Sunday, August 06, 2006

Violence Against Women and the Role of Religion


Much of this post uses quotes from the article “Violence Against Women and the Role of Religion by Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune and Rabbi Cindy G. Enger - March 2005”. The full version can be found at the Internet reference that is listed below. In their article they also provide a number of suggestions on how religious teachings can (or should) be used to overcome the prevailing states of male dominance over women. Additionally they succinctly point out the role that the use of limited and/or selected interpretations of religious teachings have when they are used by males in their quest to subjugate women.


‘Through texts, traditions, teachings and doctrine, religious communities and institutions convey cultural norms, a belief system and its inherent values to their members. In addition, community members often have direct support or counselling relationships with religious leaders who may provide guidance or instruction. Religious texts and teachings can be (and often are) misused to excuse or condone abusive behaviour against others and particularly against women. According to Fortune and G. Enger… ‘No woman should ever be forced to choose between safety and her religious community or tradition. She should be able to access the resources of both community-based advocacy and shelter and faith-based support and counsel’. A noble sentiment, which I agree with and hopefully a proposition to which all civilized people would subscribe.

Christianity as a tool of abuse

“Both the Hebrew Bible and Christian Scriptures contain story after story of violence against women: e.g. Dinah (Genesis 34), Tamar (2 Samuel 13), the Levite's concubine (Judges 19), Jephthah's daughter (Judges 11), Vashti (Esther 1) and Suzannah (Daniel 13) to mention but a few. Later Christian texts also condone male violence against women and the domination of women. For example, “the right of chastisement” was the enforcer of women's subordination in marriage. In the "Rules of Marriage" compiled by Friar Cherubino in the 15th century (Bussert, 1986) we find the careful instruction to a husband to first reprimand his wife; "And if this still doesn't work… take up a stick and beat her soundly… for it is better to punish the body and correct the soul than to damage the soul and spare the body" (p. 13).”

‘Unfortunately, this doctrine has been viewed as consistent with scriptural passages interpreted to confirm male dominance over women: "Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands" (Ephesians 5.22-24 NRSV). Either by its silence or its instruction, the church has too often communicated to battered women that they should stay in abusive relationships, try to be better wives, and "forgive and forget." To those males inflicting the battering, it has communicated that their efforts to control their wives or girlfriends are justified because women are to be subject to men in all things. They have been permitted to "discipline" their wives and their children all for the "good of the family." Christian history is filled with church leaders that have justified the abuse of women by men. Church fathers like Martin Luther for example unapologetically describe their own physical violence towards their wives (Smith, 1911).’

‘The Christian scriptural justifications for women remaining in abusive relationships (subordination in marriage, e.g. Ephesians 5:20; prohibition of divorce, e.g. Malachi 2:13-16) and the selective use of a text (‘prooftexting’), usually out of context, to support one's position) is a common ploy by those who seek to simply justify their actions. It is not difficult to prooftext a man's prerogative to dominate and control a woman within patriarchal western religious traditions.’

Judaism as a tool of abuse

‘Shalom bayit’ (peace in the home) is an important Jewish value; yet the this fundamental concept has been misused by some who place on women the sole responsibility for maintaining peace in the home and even has been used to pressure women to remain in or return to homes in which they have been the victims of abuse. In addition the "myth of the perfect Jewish family," in which abuse as well as other problems have been covered up and seen as sources of shame often leaves women vulnerable and oppressed when the home, rather than being a place of peace, is more a place in which violence is being perpetrated.’

“According to ‘halakhic law’ (Jewish law), a marriage can conventionally be terminated in two ways: the death of a spouse, or the issuing of a get (divorce). A husband can, in principle, refuse to give a get indefinitely, and the woman cannot remarry or have children. In addition, childless widows must obtain a ritual release from their deceased husband's brother (levirate marriage) in order to re-marry”. Additionally it is the case that… “Those wanting a non-Orthodox religious ceremony simply have no choice in Israel." (

The perceived superiority of males in Jewish society is so culturally entrenched that a Jewish male’s prayer or “one of the morning blessings made by an Orthodox Jewish male is: ‘Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.’”

Today orthodox Jewish women are still excluded from the praying community and seated behind a screen and generally speaking traditional Jewish views maintain that women are unclean during menstruation and that the religious life of Jewish women should be centred in the home.

