"Women are the Root of All Evil" : The Misogyny of Religions
The pervasiveness of religious intolerance obviates the need to devote much space to its demonstration. One needs only to think of both historical and contemporary clashes between Muslims and Hindus, Christians and Jews, Muslims and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists to realize that religions are monopolistic (for a social psychological perspective see Argyle, 2000, pp.165-166; Batson & Burris, 1994). That intolerance should be a core characteristic of most religions is hardly surprising, for this trait goes well with their inherent lack of democracy, egalitarianism and liberalism. In many cases, bigotry is doctrinal, strongly supported by a given religion's founding documents and articles of faith. Deep-set opposition to pluralism is not limited to the inter-religious realm, but creates bitter intra-religious wrangling as well. Persecutions, sometimes mutual, often one-sided, between Catholics and Protestants, Sunnis and Shiites, main-stream Christians and Hussites, Huguenots, Puritans, Mormons, and others, are all painful reminders of a ubiquitous lack of ecumenism. (Armstrong, 1986, p. 308: "Christianity made a virtue of creating enemies--first outsiders like Jews and Moslems and then other Christians"; cf. Herek, 1987).
Now one might think that once the safe haven of one's own sect is reached, harmony reigns. Yet a more thorough examination of the underlying mechanisms suggests that intolerance has no boundaries. An institution that discriminates outward is likely to practice inward discrimination as well.
Two apparently opposed arguments are occasionally used to counter these claims. According to the first, religion is egalitarian and even salutogenic [i.e. respect-inspiring] at its core, but has been corrupted by some of its practitioners. Such a stance has been taken, inter alia, by Armstrong (1993, p. 158) vis a vis Christianity and Islam, by Abdalla (1982, p. 32) regarding Islam, by Tappa (1986, p. 101, quoting Moltmann, the German eschatological theologian) regarding Christianity, as well as by many others who attack "the Church", while embracing religion. While this line of thought ignores easily demonstrable doctrinal prejudice, discrimination and feuding, it concedes the claim of the current inequality of religion.
Another assertion, to an extent contradicting the above, holds that modern religions are actually egalitarian, when compared to their less enlightened origins. This is the message in Gross (1993, p. 4; though she also supports the previous claim; see pp. 42, 115) with reference to Buddhism; it can also be discerned in Grenfell (1978) regarding Christianity. The major problem with this claim is that, while partially supported by current dogma (e.g. John Paul II, 1995), endless practical examples refute it. A woman singer is banned from a Jewish religious rally; a two-year-old girl dies when refused treatment at a "men's only" Muslim hospital; an Italian archbishop and cardinal makes racist statements; Hindu women are forbidden to enter a shrine or to draw water from the temple well. These are not medieval events but rather news items from the year 2000.
In this article we concentrate on one specific type of ecclesiastic discrimination--the one practiced against women. In her History of God, Armstrong (1993, p. 124) writes as follows: "A religion which looks askance upon half the human race and which regards every involuntary motion of mind, heart and body as a symptom of fatal concupiscence can only alienate men and women from their condition. Western Christianity never fully recovered from this neurotic misogyny." Yet, it appears to us that Armstrong is unnecessarily selective. It is not just Western Christianity that suffers from this shortcoming. By examining selected writings and exegeses of the major world religions, we shall show that they are all inherently misogynic. Based on our background as psychologists and our experience as family therapists, we attempt to analyze such misogyny and inquire into its roots and consequences.
The religions we examine include both those three traditionally regarded as monotheistic, and the two largest Eastern religions. By necessity, our reading is both selective and tendentious; as Moore (2000) has maintained, it is impossible to perform a systematic sampling of the scriptures and liturgy of even one, let alone several major religions. We shall not claim that the religions surveyed below offer nothing but misogyny, but rather that they contain abundant material promoting and legitimizing hatred of women among some 2 billion Christians, 1.3 billion Muslims, 900 million Hindus, 360 million Buddhists and 14 million Jews. Our method of analysis derives from orientational inquiry (cf. orienting theory in Carspecken & Apple, 1990): This approach makes explicit the theoretical perspective of the researchers that guides the inquiry from its outset.
