Violence Against Women:
Roots and Cures in World Religions
By Daniel C. Maguire
The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions states it bluntly:
"The subordination of women to men became widespread in all
religions." This subordination is the primal violence from
which other forms of anti-woman violence are spawned. The Oxford
Dictionary's "all religions" has suggested to some that
religion is by its nature sexist and invariably the underwriter
of the abuse of women. That overstates the case, as the authors
of this volume demonstrate, but it is searingly true that the
world's religions contain some easily diagnosed-and some not so
easily diagnosed-inducements to violence against women. Those
judged inferior are more easily abused and, when their "inferiority"
is numenally blessed, the prejudice sinks deep, well-fed roots.
This book puts world religions on the stand as defendants and
then, by a kind of homeopathic medicine, the authors show how
those same religions contain the cures for the misogyny they have
caused and abetted. Religiously nourished illnesses require religious
cures. There is nothing that so enlivens the will as the tincture
of the sacred. Religiously grounded prejudice is most lethal.
The poet Alexander Pope said that the worst of madmen is a saint
gone mad. John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote that people will die
for dogma who will not stir for a conclusion. Both the poet and
the cardinal made the same point: religion is uniquely powerful
and not to address it when it is at the core of a problem is analytically
and sociologically naive.
Blunt accusations against religions are unpalatable to many
but until the guilt of religions is known and accepted, these
symbolic powerhouses will be more of a problem than a solution
to the pan-human suffering of girls and women. The world religions,
those that are theistic and those that are not, are flawed classics
and sometimes it is their flaws that thrive and become most influential.
The constructive moral revolutions they house get lost in the
swirl and morass of history. Nothing is more antidotal to religious
prejudice than the recovery of the ideals and sense of justice
that gave those religions birth. The authors in this book mine
the lost moral treasures in their traditions and marshal them
against the violence of sexism. Calling people before the bar
of their professed ideals is jolting and eye-opening. There are
renewable moral energies in all these religious classics and the
scholars of this volume seek them out and apply them to the healing
of women and of men-and to the healing of the religions themselves.
There are many advantages to approaching this problem in a collaborative
way, as this volume does, with scholars from Hinduism, Buddhism,
Taoism, Confucianism, Judaism, Protestant and Catholic Christianity,
Islam, and native indigenous religions. Facing together faults
that all share dismantles tenured defenses and dissolves some
barriers to hard analysis. Ecumenical dialogue too often suffers
from overweening politeness, as though ecumenism requires the
fudging of criticism of one's own religious tradition and, more
certainly, criticism of other religions. True dialogue can break
your heart, but the pain is prelude to the delight of growing
Thanks to a grant to The Religious Consultation on Population,
Reproductive Health and Ethics from The Windhover Foundation,
we recruited scholars from around the world and, over a two year
period, brought them together twice for four days of vigorous
and honest sessions. This kind of collegium-building could not
occur by e mail, fax, and telephone, though we also used all of
these communication modes. Candor grows in face-to-face sessions
like these and mutual critiquing improves and becomes more effective.
As someone trained as a Catholic theologian at the Pontifical
Gregorian University in Rome, I was baptized by immersion in many
of the classical treasures of the Christian West. This was a gift.
However, I was also equipped with blinders that all religions
impose on their devotees. Somehow I was able to ignore embarrassments
and skip around land mines in the Catholic tradition. Love is
blind not just in romance but also in the study of one's religion,
and this is common to all religions.
I visited the Dachau camp ten years after World War II. I was
keenly aware of the Nazi crimes but not sensitive to Catholic
complicity. I attended Mass in the lovely church in the village
of Dachau, some eighteen kilometers from the camp and within earshot
of the railroad. Mass was celebrated there all during the war
thanks to a Concordat between the Vatican and Nazi Germany. Pope
Pius XII felt this necessary to keep the sacraments, the media
of salvation, operative. He was not unaware of Nazi atrocities
but felt this compromise necessary to keep Catholic liturgy alive.
Only later did I acknowledge-with belated pain-that there were
times during that war when the smoke of incense from the Catholic
altar rose in the sky and commingled in unholy union with the
smoke of the murdered dead. None could call those liturgies worship.
Later yet I realized that there are areas in Latin America and
elsewhere where there are no Catholic liturgies because there
are no Catholic priests. Women and married men in those areas
are prepared and ready for ordination but the Vatican will not
accept them due to its celibacy requirement. Thus the holocaust
could be tolerated to keep liturgy going but the sacramental system
can be shut down sooner than allow a woman or a man married to
one to celebrate Mass. The implications of that are stark. All
this illustrates the art of strategic blindness skillfully practiced
by nations and religions
For a long time, I was able to avoid moral shock that my beloved
Thomas Aquinas joined Aristotle in teaching that women were a
biological mistake. In the process of generation, these men averred,
nature intended male perfection but obviously that does not always
happen-there are women. This is due to accidents in the conception
process. Thus a woman is aliquid deficiens et occasionatum,
as Thomas put it, something deficient and misbegotten. Thomas
followed through on this. He taught that children and even the
insane could be validly ordained as priests-as long as they were
male-but adult and healthy women could not be!
