feel that it may be even more appropriate to extend this to any subjugated group, even if its the majority. It is not uncommon for a tiny or relatively small but powerful and well-entrenched elite to oppress, manipulate and control the majority. Many rulers have been doing this since time immemorial – in fact, one could argue that the political and economic elite's manipulation of the reality and the perception of the masses through modern mass media in the US, for instance, is yet another manifestation of that.

You write that: Majority of the times it is the flawed / archiac traditions of a culture that are followed without questioning. Quite. However, sometimes the problem is not due to flawed or archaic traditions, but is quite modern. The zealousness of many secularists, especially in the EU, to force-feed everyone their brand of social-democratic utopia, stamping out all criticism and even outlawing anti-establishment messages and voices, is perhaps a very modern manifestation of the ancient/traditional intolerance, ignorance and bigotry you refer to.

There are other instances too, where the ignorance and arrogance we see around us is actually bred by the modern culture of greed and avarice, and feeds off the all-conquering materialism and consumerism that prevails today…

8. orchid - 6 July 2006

Just when the discussions were beginning to sound interesting with not just the women but other minorities being included in this mix too, suddenly every thing seems to have quietened down.

Didn’t the author tell his 2.4 readers to expect regular updates, somewhere?

9. knicq - 8 July 2006

There ought to be a law against people not updating this long….

I am not about to believe you are out of topics to blog about…

There’s the whole frenzy surounding the FIFA world cup, and if not that I am sure you have something to say about ICC’s decision not to allow appeals against the umpires because such appeals would ‘undermine the authority of an umpire’. Now there’s a juicy topic…

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