Erich Fromm (1973, p. 221; also Figes, 1986, p. 41) attributes the rise of patriarchalism to the "urban revolution" of the 3rd millennium B.C.E. Though the early Israelites of some two thousand years later inherited this social system from preceding and neighboring civilizations, they certainly contributed a great deal to its taking solid root. Vestiges of Neolithic matriarchalism had not yet disappeared, and the worship of fertility goddesses was still practiced in biblical times; Astarte and Anath played an especially great role among the Canaanites (Albright, 1957, p. 233; Moscati, 1953, p. 100. See also Gross, 1996, ch. 5, for a discussion of the prepatriarchal hypothesis). Within the Jewish religion that evolved during these times the influence of female deities was bitterly contested (see the numerous instances in which "asherot" are destroyed: Ex. 34:13; Judges 6:25; 2 Kings 23:14; 2 Chron. 14:2; 31:1, etc.), with the male YHWH being repeatedly declared as the Highest of the Gods. It is hard to say to what extent this religious ideology affected social customs; there is however no doubt that the Israelite family was completely patriarchal, with the husband acting as absolute master of wife and children (de Vaux, 1965, p. 20; Moscati, 1953, p. 138).
The Hebrew Bible contains numerous examples of what Trible (1990, p. 24) calls "the inferiority, subordination and abuse of women in Scripture". Four particularly painful cases (Hagar, Tamar, the concubine from Bethlehem, and Jephthah's daughter in Trible, 1984) serve as evidence for the general attitude toward women; Fields (1992) adds to these two more misogynic vignettes to show that women were considered expendable in biblical times. (For other pathological family patterns in the Hebrew Bible, see Kramer & Moore, 1998).
Now, admittedly, misogyny is a harsh word. The reader may ask whether we use it advisedly. On the one hand, the Hebrew Bible does not directly revile women, and has few such direct and blunt anti-feminine statements compared to its descendants and sister religions. On the other hand, through its treatment of women as chattel, it legitimizes the subsequent development of blatant misogyny. A handful of particularly aggressive women, such as Deborah and Jael, are occasionally conjured up to support the scriptures' positive attitude towards women, but they prove as little as Golda Meir, Indira Ghandi or Margaret Thatcher would, were they used for a similar purpose in their respective cultures. (Lerner, 1986, pp. 176-177, voices a similar opinion). The road from here to the institutionalized, daily deprecation of women in the Jewish morning prayer is a short one: "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a woman" (Hertz, 1959, p. 21; for additional pathogenic aspects of prayers, see Moore, 1999).
Though the Hebrew Bible may be only an oblique source of misogyny, its exegetes are far more direct. The Babylonian Talmud often places together women and slaves (e.g. Yebamot 122/A; Nazir 61/A; women, slaves and children in Berakhot 20/A and 45/B; women, slaves and cattle in Kidushin 2/A, 14/B, 25/B); it practically bars women from public appearances by declaring that "a woman's voice is nakedness" (or obscenity, Berakhot 24/A); objects to fathers instructing their daughters in religious matters ("equivalent to teaching her depravity", Sota 20/A), and straightforwardly declares: "Happy is he whose children are males, woe is him whose children are females" (Baba Batra 16/B). Bialik & Ravnicki (1948) gathered a large number of short legends and sayings from Jewish religious writings (both from the Talmud and the Midrashim, the latter being compilations of post-Talmudic exegeses); here are some that refer to women:
In their introduction to the anthology, Bialik & Ravnicki (1948, p. iii) claim to have gathered "the best and the most characteristic" of Jewish legends. Modern readers cannot fail to absorb the derision with which women are held by the very fundaments of their religion.