Description vs. Prescription
It is the role of religious scholars to identify the noxious
debris that has accumulated in the passage of time. The narratives,
myths, and scriptures of the religions never filter out all the
accrued errors. Therefore, religious scholarship proceeds most
effectively by looking for the mistakes and then finding correctives,
when possible, right within the same tradition. This is illustrated
in Christian scriptures by the contrast between two epistles:
Ephesians and Galatians. The Epistle to the Ephesians tells women:
"Be subject to your husbands as to the Lord: for the man
is the head of the woman, just as Christ also is the head of the
church...[women must be subject] "to their husbands in everything"
(Eph. 5:21-24) . Much in the literature of religions is descriptive
of the way things were, not prescriptive of the way things ought
to be. Ephesians' instructions on the servile status of women
accurately described the customs and gender injustice of that
day. The value of scriptures is in their prescriptive breakthroughs
which represent a correction of the status quo. Thus, in Galatians
3:28, the announcement is made that in the new and revolutionary
perspectives of the Jesus movement, all hostile divisions between
male and female, slave and free, Greek and Jew are washed away.
There is no longer any need to be "slaves to the elemental
spirits" of the time (Gal. 4:3). It is these creative discontinuities
that are the main targets of creative religious scholarship.
The Buddhist saying that all belief systems are illnesses in need
of a cure may overstate the case but it has a point. Religions
that cannot admit and work to correct their lethal errors and
flawed heroes do not deserve to survive .
The authors of this volume do not shy from this challenge.
Christine Gudorf, a Catholic theologian and world religionist,
shows how the history of the religious assault on women takes
us back to the fringes of pre-history where a multi-faceted patriarchy
prevailed. Thus "even the oldest of the contemporary world
religions" arrived in a world where patriarchal controls
were already in place, often "legitimated by prior religious
traditions now extinct." Gudorf notes that the control of
women was justified as protection "from supposedly incurably
violent and sexually predatory males," the irony being that
this "protection" made women "the economic and
social dependents of those same males."
Grace Jantzen of the University of Manchester in England,
writing as a Christian theologian, calls it all too "obvious"
that "the texts and traditions used to justify or condone
violence against women be dismantled one by one and liberatory
alternatives explored." This, however, she says, is not enough.
Some of the basic "conceptual foundations of traditional
Christian thought" need radical surgery, alteration, or rejection.
She cites covenant, theories of atonement through bloody sacrifice,
and the substitutional birthing through baptism as among some
of the doctrines requiring revision. In the spirit of this volume
she points to neglected themes and symbols in the biblical tradition
as curative alternatives needing development.
David Loy, a Buddhist, who has been teaching at Bunkyo
University in Japan, challenges the common interpretation of karma,
especially as related to women. Loy sees Buddhism as "not
what the Buddha taught, but what he started." He notes that
the Buddha encouraged "intelligent, probing doubt" meaning
that "we should not believe in something until we have established
its truth for ourselves." Thus the common and literal understanding
of rebirth dependent on karma needs critical attention and that
is what he gives it. This too common understanding makes karma
teaching a kind of "moral determinism," used, for example,
to tell sex workers that their ignoble calling is due to bad karma
from a past life. This obviously paralyzes social reform.
Better and revolutionary readings of the Buddha's insight can
be had and Loy offers them here.
Sa'diyya Shaikh, a Muslim theologian at the University
of Cape Town, is among the pioneers doing reinterpretations of
the Qur'an and Muslim traditions through the lens of women's experience.
She addresses the problem of "an intellectual legacy formulated
in the context of premodern gender norms" which entrenched
in much of Islam "a stagnant, ahistorical perspective of
gender born from patriarchal readings of the text." She proposes
"an active engagement with Islamic gender ethics as a living,
dynamic and contextually unfolding phenomenon." In this heartening
view, Islam is not to be seen as "a handmaiden of patriarchy"
since faithful "Qur'anic exegesis is woven intricately with
ever-expanding human conceptions of justice and equality that
sculp the living, emerging, social texts of Islam." She treats
"women's experiences as a conceptual category to redress
the historical gender imbalance."
John Raines of Temple University writes that religions
are gendered entities, although often presenting themselves as
something simply natural or God-ordained and therefore universally
true. The gendering of many religions is oppressively male. The
creator in Genesis is presented "as a Sovereign Outsider
who relate to the world by way of command. It is a male story
of power, a story of hierarchical command and control" affecting
the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Without
romanticizing any one religion, gentler models as those found
in some streams of Taoism can be corrective, as can a return to
more promising symbols in the Abrahamic religions themselves.
Raines cites the tendency in religions to caricature women's sexuality
and to blame them for everything including our mortality since
they give birth to a life destined to die.
