Back at the beginning of the millennium many of us hoped we had entered an era of new enlightenment. Sadly, the world became barmier than ever as the crazies broke out. Most recently the media showcased an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect. This one wants to ban women from singing in public and travelling on the same bus as men. Luckily they are making their demands in Israel, but knowing how supine our British authorities are about taking a firm line with religious lunatics – especially those with ethnic connections, we should be on the qui vive here in the UK. Fun as it is to mock the pomposity of feminists, there are bigger issues at stake that demand a united front with the sisterhood by all men of goodwill.
For whatever reason, the problems women have with men have come increasingly to the fore in the last few years. We are not talking here about a bit of lewd badinage by the coffee machine or the perennial complaints about sexism as manifest across our cultural and usually middle class spectrum of experience. White Western girlies are doing pretty well in the equality stakes. In fact recent statistics show that young women out-earn men until they (the girls of course) have babies; which tells you something.
No, the real, hard and frankly serious story is about the unremitting and often brutal repression of women on an almost global basis. With great respect to the more advanced societies and feisty women in that great continent, you wouldn’t want to be a woman in too many places in Africa; likewise you have to pick your middle-eastern and Asian countries very carefully to find anything that passes for an egalitarian society. The occasional female Prime or Cabinet minister does not make a social revolution out there in the hills. In the West, as our feminist friends will no doubt remind us, not only do we arguably have too few women cabinet ministers but we are far too tolerant of the worst exploitative features of the sex industry, equivocal about the punishment of rape and careless over dealing with humdrum but routine domestic violence. Women are not always the victims. Men get assailed too and in Zimbabwe they are getting raped for their semen for use in witchcraft rituals. So how bad can that be, you might think. Well, it really depends on the women who get at you, and given the context you would be right to be very afraid. But in general, to enjoy being a girl you need to be pretty, well off and living in a Caucasian society. And even then there are no guarantees.
Yet maybe it isn’t just a matter of women’s problems with men. Maybe it is men who have a big problem with women. It is far and away the boys who perpetrate the violence. And because men still have most of the economic and physical power, we control the culture of gender relationships. You don’t have to be a qualified anthropologist to understand the origins and basis of inter-gender dealings. The animal kingdom indicates quite clearly the default paradigms for our sexual conduct. The rites of sex, birth and death in the context of the herd or tribe and in pursuit of survival continue to govern most of the roles necessary to ensure life goes on and that men and women do what they are naturally good at. What disappoints is that we are still so vulnerable to our primitive impulses, however much we try to cloak them in the sophistications of art, language and social convention. Indeed, passion, love and infidelity form the core of our myths and literature. In these stories men and women re-enact the dance of humanity’s long journey in which it seems both are doomed to immutable steps; leading or following, embracing and turning away.
Worst of all, we continue to subvert and diminish what we know to be an essential partnership through the medium of religion. Time was when human beings needed an array of gods and spirits to explain their own existence and their relationship with the natural phenomena that surrounded them. Simple animism gave way to more complex ideas of gods and goddesses. Arguably the Greeks (and in emulation, the Romans) developed the most appealing pantheon. They populated Olympus with an eclectic and lively array of male and female deities and demi-gods. Unreliable, contentious and randy, these beings feuded with each other and interfered in human affairs with arbitrary wilfulness. In fact – they were just like humans. Moreover, the women were often more than a match for the men. Even though the male dominated, the narrative showed real respect for the power of the goddess.
Then, from a female perspective, it all fell apart as monotheism and the Abrahamic religions took over. God was of course male and woman the creature developed to be his companion, but who was also cast as the weak-willed temptress and instrument of man’s fall from grace. All might have been well, since Judaism is creditably not a proselytising faith – it is about being a chosen race and preserving racial purity. The humour and creativity we like. However, Christianity emerged as an all-consuming and all-embracing belief system. It cunningly incorporated earlier polytheistic religions, not least the Greco-Roman gods and goddesses hence the role of angels and saints in Christian belief. Despite a brief inferential admission of women as co-equal in the early renditions of Christ’s life and teaching, the men rapidly took over and women became relegated to their familiar roles as saintly mothers, supportive wives and suspect whores; thus, depending on the role, to be honoured, protected and alternately used and abused. Later, Islam introduced its own spin on how things must be according to god’s manly prophets and priests. En passant it might be noted that even Buddhism and Hinduism, despite rather better efforts at an egalitarian theology continue to have debates about the ability of women to attain the highest levels of sanctity or distinguished priestly status.
All of which is to tell us that whatever the general truths of historic cultural development, the three religious ideologies that share their conceptual DNA, dominate our social and political agenda. They effectively position women as both inferior in function (other than for breeding) and dangerous (in their capacity to incite lust and subvert the male will). It is hard to escape the conclusion that deep down men really do despise women (as mere sexual repositories) and both fear and resent them (for their ability to exploit male weakness); and that this is at the rotten and brutal heart of monotheistic theology. Were it not so, women would not still be condemned by the Catholic Church to unwanted pregnancies or stoned to death for adultery as in some Islamic countries. Nor would a Jewish sect be able to demand that women be treated in the same way black Americans were until very recently in the USA; and more to the point that their own race was treated by the Nazis in the run-up to the Holocaust. Sadly, well-intentioned liberals in all these religious communities are so afraid of schism –and maybe their lives – that they make only muted and seemingly ineffectual attempts to counter the fundamentalists.
Nonetheless, there are also women who accept the position into which the poisonous mix of Abrahamic theology and social deprivation and/or ignorance places them. Their more enlightened sisters will have to convince them otherwise. We cannot forcibly liberate women in foreign cultures from the theological-political-social trap they are in because of the stupidity of their male rulers and the venomous cynicism of their priests. Women will have to liberate themselves in the societies where they are. All we can do is encourage and show our moral support for them. We can also do a great deal more to condemn and eliminate the importation of dreadful and repressive customs into our own country.
Over there in Israel the singers and dancers are courageously carrying on doing their thing despite demonstrations and political pressure by the religious bigots. It must be noted (given the sensitivities) that liberal Jewish culture (of which this writer is a glad inheritor) has contributed enormously to world civilisation, but possibly more because of its intelligence than its theology. We can only hope that Jewish liberalism triumphs in its home country and women can continue to sing in public. We may also hope for women everywhere to go to school, control their fertility, not have their sexual organs mutilated and go out unescorted and in a car they are allowed to drive themselves in whichever societies or under whichever religious manias these freedoms are denied.
Meanwhile in the UK we should be worried less about pornography in general and much, much more about rape, the failure to control sexual exploitation including the continuing issues of domestic violence and trafficking. The quality of sex education might also engage us. In this context it struck me that instead of embarrassing lectures and condom fitting practice as dubious counters to free Internet porn, our teenagers would be better informed about the pleasures and rewards of sexual difference if they were told to watch Strictly Come Dancing. Though maybe not the one with Ann Widdecombe. Sorry, Ann, that’s a cheap shot but it has a point.