Islam as a tool of abuse

“Within Islam, we also find texts and interpretations of texts that have been used by abusive men to justify their behaviour. According to Muslim scholar and activist Sharifa Alkhateeb (1999): The most abused verse is ayah 34 of Surah four: "Men are the protectors and maintainers of women because Allah gave more to the one than the other and because they support them from their means. Islamic teachings also state… “Concerning women whose rebellious disloyalty (nusbooz) you fear, admonish them, then refuse to share their beds, then hit them; but if they become obedient, do not seek means of annoyance against them. For Allah is Most High, Great". “Alkhateeb (1999) argues that these passages instruct Muslim men to financially and physically protect women (given their greater physical strength) and instructs Muslim women to guard their fidelity in obedience to Allah. Then Alkhateeb (1999) concludes: The wording of this verse emphasizes the woman's obedience to Allah's desires and not to those of another human being, but those who misinterpret this verse would assign men the duty of being eternal surveillance police over their wives. In short, this verse has been used as a tool of control and abuse, which in reality is completely opposed to the Islamic foundation of marriage and family. In Islam, the ‘full teachings’ emphasise/require kindness, politeness, consideration, gentleness, respect and general goodness to women.”

Indonesia – “One of the most notorious qanun (“law” in Arabic) is No. 11/2002 on the implementation of Islamic law in the areas of faith, worship and dissemination of Islamic teachings. It has been used to punish women who do not wear headscarves in public.” Jakarta Post 02/08/06

Indonesia - “Women's movements in Indonesia are facing a serious challenge from fundamentalists, who have tactically outmanoeuvred them. Campaigning for the pornography bill, which frames women as the source of the problem, fundamentalists have labelled the entire discourse on women's movements as immoral and even irreligious, as they emphasize their own morality and religious piety. The fundamentalists end up holding women's movements responsible for the situation they say creates the need for a pornography bill.” Jakarta Post 25/07/06

An adult (rather than parent/child) oriented philosophy…

No human being has ultimate authority over another, man or women, particularly on religious grounds. All relationships therefore should remain an ongoing choice of the individual. This view however will be hard to swallow for those that think they have a god given, or government institutionalised right to control another’s destiny and quality of life. The sad fact is that many of the current (and past) unjust practices towards women represent ignorance or lack of any real understanding of the overall teachings of a particular religion.

“Although Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all state as a core value the preservation of marriage and the family, an underlying purpose behind the application of texts and teachings on marriage and family often has been the preservation of male control of women and children within a patriarchal system. At times, this has come at the expense of women's safety. Thus we have seen centuries of ‘religion in service to patriarchy’ rather than serving as a challenge to the dominant social norms which have perpetuated violence against women.”

“Tragically, a critical look at the history of much of our collective religious teaching makes clear that religious institutions have explicitly or implicitly shaped the context of values which have tolerated violence against women. Indeed, examples of violence against and the silencing of women appear in many places in authoritative texts of our religious traditions.” Some argue that much of the injustice towards women is cultural rather than religious however as cultural researcher Geert Hofstede explains: “for individuals seeking understanding of the behavioural problems of individuals and what might be done to overcome those problems it is paramount to clearly understand (and accept) the deeply ingrained ideas, beliefs, and attitudes of each country and culture. For these facets of individuals/societies are not based just on culture alone, but also on religion. Religion is a belief system that cannot be challenged or changed with any form of logic, education, or training.” In other words religion is a non-rational set of beliefs and it is also an integral part of culture. Therefore as I see it, religion is always going to be at least part (a major part) of the root causes of the difficulties faced by women in patriarchal societies.

A selection of nasty statistics on Harmful Practices towards women (from Amnesty International’s website, see references below)
”Virtually every culture in the world contains forms of violence against women that are nearly invisible because they are seen as "normal" or "custom". These forms of violence include forced marriage, genital mutilation and culturally imposed standards of beauty that can also lead women to mutilate or starve themselves and to damage their health. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is prevalent in a number of countries in Africa and is characteristic for both Muslim and Christian communities. So-called "honour killings" are practised mostly in the Middle East and Asia.”

Around the world - More than 135 million girls and women have undergone FGM and an additional 2 million girls and women are at risk each year (6,000 every day).

