Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Are Religions Inherently Sexist?

I listened to this interesting interview where Katha Pollitt addresses the question whether religions are inherently sexist.  She concludes that they don't have to be, if we only could somehow dispense with the assumption that the ancient holy texts have nothing to do with the patriarchal tribal societies of that era.  If sexism is seen as a command from a god, well, then a religion arguing that IS inherently sexist.

To turn one of the old Abrahamic religions into a nonsexist one is very hard work,  however, and Judaism, Christianity (and different groups among Christianity) and Islam are at different stages of that process.

An essential requirement is to read religious texts with the understanding that they were written by human beings (who interpreted their beliefs of what a divine power wanted) and addressed to other human beings of the era who lived in utterly patriarchal societies.  The more concrete and literal the mainstream religious interpretation of a holy text now is, the more unpleasant that religion will be for its female believers.

What is needed is a deep reading of a particular concrete text, a reading which looks at what that text meant at a particular time and in a particular place.   Literalists and those who believe, for instance, that the Bible or the Koran is the inerrant and eternal world of a god will not agree with that.

But to do otherwise truly confuses the issue.  Take, for an example, the rule the Taliban enforced during its reign in Afghanistan:  That women's shoes should not make a noise, because a man must not hear a woman's footsteps.  Here's one step deeper into the question:

Jewelry must not be displayed, and it is especially important that it does not make noise as a woman walks (an ankle-bracelet with bells, for example). Women in pre-Islamic Arabia used to wear such bracelets and stamp their feet in the markets in order to entice and attract men.
The Bible refers to those ankle bracelets, too. 

Did all women wear bells around their ankles in the days of Muhammad?  I doubt it, though perhaps they did.  Still, my Google searches suggest that ankle bells were used by dancers and still are so used.

There is also a connection with ankle bells and prostitution, whether forced or voluntary.

My tentative theory is that the focus on women making a noise (by having heels in their shoes, say) has to do with these associations with dancing girls and possible prostitution.  In short, the deeper meaning has nothing to do with whether men can hear women's footsteps but with the meaning of ankle bells at the time of Mohammed and at the time of the men who wrote the Bible. 

Literal and concrete readings of the various holy texts tend to give us odd and mistaken rules, and it would be helpful if such rules were addressed inside the various religions by those who reject the most concrete readings.  In any case, what a concrete reading might have been a thousand years ago is impossible to ascertain.

I agree with Katha that religions don't have to be sexist.  But  I don't think the traditional patriarchal religions give up the battle very easily, and the battle lines are drawn most unfairly. 

Those who attempt to influence the sexist messages of religions can be accused of fighting a god, whereas those who defend an ancient interpretation of what that god might wish us to do can simply state, categorically, that the interpretation IS divinely decreed and never will change.  The basic question all this hinges on cannot be determined by purely intellectual arguments or by empirical evidence, though sometimes showing how other parts of the text have been abandoned can help. 

But the game is rigged, from the beginning.