Religious fundamentalism is the enemy of any Western liberal democracy. Even GOP hero and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agrees, taking a stance against the harassment of women in Israel’s streets by ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, who want a society segregated along gender lines (as well as religious). I differentiate between the two because nothing within religion dictates the subservience of women. So why is it that Jewish fundamentalists, like our own, and like Islamic fundamentalists, hate and fear women so much? Even little girls?
Is it really a sign of piety, a demonstration of love of God to spit on a little girl on her way to a religious girls school and call her a slut or a whore because of how she is dressed? Is that what they say their God wants?
Like the Taliban, ultra-Orthodox Jews embrace “modesty” patrols to ensure everyone lives their lives according to the strictures of the fanatical few (right now, the ultra-Orthodox number only 10 percent of the Israeli population but like our own fundamentalists are out-breeding the secularists). For those who think the race card gets played too often, consider this: If you disagree with the ultra-Orthodox position, you are by default an anti-Semite.
The GOPers who harbor similar patriarchal fantasies (and they are many) might want to take note of Netanyahu’s response: “The Israel police are taking, and will take, action to arrest and stop those who spit, harass or raise a hand. This has no place in a free and democratic state.”
What is it about female-ness that so arouses the ire of the religious fanatic? If it’s not religion, really, then what is it? Is it cultural? Is it simply misogyny following whatever avenue it can? Human society is patriarchal and with few exceptions seems always to have been, but many various religions have flourished without preaching against women. Non-revealed religions, such as ancient forms of polytheism, are not inherently misogynist in outlook even if the host culture was. Ancient Jewish religion had a very strong female component.
The problem seems not to be with God, but with man. Men wrote the Jewish Bible Christians call the Old Testament Men wrote the New Testament as well. Neither book – nor the Qur’an for that matter – is written from a modern liberal democratic perspective, to say the least. Women seem to have come off second best in those books written by men but the misogyny seems more cultural than religious. Our attitudes have changed over the many thousands of years of human existence, but in particular, in the West since the European Enlightenment. These new freedoms and outlooks have extended not just to men but to women. “Because it’s always been that way” just didn’t cut it anymore; it does not cut it now.
Is this new and very secularist tendency to value people equally regardless of sex opposed simply because it breaks with the traditions of the past, even though those traditions are misunderstood and misapplied? Would it help if God revealed his decision that women should be welcomed as the equals of man? One wonders if a fundamentalist structure could survive such a revelation, the two have become so closely intertwined.
Is it simply that Religious fundamentalism is the last bastion of the he-man woman hater? The last bastion because it is the only place a man can point to God’s will and hide behind it in his own short-comings and weaknesses, his own responsibility for his mistreatment of the female gender? “God wills it!” has been the cry of the power hungry for as long as monotheism has flourished on this planet. I don’t wish to blame monotheism uniquely for misogyny but it is only monotheism that has cloaked this attitude in false piety.
If it is a cultural decision that women are second class citizens to men it is no less reprehensible but it is also changeable. Societies and cultures change and adapt. Secular Western attitudes about women have spread to the Middle East, including, as we noted above, Israel, by Netanyahu’s own admission. Israel is not a Middle Eastern nation but a western liberal democracy, no different than America itself. It is not religion that governs its attitude toward and treatment of women, but a secular ideal, a shared culture.
It is not that women threaten the health of any given religion, including Judaism. But they do threaten the existing, male-dominated power structure. Women should not be able to hold office, even if allowed to vote, say some Islamic scholars. The attitude of these ultra-Orthodox Jews is not so different than that. Nor are the attitudes of many conservative Christians who claim a woman’s place is in the home (even while they themselves run for office). For all their avowed differences, they seem to agree in that one regard, that women are the enemy and must be kept in their place.
It is difficult to follow the logic. Will God/YHWH/Allah cease to have value if women can vote and drive and hold office, and get equal pay and equal protection under the law? Will all holy books suddenly become irrelevant? Will churches/mosques/synagogues suddenly become empty? What are these men really afraid of? They may claim they are defenders of traditional piety but what they are truly defending is their own, outdated, misogynist outlooks. It’s not about religion; it’s about power.
Were they honest, as they all claim to be, they would admit this. But as they say, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and for too long fundamentalist religion has been a good-old-boys club where men exercise absolute authority in the name of religions that demands no such thing. If a religion is true, it will still remain true when women have equal rights. For an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man to demand a woman take a seat at the back of the bus because his own personal beliefs demand it is out of place in a modern liberal democracy. The woman has rights beyond what he perceives to be proper. The same goes for his-and-her sides of the street.
The men are, of course, free to walk on their own side of the street or, as often as they can manage to avoid sitting in the “inferior” back of the bus, but they have no right – religious or otherwise – to demand the adherence of those around them. Religious fundamentalists want to reshape the world in tune with their own warped perceptions of how it should be without demonstrating to us why exactly that should be. Religious fundamentalists will never understand that we have as much right to our beliefs as they do to theirs and will ever insist on being obeyed. And violence will always be their trump card as it has always been, whether it’s a first century Jerusalem street or the same street twenty centuries later. And not just Jerusalem, but Cairo, or Main Street U.S.A.
A woman has the right to walk down whichever side of the street she wishes without being cursed or spat upon just as she has the right to be the victim and not the perpetrator when she is the victim of a sexual attack. The idea so long held by men that women are serpents and temptresses is nothing more than an abrogation of self-responsibility by men who wish no limit to their own long-enjoyed prerogatives. Cloaking this ugliness in religion only makes it more reprehensible, not less.
And if you look the world over as women become aware of Western liberal ideas, they seem to agree.
Photo from MSNBC