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Does God Hate Women?, By Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom

Do religions enshrine mysogyny? This book has all the answers, but is it asking the right question?

The question of whether God hates women is not one that can be answered with certainty; not least since, by the time any of us dared ask a putative deity such an impertinent question, we would be in no position to communicate the response to our fellows. You don't have to read very far into this aggressive polemic, however, to be sure that its authors certainly hate God. Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom have marshalled plenty of evidence to make their case that the "God of bullies" persecutes and subjugates women, and they hit the reader with some of the most horrific examples straight off. (By page three, for instance, we have already reached the anal rape of a 55-year-old widow with a chilli paste-covered police truncheon.) The main religions were all founded at times when patriarchy was an unchallenged notion, they argue, and still enshrine male domination today. Honour killings, female genital mutilation, violence against women, sexual slavery, marriage with minors: they're all explicitly justified or lent respectability by religion.

But Benson and Stangroom don't really have religion in general in mind – there's one in particular they're after. True, a few pages deal out blame to the Christian, Jewish and Hindu deities for the misogynistic activities of some of their more extreme devotees. For all the time this book spends excoriating the backward, sexist and barbaric practices it associates with Islam, however, it's clear that the question really exercising the authors is "Does Allah Hate Women?" Not that they need have bothered with the interrogative, as they take no serious account of any arguments that might lead to the answer "no".

This is a shame as, amid the torrents of invective, they allude to many matters worthy of calm examination, such as the Prophet Muhammad's marriage to his favourite wife, Aisha, when she was only nine. It is not enough to say, argue the authors, that similarly youthful females were married off in Europe at the time, because the Prophet's life is considered to be an example for Muslims today. This could have been the starting point for a thoughtful discussion about textual literalism and modernity. Instead, Benson and Stangroom attempt to trash the reputation of Karen Armstrong, a respected religious scholar who believes that "the emancipation of women was a project dear to the Prophet's heart" and quote, without qualification or disapproval, the view of an American Baptist leader that Muhammad's marriage means that the Prophet was a "demon-possessed paedophile".

This is inflammatory in the extreme. But that appears to be the point. Self-proclaimed champions of the secular right to challenge and insult others' beliefs, Benson and Stangroom show no desire to go beyond name-calling and distortion. They happily quote a reporter who refers to the abaya as "an all-enveloping black cloak that turns the women of the Gulf into mournful ghosts", but fail to add that this quote concerned Saudi Arabia specifically. (Professional women in Abu Dhabi and Qatar might be surprised to find themselves so described.) There is no mention, naturally, of the women who have led Muslim nations, from Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan to Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, and Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia who, despite her sex, still became president of the world's most populous Muslim country. It is not convenient for them to acknowledge that there are swathes of the Muslim world where women routinely go without the hijab, let alone any further covering, serve as government ministers, run businesses and NGOs, and often lead lives as liberated as their sisters in the West. It suits the authors' purpose to declare that religion "turns reformers and challengers into enemies of God", and to pretend that there is simply no debate about how ancient religions should deal with change.

They cherrypick their evidence because they are as fundamentalist about their atheist liberalism as are the religious hardliners and primitivists they condemn. This book serves only to reinforce the prejudices of those who can attribute no good to any religion nor concede that every faith contains multitudes of moderates as well as conservative extremists. Fans of Richard Dawkins will love it.

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