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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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.