Does God Hate Women?

July 10, 2009 at 11:49 am (Feminism, Human rights, Islam, literature, Max Dunbar, religion)

bensonDisclaimer – one of this book’s co-authors, Ophelia Benson, is my editor at Butterflies and Wheels

This is a terrible book. It’s a catalogue of cruelty, evil and despair. The first thirty pages comprise case studies of faith-based oppression – stories from women in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, stories of women being raped and flogged and mutilated, stories of those who die and are forgotten. This is not the worst example but it will serve for all:

In a macabre inversion of the usual pattern of human valour which sees people rushing into a burning building to rescue survivors, the girls at this school were sent back into the smoke and flames after they had already managed to escape. The reason for this was that the Saudi religious police, who had turned up outside the school, considered the girls to be inappropriately dressed for an escape – apparently they had neglected to put on their abayas (enveloping black head-to-toe robes) before running for their lives.  

At the core of monotheistic religion is an obsession with, and corresponding fear of, women and sex – the Other. The crimes committed against half the human race by religious governments and movements are protected by the Big Lie – that faith is centrally about love and compassion, and wickedness done in the name of religion is merely a perversion of peaceful scripture. Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom take this further. The point is that God can’t tell you what he wants. There’s no higher authority that can rule out faith-based persecution of women. This alone is why religion deserves no respect from anyone with pretensions to decency and morality. 

It may not surprise you to know that the usual cliches of ‘shrill’ and ‘strident’ thrown about by religious apologists bear no relation to the actual tone of the book, which is calm and measured despite the horrors of its subject matter. What Benson and Stangroom call the woman’s ‘ability to refuse’ is a relatively new thing. We live in a sexual marketplace where women are free to deny sex to men, whereas in most of the world and for most of human history the woman has been entirely subservient to her father and then to her husband: ‘honour is between the legs of women’.

It’s at times like this that I think anyone who believes that progress is a myth needs their rationality called into question. Of course, the authors point out, ‘the ability to refuse means that some people will be disappointed'; personally, this is how I account for the enthusiasm for theocracy among Western males. 

This book is terrible but essential. Ignoring it is not an option.

49 Comments

  1. NGC 891 said,

    Excellent post about a vital book. Doubtless our resident totalitarian johng is preparing to defend his beloved theocratic fascists. Let’s have it Gamey, we’re waiting …

  2. Lobby Ludd said,

    There has become a certain charm about this site. Those with some kind of animus re the SWP or associated individuals seem to like posting here. Hence Mr Alphanumeric’s smart comment.

  3. NGC 891 said,

    Lobby I think the site’s main writers also appear to quite often share the animus you refer to. Or hadn’t you noticed?

    Since you enjoy the SWP take on things so much, perhaps we should appeal to Wally Wibblywellies to return. He’s was certainly a lot more ‘interesting’ than johng, though at least with john you doesn’t feel physically sick after reading his comments. At least not often.

  4. Red Maria said,

    This is a terrible book.

    Ophelia Benson and somewankstain Stangroom don’t know what the fuck they’re writing about.

    And can’t write either.

    DON’T WASTE YOUR MONEY.

    (Book exchanges, libraries, charidee shops, whatevah, don’t pay them for shit work and shit prose).

  5. johnGit said,

    WHY ARE YOUR A RASIST YOU RASIST?!”?!?!?!?

  6. Rosie said,

    Red Maria – you haven’t been hanging around with Will of Drink Soaked have you?

  7. maxdunbar said,

    Maria

    Have you read the book?

  8. asquith said,

    I have read it. It is blistering stuff but how else are you going to address endless abuses of human rights & dignity? I actually wish I was half as assertive as Benson & Stangroom as too often I leave things unsaid.

  9. Jeremy Stangroom said,

    It’s an odd thing this business of it being seen as an “attack book”, because I actually agree with Max – I think it’s reasonably calm . There are parts of it where we engage in some polemic – bits of chapter 1, bits of chapter 7 and the last chapter (in particular).

    But there are big chunks where what we’re doing is fairly academic sociology type stuff (the chapter on FGM in particular).

    Still it is quite hard to get objective distance from what one writes oneself…

  10. maxdunbar said,

    The focus on the tone, rather than content of the book by its critics is indicative that they cannot deal with its arguments.

