The fact that Salman Rushdie and MF Hussain were threatened by mobs of religious bigots for what were works of literature and art respectively, and that Asaram Bapu was defended from the law by similar mobs, for being a predatory paedophile, might be an absurd, yet amusing paradox to some. But to me, it is a manifestation of everything that’s wrong with the way society perceives religion.
Religious misogyny is a kind that has been particularly hard to call out and address, for multiple reasons. Firstly, it is because religious texts can be dissected, re-interpreted, misinterpreted, and completely bastardised to suit the message of the hour. Euphemisms like ‘family values’ allow religious organisations to tread the fine line between enshrining heteronormative and sexist gender roles in society on the one hand and claiming just to be innocuously prescriptive in the face of criticism on the other hand. Interpretive flexibility allows them to hold double standards with impunity.
But secondly, the cult status of religious figures sends their followers into an aggressive frenzy- defending them from public pressure, and very often, the law. Asaram Bapu is one such figure, as you can read here (http://www.tehelka.com/the-saint-and-his-taint/). His elevation to saint status and his brazenly belligerent behaviour testifies that for large sections of India, religious absolutes are an ultimate value, while basic human dignity and an ethical consideration of women, are not. Hindu apologists claim we ought to be considerate towards women because they represent mothers, sisters and goddesses, but still maintain that these goddesses are too unholy to be allowed into a temple when they’re menstruating.
Islam has their larger-than-life and significantly-holier-than-thou celebrities sprinkled in different corners of the world. Be it the Sahyedna, the Aga Khan, or the Ayatollah- their message is the irrefutable voice of god. A god that has never been there for women. A god that has jewels like female genital mutilation, polygamy, and the systematic dehumanisation of half our species (through the burkha) on his CV.
And just when we were thinking that female religious leaders could reverse the male-centric hegemony of religious institutions, enter Agnes Bojaxhiu- an unapologetic female misogynist, a deceptive fraud, and a morally defunct friend to the fascists. You might know this religious rockstar better by her stage name- Mother Teresa. And a rockstar was all she was- very little substantive good, as Christopher Hitchens adeptly describes here (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2003/10/mommie_dearest.html) and here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9WQ0i3nCx60), and a saintly product of a propaganda campaign designed to mesmerise followers into delirious reverence, irrespective of the harmful effects her preaching might have had.
In the late 1970s, just when the pro-choice movement was picking up on the back of Roe v Wade, and feminists were trying to ensure that women could retain their bodily autonomy, retain their right to non-procreative sex, and retain their right to basically not be poultry-hen-like baby factories, they were dealt a massive blow by Mother Teresa’s sinister words. Her Noble Peace Prize acceptance statement- of how abortion was the greatest destroyer of love and peace- gave a feminine credibility to the filthy pro-life (anti-woman) dogma that not only essentialises women to their wombs, but also claims ownership over said wombs for the purpose of producing children who are presumably meant to partake in the same, reprehensible fanaticism. In an Irish referendum in 1996, she demanded that the state constitutionally ban divorce and remarriage, because married couples are together ‘till death do us part’, even if that death is to come through marital rape or domestic violence.
This ought to be sufficient evidence for the fact that organised religion is patronisingly sexist at best, and contemptuously misogynistic at worst. A verbatim representation of holy books like the New Testament, Old Testament, or the Quaran substantiates this evidence further- misogynistic texts exist (and we’ll be looking at some later in this piece).
The only defence the religious have therefore, against accusations of misogyny, stems from the interpretive flexibility of these scriptures. But this flexibility is probably the most dangerous tool to legitimise in public discourse, because it is the same flexibility that allowed Osama bin Laden to interpret the Quaran to mean that airplanes must be flown into skyscrapers. The same interpretive flexibility that allowed Joseph Kony to lawyer the bible and justify his formation of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)- composed mainly of child soldiers and sex slaves.
And somehow, the perceived philanthropy of the likes Asaram Bapu and Mother Teresa are adequate to exonerate them from the moral flak they get, when it comes to the trivial issue of what to do with women. Rita Banerji analyses this trend well here (http://genderbytes.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/gandhi-to-asaram-who-empowers-the-sex-crimes-of-gurus/). These superstars have had their fans pledge their lives, their lands, their familial loyalty, and in the case of Asaram Bapu, their daughters, to them. Their supporters are in so deep that they can’t pull out, and women around the world are getting fucked in the process (quite literally, in some cases).