Though largely disregarded by the Hebrew biblical tradition, misogynic aspects of the creation myth received great attention during the intertestamental period (Milne, 1989) and were later put to use by Christian exegetes. Outstanding among these are:
When we add to these highly influential Fathers of the Church such a significant character as Martin Luther ("a rabid anti-Semite, a misogynist, ... convulsed with a loathing and horror of sexuality...", in Armstrong, 1993, p. 279), we must not be surprised of the antagonism that has developed between feminism and Christianity. A few excerpts from contemporary writers should suffice to illustrate this state of affairs:
Ranke-Heinemann (1990, p. 6) writes of the "disturbing history of the misogyny and sexual despair of the Catholic Church" and of its "nonsensical hatred of marriage and the body". Armstrong (1993, p. 124) says of Christianity that a "religion which teaches men and women to regard their humanity as chronically flawed can alienate them from themselves. Nowhere is this alienation more evident than in the denigration of sexuality in general and women in particular". Loades (1987) suggests that "Christian feminism" is a contradiction in terms (p. 2), that it becomes increasingly difficult for a feminist to profess Christianity (p. 15), and that "women's self-recovery will depend upon their refusal to bother any more with the Churches and their theology" (p. 99). Casagrande (1992, p. 90), mentions the "divine curse" in Gen. 3:16, which is "echoed in the life of every woman to follow, condemning her irrevocably to the domination of men". (See also Armstrong, 1986; Buhrig, 1993; Maitland, 1995, p. 92; Milne, 1989; Power, 1995).
The Church's anti-feminism has not been fed by ancient creation myths alone. The New Testament itself is a rich source for such an attitude, mostly coming from St. Paul:
These often quoted verses (see also I Cor. 11: 2-16) have all served, generation after generation, as documents authorizing the putting down of women. The last mentioned (having become an integral part of the liturgy; see the Book of Common Prayer, 1968, pp. 310-311), was only recently re-affirmed in an amendment adopted by the 1998 Southern Baptist Convention to the effect that "A wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband." (Time, 1998, 151, No. 25, p. 15).
In her book on genital mutilation of Islamic women, Abdalla contrasts the theoretical equality of the sexes in the Koran (4:1) with the actual inferior position of women. True, the Prophet permitted their presence at prayer ("Do not stop your women from going to the mosque, although their houses are better for them"; in Al-Hashimi, 1996, ch. 1), but after his death, women were prevented from praying in public mosques (Abdalla, 1982, p. 32; cf. Gross, 1993, pp. 9-10 for a similar development in early Buddhism). Such domination of women has doctrinal foundations; for the same Koranic chapter also informs believers that "men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other--those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them" (4:34). It is the widespread reliance on such verses (see Moore & Kramer, 2000) that has lead Abdalla (1982, p. 102) to say: "Religious teachings ... have been manipulated to demonstrate that men have a sacred as well as a secular right to dominate ... and even mutilate women ... for their own good...!" (See also Armstrong, 1993, p. 158: "Unfortunately, as in Christianity, the religion was later hijacked by the men, who interpreted texts in a way that was negative for Muslim women").
To what extent both the Koran and the Hadith are being used for the institutionalized oppression of women can be seen in a contemporary volume devoted to proper female conduct. Al-Hashimi (1996, ch. 4), a religious teacher and writer, summarizes the ideal Muslim wife's traits: "She is obedient, kind and loving towards her husband, ever eager to please him. She does not disclose his secrets or upset his plans. She endears herself to him by the way she looks and behaves, and fills his life with joy and happiness. She encourages him to obey Allah in different ways, and motivates him by joining him in different activities. She respects his mother and family. She refrains from looking at other men. She keeps away from foolish and worthless talk. She is keen to provide an atmosphere of peace, tranquility and stability for her husband and children. She is strong of character without being rude or aggressive, and is kind and gentle without being weak. She earns the respect of those who speak to her. She is tolerant and forgiving, overlooking errors and never bearing grudges". The writer concludes: "[B]eing a good wife is not only a quality that she may boast about among her friends, but it is also a religious obligation for which Allah will call her to account: if she has done well, she will be rewarded, but if she has fallen short she will have to pay the penalty".
