Reviewed by Johann Hari – 02 July 2009
After all the arguments for subordinating women have been shown to be self-serving lies, what are misogynists left with? They have only one feeble argument that is still deferred to and shown undeserving respect across the world, even by people who should know better: “God told me to. I have to treat women as lesser beings, because it is inscribed in my Holy Book.”
Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom are the editors of Butterflies and Wheels, the best atheist site on the web. In Does God Hate Women? they forensically dismantle the last respectable misogyny. They argue: “What would otherwise look like stark bullying is very often made respectable and holy by a putative religious law or aphorism or scriptural quotation . . . They worship a God who is a male who gangs up with other males against women. They worship a thug.”
Every major religion’s texts were written at a time when women were regarded as little better than talking cattle. Their words and commands reflect this, plainly and bluntly. This book starts with a panoramic sweep across the world, showing – with archetypal cases – how every religion has groups today thumping women down with its Holy Book.
In Zamfara State in northern Nigeria, a pregnant 13-year-old girl called Bariya Ibrahim received 180 lashes of the cane in 2001 after being pimped by her father. The state’s attorney general said: “It is the law of Allah, so we don’t have anything to worry about.” In Jerusalem, ultra-Orthodox Jews have set up “modesty police” who terrorise young women who talk to men or show ordinary parts of their bodies. They break into their homes if they are seen with men; they force them to sit at the back of the bus, away from the men; and they even, in one recent instance, sprayed acid in the face of a 14-year-old girl.
In the areas of India still dominated by orthodox Hinduism, a widow is still expected to commit suicide when her husband dies, or go into isolation in an ashram. One – a septuagenarian woman named Radha Rani Biswas – fled and now begs on the streets of Vrindavan. She said: “My son tells me: ‘You have grown old. Now who is going to feed you? Go away.’ What do I do? My pain has no limit.” And on the directory of divine misogyny goes, running through Catholicism, Mormonism and more. Benson and Stangroom note: “Religion doesn’t necessarily originate ideas about female subordination, but it lends them a penumbra of righteousness, and it makes them ‘sacred’ and thus a matter for outrage if anyone disputes them.”
Methodically, they go through the excuses offered for these raw abuses of human rights by the religious, and their apologists.
The first – especially beloved of the Vatican and Islamists – is that women are not being treated worse, just “differently”. They claim that it accords a woman special “dignity” to trap her in the home. But this is an abuse of language. As the authors note: “Permanent consignment to a limited and lesser role in the world is not what ‘dignity’ is generally understood to mean . . . The smallness and intimacy and relatedness of home are fine things, but not if one is confined to them permanently.”
The religio-misogynists then claim that it is “racist” or “imperialist” to oppose such abuses. This merrily ignores how women within these cultures protest against their treatment – very loudly. They aren’t objecting to being imprisoned in their homes, or having their genitalia cut, or being stoned for having sex, because a white person told them to. Benson and Stangroom put it well: “Multiculturalism by definition makes a fetish of cultures, and it is almost impossible to do that without treating them as monolithic. As soon as you admit that all cultures have internal dissent and nonconformity, the whole idea of protecting or deferring to particular cultures breaks down into incoherence.”
Then the gentler, nicer apologists for religion arrive. They say that misogynists are simply misinterpreting the holy texts, which are in fact about love and compassion and kindness. But the authors point out this is certainly not the God of the texts who orders his followers to commit mass murder, including of women and children, and explicitly says women are inferior beings.
So, in order to defend their God, the apologists often have to lie about what He and His Prophets “say” in the texts. Cherie Blair, for example, claimed in a lecture: “It is not laid down in the Quran that women can be beaten by their husbands.” But it quite plainly is. The Quran says: “If you fear high-handedness from your wives, remind them [of the teachings of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them.”
Karen Armstrong – one of the most egregious defenders of superstition – repeatedly claims that Muhammad was an emancipator of women. Yet it is explained in the Hadith (the sayings and traditions of the Prophet) that he married a prepubescent child, and that when he was given two slave girls he gave the ugly one away to a friend and kept the beautiful one, Maryam, to use sexually. It is a strange model of female emancipation, to sleep with children and slaves.
There are people in all religions who have – through theological contortions – managed to leave behind literal readings of the text and invent a less foul God to believe in. It is not for atheists to say that one group of believers is right and the other is wrong, as we think they’re all wrong. We can note that the less literalist a believer is, the easier he is to live beside, but we will only discredit literalism and force reform if we are honest about the words of the texts, rather than trying to soft-soap believers.
By the end of this book-length blast, Benson and Stangroom have left religious hatred of women in rubble. Anybody not addled by superstition will have to conclude that such bigotry deserves neither respect nor deference. It does not deserve the taboos that today surround it. It deserves the opposite: contempt – and relentless, unyielding opposition.
Does God Hate Women?
Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom
Continuum, 208pp, £14.99