Continuum £14.99 (202pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Does God Hate Women?, By Ophelia Benson & Jeremy Stangroom
Friday 31 July 2009
I couldn't care less about religion. If I were on a desert island, I'd rather have Katie Price's latest autobiography than the Bible, and the only thing that interests me about churches, mosques and temples is their architecture. I could go through life without ever giving religion a thought were it not for the fact that it wilfully refuses to reciprocate, interfering in the lives of people like me – women, non-believers, secularists - and having an impact way beyond the lives of its followers.
Catholic clergy want to stop women having abortions and in a handful of countries – Chile, for example – they have succeeded in banning it in all circumstances. This doesn't mean that abortions don't take place, just that they are illegal and women more likely to die as a result. In some Islamic countries, perfectly normal sexual behaviour is punishable by lapidation, even if a woman has been raped, while gay men find themselves strung up from cranes. As the last example demonstrates, it isn't just women who suffer from the imposition of religious law, but misogyny is one of the most striking features of cultures where there is no effective separation between faith and state.
In that sense, I'm tempted to answer the question posed by these two philosophers with a resounding affirmative. Judging by what religions say about women and impose upon them, God is either a misogynist himself or he has signally failed to get an equal-opportunities message across to his congregations. But I don't believe in a supreme being and so my response has to be more complex: religions are about patriarchal power, reflecting the societies from which they emerged, and one of the reasons they exist, as the authors understand only too well, is to maintain the status quo.
No one should ever underestimate the normalising effect of the status quo on people's imaginations, turning customs – no matter how illogical, cruel or unjust - into apparently immutable law. In theocratic states, and in extreme religious sects in some democratic countries, the status quo is defined by the subordination of women to men.
That's why the result of the bitter conflicts which break out from time to time is often merely to shift power between males. Henry VIII making himself head of the church in place of the Pope is a good example, while the centuries-old struggle between Sunni and Shia has its origins in a dispute about the Prophet's (male) successor. In their wonderful book, Benson and Stangroom point out that religions tend to feel a need for "ferocious control" - and what they aspire to control most of all is women's bodies.
The authors demolish any amount of modern cant, notably the ridiculous argument that practices such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) have nothing to do with religion. This is not a matter of texts, they point out, but of logic: "The argument in favour of a causal link between religion and FGM is simply that it is absurd to think a practice so bound up in symbolism, myth and ritual, one that is explicitly part of a discourse of purity, virtue and virginity and that is prevalent almost exclusively in societies notable for their high levels of religiosity, might somehow be hermetically sealed off from the influence of religion".
At a time when too many people bend over backwards to avoid offending the sensibilities of those with a belief in the supernatural, Benson and Stangroom provide a breath of fresh air. They subject the core beliefs of the world's leading faiths to the rigorous analysis they sometimes escape out of a misplaced fear of giving offence; they demolish the fashionable charge of "Islamophobia" and demonstrate how it is used (particularly by the hard left) to close down legitimate criticism of aspects of Islam which deny full rights to women.
All this desperately needs to be said at a moment when Christianity, encouraged by militant forms of Islam, is trying to regain its old influence in the public sphere. As this book reminds us, religion brings with it patriarchal ideas about gender difference which claim to honour women but almost always give men power over them.
Benson and Strangroom point out that the God of their title "is a product of history but taken to be eternal, which is a bad combination. That is the God who hates women. That God has to go." Hear, hear.
Joan Smith's novel 'What Will Survive' is published by Arcadia
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