  11. Jeremy Stangroom said,

    Which, in a way, is a shame. Because it’s much more satisfying for people to engage with arguments than simply to shout. And actually that goes for positive as well as negative reviews.

    Arguments are interesting. Praise and abuse get old very quickly.

  12. Ophelia Benson said,

    That’s absurd. Praise never gets old.

  13. Jeremy Stangroom said,

    What about if it’s from Mr Tingey?

  14. Ophelia Benson said,

    Ah you have a point.

    But the other kind never gets old!

  15. Ophelia Benson said,

    But seriously of course, I much prefer engaging with arguments rather than shouting. I’ve been struggling with that at the blog of a certain US journalist for days.

  16. Jeremy Stangroom said,

    “But the other kind never gets old!”

    If only there were other kinds…

  17. Laban Tall said,

    “At the core of monotheistic religion is an obsession with, and corresponding fear of, women and sex – the Other”

    I keep hearing this. Any evidence in support thereof (the ‘corresponding fear’ rather than the obsession – I think I understand the obsession), or theory as to why that might be so ? Even better, both ?

    I just get the feeling of a liberal myth, one of those ‘everybody knows’ facts that aren’t actually true but which fit a worldview nicely. Maybe I’m mistaken.

    In the days when monotheism started I’d have thought one had plenty of other things to worry about – disease, injury, the next harvest, hunger, cold, thirst, strangers coming to slaughter you and take your land …

  18. Jeremy Stangroom said,

    “In the days when monotheism started I’d have thought one had plenty of other things to worry about – disease, injury, the next harvest, hunger, cold, thirst, strangers coming to slaughter you and take your land …”

    There’s a genetic fallacy lurking in there. Well, potentially, at any rate.

  19. Ophelia Benson said,

    Jeremy wouldn’t let me get away with any of those liberal myths.

  20. Ophelia Benson said,

    “If only there were other kinds…”

    Now stop that. Not everyone is Mr Tingey. You pretend to think so, but it’s all a pose.

  21. Laban Tall said,

    Me no understand, Jeremy (any relation to Caroline, btw ?)

  22. Jeremy Stangroom said,

    You were talking about the origins of monotheism, as if to suggest that this was the relevant datum. It’s a relevant datum, but it isn’t the only relevant datum.

    There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that monotheistic religions insitutionalise – or have insitutionalised – the fear of women and sex. See, for example, Kecia Ali’s discussion of marriage, money and sex – Chapter 1 of her excellent book, “Sexual Ethics and Islam”. (She also provides a shedload of further references, if you’re interested.)

    The other point to make is that the stuff surrounding sex isn’t clearly separate from the stuff you mention (disease, injury, next harvest, etc), because it underpins kinship relations, which feed into the way in which all the kind of stuff is managed. (And vice-versa before the Marxists here start complaining about my lack of understanding of the importance of productive relations, etc.).

    It’s a complicated area. But certainly we don’t pretend otherwise, whatever the reviews of this book might suggest.

    “any relation to Caroline, btw ”

    I don’t know any Carolines!

  23. Ophelia Benson said,

    At any rate, ‘At the core of monotheistic religion is an obsession with, and corresponding fear of, women and sex – the Other’ isn’t from the book, so we don’t have to offer evidence for it.

  24. Ophelia Benson said,

    But there are big chunks where what we’re doing is exegesis of Vatican letters and encyclicals or the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, too.

  25. Laban Tall said,

    Hi Ophelia – I was hoping Max would explain. He’s obviously busier than we are on a Saturday night … I’m glad it wasn’t you with -“the Other” – another all-purpose phrase which covers everything from the garden wall to the space shuttle.

    One possible reason for ‘fear’ – if that’s the right phrase – of women’s sexuality would be that, even more in societies where life, food, shelter are precarious (i.e. all early societies), men have an interest in being certain that the child they’re helping to raise is actually theirs.

    Slightly tangential, Philip Longman (who thinks patriarchal societies will always have a demographic advantage. I tend to agree, especially after a stroll through Small Heath or Girlington) :

    Patriarchal societies come in many varieties and evolve through different stages. What they have in common are customs and attitudes that collectively serve to maximize fertility and parental investment in the next generation. Of these, among the most important is the stigmatization of “illegitimate” children. One measure of the degree to which patriarchy has diminished in advanced societies is the growing acceptance of out-of-wedlock births, which have now become the norm in Scandinavian countries, for example.

