The religious right in the UK, Europe and North America have for some time been orchestrating an offensive against the late 20th century status of women as equal partners to men. Their attack falls particularly on working class women, since women from the upper class, whilst often still oppressed by their men folk, are nonetheless shielded from many of the levels of oppression experienced by those without wealth. This attack on working class women has intensified as the austerity cuts are being made in the areas of social and welfare provision most used by women. One of the lines of attack spearheading the onslaught against women has been an ideological and practical assault against a woman’s right to choose.
The hard-won right for a woman’s right to choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy is once again under threat – ideologically and practically. In some 21st century cultural sectors a woman’s right to choose her life partner is also refused. And in many places a woman’s right to choose to retain her sexual organs intact is being denied. A powerful ideological weapon rationalising and justifying all these kinds of denial of a woman’s right to choose how to live, is the use of religiously authorised beliefs. These beliefs and the system which promotes them, need to be strongly confronted. The religious right is also mounting a campaign against the concept of evolution – and this is not surprising for the theory of evolution undermines the religious view of the origin of life and the role of women.
Partisans of the three main religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam often claim to be in the business of promoting the cause of a better, more humane relationship between human beings. This should be strongly challenged for, as we shall see from the evidence below, religion is not some innocent mystical belief system, but a system of patriarchal governance. This means religion cannot possibly produce better, equal or more humane forms of interaction between human beings. What follows is the third section of a chapter of a book I am currently writing which deals with ‘Monetheism’s promotion of – malice, murder, misogyny, mammon, militarisation and monarchy. It is a section which considers the attitudes to women promoted and authorised by the respective holy scriptures of the three monotheistic religions.
Monotheism, Motherhood and Misogyny.
Not content with malice and the actual murder of pagans and so-called ‘back-sliders‘, the originators and leaders of monotheism were also severely prejudiced against women. The process of transcending female rights was already under way, within ‘civilised‘ pagan communities such as Greece. For some time in the near east, the cradle of monotheistic ideology, patrifocality and patriarchy had already begun to replace matrifocality and matrilineality.
Nevertheless, within the pagan religious realm, fertility goddesses and femininity still had a secure, if in some places a less prominent profile. As the Greek historian Herodotus informs us, some communities at his time of writing, still adhered to the reckoning of family descent by the female line. This too was to become universally undermined with the onset of monotheistic dominance. Yet an interesting and sinister twist to the role of women in the reproduction of the human species, was also fashioned by the founders of monotheism. They replaced the prevalent pagan views of feminine fertility and sacredness by the introduction of a masculine principle, a superior male god who was creator of everything – including fertility – and of course the myth of the non-sexual creation of the first man – Adam.
It is obvious now, and was then, that every human being, male and female, is conceived in the female womb and born of woman. That this has been the pattern for the whole of the existence of the human species (not to mention other species) is also obvious. In reproduction, apart from the act of coitus, women play almost exclusively the leading and most important part. For approximately nine months after ovum fertilisation, those destined to be male (or female) are protected and nurtured by the internal placental structures of the female body. Men in actual fact have emerged from the bodies of women since the species Homo-Sapiens evolved from its suggested previous pongoid condition – and even then males emerged out of female bodies – as they do out of all mammalian species. Even after birth, babies were then (and often now) entirely dependant upon female lactation for nourishment until they were weaned.
Yet the originators of monotheism were particularly anxious to conceptually reverse this natural biological predominance and claim the opposite – that women emerged from the body of a man! Under the Judaic/Christian monotheistic creation ideology, the first woman emerged from the extracted rib of the first man. This bizarre fantasy caesarean cloning operation, supposedly conducted by God on a sleeping Adam (Genesis 2 v 21/22.), is utter nonsense, yet this fiction has been used by monotheists to justify the most oppressive relationships and acts with regard to the generative and nurturing half of the human species. Monotheism, from its outset, was utterly dedicated to achieving the complete subordinate of women to men. Women priests, common under paganism, were not to reappear for over two-thousand years and then only in limited numbers and in one or two denominational areas. Women’s involvement in religious rituals was also limited to the mundane, except somewhat later, in the context of the harsh conditions of the monastic life of a nun. Having put the blame on this fantasy ‘spare-rib’ first woman and a talking snake, for bringing about knowledge of good and evil, Judaic monotheist authors put into their Gods mouth the following;
“..in pain you shall bring forth children, and you shall be dependent on your husband, and he shall rule over you. (Genesis 3 v 16.)
The new patriarchal supremacy and the rule of men over women was in this way given an imagined divine authorisation. The perpetuation of this pejorative myth and the use to which such negative assertions were later put, is made clear in the Christian gospels.
“For the man was not created from the woman; but the woman was created from the man. Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman was created for the man.” (1 Corinthians 11 v 8-9.)
