Is God sexist?

Religion has long been associated with the oppression and denigration of women, yet its appeal to th

Religion ought to be a prime target on International Women's Day. Say what you like about global capitalism, or "the patriarchy", is there any force more potent than organised religion when it comes to putting women in their place and keeping them there? Whether it's the campaign by the Catholic church in America to restrict access to contraception in the name of "religious freedom", ultra-Orthodox Jews screaming obscene abuse at little girls going to school, efforts by traditionalist-minded Anglicans to maintain the glass ceiling when it comes to episcopal appointments, or the latest horror story from Afghanistan, religion seems predicated on the assumption that women are inferior to men and can only find fulfilment and security by accepting their secondary position in the divine scheme of things.

Yet because of the prevailing public etiquette that says that religious views should be accorded particular respect, and sometimes legal privilege, religion as such is rarely called out for its underlying sexism. Instead culture gets the blame, or fundamentalism, or a patriarchal conspiracy that we are assured has taken control of religion and twisted it for its own ends.

Of course there are progressive, even feminist, voices within all the major religions. But they are historically novel and even today may struggle to get their voices heard. It's unlikely to be a coincidence that the most religiously observant countries tend to be those with the worst records when it comes to the position of women. Or that the most secular and least religious countries score highest in terms of sexual equality.

Religion, almost every religion, views women primarily in terms of their biological function. It takes certain commonplace observations and draws from them conclusions that have restricted women's participation in society and undermined their sense of themselves. Because women bear children, religion has moralised about their sexual behaviour far more than about that of men, promoting in many societies a cult of chastity that has made women prisoners of their fathers and husbands. Because women tend to be smaller and less physically powerful than men, religion teaches them to defer to their husbands as they would to God ("for the husband is head of his wife as Christ is of the Church", as St Paul once charmingly put it). Because heterosexual men enjoy looking at women's bodies religion castigates sexually confident women as harlots and temptresses, inculcates shame and teaches that "modesty" requires covering up any part of themselves that some passing man might possibly find attractive.

It's true, of course, that time and social progress has eliminated some of the more grotesque examples of religiously-sponsored sexism. Hindu widows are no longer called upon to immolate themselves upon their husbands' funeral pyres (though social marginalisation often still awaits them instead). Spare daughters are no longer sent to live out their days in nunneries. Mainstream religious leaders are happy to deny that their faiths, when properly interpreted, are sexist at all. Who hasn't heard a Muslim apologist proclaim that Islam gave women property rights unknown in Europe until the 19th century, or a Christian point out the respect that Jesus showed to the women who were among his most prominent followers?

For that matter, at least in the west, women have long shown much higher levels of religiosity than have men. More women than men attend church every Sunday; women are more likely to pray and to express belief in God. Men are less likely to be interested in religion, and considerably more likely to be atheists. These factors are more pronounced in western, post-Christian societies where faith is no longer required for social conformity, suggesting that whatever it is that religion offers people (solace, community, hope for an afterlife or direct spiritual experience) appeals to women more than it does men.

Outside of the male-dominated priesthoods, it's women who traditionally passed on religious devotion within families and who often enforced communal religious norms. Men have often been bystanders in the misogynistic oppression of women, by women, in the name of religion or morality. Today, some of the loudest voices speaking out from a religious perspective against abortion -- something viewed by many feminists as a touchstone issue -- or in defence of traditional gender roles belong to women.

How to explain these apparent paradoxes? One answer might be that, historically, religion has protected women from some of the worst excesses of patriarchal societies. It instructed men to be faithful to their wives and to provide for their families. It condemned (usually) the worst excesses of domestic violence. Notwithstanding its exclusively male hierarchy, the Christian church has for most of European history been the only institution (with the possible exception of the brothel) that offered women independence, education, even power. A religious woman could be a scholar, a mystic, a poet, a businesswoman, the absolute ruler (subject only to the Pope) of her order, potentially a saint. A secular woman, unless a queen, could only be a wife.

Today, though, organised religion has been slow to take on board the notion of sexual equality. A woman might one day become President of the United States; it seems highly unlikely that a woman will ever become Pope. I wonder if the institutional sexism that religion has long displayed, and continues to display even in its least oppressive manifestations (such as the Anglican church) might somehow be a byproduct of its disproportionate appeal to women. Could it be, for example, that exclusively male priesthoods originated as a mechanism for ensuring male authority in an arena that would otherwise have been dominated by women?

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So many teenage girls don’t want to be treated as girls any more. And who can blame them?

Among internet-literate teenagers, gender has become the primary way to challenge the mores of older generations.

