Patriarchy’s Persistent Bastion? Religion
by Felice Lifshitz, guest contributor
A woman tends to a child during a Sacrament Meeting of the Washington DC 3rd Ward at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Chevy Chase, Maryland. (photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
In the March 8 Washington Post article “Feminism’s Final Frontier? Religion,” Lisa Miller predicted that American women would soon abandon the Republican party in droves, just as they are reportedly quitting conservative Christian churches in historically large numbers. In both cases, women’s disaffection appears to be fueled by the disrespect shown to them by male leaders, a disrespect revealed in the ecclesiastical sphere by evangelical minister Jim Henderson’s new book, The Resignation of Eve, and visible in the political sphere to anyone who has followed the recent debates over access to birth control.
As “the men of the right” (as Miller calls them) insult women of faith, many of the latter are rejecting the communities that demean them, and creating leadership roles for themselves elsewhere. She suggests that a similar dynamic will soon govern American party politics. However, the implications of the current situation may not be that clear-cut, religiously or politically.
Miller believes women’s disaffection to be a new phenomenon, spurred by the incongruities between a newfound economic independence and an old-fashioned gender hierarchy:
“In churches (and synagogues and mosques) across the land, women are still treated as second-class citizens. And because women of faith are increasingly breadwinners, single moms and heads of households, that diminished status is beginning to rankle” (emphasis mine).
The assumption that previous generations of women of faith uniformly accepted an inferior position, that is, that religion constitutes “feminism’s final frontier,” leads the author to predict a major break with the patriarchal past due to a novel combination of propitious circumstances and female aspirations. But the “resignation” described by Henderson is not a new departure potentially signaling a major break with tradition; rather, it is the latest permutation of the gender conflict that has been part and parcel of the Christian tradition from earliest times.
Indeed, the struggle over gender and spiritual authority set in early enough to affect the canon of the New Testament. Many women supported Paul, the greatest early Christian missionary, including Prisca (Priscilla), who was instrumental in the apostle’s successes at Corinth and Ephesus, and whom he ordained as a congregational leader along with her husband Aquila (Acts 18). Yet, misogynistic editors of biblical manuscripts successfully obscured Paul’s respect for female religious leaders by falsely attributing to him — either through misplaced punctuation or outright interpolation — the sentiment that women should be silent in churches (1 Cor. 14:33-36).
Nevertheless, women persisted by, among other things, writing or supporting the composition of egalitarian texts, founding and governing monastic communities, pressing the liberationist claims of virginal feminism, exercising a number of liturgical (at times sacerdotal) functions, articulating a whole range of new theologies (including feminine theologies of the godhead), and establishing innumerable beguine communities that were absolutely independent of male ecclesiastical authority. In sum, women consistently found ways to control their own religious destinies and to assume leadership roles within Christian contexts, including during the European Middle Ages, a period popularly (albeit erroneously) conceived as particularly repressive of women. Yet, none of these activities ever fully erased the persistent commitment to gender hierarchy cherished by the “men of the right” whose values have determined the character of most mainstream hegemonic institutions.
Christianity has consistently been open to pro-feminist movements, but this has resulted neither in a fundamental egalitarian transformation of Christian institutions, nor in a mass exodus of disaffected women. The current wave of “resignations” fits squarely into a 2000-year-old tradition of tension over gender and spiritual authority; if proponents of patriarchal forms of religious organization do not feel particularly threatened by the alarm bells Henderson has rung for them, it is because historical precedent encourages complacency on their part. After all, their predecessors always managed to hold on to power.
“The men of the right” have found, in every generation, a substantial number of Christian women who considered the limited roles and secondary status allotted to them to be quite comfortable. It is certainly easier to execute simple, circumscribed tasks such as meal preparation than to shoulder the responsibility for major policy decisions. But every generation has also witnessed rebellion and discontent.
Today’s feminists of faith can draw on a rich heritage to stake out positions that might ultimately justify both Henderson’s warnings and Miller’s optimism. Success may well depend precisely on an awareness of that inspirational heritage. A radical egalitarian transformation will require an unprecedented struggle; it will not be the inevitable result of the rise of the female breadwinner.
Felice Lifshitz earned a PhD in History from Columbia University and currently teaches in the Program in Women’s Studies at the University of Alberta. She has published numerous books, articles, and essay collections concerning medieval Christianity.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute a deeper understanding of the world around us.