The fact that organised religion abhors women can be agreed upon (I challenge anyone to rebut me). And how they do it is quite clear. The largest question that still looms is why they insist on it. Why is it necessary that spiritual fulfilment of a society is contingent on subjugation of half of it? Why do you want to own women? Why is it that despite preaching sexual conservatism, godmen like Asaram Bapu have the cruelty to exploit the daughters of their followers in the same manner as the now expired Ariel Castro sexually exploited the girls he kidnapped? Why is it, that despite preaching abstinence and homophobia, and ostensibly practising celibacy, priests of the Catholic Church are guilty of violently raping little children, many of whom are of the same gender? Why does Islam call for the repression and subjugation of female sexuality while it has the no problem condoning polygamy for men? Why is it that misogyny happens to be a major preoccupation of organised religion?
An excerpt from Ephesians 5, attributed to St. Paul, might give us some insight:
“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
Paula Kirby eloquently explains the implications of this excerpt in this piece (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/religion-lies-about-women/2011/04/13/AFDS9mXD_blog.html) for the Washington Post. To me, this passage provides a lot of clarity- religion isn’t interested in spirituality or ethics, its major concern is hierarchy. A hierarchy, that is designed for people lower down the order, to submit upwards. Submit their lives, submit their lands, submit their loyalty, and yes, submit their daughters.
Organised religion, in my opinion has been given far too much leeway to do what it pleases. We pretend it exists to make our societies better when the evidence strongly suggests to the contrary. We pretend like their devious machinations of self-enrichment will ultimately enrich all of us and are willing to engage misogynistic and homophobic bigots in debates as to how best to do so. Religious wars and genocide have been excused as ‘excesses’ of religion and I’m sure people will be eager to do that for religious misogyny as well. They’ll try and convince you that misogyny is an unfortunate bye product of the way religions have evolved. And if we only make these pretentions and offer religion so much leeway because we impose upon ourselves a naivety that allows us to think that maybe organised religions are noble after all. It is only once we tear this veil of naivety that we can really put religious misogyny in perspective. Misogyny is not a side effect of organised religion; its at the very core of it.
Godmen, clerics, mullahs, priests, the Ayatollah, the Pope, the Dalai Lama, et cetera, are, for obvious reasons, deeply invested in establishing hierarchies that have them on the receiving end of any ‘submission’. It therefore ought not to surprise you that land-grabbing and wealth accumulation is what Asaram Bapu has been extremely skilled at. It ought not to surprise you that Mother Teresa had no qualms dabbling with the powerful but genocidal Duvaliers in Haiti and is often criticised of being not a friend of the poor, but a friend of poverty. Taking whatever little you have and telling you that glory awaits you in paradise is what religious leaders specialise in, while they bask in the glory of the obscene wealth this act of celestial fraud has brought for them on earth.
Nations with greater freedom available to women have higher divorce rates. This also corresponds with societies that are less religiose in nature because it’s a manifestation of a society’s unwillingness to concede to one’s fate. This is why divorce has been such a hot issue. This is why forcing women to take up their biologically defined role as that of a foetus incubator has been such a priority.
Societal hierarchy demands familial hierarchy, and ‘woman on top’ is a position the missionaries have never heard of.
Its easy to see how the need for a hierarchy automatically translated to men being entrenched as heads of households. Any history textbook about ancient times is extremely male-centric, because the metrics of value in society at that time favoured the protector. Only men, therefore, could’ve been leaders- an exclusive status that organised religion has fought long, hard, and relentlessly to preserve- with considerable success, even in 2013.
The establishment of religious hierarchies happens for the same reason as the establishment of dictatorial hierarchies- human subservience to a human demigod. Its about the power, its about the money. Despots like Muamar Gaddafi, Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Un, Charles Taylor et cetera have used violence to establish and reinforce their hierarchies.
Organised religion uses hellfire, and celestial myths to indoctrinate people from the time they’re children upto the time they’re about to detonate that suicide bomb. If you’re at the lowest rung of the hierarchy, you have your identity developed in a manner such that its impossible to opt out of the oppression- either because you fear the repercussions, or because you’re too invested in that way of thinking. Organised religion overcomes your inherently rational, logical, and ethical human mind to replace it with un-provable and un-falsifiable superstition, that dictates your actions. Violence of a much more frightening kind- because it causes human beings to do inhuman things.