Africa - In more than 28 countries, FGM is practised.

Middle East and North Africa - In the Middle East FGM is practised in Egypt (97% of married women), Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Iraq - Human rights groups estimate that 4,000 women have fallen victim to the law that exempts men who killed their female relatives from persecution.

Asia and the Pacific - FGM has been reported in Asian counties such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka as well as among immigrant communities in Australia. Afghanistan - Forced marriage, especially of girls, is still widespread. Human rights abuses committed against women during the Taliban regime continue under the new government at high levels. Women are still being attacked, abducted and imprisoned without due process and for not complying with Taliban-style edicts on dress and behaviour. These attacks occur with tacit complicity from armed groups. India – (Ah yes lets not forget the Hindu’s - From Tulasi Ramayana - Sri Ramacharitamanasa, Aranya Kanda 43-44 – ‘Lust, anger, greed, pride etc., constitute the most powerful army of Ignorance. But among them all the fiercest and the most troublesome is that incarnation of Maya called woman.” From The MahabharataAnusasana Parva, Section LIX Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli Bhishma: “Women have one eternal duty in this world, viz., dependence upon and obedient service to their husbands, and as such, this one duty constitutes their only end. The husband is the wife’s Highest Deity”. From the Mahabharata Santi Parva, Section CXLIV translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli – “Since the marriage union takes place in the presence of fire; the husband is the wife’s highest deity. She is no wife with whom her lord is not content. In the case of women, if their lords be gratified with them all the deities also become so. That wife with whom her husband is not pleased becomes consumed into ashes,”) The Amnesty report goes on… There are close to 15,000 dowry deaths estimated per year. Mostly they are kitchen fires designed to look like accidents. Also in India; ‘In the Devadasi system young girls are pledged to temples (to a god or a goddess) for life at an early age by their parents and become temple prostitutes.’ Pakistan - Every year around 1,000 women are killed in the name of so-called "honour". Also 83% of rural men and 75% of rural women consider that the usual punishment for women proven guilty of “zina” or adultery should be death, while only 58% of rural men and 57% of rural women think that men should be punished with death for adultery.

Europe and Central Asia - So-called "honour killings" are reported in Turkey, as well as amongst immigrant communities in countries, such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

The state failing victims of violence against women (same source)
Violence against women (VAW) goes largely unreported. There are various reasons from country to country, which prevent women from reporting incidents of violence. Most common among these are: fear of retribution, lack of economic means, emotional dependence, and concern for children. Difficult or no access to redress is another common problem - few countries have special training for the police, judicial and medical staff to deal with rape cases. Lack or inadequacy of legislation; impunity for government officials who perpetrate VAW. In some cases, such as forced abortion and sterilization, governments may condone the practice, or turn a blind eye and fail to investigate properly such cases.

Around the world - Around 20-70% of abused women never told another person about the abuse they suffered until being interviewed for the study that this statistic has been taken from.
Africa - South Africa - The conviction rate for rape remains low at an average of 7%. A third of the estimated number or rapes were reported in 2003. It is estimated that only 3.5% of rapes are reported to the police.

Middle East and North Africa - Egypt - 47% of physically abused women never told anyone and 44% complained to their family. No one reported being assaulted to the police and only 3% confided in friends.

Asia and the Pacific - Bangladesh - Only 10% of perpetrators of acid attacks are ever brought to trial, as estimated by the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association and the Bangladeshi Acid Survivor’s Foundation. Pakistan – only 5% of rape and so-called "honour crimes" are reported.

