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?

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war