Q&A: Ophelia Benson

The co-author of the new book Does God Hate Women? discusses patriarchy, the burka and capitalism

What inspired you to write your new book Does God Hate Women?

My co-author, Jeremy Stangroom! It was his idea. More broadly though, I've been following women's rights issues at Butterflies and Wheels for about six years, and I've published many articles by women who are right at the coal face on issues of religion (Maryam Namazie, Azar Majedi, Homa Arjomand, and Gina Khan to name a few). It interests both of us strongly, and once Jeremy thought of it it seemed inevitable.

Do you believe that religion represents the primary threat to women's rights today? Many socialist feminists would argue that capitalism remains the greater foe.

I think religion represents the primary threat at least in some places - in places where religion is strong and has not been liberalised. Religious beliefs about female subordination are more all-pervading and intimate than capitalism is. Unfettered capitalism is of course a giant threat to workers' rights, and women are workers - so the picture is complex. But capitalism doesn't shape people's lives from birth in quite the searching way that religion can.

Religion also gets a particular kind of respect that even capitalism can't match. Saying 'God says women are complementary rather than equal' has a kind of force that saying 'What's good for General Motors is good for the nation' did not, even before the recent unhappy events. Capitalism lacks the God or Jesus or Prophet Mohammed or Blessed Virgin that believers love, so that particular emotional charge is missing. The acolytes of Ayn Rand might be an exception to that - but that's a subject for Alan Greenspan, not for me.

What was your reaction to President Sarkozy's support for legislation banning the burka? And how do you respond to Muslim women who argue they have reappropriated the garment as a feminist symbol?

Very, very ambivalent. All over the place. I hate the idea of making special new laws on dress, and all the more so when the laws can't help targeting immigrants or any other vulnerable minority. I also realise that Sarkozy's motives may be very suspect, or at least a mixture of suspect and defensible. And yet, I could not help (and that's what it was like, I had a lot of inner resistance) being pleased that he said "The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience." I would much rather hear it from someone else, but I certainly do want to hear it, because it's true. That doesn't mean I flat-out approve of the idea of a ban - but I don't flat-out oppose it either. I'm torn. I'm glad it's not up to me to decide.

One reason I don't flat-out oppose it is because community pressure can force other women and girls to wear the hijab or the burqa, and from that point of view a ban is like any other law that creates a level playing field. If no one can wear the burqa on the street, then no one will be forced to wear it on the street. This is hard on women and girls who want to wear it but good for women and girls who don't want to. If I have to choose which should be helped, I choose the latter.

I respond with great weariness to Muslim women who claim they have reappropriated the garment. Given the reality of what happens to women who try not to wear it in Afghanistan, I think it's simply grotesque to think it can be any kind of feminist symbol. I get the point about freedom from the male gaze, and believe me, I wish women around here would stop reappropriating stiletto heels and plunging necklines as 'feminist symbols,' but a stifling face-covering tent is not a feminist symbol.

Does the British model of multiculturalism prioritise community rights at the expense of women's rights?

In some ways, yes, though people are beginning to catch on to that. To name just one example there is the awful habit of appealing to 'leaders of the community' who all too often turn out to be male heads of religious groups. Too often multiculturalism leads to thinking of putative communities as unified blocs, which can be represented by (self-appointed) 'leaders' who can tell the world what 'the community' thinks or wants. The BBC used to ask the Muslim Council of Britain, in the person of a male head or spokesman, for an opinion on anything affecting 'the Muslim community'; this all by itself distorted news coverage and thus public perceptions. They've expanded their Rolodex a bit now though.

Do you believe that scientific progress sounds the death knell for religion or is faith ultimately ineradicable?

No, I don't think scientific progress sounds the death knell or even the closing time bell for religion. I think science is a powerful rival to religion for many people, and that technology makes it less necessary for many people, but I also think religion is extremely resilient.

I don't quite believe that faith is ultimately ineradicable though. I think that's an unknown. There have been in the past and are in the present societies that have very little of what we would recognize as religious faith. It dies off as easily as it is formed. Travellers in the American backcountry in the early 19th century were shocked at how entirely godless the European settlers were - they'd never even heard of the basic tenets of Christianity. I think current ideas about ineradicable faith and god-shaped holes are greatly exaggerated.

In a Q&A for Norman Geras's blog you named fellow atheist author Christopher Hitchens as your intellectual hero. Could you sum up his appeal and do you believe he has been an effective advocate for atheism?

I named him as one intellectual hero - the others were Montaigne and Hazlitt. Also this was almost six years ago - I might still name him, but I also might linger over other choices.

The salient word was 'intellectual' - I chose him in his capacity as an intellectual rather than as a political figure. His appeal is that he's a brilliant writer with a huge range of knowledge. I admire that kind of thing. He's also a brilliant talker, and I admire that too. When he was at the Hay festival a few years ago, even hardened BBC presenters were admitting he was hard to beat for impromptu wit and erudition.

I think he's been an effective advocate for atheism, although I don't think God is Not Great is one of his best books. It can't be only indignant believers who bought his book and made it a best-seller, so he must have had some effect.

How should critics of religion respond to those who argue that Osama Bin Laden and Jerry Falwell discredit Islam and Christianity no more than Stalin discredited left-wing politics?

Well one way would be to say that Stalin did quite a lot to discredit left-wing politics!

That's a serious point as well as a joke of sorts. It is for instance at least reasonable to think there was something about the loyalty - the solidarity -that was a value in left-wing politics that made it hard for people to admit the truth about Stalin. Perhaps solidarity is a double-edged sword, and left -wing politics thus has something dangerous at its heart.

It works the same way with religion. Bin Laden and Falwell don't have to be typical of religion in order to discredit at least some aspects of religion. It's not much of a leap to think that religion's respect for authority and revelation may lead to an unhealthy subservience to charismatic male leaders. That's certainly not all there is to say about religion, but it's one aspect of it.

Finally, in which country are women most free from religious patriarchy and in which are they most oppressed?

The Scandinavian countries for the first, I would guess (I don't know for a fact). Afghanistan is certainly a strong contender for the second. But then life is hell for women in the Democratic Republic of Congo too, and there the reasons are not religious. Religious patriarchy is a problem, but it's certainly not the only problem.

Ophelia Benson is the co-author of Does God Hate Women? and Why Truth Matters. She is also the editor of the website Butterflies and Wheels and the deputy editor of The Philosophers' Magazine

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.