Al Hashimi has ample scriptural basis for the above; here are a few examples of the Prophet's sayings about women (both Koranic and reported), which he cites (1996, ch. 4):
Al-Hashimi's book does not stand alone. Similar messages, inculcating a subservient image of women and an attitude towards them that is at best patronizing, appear in countless books and articles (e.g. those published by Umm Publications of Yagoona, Australia, and by the Muslim Creed Journal of Miami, Florida).
From the vast amount of sacred Hindu writings we have selected two major texts: the Srimad bhagavatam and the Bhagavad-Gita; we have also consulted a collection of Sanskrit scriptures edited by O'Flaherty (1975) and selections from both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The Bhagavad-Gita is the most famous portion of the Mahabharata, providing a synopsis of Indian religious thought and experience. Srimad bhagavatam is considered as "the ripened fruit of the tree of Vedic literature".
Hinduism (as well as Buddhism, below) is free from the influence of the Judeo-Christian matrix; the 2500-year-old texts we have perused developed their anti-feminine bias independently of 3500-year-old Middle-Eastern creation myths. Their patriarchal Weltanschauung [Worldview] is nonetheless clear. The "Disposition of Women" receives considerable attention in the Mahabharata (Anusasana Parva). Having declared that "women are the root of all evil", and that they "wish to transgress the restraints assigned to them" (# 38; see also O'Flaherty, 1975, pp. 36-37), this sacred source embarks on a lengthy attack on women. The latter are described as unintelligible, insatiably lustful, deceitful, and gluttonous, akin to death, poison, snakes and fire, created for the express purpose of corrupting men (# 38 - 40 and elsewhere). Undeserving of independence (# 20), their only end is "obedient service to their husbands" (# 59). Rarely observed righteous women are also described: The main characteristic of such a woman is that she "looks upon her husband as a god, waits upon and serves him as if he is a god, surrenders her own will completely to that of her lord" (# 146).
India's other great religious epic, the Ramayana, concurs: Women are impure by their very birth, they blight all virtues, their nature is to be vicious, fickle and sharp-tongued. A woman's only duty is devotion of body, speech and mind to her husband (Aranya Kanda). Many other selections, both from the Srimad bhagavatam (Prabhupada, 1978) and from the Bhagavad-Gita (Prabhupada, 1972), complete this picture: The ancient texts, as well as their contemporary interpreter, repeatedly describe women as unintelligent, untrustworthy, interested only in worthless material enjoyment, and, in sum, an obstacle to spiritual fulfillment. (Cf. women depicted as sex objects in Confucius' Analects 18:4).
A vignette from Digha Nikaya (a part of the Tipitaka, the doctrinal foundation of Theravada Buddhism) serves to set the tone of Buddhist attitudes toward women:
"'How are we to conduct ourselves, lord, with regards to womankind?' 'As not seeing them, Ananda.' 'But if we should see them, what are we to do?' 'No talking, Ananda.' 'But if they should speak to us, lord, what are we to do?' 'Keep wide awake, Ananda'" (# 16, quoted in Gross, 1993, p. 44)
The anti-feminine stance of Buddhism is apparent in many other writings as well. Women are described as undeserving of any worthy undertaking because they are irritable, jealous, greedy and unintelligent (Anguttara Nikaya 4:80, in Nyanatiloka/Nyanaponika, 1984); they are out to trap men to such an extent that they are described as the snare of Mara, the Evil One (6:55); they can never become fully enlightened (1:15; for more texts on the opposition between Buddhahood and femininity see Gross, 1993, pp.60-63). Neither is sensual pleasure, closely associated in these writings with women, spared. In a lengthy allegory in which monks are warriors and shapely women are the enemy, the Buddha compares such pleasure to a chain of bones, a lump of flesh, a grass torch, a pit of glowing embers, a slaughterhouse, spears, swords and a poisonous snake (Anguttara Nikaya 5:76 in Nyanatiloka/Nyanaponika, 1984). Gross (1993), who goes to great lengths to save Buddhism's good name , cannot but summarize: "In any major period or form of Buddhism, we can find opinions and texts demonstrating varying levels of negativity to women, from outright misogyny to compassion for beings with such a difficult slot in the samsaric ocean" (p. 115; see also Paul, 1979).