Good gosh is this photo series incredibly cool. Be sure and click through to the photo of one female ninja running up a wall; Spider-Man beware. These images of empowered women in Muslim countries are a welcome relief to so many of the newswire images published nowadays.
From the guardian:
Photograph: CAREN FIROUZ/Reuters
See more images of Iran’s female ninjas - many women in Iran have found a novel way to express themselves: training in the arts of the ninja warrior
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah, proposed to him. What is that, if not a precedent?
—Ruqaya Izzidien, from “Muslimahs doing it for themselves” in today’s Guardian.
I’m currently editing Kate’s interview with Omid Safi, which focuses on his recent book about memories and stories of Muhammad. During the conversation he says that if you ask most people a story about Christianity they can tell you about a prevailing idea or parable about Jesus; ask about Judaism and you’ll often hear something about Moses; inquire about Hinduism and Gandhi will come up or the idea of non-violence. But, if you ask them about the Prophet, they most likely will have no concrete idea or story.
Later on, he shares a wonderful story about the Prophet and the “naked embrace” of his wife when he’s questioning the veracity of his divine visions. A concrete story that humanizes Muhammad, to be sure, but also a tale about women and their influential role within Islamic thought.
In the quote above, Ms. Izzidien gives another concrete example of the Prophet through an interaction with his wife — but, this time, by weaving it into her delightful and light-hearted, but sincere, take on young Muslim women assuming the lead in courtship. A modern-day perspective worth noticing, and look for the produced interview with Omid Safi later next week!
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Les Femmes du Maroc
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Fresh photography. Taking the old, the classic. Reinventing the established. Masters become mentors. Absorbing and recreating. A Western form made modern and reinterpreted for all to imagine. That’s what I absolutely have fallen for in this series of photographs by Lalla Essaydi:
“In photographing women inscribed with henna, I emphasize their decorative role, but subvert the silence of confinement. There is a very different space I inhabit in the West — a space of independence and mobility.”
That henna is composed of Arabic script. Use of calligraphy in this way keeps with traditional inscriptions one might see in the simplest of mosques or in the Alhambra; it also gives deeper meaning to these poses modeled after 19th-century European and American paintings. Even the title of the series, Les Femmes du Maroc, is a play on Delacroix’s Les Femmes d’Algiers.
I’m not versed well enough in art history to immediately understand the many subtexts going on in these photographs. But, I don’t have to; and you don’t have to either to enjoy the magnificence of these women and the tender beauty of those who inhabit the many worlds we all transect in one way or another as creative, working, sentient beings. Essaydi creates a dialogue about ourselves and eventually with the stranger seated at the table next to you:
“In my art, I wish to present myself through multiple lenses — as artist, as Moroccan, as Saudi, as traditionalist, as liberal, as Muslim. I invite viewers to resist stereotypes.”
(image, top: “Moorish Woman” + bottom: “Grand Odalisque” - courtesy of the Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York and Howard Yezerski Gallery, Boston)
[h/t Mona Eltahawy]
Portraits of Women from Kandahar
Trent Gilliss, online editor
The Behind the Veil project from The Globe and Mail got its start with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s endorsement of “a law that, among other things, allowed some men to demand sex from their wives.” What’s come of it is a compelling six-part series of multimedia reports exploring Afghani women’s issues, which they’re rolling out over the next week.
The timeline and reporter’s notebook are helpful and give you a glimpse of what it’s like to be a female journalist reporting in restrictive conditions. But, watching ten women from Kandahar, ranging in age from 15 to 50, share their perspectives on their lives and the changing state of society is the real highlight. The overwhelming idea, despite the texture of the many ideas shared, is the basic need for safety and security. Without that sense of protection, all the aspirations and hopes for women’s rights and education falls prey to pragmatism of carrying on a daily existence.
Style & Lived Tradition
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
This photo comes from Hijabs High, a blog inspired by the on-the-street fashion photographer The Sartorialist. However, Hijabs High has a more specific mission; collecting photos of women sporting the Islamic hijab (head scarf), and showcasing “international street style from fabulous hijabistas.”