Europe and Central Asia - Slovakia - In 2003 Amnesty International took up the cases of a number of Roma women who were sterilized against their will. It urged the government to reopen the investigation into allegations of forced sterilization and to ensure that it is carried out impartially, thoroughly and effectively.
Violence with impunity Discriminatory, Absent or flawed Laws (same source)
So-called "Honour" defences (partial or complete) are found in the Penal Codes of Peru, Bangladesh, Argentina, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, the West Bank and Venezuela.
Africa - At least 23 African countries have legal provisions in place that discriminate against women. Less than 10% of the rape and sexual assault legislation in African countries is specific, more than 70% is unspecific and around 20% of the countries have no (or unknown) provisions. Under the Maliki school of thought (one of the four schools of Fiqh or religious law within Sunni Islam) dominating the interpretation of the Sharia penal codes in 12 northern states in Nigeria (and some other countries), which have introduced them since 1999, pregnancy is considered sufficient evidence to condemn a woman for behaviour termed as zina (extramarital or premarital sex). Zina carries a mandatory death sentence if the accused is married, but 100 lashes if the accused is not married. The oath of the man denying having had sexual intercourse with the woman is often considered sufficient proof of innocence unless four independent and reputable [male] eyewitnesses declare his involvement in the act of involuntary intercourse.” So under Shariah law if you report a rape and are married you may find yourself being stoned to death for the crime of Zina.
Middle East and North Africa - At least 75% of the countries in the region have laws in place that discriminate against women. Almost 60% of the countries in the region have customary regulations in place that provide women with an inferior status to men. In almost 70% of the countries, there are no provisions against sexual harassment. Only around 75% of the states in the region introduced legislation against rape and sexual assault, all of them unspecific. None of the Arab states considers marital rape as a crime by law. Iran - According to Article 635 of Book 5 of the Law on Islamic Punishments, Offences Against Public Decency and Morals, women who do not wear the prescribed Islamic dress in public are sentenced to imprisonment between 10 days and two months or fined. Israel - Under the Marriage and Divorce Law, marriages and divorces are to be performed in accordance with Jewish religious law, which stipulates that a Jewish woman is not allowed to initiate a divorce without the consent of the husband. Kuwait - Women do not have the right to vote for members of parliament according to Voting Law No.35 of 1962. Syria - The Penal Code (Article 548) exempts from punishment the killer of a wife or sister who has caught them in illegitimate sexual acts or in a "suspicious" state. Yemen The Personal Status Act No. 20 of 1992 states women are not allowed to leave the conjugal home without their husband’s permission.

Asia and the Pacific - Around 80% of the countries in the region have no (or unknown) legislation against sexual harassment. More than 40% of countries in the region have no (or unknown) rape and sexual assault legislation. Almost 50% of all states in the region have no (or unknown) legislation addressing domestic violence. 11 countries in the region had specific legislation against domestic violence planned, drafted or reviewed in 2003. India - Rape within marriage is not a criminal offence according to the Indian Penal Code. Malaysia - Marital rape is not punishable according to the Malaysian Penal Code. Pakistan - In giving evidence at court, Article 17 of the Law of Evidence of 1984 as well as Section 8 of the Offences of Zina Ordinance of 1979 values the evidence given by male witnesses more than the evidence given by women.

Europe and Central Asia - Many countries in the region have not outlawed marital rape as a crime. Almost 90% of the states have no provisions against FGM, while only three countries in the region (Norway, Sweden and the UK) have specific legislation against it.

Just as the literal/revolutionist Christians and the non compromising Moslems believe their holy books are the actual word of god, orthodox Jews believe that the Torah and its pertaining laws are divine and transmitted by God to Moses who then wrote it down and that they cannot be changed by a human being. With the Christian conservatives such as the ‘religious right’ in America seemingly in the ascendency, the growth of hard line conservative views in a number of Islamic countries and orthodox Jews seemingly gaining sway in Israel, what hope for women in the future?


No wonder women need to mobilize themselves against the patriarchal systems of the world. So why don’t they become more active within their own societies. Well intimidation is one reason I guess and the ill treatment of dissenters and feminists in closed societies is well documented; lets not forget the plight of poor Joan of Arc. There is perhaps another reason and it’s linked to the question… Do fish know they are wet? If our world view has been limited by a culture that condones the deprivation of women’s rights, its going to be hard for us to see things as they could (should) be and accept a counter view as a legitimate alternative to what is ground into us a god’s ordained truth. Only those air breathing ground dwellers among us that are able to drown in water can see that it is wet. Explaining the concept of wetness to a fish will be a difficult if not impossible task, however we must try.

What a grubby backward world it is!

(Violence Against Women and the Role of Religion by Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune and Rabbi Cindy G. Enger March 2005)


Anonymous said...

Your post is very interesting and instructive. I totally agree with the idea that religions are the oldest enemies of women's emancipation. In many countries, women had more rights before religions settled. Thank you for raising the question.
Laura a "laïc" French reader.

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