How Culture and Religion Oppress Women
Gender, religion and culture are foundational social constructs but are not of the same level. Culture is a macroscopic concept and therefore subsumes religion. As Raday argues, religion derives from culture and gender derives from both religion and culture. (2005: 665) The word “culture” has been described as “one of the two or three most complicated in the English language” (Williams 1988: 87). Kuper described it as “a way of talking about collective identities” (cited in Raday: 666) and can be seen as falling into two categories, ideological – what is thought, valued and believed and social culture – how people are organised. Culture is not always homogenous and does not necessarily map one-to-one with the constitutional realm, but can have three levels. There can be ethnic and religious differences, dominant and minority subcultures, a diversity of institutional cultures and an international culture of human rights all overlapping within the same national boundaries (Raday 2005: 667). Raday distinguishes between dynamic and static forms of culture, arguing traditional and patriarchal forms tend to resist change and moves towards gender equality (2005: 667)
Religion is an aspect of culture, although it is not easy to define the concept. Most arguments regarding the clash of gender equality and religion have been made against the three main monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism (Raday 2005: 668). Monotheistic religions are characterised by canonical texts, authoritative interpretations of doctrine and a formal structure to preserve the organisational ideology and ethical rules regulating the lives of individuals and communities. But these fundamental texts are in conflict with the basis of human rights legislation and doctrine which is humancentric and focuses on the responsibility and autonomy of the individual (Raday 2005: 669). Human rights doctrine works from the premise that the state has ultimate authority but must be prevented from abusing individuals. The opposite is true with monotheistic religions which are based on individual subjection to the will of the Supreme Being and transcendental morality.
Although culture and religion are often treated as different concepts, Raday argues that they have a lot in common when contrasted with human rights (2005: 670). But it is the leading global religions as opposed to cultures which codify custom and practice into texts which are then claimed to be outside history and culture. Raday cites the examples of the Vatican and the Organisation of Islamic Conferences as religious groups with a great deal of temporal power (2005: 669). Gender has been described as denoting the historical, cultural and social distinctions between women and men (Curthoys 2005: 140) Gender identity develops from normalised behaviour imposed on women and men by religion and culture. The history of gender in religion and traditional culture is of subordination of women to men and women’s exclusion from the public sphere (Raday 2005: 669). Although cultural and religious practices can be separated academically, in practice they usually interact. Patriarchal relations exist within culture and religion and there is a correlation between some cultural practices and the religious situations in which they are found (Raday 2005: 676). Raday gives the example of the cultural police in the Islamic Republic of Iran, who in an attempt to develop a culture of chastity, forced women to wear the veil in public places even though there is no clear religious command to do so. 676 The clash is between international human rights law and norms of culture and religion which promote and reinforce patriarchal values and fall back on the claim of religious freedom or cultural tradition. Giving it into any of these claims could result in an “infringement of woman’s right to a quality” (Raday 2005: 676).
So-called cultural practices which preserve patriarchy and discriminate against women include; female genital mutilation, the sale and forced marriage of daughters, the dowry system, preference for male children, female infanticide, polygamy, the power of husbands to discipline wives, marital rape, honour killings, witch-hunting, gendered division of food and restrictive dress codes (Raday 2005: 667). Examples of cultural issues found in signatories to CEDAW which conflict with human rights doctrine gender equality include: the elimination of polygamy in Algeria, polygamy, forced marriage and female genital mutilation in Cameroon, food issues for rural women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, domestic violence and discriminatory religious and cultural practices in Uganda, dowry, sati and devadsi practices in India, illegal sex selective abortions and family planning in China and laws discriminating against women in family and marriage matters in Indonesia.
Some feminists have argued that religion is a major source of female oppression and inequality and that most if not all religions are gendered and oppress women. In Christianity, the Supreme Deity is considered to be male. Several of the early church fathers such as Tertullian, Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine made misogynist writings which served to reinforce stereotypical gender roles (Skeptics Annotated Bible 2011). The story of the Virgin Birth promotes the idea that a woman’s body is a dirty and sinful thing and is not a proper origin for a spiritual being. The Roman Catholic Church does not ordain women and excommunicates those who attempt to become priests. It opposes family planning and birth control and does not believe in a woman’s rights to decide on abortion (Skeptics Annotated Bible 2011). Many protestant churches do not ordain women either and many believe in the wife’s submitting to the husband. In addition, many protestant churches teach that women should dress modestly but do not impose the same values on men. Other Christian denominations such as The Church of the Latter Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons, formally allowed polygamy and still have not had condemned the practice. The Mormons do not ordain women and teach that a husband is master in the home (Skeptics Annotated Bible 2011).
In the Hindu religion, the Supreme Being is also considered to be male. In cultural practices dating back many thousands of years, widows are shunned as bringing bad luck and forced to live on the edge of society, alone (Skeptics Annotated Bible 2011). Widows were also supposed to shave their heads and never remarry. In the religious practice of Sati, windows were burnt alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands (Bowker 1997: 430). In Devadsi, girls are dedicated to a deity or temple and forced to become religious prostitutes for Upper caste members.
In Islam, menstruation is considered to make women unclean (similar conditions pertain to Christianity). Muslim women are expected in many societies to wear a veil due to the command in Sura 24 of the Koran for women to dress modestly (Skeptics Annotated Bible 2011). Honour killings are also traditionally carried out by adherents of this faith, where women are murdered after being raped or assaulted because they are considered to bring dishonour on the family. Also the practice of female genital mutilation is associated with Islamic culture although it is not mentioned in the Koran. Under Shari’a law, a man can divorce his wife by repeating the phrase “I divorce you” three times, although this cannot happen the other way round (Skeptics Annotated Bible 2011). As a woman’s testimony is worth only half that of a man’s (Koran Sura 2) allegations of rape can only be proved if four male eye witnesses testified the assault occurred. The Prophet Mohammed, according to the Hadith (sayings and traditions of the prophet) married Aisha bint Abu Bakr – a prepubescent girl of nine years according to some accounts. This is considered important as 25% of all the Yemeni females marry under the age of 15 and several other Arab countries have not signed CEDAW (Skeptics Annotated Bible 2011). Finally, polygamy is legal in many Muslim countries and not condemned in the Koran.
Menstruation is similarly described as unclean in Judaism. In a male orthodox prayer, Jews say, “Blessed is He that did not make me a woman” (Skeptics Annotated Bible 2011). Orthodox Jews, like their Islamic counterparts in Iran, have set up modesty police who assault young women and men if they are showing too much of their bodies on the streets. In Jewish religious law, a woman cannot be divorced from her husband unless she receives a certificate from him. If this does not take place, she cannot get divorced (Skeptics Annotated Bible 2011). Men are allowed to pray at holy sites where women are not and orthodox Jews do not allow women to recite prayers in the synagogue.
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