    Under patriarchy, “bastards” and single mothers cannot be tolerated because they undermine male investment in the next generation. Illegitimate children do not take their fathers’ name, and so their fathers, even if known, tend not to take any responsibility for them. By contrast, “legitimate” children become a source of either honor or shame to their fathers and the family line. The notion that legitimate children belong to their fathers’ family, and not to their mothers’, which has no basis in biology, gives many men powerful emotional reasons to want children, and to want their children to succeed in passing on their legacy. Patriarchy also leads men to keep having children (men have them ? LT) until they produce at least one son.

    Another key to patriarchy’s evolutionary advantage is the way it penalizes women who do not marry and have children. Just decades ago in the English-speaking world, such women were referred to, even by their own mothers, as spinsters or old maids, to be pitied for their barrenness or condemned for their selfishness. Patriarchy made the incentive of taking a husband and becoming a full-time mother very high because it offered women few desirable alternatives …

    Under patriarchy, maternal investment in children also increases. As feminist economist Nancy Folbre has observed, “Patriarchal control over women tends to increase their specialization in reproductive labor, with important consequences for both the quantity and the quality of their investments in the next generation.” Those consequences arguably include: more children receiving more attention from their mothers, who, having few other ways of finding meaning in their lives, become more skilled at keeping their children safe and healthy. Without implying any endorsement for the strategy, one must observe that a society that presents women with essentially three options — be a nun, be a prostitute, or marry a man and bear children — has stumbled upon a highly effective way to reduce the risk of demographic decline.

  26. Jeremy Stangroom said,

    Laban

    “The suspicion and anxiety are rooted not just in worries about sexual infidelity on its own, but also in the additional brute physical fact that if a woman has sex with another man she can get pregnant by the other man, without her husband’s knowledge, and thus he can be tricked into wasting his resources raising another man’s child (as well as delaying conception of his own). In selfish gene terms this is a heavy cost. ” (“Does God Hate Women?”, p. 85)

  27. maxdunbar said,

    Laban

    “At the core of monotheistic religion is an obsession with, and corresponding fear of, women and sex – the Other”

    I keep hearing this. Any evidence in support thereof (the ‘corresponding fear’ rather than the obsession – I think I understand the obsession), or theory as to why that might be so ? Even better, both ?

    This is really a general impression, based on the amount of religious movements and societies that go to great pains to keep women covered up – there’s a great example in the book of the Iranian authorities inventing an ‘Islamic bicycle’ for women that would ‘conceal the movements of their bodies while riding.’

    Perhaps it’s a generalisation too far, I don’t know.

  28. Ophelia Benson said,

    Well it’s a review! Reviews have to summarize, obviously. At any rate the point is, as Jeremy illustrated with that quote, we do offer argument and evidence in the book.

  29. Laban Tall said,

    So from the evidence presented in the book, suspicion and anxiety are perfectly rational responses to these brute physical facts ! Now all we have to do is get from there to “fear and hatred” – still a decent jump.

    I can see I’m going to have to read the book. But I can’t help thinking that maybe the reason why God appears to ‘hate women’ is that ALL societies (well, certainly all non-hunter-gatherer) until very recent times have sought to modify and control sexual behaviours – particularly female, for the good reasons above. And until very recent times all societies were religious. Correlation is not causation etc.

  30. Jeremy Stangroom said,

    Laban, mate, we’re aware that correlation isn’t causation. If you look at one of the previous threads on here about the book, I can’t remember which, you’ll notice that I state that we had a mantra which we repeated throughout the writing of the book, which was – yup, you guessed it – correlation isn’t causation.

    It also occurred to us that maybe the misogynist aspects of religion had non-religious causes. We talk about this stuff at great length (especially in the chapter on FGM).

    You should read the book. Then we’d be interested to hear your criticisms, etc. In the meantime, don’t believe everything you read in the reviews of the book (except Max’s!).

  31. Ophelia Benson said,

    “But I can’t help thinking that maybe the reason why God appears to ‘hate women’ is that ALL societies (well, certainly all non-hunter-gatherer) until very recent times have sought to modify and control sexual behaviours”

    Ooh, good point, I wish we’d thought of that!

