|04-11-2007, 05:04 PM||#1|
Join Date: Apr 2001
The female face of divinity
The female face of divinity
The religious right claims that the bulk of South Africans are God-fearing, devout believers, with 85% belonging to some kind of organised religion. If this is true, what are we to make of our world-beating statistics for child abuse, domestic violence, rape and murder?
If indeed the pious moral majority of whatever stripe takes themselves off to church/synagogue/mosque/temple on a regular basis, then who is committing all these heinous acts?
The data tells us it’s not the women -- who make up less than 3% of the prison population -- and it would be stretching the bounds of credulity to believe that the unbelievers are wholly responsible.
Feminist scholars argue that the patriarchal nature of the world’s major monotheistic religions, in fact, creates a breeding ground for intolerance, human rights abuses, and violence against women and children.
Men of religion only relatively recently got around to recognising women as fully human, with souls. The battle over ordination of women has been a long and bitter one. For a long time the Christian Church’s justification was that this was because Jesus’s apostles were all men. The argument, of course, has its roots in the notion of God as the Father, a vengeful, rule-bound patriarch who demands total obedience and dispenses harsh punishments.
St Augustine spelled it out for his brothers: “For woman is not the image of God, whereas the man alone is the image of God.” The natural corollary of this belief is that men are God-like and women are not. “If God was male and woman was not male then whatever God was, woman was not,” writes historian Rosalind Miles. Add to this the legend of the fall from the Garden of Eden, and Eve and all her daughters were set up for millennia of scapegoatism, becoming “the greatest race of underdogs the world has ever known”.
This phallocentric view was necessary for the monotheistic religions to take root and survive, particularly as they had only recently overthrown the pantheistic Goddess/Great Mother religions, and needed to masculinise God entirely in an attempt to erase the last vestiges of female power. The Qur’an makes its contempt for these Goddess worshippers quite clear: “The pagans pray to females: they pray to a rebellious Satan.”
(It is particularly fascinating that, while all these religions acknowledge God as unknowable and unfathomable to the paltry human under- standing, the one aspect they are all clear on is that “He” is one of them.)
The patriarchal religions had essentially turned God into a male idol and then spent a lot of time vilifying women to justify this position. “I never let women teach men or lord it over them,” St Paul told Timothy. “God made Adam first and afterwards he made Eve. And it was not Adam who was fooled by Satan but Eve and sin was the result.” The Qur’an is quite explicit about male superiority: “Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them.”
And lest they be tempted to forget their pre-eminence in the scheme of the universe, orthodox Jewish men make the daily prayer: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, that Thou hast not made me a woman.”
While the Catholic Church, with its veneration of the Virgin Mary as mother of God, allowed the religion to retain some of the female face of divinity, the rise of Protestantism, which destroyed the convents and knocked Mary off her pedestal, entrenched patriarchy even further. The Reformation under that old charmer Luther must have been a rather terrifying place for women, with the great man expounding: “Let them bear children till they die of it. That is what they are for.”
The Qur’an also gave men total control over women: “If any of your women commit fornication, call in four witnesses from among yourselves against them; if they testify to their guilt confine them to their houses till death overtakes them or till Allah finds another way for them.”
The notion of the vile female body, as the seat of corruption and pollution is evident in the words of the Buddha, who claimed “the body of a woman is filthy and not a vessel for the law”. (This is no doubt the reason why the Buddha, like Jesus and -- oddly enough -- Genghis Kahn, claimed to have been born of virgins.) The links between patriarchal religions and misogyny were inescapable and resulted in what Andrea Dworkin called “gynocide”. Women were seen as mad, bad creatures that needed to be restrained and contained: from female genital mutilation and chastity belts to the ducking stool, from purdah to the scold’s bridle, from honour killings to modern-day family killings.
Dr Sarojini Nadar, a senior lecturer in gender and religion at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, points out that while most religions pay lip service to ending violence against women, in reality women are pressured to submit to their husbands as the head of the family, to reconcile, to try again, and to try harder. She recounts a conversation with a Pentecostal minister whose church forbids women to divorce even unfaithful husbands, despite the dangers of Aids. “He told me with an absolutely straight face that ‘if you don’t feed your dog properly, it will go and rummage in your neighbour’s rubbish bin’.”
Women are often encouraged to put up with abuse and suffering, as a Christian virtue, as Jesus did. Nadar points out that this is not unique to Christianity but common to most religions, which emphasise the “womanly” virtues of submission, obedience and endurance.
But she argues that the patriarchal voice is not the final one, and there is a growing resistance to male domination within religious traditions, encouraged and supported by feminist academics who see this as part of the liberation theology project. Revolutionary feminists are those who have thrown out religion altogether citing all religion as irredeemably patriarchal. The reformists are those who struggle with the religion from within, and although advocating equality do not want to change the religion itself but “reinterpret the Scriptures and the traditions.” They argue that it is not the religion itself, but the interpretation of the religion which is problematic. Reconstructionist feminists remain within the religion, but seek to transform the religion itself -- they acknowledge that the religion itself is patriarchal, and seek to transform the symbols, the metaphors and the practice of the religion in general.
Yet, Nadar says, most of the growing number of feminists who choose to remain within their religious traditions complain that change comes too slowly and they feel they are fighting a losing battle. Nadar cites research conducted by Professor Isabel Phiri in a church in Durban, where 84% of women married to leaders in a church claimed to have experienced violence at the hands of their husbands. When questioned about why they endured these abusive marriages, they said it was because they were taught by their religion that the man is the head of the home and that they should submit to his authority. “No matter how much people protest that this is a wrong interpretation of these teachings the fact is that this research shows the majority of these women interpreted these teachings in this way. While the work of feminists in trying to transform patriarchy within religions is praiseworthy, until they are taken seriously, crimes against women and children will continue unabated.”
Challenging the church fathers:
*While Islam does not generally allow women to be ordained or to lead prayers, certain progressive faith communities in South Africa are moving in this direction. Islamic scholar Na’eem Jinnah points out that at the Brixton mosque in Johannesburg and the Claremont mosque in Cape Town, women regularly deliver sermons. He says that while this is part of an international trend towards women attaining greater visibility,particularly in leadership positions, this is not a mainstream view.
*The Jewish Reform movement in the US issued a new High Holy Day prayerbook, which uses gender sensitive language. For example, phrases like “God of our fathers” are changed to “God of our ancestors”. This was a response to women who felt excluded by the masculine liturgical vocabulary. Some branches now have women rabbis.
*The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Baptist and Evangelical churches still forbid ordination of women, while the Anglican, Episcopalian and Lutheran churches are among those who allow it.