Religion Gets a Bad Rap on Women. But There’s More to the Story

A closer look at the history of religion reveals a world where women were celebrated and revered.

What we call “religion” has bad press these days, but we should be aware that our current understanding of “religion” — as a coherent set of doctrinal beliefs and institutional practices separate from all other human activities — is unique to modern Western society. No other culture has a similar concept, and it would also have seemed very strange to most pre-modern Europeans.

Before about 1700, religion permeated all aspects of life so thoroughly that trying to separate “religion” from political and social mores would have been as difficult as taking gin out of a cocktail. There were no institutions that were “secular” in our sense.

It is therefore problematic to say that without “religion” human society would have been entirely free of gender discrimination. Spiritual rituals and sacred texts undoubtedly affected social attitudes but were themselves conditioned by the prevailing social, economic, political and psychological imperatives of their time.

Venus von Willendorf, 24,000–22,000 BCE.

Far from depicting women as weak and submissive, the very earliest mythology of the Palaeolithic Age (c. 20000-8000 BCE) presented the Great Goddess as a fearsome deity, a huntress who exacted bloodshed if the rituals of the hunt were not observed. Stone Age men and women depended on the killing of animals, an exclusively male activity. The hunters, who daily risked their lives, may have projected unacknowledged fear and resentment onto the female who stayed safely at home but tacitly demanded this endless killing and danger. Sculptures dating to the seventh millennium BCE show the Goddess giving birth, flanked by the skulls and horns of bulls, relics of a successful hunt but also symbols of the male. Hunters realised that their women were the source of new life and it was they, not the expendable males, who ensured the continuity of the tribe.

After the invention of agriculture, Neolithic mythology depicted farming as a constant battle against the powerful forces of death — a bloody war in which the male seemed helpless and passive. But the intrepid Earth Mother — Demeter, Isis, Inana and Anat — bravely fought the forces of sterility, slaughtering their impotent consorts, dismembering them and scattering their remains over the fields in order to fertilize them. It was no longer the male hunter but the Mother Goddess who wandered through the earth on a heroic quest and bravely descended into the underworld — the terrifying realm of death — to bring nourishment to the human race.

Mythology is not simply an inferior version of history; it speaks of timeless realities and often brings to light hidden anxieties. An unconscious fear of female power may be one of the reasons why men have needed to segregate and seclude their womenfolk in a hopeless attempt to keep this potency within manageable bounds. Many scriptural texts have endorsed this subjugation, but others have regularly challenged it. The Buddha and Mahavira (founder of the Jain tradition) both admitted women to their monastic orders and insisted that they could achieve the same enlightenment as men. These spiritual leaders gave women an alternative to domestic life for the first time in history. Scholars believe that the story which has the Buddha resist the inclusion of women to his order was probably a late addition to the canon and reflects the prejudices and frustrations of first century monks rather than the Buddha’s own position.

VW-magnificat1nf[1]In the Christian gospels, women are presented in a positive light. While pregnant with Jesus, Mary sings a fiercely revolutionary song predicting the overturning of all social inequity. When Jesus is arrested, his male disciples run away, but the women stand beside his cross, brave the guards to anoint his body and are rewarded with the first news of his resurrection while the men are skulking in hiding. Paul insisted that gender divisions had been superseded: in Christ there was neither male nor female.

But others tried to mitigate this early Christian radicalism. Paul’s commands that women veil their heads and keep silent in the assembly were almost certainly inserted into the text by later writers. After Paul’s death, the authors of the epistles to the Ephesians, Titus and Timothy wrote in Paul’s name as a mark of respect but also reasserted the conventional requirement that women know their place and stay in it.

There was similar tension in the early Muslim community. The Qu’ran gave women legal rights of inheritance and divorce that Western women would not enjoy until the nineteenth century. It proclaimed that men and women had the same duties and responsibilities before God. The Prophet Muhammad helped with the household chores, mended his own clothes, took his wives with him on military expeditions, and not only asked for but even followed their advice on occasion. There was no veiling or seclusion of women in the Prophet’s Medina and women even took part in the battles. But after Muhammad’s death, the old patriarchy was reasserted, just as it had been in Christianity.

Scriptural texts should be read with critical reverence. They do not offer clear univocal directives but reveal an eternal tension between the sexes. They bear witness to the pathos of human beings who have the ability to dream of a more just and equitable world but are tragically and constantly impeded in their attempts to implement it by irrational fear and a yearning for an unsustainable security.

Lead image courtesy of viegreeny.


Karen Armstrong Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous books on religion, including "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life," "A History of God," "The Battle for God," "Through the Narrow Gate" and "The Spiral Staircase."

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