    Oh wait – chapter 4 is all about that, and much of chapter 6 is too. I guess we did think of it. Whaddya know.

    There’s a review by Cristina Odone in the Observer today. She gets one thing right, anyway – I gave one victim of misogynist murder the wrong name – I gave her the name of a different victim of misogynist murder.

  32. asquith said,

    I read Odone’s review:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jul/12/god-hate-women-benson-stangroom

    It actually isn’t by any means the worst, though still more than bad enough.

    Money quote:
    “Like the fundamentalists it so despises, Does God Hate Women? is literal in its interpretation of the highly charged language of faith. In their readings of holy texts and decipherings of religious traditions, Benson and Stangroom do not venture beyond the most elementary level; the ABCs of the different religions, not surprisingly, yield only the crudest understanding of the mysteries of faith. Had the authors been writing about another area of life – science or music – their ignorance of the subject at hand would be inadmissible.”

    The difference is that science, history & what have you are based on observable facts & arguments which, the authors admit, may be refuted if new evidence comes to light, whereas the religions just spew forth mindless assertions that we’re supposed to accept.

    Sophisticates like Odone, who don’t take any of it too seriously & wouldn’t engage in anything so vulgar as a truth claim, are not capable of understanding the mindset of fundamentalists. Just because they don’t really believe in it & it’s just a fashion accessory to them, doesn’t mean that it isn’t being taken deadly seriously by others.

    There should be some form of compilation of all this with refutations.

  33. Jeremy Stangroom said,

    Asquith

    I think that we didn’t mind the review too much. We strongly objected to the review in the Independent – because it just was full of stuff that isn’t true. But this time, given Odone’s views, I think we think it is fair criticism, etc (although, obviously, we don’t agree with it!).

    But having said that the stuff about “not venturing beyond the most elementary levels” is tendentious. It’s not a work of theology, so it’s true in that we don’t spend very much time talking about texts, etc (which frankly is an exercise in futility, anyway). But when we do – well I just don’t think it is true that we display a lack of awareness of the scholarship surrounding the area.

    If Odone wants to debate me about Islamic theology then I’d be happy to put my knowledge up against hers.

  34. asquith said,

    Yes, I didn’t find it particularly objectionable, I was just bitching in general.

    I do, however, take issue with all statements along the lines of those aired in the paragraph I quoted. I can understand some kind of anthropological enquiry into why people think as they do, but I get needled by the claim that only those who’ve studied various obscurantist scribblings are qualified to have a view on whether God exists & the effects religion has.

    I believe that Richard Dawkins has dwelt on this theme- more effectively than I, as despite having spent a fair bit trying to write the above I am painfully aware that it still doesn’t make a huge amount of sense :)

    Johann Hari, as linked to in the original article, remains the sole positive view I’ve seen in the nominally liberal media.

  35. Jeremy Stangroom said,

    Well the point you make about the fact that many believers do not interpret texts in a “sophisticated” way is well made. (And given the topic of our book, a very important point.)

    Reviews – We always knew that the book was going to get caught in a triple pincer movement (if such a thing is possible!):

    1. Reviewers who are religious;

    2. Reviewers who are liberal defenders of religion (e.g., the non-religious critics of “new Atheism”);

    3. Leftist apologists for Islamism (the SWP tendency);

    So we’re in the hands of the book review editors!

    But we don’t mind. To be honest, it’s just good to be noticed.

  36. maxdunbar said,

    The liberal media is very pro faith at the moment – the bulk of the reviews were always going to level the same predictable responses. I could have written Odone’s piece before she did.

  37. asquith said,

    “The liberal media is very pro faith at the moment – the bulk of the reviews were always going to level the same predictable responses”

    Yes, but the good thing there (for us) is that it will drive frustrated sceptics onto the blogosphere in search of a counter :)

  38. John Meredith said,

    We always knew that the book was going to get caught in a triple pincer movement (if such a thing is possible!):”

    It’s not possible, it would have to be a three-pronged claw or grab (like in the fairground game) or something.

  39. maxdunbar said,

    Haha yeah!

  40. maxdunbar said,

    This reminds me of an Alan Partridge scene where he uses the analogy of ‘a two-pronged trident… erm, a bident.’

