One hypothesis for the origin of religion is that it’s a kind of “costly signaling” – a way for people to prove their loyalty to the group by participating in complex rituals and extravagant shows of devotion. But there’s an underappreciated danger to this: when everyone in a community already follows a strict interpretation of faith, religious belief will have a tendency to spiral out of control into extremism, as group members go to greater and greater lengths to express their piety. And when religion grows more and more fanatical, while it’s bad for everyone forced to live under its dictates, it’s inevitably women who suffer the most.
The latest nigh-unbelievable example of this: In Saudi Arabia, where all women are forced to wear enveloping shrouds and face veils in public, the kingdom’s morality police have decided that even this isn’t extreme enough. Their spokesman has announced that if a woman is judged to have “tempting” eyes, she may have to cover those up as well (HT: Butterflies & Wheels). For reference, this is the same body whose members forced schoolgirls back into a burning building because they weren’t properly dressed to appear in public.
But it’s not just Islam that’s oppressive to women: almost every religion, in its fundamentalist manifestations, is outrageously misogynist. There’s no better proof of this than the supremely ironic fact that fundamentalist Jews and fundamentalist Muslims oppress women in nearly identical ways.
I’ve writtenbefore about the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect. In Israel, the haredim’s numbers are mushrooming, thanks to an ideology that promotes constant childbearing, similar to America’s Quiverfull Christians, and a welfare state that pays them to do nothing but read the Bible. This has made them increasingly influential in Israel’s right-leaning government, and that’s extremely bad news for women.
Like Saudi Arabia’s Islamist morality police, the haredim believe that women are dirty and sinful and men should never have to see them. Ultra-Orthodox newspapers have made headlines for ridiculous stunts like digitally censoring Hillary Clinton out of photos of the U.S. Cabinet, but as the haredim gain political power, they’re pushing to erase women from public life everywhere in Israel.
And it’s startling how much success they’ve had. Already, women have been removed from almost all public ads in Jerusalem – billboards, bus ads, shop windows – thanks to haredim who will vandalize or destroy any picture of a woman. In one incident, women were removed from an ad encouraging organ donation (which is also a chronic problem in Israel). There are also segregated buses, segregated shopping hours in supermarkets, radio stations with male voices only – and the haredim are pushing hard for the grand prize, public streets that are segregated by gender. (HT for all these links: B&W, again.)
Lastly there’s Egypt, where a democratic revolution is in jeopardy. The ruling generals are stonewalling on democracy, and in an uncanny echo of the Israeli haredim, the Islamists are busy putting up prison walls around women. As Freethought Blogs’ Maryam Namazie says:
The Islamists in Egypt, for example, have replaced the photos of their female candidates with flowers and covered up a statue of mermaids in Alexandria. They have refused to appear face-to-face with female TV hosts, unless the presenter put on a headscarf or a barrier was placed between the two!
In response to this theocratic encroachment, the brave Egyptian student Aliaa Magda Elmahdy posted nude photos of herself on her blog (NSFW) as a protest against creeping restrictions on free expression (HT: Maryam Namazie). It may seem frivolous or unserious – until you read her justification of why she did it, a searing indictment of the religious cowards who are so terrified of human bodies and sexualities:
“Put on trial the artists’ models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity, then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hangups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression.”
The commonalities between fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Judaism are striking: both want to treat women like prisoners, relegated to perpetual childbearing and restricted from participating in intellectual or public life. And it’s not just these two faiths, but virtually every religion, for which this pattern holds true (this is something I’ve speculated on the reasons for). Contrary to the belief that religion is the source of all morality, it’s a safe bet that, the more respect someone claims to have for God, the less they’re likely to have for women.