Disclaimer – 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.