  41. Ophelia Benson said,

    I’m hoping to see the irony of the Times or the Telegraph give a resoundingly favorable secular review. (This quite independent of the very natural hope of seeing one of them review it at all!)

  42. Jim Denham said,

    “The liberal media is very pro faith at the moment”: you betcha! Try today’s ‘Graun’, carrying this extraordinary piece by ex-nun Karen Armstrong, apparently arguing that ‘truth’ has more than one meaning and that “untrue” narratives in religion are, in fact of equal or greater value than “truth”, in the sense that “Stories of heroes descending to the underworld were not [in ancient Greece -JD] regarded as primarily factual but taught people how to negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche. In the same way, the purpose of a creation myth was theraputic; before the modern period no sensible person ever thought it gave an accurate account of the origins of life. A cosmology was recited at times of crisis or sickness, when people needed a symbolic influx of the creative energy that had brought something out of nothing.”

    Truly, post-modernism meets religious obscurantism! NOt only are such concepts as “truth” and “untruth” irrelevant, but to insist upon the distinction is to misunderstand “the more elusive aspects of human experience”! Read the rest of this intellectually insulting, pretentious waffle, here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2009/jul/12/religion-christianity-belief-science

  43. martin ohr said,

    “post-modernism meets religious obscurantism” isn’t that what John Game has on his business cards

  44. John Meredith said,

    “Stories of heroes descending to the underworld were not [in ancient Greece -JD] regarded as primarily factual but taught people how to negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche. ”

    That sort of pseudo-scholarship is really depressing. I know she would like this to be true, but how on earth can she know? We have absolutely no evidence that the Greeks did not consider their stories to be literal accounts of historical events.

    And how, exactly do Greek myths help us the ‘negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche’ anyway? What can she mean?

  45. Jeremy Stangroom said,

    The pseudo-scholarship thing is Karen Armstrong’s signature mark. This idea she seems to be pushing that people weren’t required to believe their religious myths until the modern period came along is just… well highly suspect.

    I mean just look at the debates in Islamic philosophy between the likes of al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd: these turned precisely on what it was acceptable for a devout Muslim to believe (and people got themselves executed if they didn’t believe the right stuff).

    The line Armstrong is taking seems to be a cross between Durkheim and religious non-realism (Sea of Faith type stuff). I don’t think that stuff is entirely disreputable. But she relies on the shoddiness of her scholarship in order to bolster her case.

  46. Ed said,

    It’s the same basic argument – if I follow it – as Eagleton, who suggests that asking if the universe was created by God is a ‘category mistake’.

    There’s a sense in which I think I understand. People I know who describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ in various ways do seem to experience something which I, in my rationalist way, simply don’t, and can’t. And maybe I feel – well, envious? But I would like someone to explain to me what the fuck they’re talking about in a way I can actually understand it. And if it falls to me, as I think it should, to explain atheism convincingly to a religious person, that requirement – the effort to convince – surely works both ways.

  47. maxdunbar said,

    People I know who describe themselves as ’spiritual’ in various ways do seem to experience something which I, in my rationalist way, simply don’t, and can’t.

    I think this is a complete myth. You can have mystical and spiritual experiences without being religious in the slightest.

  48. Jeremy Stangroom said,

    ” who suggests that asking if the universe was created by God is a ‘category mistake’.”

    Again, I think that’s a defensible position. But the trouble is:

    1. It ain’t a category mistake for most believers;

    2. There is a very large issue here about whether “God” can do all the work religious people want him to do if he is a category mistake God (I don’t mean work such as turning water into wine and guiding evolution. I mean all the “Oh my God, I’m going to get sick, lose my job, get scared, lose loved ones, get hit by thunderbolts, life has no meaning, and then I’m going to die – how am I going to cope?” kind of work).

  49. Ophelia Benson said,

    “We have absolutely no evidence that the Greeks did not consider their stories to be literal accounts of historical events.”

    We do have some. Plato is fairly explicit about that, isn’t he? And Thucydides certainly is – and so is Euripides. And then there was Anaxagoras, who was expelled from Athens for guess what. And there are others.

    But on the other hand, that’s not what Armstrong is talking about, so the basic point remains.

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