On the bus back from the cinema, a conversation drifted over from the back row. A mother questioning, curious, her speech accented; her teenage daughter, with perfect RP, fielding her inquiries with the exasperated patience that flourishes between the ages of 13 and 21.

“No, Mum, you’re a cis woman because you’re the gender you were born as.”

“OK. And what about Lily?”

Lily – or, perhaps, Daisy or Rose – was a school friend who was now using the pronoun “they”. The heavy overtone of the daughter’s forbearance was that these were matters her mother could not understand.

Among internet-literate teenagers, gender has become the primary way to challenge the mores of older generations. I know four journalists – London-based, middle class – whose children have announced that they do not consider themselves to be girls. It seems too many to be a coincidence. And if pained teenagers are now explaining gender fluidity to their mums on the 108 from Millennium Leisure Park West, you know the idea has truly gone mainstream.

We should welcome young people challenging gender, an arbitrary system that has acquired the status of immutable human nature. Name almost anything now associated with women – high heels, long hair, the colour pink – and you can find a time or place when it was considered masculine. And just as feminists once fought for “Ms” alongside “Miss” and “Mrs”, people should be allowed to take gender out of their honorific altogether and go by “Mx”. Getting used to “they” as a singular pronoun is harder but not impossible. Language evolves.

However, there is more to the current Gender Revolution than upending our assumptions about the “correct” names or pronouns or hobbies or appearance for men and women. In the past few years, the word “transsexual” has dropped out of favour – it is considered impolite to reference sex – in favour of “transgender”. But this obscures the idea that to cross definitively from one gender to another requires surgery and a lifetime of synthetic hormones. For trans men, it’s top surgery – breast removal – and, more rarely, a phalloplasty to make a penis, plus testosterone (“T”), which lowers the voice, hardens fat to muscle and unleashes any latent male-pattern baldness. For trans women, oestrogen (HRT, used off-label) can be supplemented with breast implants and a procedure to skin the penis and invert it, creating a neovagina and clitoris.

These surgeries are non-trivial – I have a friend undergoing the latter this summer and she will be housebound for two weeks afterwards, with a 12-week recovery period. Infection is always a risk. For her, it’s a life-saving intervention: she says she simply would not want to live in a male body.

But 80 per cent of gender-nonconforming children do not grow up to be transsexual; many emerge as happy gay men or lesbians content to live in their birth sex. A strange taboo has sprung up about mentioning this, as if the way that some people do not turn out to be trans invalidates the experiences of those who do. It should not.

But separating dissatisfaction with the social constraints of gender from body dysmorphia is vital. Because we have smudged together the categories of “transsexual” and “transgender”, is every youngster who questions their gender – and, frankly, every youngster should, because gender is restrictive bollocks – getting the message that they must bind their breasts or tuck their penis? I wince when I read oh-so-liberal parents explaining that they knew their toddler son was a girl when he wore pink and played with Barbies. Is there really anything so wrong with being a boy who wants to dress up as Elsa from Frozen? Or a girl who would rather be outside getting muddy than wear skirts and be “ladylike”? Toys and children’s clothes are becoming more gendered: when I was young, we played with Lego – not “Lego” and “Lego for Girls”. As we have shrunk the boxes, is it any wonder that more and more children want to escape from them?

In the year to March 2015, the Tavistock in London – the only specialist gender clinic in the country for under-16s – saw 697 children. This year, it saw 1,419. The largest surge has been among girls aged 14 and over and it is this group I feel most personal affinity for, because, if I were growing up today, I would be among them. A few years ago, I found a textbook from my junior school, with three sentences that floored me: “My name is Helen. I am nine years old. I am skinny.” And the truth was, I was skinny. I had a bowl haircut and wore culottes. Then puberty hit and I piled on a few stone in a year. Taut pink skin turned to lumpen fat and mottled flesh. And everyone had an opinion about it. I was trapped inside a body that didn’t feel like mine any more.

Many of my school friends felt the same way. Some tried to escape through vomiting or starving. Others were part of that charmed cohort who became lissom, beautiful, golden; their parents felt a different sort of ­worry and they were treated to sermons about getting into strange men’s cars.

I won my body back by defacing it; at least, that’s how my parents saw it. An earring, then two. And another. Then piercings that no one could see: nursing each one like a wound or a child. Salvation through pain: a metal bar through cartilage that couldn’t be slept on for a month. A tattoo that hurt like hell. Pink hair, ebbing to orange in a shower that looked like Carrie. And finally – finally – a body that felt like me.

I tell my story not to belittle anyone else’s, or to imply that they have chosen the wrong path. If you cannot live in your body, then change it – and the world must help you to do that. But if you feel crushed by society’s expectations, it might be that there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s something wrong with the world.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad