Saturday, 5 January 2013

God: Why Women Should Leave Him

"The worst enemy women have is the pulpit."
Susan B Anthony


Characteristics of a domestic abuser 

A man who abuses his partner is jealous and possessive. He demands absolute submission from his partner. If she rebels against his will in any way, he gets angry and his anger is readily expressed in the form of physical violence. To his partner, he is omnipresent in all her physical and mental space. He knows everything that she does and everyone that she sees. He is all-powerful...

The above passage describes common characteristics of domestic abusers and the situations they create for their victims. However, this piece is not about domestic violence- at least not the human kind. The above passage also describes common characteristics of the Abrahamic God and the situation he creates for his followers, especially the female ones.

God as a domestic abuser- it sounds crazy. But the more I think about the relationship women have with their God and religion, I cannot keep this image out of my mind.



I started thinking more about religion when I was teaching at a primary school in the UK. As a public school teacher in Canada, religious education is not a compulsory part of the curriculum. However, in the UK, even in secular public schools, a teacher is required to teach religious education at both the primary and secondary levels. As both an atheist and a feminist, I was very uncomfortable with having such an obligation forced on me.

Thus, I went searching on the internet to find a feminist critique of religion that would help me to better articulate my aversion to having to teach it. Although I found some useful essays, articles and websites, on the whole, I found discussion of this topic to be sadly lacking. Even one of my favourite feminist blogs, The F Word Media Collective, only has a few articles and podcasts exploring this theme, and all of them were wanting in critical analysis of the patriarchy that is inherent in all Abrahamic religions. 


Why feminists are hesitant to critique religion

Fear of being labeled intolerant, prejudiced and/or racist is a major reason why many non-religious feminists steer clear of critiquing religion as Amy Clare explains in her article, “Why feminism must embrace reason and shun religion’’. Clare is surprised that even though feminists know that religious ideas harm women, they tolerate it or even apologize for it. “It is as though mainstream feminism has a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to religion”, she writes.

Recent discussions about Islamophobia in Canada illustrate Clare’s point argument all too well. To me, it is bizarre that we are at the point when Conservatives are saying that niqabs are oppressive while feminists are defending a Muslim woman’s "choice" to wear one. I have to pinch myself sometimes to make sure this is really happening. Do feminists really believe that this "choice" is really free- that it is in no way influenced by the families and communities of these women who have indoctrinated them into this system of belief since they were children? Are they ignorant about the reason why Muslim women cover their faces? Do they not see any connections between this practice and victim blaming? Or are many feminists just too scared to tell it like it is because they fear the social and political consequences of criticizing religion?


Religious feminists 

And what about those women who claim to be feminists and followers of major world religions?! How are they able to reconcile their advocacy for equality between the sexes and their “faith’’? Personally, I agree with Guardian columnist, Cath Elliot, that being a feminist and a believer in one of the world ’s major faiths is “an oxymoron’’. All major religious texts are filled with sexist ideas that have been and are still used to justify acts of violence against women. But, most importantly, at the centre of these "sacred texts" is the image of the ultimate patriarch- God. And let us be clear that God, Yahweh, Allah, or whatever you want to call him is a male deity whose words are interpreted by male prophets and whose institutions are run predominately by male leaders. How do religious feminists ignore this reality?

In her article, Amy Clare also examines some of the reasons why religious feminists say they are able to reconcile their faith and feminism. She says (and I quote) there are three main ones:

1) There are other verses/texts in the religion which actually promote equality and women’s rights.

2) The holy texts have been misinterpreted by misogynists and if interpreted correctly they actually promote equality.

3) The texts are irrelevant to the practice of the religion itself.

I will not bother reiterating Clare's insightful analysis of why these reasons just don't make sense as you can read them here. What I would rather do is get back to what I wanted to focus on in the first place: the psychology behind why many women cannot seem to get away from religion.


Victims of Abuse 

My brothers they never went blind for what they did
But I may as well have

 - Alanis Morisette

And so I come back to the image of God as a domestic abuser. It is although women (as a group)  are in the ultimate abusive situation. God controls what they wear, what they eat, where they sit. He often puts them down and threatens to harms them physically. Sometimes he does harm them physically.

Yet, it seems that women are in denial, especially those that identify themselves as religious feminists. They make excuses for God's behaviour, excuses that sound an awful lot like those made by abused women."There are other verses/texts in the religion which actually promote equality and women’s rights." sounds a lot like, "He's not always this way... there's a good side to him too". The argument that "the holy texts have been misinterpreted by misogynists and if interpreted correctly they actually promote equality" resembles a victim's belief that she and the love she has for her abuser will be powerful enough to change him. The last reason, that "the texts are irrelevant to the practice of the religion itself" is ultimate denial. It is reminiscent of a victim pretending that the abusive part of her relationship doesn't exist. She creates her own fantasy version of the relationship in her mind, and this fantasy relationship is also the only one she shows to the outside world. Unfortunately, for her, and all female victims of the misogynistic religious ideas and practices, the reality is, the abuse is real.



Look, I know I am being quite harsh. It's just that... I'm really irritated. The reason why is because I see a lack of critical thinking and questioning when it comes to religion by people in general, but especially by feminists. As an abolitionist feminist, I don't advocate for "harm reduction" in prostitution because I think it is an oxymoron. Prostitution is harm. I also think Christianity is harm. So is Judaism and Islam. Any system of belief that legitimizes the inferiority of women, discourages critical thinking, and promotes absolute submission to male authority does harm and is anti-feminist.

