Guest post by Sheila Jeffreys
I wrote my new book, Man’s Dominion: the rise of religion and the eclipse of women’s rights, because I was concerned that it had become more and more difficult for feminists within the activist movement and within universities to criticise religion. When I became a feminist in the 1970s it was well recognised that the misogynist ideologies of the three middle-eastern monotheistic religions formed the very foundation of male domination. Religion provided the justification for subordinating women through various versions of the myth about Eve unleashing sin on the world and causing the need for Jesus to die. Religion provided a how-to guide to keeping women down, through rules of modesty, obedience and male headship, and notions of women’s innate disgustingness. These ideas are common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The feminist critique of religion seemed unimpeachable to me, when I discovered it in the 1970s, because I had been an atheist since I was 12 years old.
I was sent to Methodist Sunday School when I was a child and won prizes for good attendance. I’m pleased that I had that experience, because I gained a familiarity with Christian religious ideas which has been most useful for understanding their role in subordinating women. I started to get doubtful in my first year at secondary school, and would lie in bed at night wondering about whether god existed. Then at the end of that year my best friend, Lynn Humphries, a tall strong girl with a long brown plait, died of what was called an ‘enlarged heart’ and could doubtless be cured these days. I was much affected by her death, and decided that if god could not keep Lynn alive then he was not useful. I proceeded to make trouble in religious education classes, but I was lonely in my views. Atheism was not spoken of at my school in the early 60s.
When I became a feminist in the 1970s I found that all the books I was reading, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Eva Figes’ Patriarchal Attitudes, Mary Daly’s The Church and the Second Sex and Beyond God the Father, were strongly critical of religion and saw it as fundamental to women’s subordination. The pernicious nature of religion in underpinning women’s subordination, as well as war and persecution throughout history, seemed so clear to me that I found feminist analysis of religion often too obvious and scarcely necessary, because surely all this did not need pointing out. For an atheist like me, feminism fit like a glove.
You can imagine my astonishment when, from the late 1980s onwards, the feminist critique of religion became less prominent until it all but disappeared. One reason is, of course, the backlash against all feminist ideas in this period, but there were two other causes. Fundamentalism was on the rise and was such a clear threat to women’s rights that feminists focused their energies on opposing the most extreme versions of religion and toned down their critiques of religion in general in order to unite against a clear and present danger. But also, the ideas and practices of multiculturalism served to protect religion from criticism. Multiculturalism morphed into multifaithism. Governments funded and supported religious groups and outsourced public services to them in order to cut costs, and, purportedly, in the name of creating social harmony and fighting racism and discrimination. This made criticism of Islam, in particular, very difficult and likely to occasion accusations of racism, or ‘Islamophobia’. The other, earlier, versions of this religion, Judaism and Christianity, have been shielded from criticism behind the idea that not just culture, but religion also, must be respected, rather than roundly rejected.
The growing hostility towards the criticism of religion is clear in the accusations by cultural relativist anthropologists in women’s and gender studies journals that those very brave women who criticise Islam are orientalist, racist, or Islamophobic. Readers of Rad Fem Hub will be very familiar with how accusations of being ‘phobic’, or having an unreasonable fear or hatred, are used to protect ideas and practices from feminist criticism. Thus radical feminists are regularly guilt-tripped by being accused of transphobia, or whorephobia, if they criticise transgenderism or men’s prostitution abuse of women. In relation to Islam the critics who are attacked in this way include both women who remain practising Muslims, such as Irshad Manji from Canada and Fadela Amara from France, and those who have rejected religion altogether such as Maryam Namazie who heads the One Law for All campaign in the UK against incorporation of Sharia law into civil law. I argue that feminists should give the strongest possible support to women such as these, who receive death threats and insults for their criticism of religion.
In the book I discuss all these developments, and show how religion has come to play a much more prominent part in public life, being used to trump women’s rights as human rights at the UN, and to prevent the protection of women and girls from practices such as covering, forced marriage and polygamy. I hope that the book will reinvigorate the feminist critique of religion and encourage activism against its increased influence. It is not just those varieties of religion usually defined as ‘fundamentalist’ that need to be opposed. The vast majority of religious practice in the world remains profoundly patriarchal and true to its origins. Women are kept out of places of worship, or confined behind barriers so they cannot contaminate men’s rites, they are forbidden to speak or excluded from the priesthood, they are subjected to humiliating rituals of cleansing when they menstruate or give birth so that men may penetrate them without being polluted, they are bidden to be covered and obedient, they are required to accept unwanted penetration and childbearing. Though many women have struggled in the last four decades to ameliorate the severity of the womanhating and discrimination that inform varieties of religion they have some allegiance to, there has been little substantial change. Religion remains the bastion of male domination.
I do not consider myself to be part of the much trumpeted ‘atheist movement’ of the present, spearheaded by rationalists and scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. These men use rationalist arguments and scientific ideas to argue that god does not exist, and that no idea of god is needed to explain the world. But feminists have been quite suspicious of both the rationality and scientific objectivity that such male thinkers make claim to. Dawkins’ scientific triumphalism fails to appeal, and most of the time seems to be stating the obvious, to feminists whose concerns about religion are not whether god exists, but the fact that religions promote misogyny, and truncate women’s opportunities, in countries throughout the world. Though I hope that this book will contribute a feminist perspective for those involved in the atheist movement who are prepared to include the issue of women’s equality in their ruminations, it is not directed to the ‘new’ atheists so much as to all those concerned with women’s rights who have felt that they should curb their fury so as not to offend and be disrespectful to religion. Disrespect is crucial. Disrespect for the cultures, values and institutions of male domination is the very foundation and sine qua non of feminism. Since religion is crucial to the construction of cultural norms in every culture, disrespect for it should be the natural amniotic fluid of feminist thought and activism.
Sheila Jeffreys is an academic and writer, originally from London, who teaches in Australia. She has been a rad fem activist for 38 years.