Seeing that Iran is prominent in the news lately, I thought this would be an interesting post to import from the old blog today. Enjoy:

I was reading Greg Laden’s blog entitled “The natural basis for gender inequality” over at ScienceBlogs and it got me thinking about sexism. Especially the way that a lot of religious people use the fact that scientific naturalism sometimes leads ill informed people to hold sexist beliefs as a reason that science should not be trusted. Obviously this is not true, no one who actually understands the relationship between biology and society would claim that biology dictates that women do not deserve the same rights and opportunities as men, and Greg does a great job of explaining this in his article. However, sexism is a problem that I feel passionately about and so, for my part, I decided to post a paper that I wrote for a religion class highlighting the roles of religion and culture in developing a person’s beliefs about gender norms. With no further introduction, here it is:

The First Step
by: Bryan Perkins

Religion and culture are and have been intertwined throughout history.  Whether religion affects the zeitgeist or merely reflects it, there is a correlation between the beliefs of the dominant religion in a society and the majorly accepted cultural norms.  Religion’s fingerprint can be found on every aspect of culture.  Many of the most highly regarded pieces of art were created with religious intentions.  Pastors preach politics from their pulpits, telling parishioners which way to vote.  Religious groups attempt to control the educational system and change school curriculums to fit their beliefs.  In all of these instances the religious beliefs of people alter an aspect of culture in some way.  In other instances it is not as clear whether religion is affecting or reflecting culture. Gender norms have always been, and still are, pervading issues in every society throughout history.  Views on homosexuality and gender roles are often key dividing issues among large groups of people.  An overreaching commonality shared by all modern cultures is the dominance of the masculine at the expense of the oppression of the feminine.  The unspoken pact between society and religion concerning the acceptance of sexual inequality has perpetuated the problem of sexism, and until sexism is openly discussed as an issue that persists today the loop will never be broken and the problem will never be fixed.

Do a woman’s prayers count in the eyes of God?  Rodger Kamenetz thinks that this question is a silly one (63).  Others however, like Yitz Greenberg, seem to take it a little more seriously.

[Waldoks] chanted reference that Wednesday morning to not having a minyan touched on a sore point.  Ten Jews, the required quorum, were present, but only if Jewish women counted.  However, for Yitz Greenberg, the women did not count because the Talmud defines a minyan as ten Jewish males.

Moreover, [Greenberg] could not participate when Rabbi Levitt’s turn came to lead the service (Kamenetz 59).

Obviously the Jewish faith as a whole does not subscribe to this idea or it would not be possible for Joy Levitt to be a rabbi, yet some Orthodox Jews still hold on to the belief that sex is important in the eyes of God.  As Kamenetz points out, the excuse that somehow a woman praying with men is a distraction is hardly believable (63).  This being the only explanation offered we are forced to divine the reasoning behind these actions for ourselves.  The seemingly obvious reason that a woman’s voice would not count when performing a minyan is that God places more importance on the voice of men than the voice of women.  Women of the Jewish faith are given little access to a spiritual life outside the traditional roles of wife and mother (134).  The Kabbalah has many fine things in it that stress the importance of the feminine, but as a whole, Jews are very far from coming to terms with a feminine god, so the ideas remain very theoretical (220).  To this day, the Jewish religion remains patriarchal (218), and women and homosexuals often feel excluded from Jewish spiritual life (238).

Buddhism has also played its part in allowing sexism to persist in the world.  The Dalai Lama affirms that “from the Buddhist view point, all sentient beings are the same,” but while explaining this he implies that historically Buddhism has accepted sexual inequality without trying to change it (217).  Even Buddhists, who respect all forms of sentient life to such an extent that they frown upon the eating of meat, have knowingly stood by and allowed inequality between human beings to exist without acknowledging and trying to abolish the obvious immorality of sexism.  The Tibetan word for woman, skyes dman, means ‘lowborn’.  This makes it apparent that the Dalai Lama’s egalitarian theory does not apply to the generally accepted Tibetan customs (218).  Tibetan and other Asian cultures give women a very low social status, and this is reflected in the treatment of an ani or female monastic (134), a term that “means something like ‘auntie’—hardly a term of respect” (218).  When Thubten Pemo was a nun in Switzerland the monks would not even help her and the other nuns in obtaining the basic necessities of life.  “I went to the cook for the food he was throwing in the garbage,” Pemo remembers, “I lived on the carrot ends for a month” (134).

