The Religious Consultation
on Population, Reproductive Health  and Ethics

 revisiting the world's sacred traditions

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 in truth.

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.

Removing Blinders

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 to 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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