Does God hate women?
That despite its title being a question I have asked myself since being kicked out of Sunday school for not buying the lines about how women are supposed to behave.
Those are fair game, very fair game. There's nothing defensible about treating women like chattel, punishing them for being raped, marrying them off as children to old men, forbidding them from working or driving, restraining their movements, keeping them illiterate -- not to mention all those stoning, female genital mutilation and so-called honour killing horrors.
This is not to say that it's worse than say Christianity since Christianity has its own revolting record of witch-burnings, slavery, genocide in the Americas and such. It's just that Christianity managed to mostly climb out of the Dark Ages, eventually, although it took women's rights several more centuries to catch up.
As for the Catholic church, well, you know there's a reason why AIDS is the number one killer of women today, as reported by a just-published and sickening World Health Organization study (PDF). It doesn't help that the Vatican won't approve of condoms.
(And, as we saw last week, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops stuck its nose in the healthcare reform debate and had a major influence on its outcome: the effective end of government funding for abortion except in cases of rape and incest or to save the life of the living incubator unit.)
Which is why I was disappointed by the book. It doesn't mention much about the crimes against women committed -- still -- by the Church. And it barely touches on those whacked out fundamentalist outfits in North America.
But I liked the title.
So I picked up the phone and called Stangroom to get more from him.
Does God Hate Women? is the bordering-on-inflammatory title of an examination of how religion and culture combine to control and oppress women – even unto the 21st century.
Co-authors Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, both editors at London-based The Philosophers' Magazine, are politically incorrect in their criticisms, which is why they received an "implicit death threat'' in the U.K. after a recent review.
I reached Stangroom at his home in Toronto. This is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: The book almost completely focuses on Islam: stonings, so-called honour killings, female genital mutilation. Why?
A: That isn't what we set out to do. We set out to look at how various religions treat women. We do talk about Catholicism, the fundamentalists, Mormons and so on. They were all originally developed within social structures that were patriarchal. But our judgment is that Islam has more negative things associated with it than any other religion at this time in history.
Q: You don't write much about the Catholic Church, nothing on contraception for example, nor on AIDS in Africa. You mention abortion, but only briefly.
A: Maybe we should have done. Our basic point is that religion, including Catholicism, makes a claim over a woman's body that not only is an imposition on individual freedom but it can also play out in ways that have horrific and tragic results for health.
Q: What about how religions define the roles of men and women?
A: Catholicism says that men and women are equal before God, but different.
Q: That's what feminism says!
A: But it's a different kind of different. The "equal in the eyes of God" – spiritually equal, of equal worth, but nevertheless different – turns out in religious terms to be who has final say and what the roles are within the family. Ultimately, what it comes down to is that the man decides. That's the common line in Islam and in Catholicism.
Q: One provocative chapter title is "Honour is Between the Legs of Women." It's not just honour. It's the biggest battle ground in society. Take abortion, for example.
A: The religious rhetoric around the "unborn child'' is incredibly significant. Obviously, it suits the idea that only God has the power of life and death. The reason women may have a different perspective is because the intersection between self-interest and control of what happens to their own bodies undercuts the religious imperative. This is not the case with men. Women have a much more personal investment in this than men do.
A: Yes, absolutely. The Darwinian view is that men don't want to expend energy looking after other men's children. Religion has been co-opted in the service in that evolutionary dynamic. That's one explanation. There's the Marxist perspective, which has to do with ensuring lines of descent. Basically, men are the owners of private property and they want to ensure they're not passing down their property to somebody else's children. The only way they can do that is by confining women and controlling their sexuality. So religion is used for that control.
Q: What is it about women that makes us so devoted to God although God may not be so devoted to us?
A: There are psychological benefits to belief and, I suspect that if you have those, together with the fact that people find it very hard to escape their cultural, political and social milieus, you probably have an explanation, even though, if you're looking from the outside, it seems so bizarre.
Q: Why would you even want to ask if God hates women?
A: It's a metaphor for "Does religion subjugate and, in various ways, denigrate women?" The obvious reason, if you look around historically and cross-culturally, is religion is implicated in an awful lot of stuff that would be considered to be horrendous. People don't talk about this because they don't want to be seen to be making judgments about other cultures.
But Ophelia and I are committed to universal values. We're not ashamed to say that some cultural practices are worse than others.
And neither am I, although the Muslim-bashers are constantly asking where the feminists are on these matters. That's just their own twisted way of denigrating women, but accusing feminists of not standing up for their own while these guys are trying to use the oppressed women of other places to advance their own political agendas.
As if they actually cared about women in these truly God-forsaken places...or anywhere else for that matter.