Here again we have in the New Testament, as we had in the Old, the actual process of biological reproduction is reversed. And the purpose was exactly the same. The male female relationship was not to be a choice for each community or individual woman and man, but the monotheistic rule for all. By reference to the exceptionally crude creation myth contained in Genesis, the actual primary biological role of womanhood in producing men and the whole species of humanity, was thus denied by Judaic and Christian monotheism. However, not to be left out of this patriarchal distortion of where men first come from we read the following from the Qur‘an;
“Recite the name of your Lord who created man from clots of blood…” (Surah 96:1.) “Say; ‘It is He who created you…..Say it is He who placed you on the earth…” (Surah 67:23-24.)
The real role of women in reproduction, if lacking some scientific details, had been known long before the suffocating embrace of monotheism, for, as already noted, it had been the norm for lineage in ancient times to be calculated through the female line. This was true of Arab culture as well as other tribal cultures, throughout the world, including those in the near East. It was reckoned so precisely because for a long time it was only the role of women in procreation that was clearly and definitively known. Until the role of sperm was exactly known, the connection of the male to reproduction was not automatically obvious. The nine or so months between copulation and birth in non-monogamous communities, didn’t exactly make this clear either. Exact motherhood was definite, exact fatherhood, until monogamy and increased reproductive knowledge, was less so. Although this previous matrilineal and natural norm had been in many ways superseded in later pagan times, even then there could be no mistaking the important socio-biological role of femininity. Yet even this role was ideologically downgraded by monotheism.
All this is now well known. It is also now known that all the vital mitochondrial DNA in a human being is inherited solely from the female. The male sperm sheds its mitochondria along with its tail when it penetrates the ovum. So in modern times we know exactly how much we owe biologically as well as socially to our women folk. Yet so powerful is the monotheistic ideological hold that in the 21st century, many fervent believing monotheists still insist on the subordination of women to men. Many monotheists still refuse to grant women equal positions in their religious rituals. In the real life of human beings there is no ‘higher power’ than that of reproduction and parenting the species.
To elevate an unknowable, invisible ’higher male power’ such as God or Allah, religion, (as with ’country’, ‘party’, or ‘race‘) above humanity is to reveal an ignorant, arrogant and patriarchal side of humanity. Ignorant, because it subordinates the real source of the gift of life itself (from the natural world, ones parents and grandparents) and replaces it with a mythical invention. It is arrogant, because without a shred of verifiable evidence, the religious mind-set adopts a smug certainty of knowledge based purely on ‘belief’. It is patriarchal, because despite a rhetoric of ‘church’ and ‘community’ the primary motive of the religious mind-set, apart from individual contentment and hoped for salvation, is the supremacy of men. The manufacture of male creation myths and the denial of a prominent place in religious, political and communal life to women was done in order to consolidate and continue the complete social subordination of the female gender to the male. And such subordination of the main nurturer of the human species required a strongly prejudiced attitude against women to be developed among monotheistic inclined men. With one notable, and revealing, exception.
b) The Madonna.
On the surface, and at first consideration, it may seem that in the guise of Madonna, Mary the mother of Jesus, Christianity contradicted the Old Testament view of woman as cursed and as the reason for the ‘fall of man‘. However, the exception in this case only serves to prove the rule. This dilemma would not have occurred but for a decisive change within the religious aspirations of some of the Jewish followers of the devoutly Jewish character Jesus. With their decision to allege his divinity, in the form of a son of God, his appearance on earth had to be retrospectively explained and a back story written.
For this, his mothers’ status required some theological adjustment. His earthly fathers’ pro-creative status (Joseph) had to be removed and replaced by God. The phrase the ‘son of man’ in the line of David, in some parts of the New Testament, thus became revised into the ‘son of God’ and this was ‘explained’ by the invention of ‘immaculate conception’. Thus Mary’s status was suddenly elevated from a normal mother to the human mediated vehicle for the transportation of a supposed divine entity into a human form. Later the elevated status of this one woman needed official recognition – as the one and only exception!
The veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is still strenuously upheld in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches of Christianity, whilst all other women remained second class citizens in every way. A consideration of religious history indicates that this stature, granted to Mary, did not notably improve the status of women within the jurisdiction of the Catholic or Orthodox Christian faiths. A clue of further theological self-imposed confusion is also provided by the appellation of the oxymoronic title of Virgin Mary, mother of God.
In real life a virgin cannot be a mother and a mother cannot be a virgin. Yet in the Christian branch of monotheism this irresolvable contradiction is overcome theologically by further use of the imagination and suspended rationality. The high status afforded to Mary, does not arise directly from her femininity but from her being the alleged vehicle for delivering a male Messiah – Christ. Because of this so-called ‘immaculate conception’ an exception was made for this one woman with the imaginary and contradictory status of being at the same time both a virgin – much prized by patriarchal controlling men – and a mother – also highly considered by children. For the rest of femininity the second-class status was perpetuated by male inspired, unflattering ideas of contamination, unseemliness and witchcraft, which permeated monotheism and often still does. The form these religious ideas took had their own trajectory and impetus, and led within monotheism to the phenomena of an ideologically constructed, deep-seated misogyny.