Hsiao-Lan Hu, in studying the Chinese religions, shows
how all religious and cultural symbols can be abused with women
as losers. "Philosophical Taoism's elevation of the feminine
will not help much as long as women are considered the embodiment
of the yin force" and are then expected to be servile, accepting,
and subject to violence if they do not comply with this caricature.
The best Taoist contribution, she argues, lies in "its dynamic
understanding of seeming opposites." This can be a solvent
for the hostilities implicit in rigid dimorphism which casts male
and female into competitive opposition. Hsiao-Lan Hu shows the
Chinese culture is in fact four teachings in one, including Taoism,
Confucianism, Buddhism, and the Legalist tradition, a fact often
not understood by Western commentators. She also illuminates the
ambiguity of the word "religion" as we move from culture
Mutombo Nkulu-N'Sengha looks at the indigenous African
religions and finds there the ubiquitous problem of violence against
women braced by religion and various "patriarchal cultural
plagues." He focuses on the much discussed problem of female
genital excision He notes that "excision has survived and
even gained momentum despite more than one hundred years of war
to outlaw it." Well-intentioned Western commentators often
see it as simply a matter of male control of women. It is more
complex than that and until the full and depressing panoply of
causes entrenched in African culture is faced, this devastating
practice will not be rooted out. Professor Nkulu-N'Sengha goes
on to demonstrate that excision is actually opposed by many of
the central ideas of native African religions. Many of those ideas
are corrective not just of mutilation of women but are also instructive
for Western society's biases against women.
Veena Talwar Oldenburg, author of Dowry Murder: The Imperial
Origins of a Cultural Crime (Oxford University Press, 2002), explicates
how in Hinduism-in ways that parallel attitudes in Buddhism, Judaism,
Christianity, Islam and other religions-"female sexuality
is seen as dangerous, fickle, polluting, and potent, even emasculating,
and in strong need of male control." Religion reveals a perverse
virtuosity in its assault on women. Often, it stimulates violence
and at other times, it is employed as an effective coverup. Professor
Oldenburg looks at "the bewilderingly vast set of ideas,
beliefs, philosophies, epics, and legal and social treatises that
constitute the Hindu canon" and chooses the epic Ramayana
story because of how pervasive it has been and still is in Indian
culture. Indeed the ancient myths still play out in modern film
and media and Professor Oldenburg does redemptive surgery on many
of their perversely enduring messages.
Ouyporn Khuankaew is a Buddhist educator and practitioner
living in Thailand. She conducts workshops and retreats for Buddhist
women in South and Southeastern Asia, in Thailand Cambodia, Burma,
India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet. Her broad experience shows how
culturally ensconced male dominance has perverted Buddhist teaching,
particularly around the notion of karma. Buddhism is often romantically
viewed as the gentlest of religions, and it is true that it is
not conducive to Crusades or Jihads, but its teachings can be
used and are used to torture women in cruel ways that rob them
of their spirit and hope. Ouyporn Khuankaew counters all of this
in her work and her writing with the traditional teachings of
the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path, giving these
traditional teachings a new and healing meaning for women.
Liora Gubkin sheds antiseptic light on a subject that
has enjoyed undue immunity, domestic violence in the American
Jewish community. Citing the fact that one out of every three
U.S. women reports being physically or sexually abused by a husband
or boyfriend at some point in her life, she shows that Judaism
is no protection from this horror, in spite of widespread belief-even
among Jews-that this is not the case. She recognizes that not
all abusers are men but that men are the main abusers and she
concentrates on the suffering of women. She has researched the
number of helpful ways that the Jewish community is finally and
forcefully reacting to this situation in promoting education and
training to help abused women and girls, and she explores some
of the biblical texts used to justify violence against women.
Maria Jose Rosado-Nunes, professor at the Pontifical Catholic
University of Sao Paulo, reports on sexual violence in the Catholic
Church, citing studies from twenty-three countries. Joining professor
Rosado-Nunes is Regina Soares Jurkewicz who has conducted research
on the sexual abuse of women by priests in Brazil. The authors
document the extent of this abuse and the cynical care taken by
Catholic authorities to cover up this criminal violence. Frequently
the women are blamed for the sexual assaults of priests. The authors
argue that forced celibacy is a failed experiment and an invitation
to pathology. Many communities do not believe this and so cooperate
in persecuting these victimized women. The authors show that the
tragic Brazilian experience is illustrative of problems in other
countries also, including the United States. They find their slim
hope only in the fact of ongoing exposure.
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Throughout this volume, the authors do not want merely to deal
with problem texts and obviously damaging practices in the world's
religions. They go two steps beyond that, first by questioning
some of the sacrosanct fundamentals of these belief systems, and
then by reaching into these traditions for antidotal medicine.
The world's religions are classical, though flawed, efforts to
develop in humanity the essential art of cherishing The respect
they deserve is candid criticism and then a retrieval and application
of their neglected moral energies and healing powers. That is
the mission of the authors of this volume.
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