China's other great system of thought, Confucianism, is more of an ideology than a religion. Yet, we must consider its influence on hundreds of millions of followers. The latter are exposed to a philosophy whose tenor, with regard to women, is identical to what is found in both Hindu and Buddhist sources: Women are the source of disorder; they are foolish, lowly and weak; their sole duty is to serve their husband (see Confucius' Analects 8:20, 17:25, 18:4, as well as Reese, 2000, for a list of Confucian inspired sayings, some attributed to Confucius, others neo-Confucian). Chung (1994) has suggested that the contemporary subordination of women in South Korea is directly tied to the traditional patriarchal ideology derived from Confucianism.
The psychology of misogyny
"Are the world's religions inevitably sexist?" asks Gross (1996, Ch. 4), but gives no answer. In our opinion, the answer is a barely qualified yes. There is no inevitability, because religion, in the abstract, could be egalitarian both in doctrine and practice. However, many of those who have invented and/or propagated the major religions, have chosen to employ their immense power for the perpetuation of discrimination, intolerance and bigotry. They did not invent misogyny, only legitimized it first through its inclusion in scriptures, then through a misogynic interpretation of the latter. In the writings of the religions examined, a highly motivated and diligent reader can find some messages of equality and mutual respect. However, for thousands of years these voices have been, and largely still are, silenced at the expense of the blaring voice of discrimination against various groups, amongst them women.
The antecedents of social stratification are complex. Contemporary sociology applies to this field a combination of two seemingly rival theories: functionalism vs. conflict. According to functionalists, preindustrial families' survival depended on a gender-based division of labor; this created servile women and dominant men. Conflict theorists elucidate the persistence of this pattern even when it is dysfunctional: those in power are resistant to surrender their dominant position. Religion, as a major force in society, illustrates both of these trends. It has generously contributed both to the establishment of patriarchalism and to its upholding, long after it ceased to be functional.
While Marxist conflict theories and Parsonsian functionalism provide an overarching sociological explanation for social stratification, misogyny has several psychological determinants as well.
Both Winnicott (1964) and Mahler, Pine & Bergman (1975) apply the tools of psychoanalysis to "the fear of women". Winnicott recognizes in this phenomenon the fear of being lured back into a state of infantile dependence; Mahler & al. write of a fear of re-engulfment. These notions (not unlike the "masculine protest" in Adler; cf. the generalized prejudice concept of the Authoritarian Personality in Adorno et al., 1950) seem to beg the question, for they assume that women have, ab ovo, undesirable characteristics, which men try to escape.
In contrast with the psycho-dynamic approach for explaining outgroup members' rejection, several social psychological models have been proposed for intergroup conflict. These range from Sherif's functional interpretation of artificially induced competition and cooperation between groups (Sherif et al., 1961), through Campbell's (1965) similarly functionally oriented Realistic Group Conflict Theory, to Tajfel's Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). The latter proposes that individuals strive for a positive self-concept and obtain it by membership in positively evaluated groups. Such positive evaluation is obtained through favorable social comparison with other groups. This simple desideratum leads to the need to (mis)perceive ingroup and outgroup so as to create the largest possible differential between them. Many well known social processes are corollaries of this process: perception of ingroup similarity and distinctiveness, ingroup favoritism combined with outgroup discrimination and prejudice, escalating ethnocentrism, intergroup bias, pseudospeciation, the ultimate attributional error, scapegoating and more (cf. Moore, 1993). All of these processes assume an external locus of control.
Taking responsibility for one's fate, i.e. having an internal locus of control, runs counter to religious ideation. The existential theologian Bultmann expresses this well when he says, "that it is an illusion to suppose that real security can be gained by men organizing their own personal and community life." (1960, p. 39. For a discussion of religion and locus of control, see Moore & Kramer, 2000). A concomitant of external locus of control is blaming. When one's life, health and general welfare depend on inscrutable and not necessarily benevolent divine forces, it becomes indispensable to externalize the sources of one's inevitable calamities, frustrations and failures. Where a draught (national) and disease (individual) are attributed to sins committed against the divinity, one also needs to blame various groups and individuals for any mishap, both within and outside the family. Clearly visible groups (racial, religious, ethnic minorities, neighboring countries) serve this purpose at the national level. Owing to their availability, vulnerability and distinctiveness, women have always provided a ready target for domestic purposes.