One of the most cited examples of a religious influence that imposes sexism on a society is that of the Muslim religion.  The instances of misogyny in Islam are numerous.  Sharia law is a glaring example of the preference of Islamic cultures for the masculine over the feminine.  There have been many instances in which, under the guidance of Sharia law, the physical and mental abuse of women was not considered sufficient grounds for divorce by a ruling judge, in some cases the judge not only refused the wife’s request for divorce but tried to blame her for her husband’s beatings (Nafisi 273).  In such courts child custody always goes to the father (286).  There is something fundamentally wrong with a society that accepts a legal structure that does not allot all human beings equal rights.  With laws in place that allow husbands to beat their wives and then keep custody of any children after the divorce, it is impossible for a woman to feel secure in the only role left available to her by the society that created such laws, that of wife and mother (318).  Those few women that are able to succeed in breaching the traditional female roles have to work twice as hard as their male counterparts.  “Women [are] the backbone of the family, the ones on whom everyone depend[s].  They [work] at home and they [work] outside the home” (62).

Another frequently cited example of sexism in Islam is that of the required veiling of women while in public.  To some the veil is a symbol of a woman’s sacred relationship with God, but at times, especially during the Islamic Revolution, it has been perverted and used as a tool of control, “turning the women who wore them into political signs and symbols,” which many of the devout followers of Islam resented (103).  Followers of the Islamic Revolution urged that “veiling [was] a woman’s protection” (26) and “a woman in a veil is protected like a pearl in an oyster shell” (200), but this does not represent what the women who are forced to wear the veil feel.  One woman “described the pain of being required to wear a veil, calling it a mask behind which women were forced to hide” (328).  At one point in Tehran, four gun-carrying men and women called the Blood of God patrolled the streets to make sure that women wore their veils properly and did not wear makeup (26).  “Women were banned from singing, because a woman’s voice, like her hair, was sexually provocative and should be kept hidden” (108).  In her novel Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi recounts instances in which women were reprimanded for running upstairs when they were late for classes, for laughing in the hallways, for talking to members of the opposite sex (9), and even for eating apples too seductively (59).  The religious regime that ruled them tried to make the personal identities and histories of these women irrelevant; they had no means of freeing themselves from the regime’s definition of them as Muslim women (Nafisi 28).  Nafisi notes that when her students took off their scarves and robes during their private classes together her students gradually regained their individuality as humans (5).  Being forced to wear a veil strips a woman of her identity, the issue is “not so much the veil itself as the freedom of choice” (Nafisi 152).

Given the evidence of three major religions promotion and/or acceptance of sexism it seems impossible that anyone could deny the existence of sexual inequality in the world today.  But, any complaints on the part of women are attributed to ‘feminine’ outbursts and they are not taken seriously by those who currently have the power to change the course of society (190).  The pervading acceptance of misogyny by the major religions and modern cultures causes the demands for change by women to fall on deaf ears and allows the problem of sexism to persist in spite of the fact that it is as ignoble as any other bigotry.  To discriminate against someone based on sex, something that they have no control over, is just as wrong as discriminating against someone based on race.  However, the majority of religions and cultures do not agree that sexism is an important enough problem to warrant change, therefore women still suffer through the injustices wrought on them by the patriarchal societies that claim that sexual inequality does not exist anyway.  As a famous religious organization once put it, “the first step toward change is admitting that you have a problem.”  The problem of sexual inequality will not be solved until society and religion can finally admit that it exists and can acknowledge that sexism is morally wrong and needs to be changed.

Works Cited:

Kamenetz, Rodger. The Jew in the Lotus.  New York: HarperCollens, 1994.

Nafisi, Azar.  Reading Lolita in Tehran.  New York: Random House, Inc., 2003.

(Header Image: Cover of Reading Lolita in Tehran)

Sophie, an author from the old Science. Why not?, has a shiny new wordpress blog as well. She calls it A Wonderful Day for Anthropology. Here is a little from the About page:

‘Originally interested in Psychology and Sociology, I finally found my calling in the holistic field of Anthropology.  Although I haven’t declared a concentration, I anticipate this blog will be a helpful resource. I hope to explore Archaeological, Biological, Cultural, and Linguistic Anthropology to the fullest extent and learn from others who share my passion for the field.’

You can find her first post here. Read it, leave comments, and enjoy. I know I will.

-Bryan Perkins