It’s a refreshing image when so much of what we hear about the hijab, or the burqa and niqab, is steeped in politics and ideology — a more recent example being the emergence of the head scarf as a political symbol in the Indonesian presidential election. What seems to get lost in these stories is the day-to-day experience of women who wear a hijab not as a symbol or political statement, but as an expression of their personal faith.
This is what I love about the image above; it seems to give us a glimpse of that lived faith. What I see in this photo is a young woman balancing different cultural pressures and expectations — and doing it with style and personality.
This fall we plan to produce a program about “expressions of Muslim identity,” modeled on last year’s program “The Beauty and Challenge of Being Catholic.” Like the Catholic program, we’ve put a call out to Muslims to lend their perspective — and I think the above photo offers one impression of the type of story we’re looking for:
If you are Muslim, we’d like to understand more about the complexity and diversity of “the Muslim world,” as it is often called. What does “being Muslim” mean to you? What do you find beautiful about Islam, and how does it find expression in your daily life? What hopes, questions, and concerns are on your mind as you ponder the future of your tradition?
Weaving Personal Narrative and Others’ Stories
Eboo Patel, Guest Contributor
Meeting Laurie Patton reminded me of a basic truism about life: the best storytellers are also the best listeners. Listening in a way that evokes other peoples’ stories is, after all, how storytellers begin the process of collecting the pieces that they then weave together into the narratives they turn around and offer the world.
I got a glimpse into professor Patton’s gifts for listening on a recent trip to Atlanta. She moderated a panel with Andrew Young and myself, artfully integrating Reverend Young’s story as a senior African-American Christian leader involved in the civil rights movement and my story as a young American Muslim building a global interfaith youth movement.
Two days later, I caught up with Laurie again and convinced her to share some of her own pioneering story — as one of the first female chairs of a major Religion department, as a person who chose to convert to Judaism, as one of the most renowned scholars of Indian religions in America, as a poet and institution builder, and as a person who thinks the shortest distance between two people is — as story.
Watch the video, and take a listen for yourself.
Eboo Patel appeared on SOF as a guest in “Religious Passion, Pluralism, and the Young.” He’s also the founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core, a contributor to the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, and author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.
NPR Series on Muslim Women in Europe
Colleen Scheck, Producer
I enjoy the reporting of Sylvia Poggioli, NPR’s veteran European correspondent. She was formerly known in my household as “The Pope Reporter” because I often had the radio on when her stories on Pope John Paul II aired. (She was a guest on our program on the religious legacy of the late pontiff).
Last week NPR aired Poggioli’s six-part series exploring the evolving identities of Muslim women in Europe. Her stories focused on women in Germany, France, and Britain, the three European countries with the largest Muslim populations. I always like reading reporter notebooks - here’s an excerpt from her notebook for this series:
As I traveled through Europe this fall to report for this series, I remembered the words of filmmaker Yamina Benguigui, my first guide into the world of what she called “ghost women.” French-born to Algerian parents, she broke with her strict patriarchal family and married a non-Muslim Frenchman.
In her documentaries, Benguigui explored the phenomenon of some young French Muslim women who, in the early 1990s, had taken to wearing the headscarf even when their mothers did not. While many of these young women said the headscarf was a mark of their cultural identity in a society where they felt discriminated, Benguigui said it was also something else: a way of getting around the dilemma of living a double life in two different cultures. Instead of breaking with their families, “they decide to take the Koran as a weapon against their families, by submerging themselves completely in religion, brandishing the veil and the Koran, they become the leader in the family … (the Muslim girl) will not be forced to marry and she can come home when she wants. She can drive a car and she’s completely free,” Benguigui told me in 1995.
Twelve years later, I met many Muslim women who still have not found their places and are still torn by two cultures. But I also met many Muslim women who are asserting themselves much more forcefully — either in identifying with European secular culture and demanding the same rights as their Western sisters, or by appropriating Islam for themselves, through a new female perspective. Or in a combination of the two.
While there is no distinct Europe-wide pattern, in many places a quiet revolution among Muslim women is under way.
Next week we broadcast Krista’s conversation with Ed Husain, author of The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left. Poggioli’s series is a good compliment to this show, and to the other programs we’ve done on Muslim women with Leila Ahmed and Ingrid Mattson, that help broaden my understanding of Islam worldwide.
(photo: [name removed at photographer’s request])