Man-made religions have played an important role in the inculcation of this process. It is not only the Hebrew Bible and Christianity that have placed the blame on Eve for humanity's tragic condition (see Tertullian and Augustine, quoted above). O'Flaherty (1975, pp. 36-37), for instance, writes of the orthodox Hindu view, according to which woman is the root of all evil: "For there is nothing more evil than women; ... The lord Grandfather, learning what was in the hearts of the gods, created women by a magic ritual to delude mankind... those wanton women, lusting for sensual pleasures, began to stir men up. Then the lord of gods, the lord, created anger as the assistant of desire, and all creatures, falling into the power of desire and anger, began to be attached to women" (From the Mahabharata ).
In our opinion, religious misogyny is therefore but one manifestation of the extremely widespread war of the sexes. An important aspect of this war is the institutionalized ignorance to which religions have traditionally subjected women. In her analysis of major world religions King (1987) finds that women "were always excluded from formal education once sacred knowledge became transmitted in an institutional manner". Chan (2000) writes of the exclusion of women from receiving Confucian education. We have quoted above the Talmudic injunction against instructing daughters, and the Koranic reluctance to female participation in public prayer. Only recently, we have witnessed the closing of schools to girls by the Taliban regime of Afghanistan.
A related analysis of the war of the sexes, based on Bowen's (1976) version of Heiderian balance theory (see in Moore, 1978), relies on a family therapy oriented approach. We may safely assume that in preindustrial societies women and children, thrown together by anatomy and environmental forces, create a bond, which excludes men. The necessity to leave home for shorter or longer periods in order to assure the family's survival undermines the spousal dyad and strengthens the mother-child dyad, turning men into outsiders; the latter, in their turn, find partners with whom they can build coalitions against women. Dyads are unstable structures, into which a third person is triangulated when tension and disagreement arise. Now a coalition of two against one is formed. The latter, in its turn, may seek support outside the triangle, thus creating interlocking structures. Bowen's example of the need to shift the blame in the father-mother-child triangle is especially helpful for our present purpose: "Patterns vary, but one of the most common is basic tension between the parents, with the father's gaining the outside position--often being called passive, weak, and distant--leaving the conflict between mother and child. The mother--often called aggressive, dominating, and castrating--wins over the child, who moves another step toward chronic functional impairment" (1976, pp. 76-77; see also Satir, Stachowiak & Taschman, 1975).
Children are the most precious assets of every society, they are the key to its future. To counterbalance mothers' influence, and to assure their own dominance over future generations, men form and control various social bodies (military, political, leisure etc.), that either de jure or de facto discriminate against women. Institutionalized religion is perhaps the most powerful among them.
"Devotion to her lord is woman's merit; it is her penance; it is her eternal Heaven" (Anusasana Parva # 146).
Democracy and several social values derived from it are a recent invention. An adherence to basic human rights (the equal treatment of individuals "without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status"; see Article 2 of the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights) is such a novel concept that it is barely accepted by many even as an abstract principle, much less so as a rule to live by. Religions are fixated at an earlier stage. Based on received authority, and anti-pluralistic in their fundaments, they cannot allow new thought. Their misogyny is rooted in patriarchalism, the latter being shot through with "Woman as a source of danger, as a repository of externalized evil" (Figes, 1986, p. 45). So long as hundreds of millions of people subscribe to blaming the victims by such statements as the one opening this section, there is little hope for change.
 As well as Muslims and Buddhists, Jews and Muslims, etc. For disagreements within each, see below.
Abdalla, Raqiya (1982). Sisters in affliction : Circumcision and infibulation of women in Africa. London: Zed Press.
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