The monotheistic prejudice against women, and the subsequent drift or rather descent into misogyny has been noted earlier, with regard to the torture and burning of alternative women healers alleged to be witches by the Catholic Inquisition. However, it is revealing to consider the elements of monotheistic ideology which formed the initial foundations upon which this horrific treatment of women was erected. Having reversed the importance of women and men in the production of new life, the Judaic monotheist ideology then blamed women for the alleged offence of disobeying a divine instruction and had God authorise the subjection of women.
“And the Lord God said;…in labour you shall bear children. You shall be eager for your husband and he shall be your master.” (Genesis 3 v 16.)
Both the mythically contrived blame and the subordination of women to men are at least an indication of monotheistic Judaism’s view of women as inferior to men, if not direct evidence of misogynist practices. However, the need to justify this subordination of women led the authors of the Torah/Old Testament, to also consider reproductive femininity as unclean. An essential aspect of reproduction and maternity (prior to menopause) is the monthly flow of placental nutrients and ovum which if not utilised are discarded by the female body. This fact was used consistently by monotheists to justify women’s removal from full social integration and this important regular release of unused nutrients was used against them to label them as unclean – echoes of which still linger today. Here is what Judaic monotheistic scripture has to say on the topic;
“And if a woman has a discharge of blood, and her discharge is in her body, she shall be put apart for seven days in her menstruation, and whosoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. And everything upon which she lies…shall be unclean…and sits upon..” (Leviticus 15 v 19/20.)
Leviticus (18 v 20) also instructs males not to have sexual intercourse with women during their period of menstruation, a direction, which if followed is bound to make a woman feel as emotionally uncomfortable as a period can make her physically uncomfortable. However, if both partners decide to ignore this intrusive instruction, then further directives are outlined.
“And if a man shall lie with a woman having her menstruation and shall be intimate with her, he has uncovered her fountain and she has uncovered the fountain of her blood; and both of them shall be cut off from among their people.” (Leviticus 20 v 18.)
This theme of female inferiority due to menstruation is continued elsewhere – for example in Isaiah and Ezekiel (33 v 22 and 18 v 6 respectively.). And in line with the other patriarchal monotheists, the Qur’an also displays a similar revulsion for female menstruation as a form of contamination.
“And they ask you about menstruation. Say: It is a discomfort; therefore keep aloof from the woman during the menstrual discharge and do not go near them until they have become clean;..” (Qur’an Surah 2: 222. ‘The cow’.)
Although not as obsessed with the alleged unseemliness of natural bodily fluids as the Torah/Old Testament, the New Testament nevertheless builds upon the Old Testament misogyny and still perpetuates the monotheistic subordination of women. Thus;
“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection….For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and she transgressed the law.” (1 Timothy 2 v 11, 13 and 14.)
“Let your women keep silent in the church for they have no permission to speak; but they are to be under obedience as it is said in the law.” (1 Corinthians 14 v 34.)
Not to let the monotheistic side down, at least in this patriarchal respect, the Qur’an suggests that;
“Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the others,….Good women are obedient….As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them.” (‘Women’ Surah 4: 34.)
Not surprisingly, many Muslim men did precisely that which the Qur’an authorised and the struggle for human rights and equality is still being fought by women within 21st century Islamic communities. As Fatima Mernissi expresses it;
“As for the violence in the ancestral cities, it was women who were its most quiet victims and most silent scapegoats….It is these centuries of misogyny, cultivated as tradition in the corridors of caliphal despotism, that Muslim women are now challenging.” (F. Mernissi. ’Islam and Democracy’. Pub Virago. Page 153 and 156.)
There was an additional source of misogynist tension between the patriarchal monotheists and femininity. Sexual feelings are immensely strong in both sexes and under patriarchy they were (and are) subject to severe forms of control. Hence, the practice in some religiously influenced cultures of the removal the female clitoris. The attraction of women for men and visa-versa in this distorted view was seen as entirely negative. Women were seen as actual or potential temptresses and men viewed as too easily tempted.
Sex unless strictly controlled and authorised by the ‘pater familias‘ was projected as a sin. In this way yet another natural, biological condition was seen as an inbuilt weakness in men and a critical flaw in women, thus adding another ingredient to the phenomena of monotheistic misogyny. This negative view of sexuality was taken to its theological conclusion within Christianity in the theory and practice of celibacy. A conclusion which is completely illogical from a perspective of the continuance of humanity and again demonstrates the inversion of reality by the delusive mentality of monotheistic religions. [See also’The shooting of Malala’][ ‘Religion and Violence’. and Religion is Politics!]
R. Ratcliffe. (February 2012.)
For a copy of the full chapter on ‘monotheism, murder and mammon etc‘., email a request to firstname.lastname@example.org.