Yet, I do not advocate for laws that ban religion because I know they will do no good in the same way that it would do no good for me to forcibly remove a woman from an abusive situation.(But I will also not apologize for or defend religious beliefs and practices, especially those that are sexist like the wearing of the burqa.) All I can do is help the victim recognize that she is in an abusive situation, provide her with support, and hopefully she will decide to leave on her own. A similar approach should be adopted when discussing the topic of religion with religious feminists and those who defend them.

Building a new life  

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

 - John Lennon

It is often difficult for a woman in an abusive relationship to imagine what her life would be like without her abuser as he works very hard to ensure that she is both financially and emotionally dependent on him. Very understandably, even if she decides she wants to leave him, she may be too afraid to face what is an uncertain future. Perhaps this too is one of the reasons why religious feminists find it difficult to leave their faith. They are told it is part of who they are. Their family and other social relationships are formed and maintained via religion. Therefore, holding and voicing a dissenting view about one's religion can lead to  conflict and an identity crisis.  Very understandably, religious feminists may be scared to leave their religion as they also face an uncertain future.

But fear and uncertainty are not a good enough reasons to stay in a bad situation. Once such feelings are conquered, the potential for a bright future lies ahead. When an abused woman finally leaves her abusive partner and begins a new life, she feels much better, more independent and confident. Similarly, when people start leaving religion, the lives of women and girls improve dramatically. And how do we know this? By looking at the least religious countries in the world and comparing them to the most religious countries in terms of gender equality.  Not surprisingly, countries like Sweden, Denmark and Norway have highest number of organic atheists also have the highest levels of gender equality. Countries considered to be highly religious, like Pakistan, Nigeria and Iran have the lowest levels of gender equality.Coincidence? Methinks not.

Final Message

So all you feminists out there, it's time to put down those tired old ancient books and read the modern writing on the wall. Let's call a spade a spade and religion yet another manifestation of patriarchal domination of women.  Let's start helping our fellow womankind leave the oppressive and abusive relationship we have with this patriarchal character called "God". Let's begin working to build a better life for women and girls- not in the future in the clouds, but right now here on earth. 


  1. I am copying and pasting below an exchange I had with another blogger on her site about this post as I think it further adds to the discussion.

  2. Hi Elle,

    Thanks for your comment!

    As you’ve pointed out, there are a lot of issues with the ‘choice’ approach to feminism. I am speaking from my positionality as a woman of colour, in which my choices are always seen as ‘double consciousness’ while the choices white women make are seen as ‘real choices.’ For this reason, I tend to over-emphasize the question of choice, because I have too often experienced being told that brown women don’t make choices and white women do. So I don’t EVER want to be in the position of telling women that their choice is wrong and mine is right.
    That said, I realize that there are things, like domestic violence, that are blatantly anti-feminist. There are other things that are not so clearly “right” or “wrong” and I am still struggling with how to approach that, and with who gets to decide what is feminist and what isn’t. We really don’t want to fall back into the trap of white/western women making those decisions for everyone else.

    I completely agree that there is social pressure to veil in Muslim countries, just as there is social pressure to look a certain way in non-Muslim countries. My point is that Muslim women are ALWAYS seen as being forced (whether by men or through society) whereas werstern women are rarely seen that way.

    Re. the last point – I wasn’t trying to equate the two and say they are equal. I was trying to point out that feminists need to be careful when we start imposing boundaries and excluding women, because we already made those mistakes. For example, can a woman be a feminist and be religious? I’ve seen many liberal and radical fems say NO. So they end up excluding any woman who identifies with a religion. I personally see that as problematic.

  3. I agree that there are many women in the west who will critique aspects of patriarchy in other cultures yet fail to see its manifestations in their own. However, patriarchy exists everywhere and it comes in many different forms. I personally do not see how it is possible to reconcile the principles of feminism with any of the major world religions as they are products of and continue to promote the ideas, values and norms of patriarchy.

    1. Interesting post. I would think twice before labeling feminists who see religion as liberating as irrational or anti-feminist. In my experience (although I am not an Islamic feminist) it seems that many women have been able to re-interpret religious texts from a feminist perspective. Is this bullshit? Not so sure. Also not so sure I want to be the one passing that judgement.

      “Any system of belief that legitimizes the inferiority of women, discourages critical thinking, and promotes absolute submission to authority does harm and is anti-feminist.”

      This blatant generalization is problematic. So if a feminist says that she does not practice religion in the way you describe, then how would you approach her? She’ the abused housewife who can’t see past her abuse?

    2. Elle says:

      I am critiquing religion as a form of SYSTEMATIC oppression of women and pointing out that the fundamental principles of feminism (the liberation of women from all forms of male domination) is directly opposed to the fundamental beliefs of Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. All of them are ENTIRELY CENTRED around male gods and prophets. You cannot reinterpret this, so how can these religions ever be feminist? It’s like being an environmental capitalist. Doesn’t work because one of the fundamental principles of capitalism is the belief in infinite growth and this is not possible on a planet with finite resources. So I would say religious feminists are like individuals who think they are being environmentally friendly because they buy “green” products. They may have good intentions, but the reality is, the only way to truly improve the environment is to change the current economic SYSTEM. In a truly environmentally sustainable world, capitalism would not exist. In a truly feminist world, all major world religions would not exist.