Blog 137: Religion and Oppression of Women

Pierre Marchand


The domination of men over women probably began at the time of the caveman. Religions too probably appeared during that era. Over the course of centuries they invented myths to explain this state of affairs. Much later, among the Hebrews, the myth of Genesis declared that Woman was created after Man, from one of his ribs, thus confirming that women are meant to play a secondary role and to obey men. Was she not the one who listened to the talking snake and incited Adam to taste the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? As punishment, she will bear children in pain and her husband will rule over her. This myth is so enduring that even today, some naïve people are persuaded that men have a rib less than women (no need to check, if it’s written in an old book it must be true; anyway, to verify it would mean a lack of faith). So religions, by perpetuating these myths, are responsible for perpetuating the inequality of women in the Western World and in the Middle East. In other regions, religions invented different myths, but we inherited those of the Hebrews with the Old Testament.

The New Testament went further with the exhortations of Paul of Tarsus with respect to women: women must wear a veil in church, but not men; women were created for men; a woman is forbidden to teach to men; women are forbidden to speak in assemblies; women must submit to their husbands. Later, Church Fathers took advantage of this to relegate women to a secondary role in the Church.

Since then, churches have devised or encouraged different ways to oppress women. Remember the use of chastity belts in the Middle Ages and how for centuries women were locked up in convents against their will.

Remember also how in Europe during the Inquisition, countless women were burned at the stake for witchcraft, again in the name of religion. Assuredly, men too were executed for witchcraft, but in fewer numbers. And we must not forget the witches of Salem in the U.S.A. not so long ago.

Remember the fate of women in Quebec when the Catholic Church reigned as king and master. One baby every year for 20 years, prohibition of birth control (still the case today), sexual intercourse for procreation only, because to take pleasure in it is a sin. No right to have a bank account or own property without the husband’s permission. No mixed schools and lighter programs for girls: homemaking, etc. No sex education (still the case in 2022 in the USA and many countries).

It seems that the more religious a country is, the more women are oppressed. The USA appears to be an exception, but that is not the case. Many Americans take a dim view of women accessing positions of power. And the obsession of American religions for the issue of abortion constitutes yet another way to oppress women.

Let us also be conscious of the numerous religious wars prevailing at present and in which the rape of women is often used as weapon of conquest.

Even today, Hassidic women have to wear wigs in order to hide their hair. Some Muslim women wear the hijab to hide their hair, either out of religious conviction, or to send a political message when they immigrate to non-Muslim countries. Certain Muslim countries go even further and women must not only hide their hair, but their whole body, including their face: Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, etc. In Iran, the face is not hidden, but the whole body and the hair are.

There is a fixation on virginity in the religions of the desert. Its origin is not precisely known. It is probably because virginity alone allows recognition of paternity, since sex outside of marriage begets children without a father. At any rate, the Catholic Church has elevated virginity to the rank of supreme virtue and as a way of drawing closer to God, using the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s perpetual virginity. This myth has shaped women’s education and behaviour for centuries. Islam also has an unhealthy obsession for virginity that goes so far that, even today, a girl raped or having sexual intercourse before marriage may be killed by her father or her brothers in order to uphold the family’s honour. And in Muslim countries, these murders are often not severely punished.

What about female genital mutilations such as excision and infibulation still practised in many countries, encouraged although not required by Islam, the aim being to diminish women’s sexual enjoyment so that they remain virgins until married and stay faithful thereafter.

It is worth noting that religions recommend but rarely require virginity for men.

Recall that in Islam, in the course of an inheritance, girls receive only half of what boys receive. Also the wife must submit to her husband who has the right to beat her if he even suspects that she may disobey. Let us also mention the forced marriage of prepubescent girls and their veiling, supposedly to protect them from perverts. These two customs steal the childhood from little girls by preventing them from playing like other children and from interacting with them. This is certainly a form of child abuse.

In closing, it is true that discrimination against women is decreasing in our Western societies even though important salary disparities still remain. But it is only when religions have lost some of their power and influence that women will be considered truly equal to men.

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