Forced female genital mutilation. Child marriage. Honor violence. Rape and sexual assault. These are just a few examples of gendered violence that women face on a daily basis. One thing that all of these acts of violence have in common? They are often justified on religious grounds.
For centuries, people have been using religion as an excuse to justify violence against women and girls (VAWG). But to what extent is the actual religion in question responsible for this violence?
We must ask ourselves these difficult and controversial questions as religion plays a major role in every functional society. Religion, as an institution, has served as the center of countless wars, reformations, enlightenments and major philosophical breakthroughs. However, without organized religion, society would lack key philosophical, moral and legal innovations.
Despite this, atrocities are committed against women in the name of God every single day. This does not necessarily mean that religion itself causes violence, but that people often use religion as justification for violent actions.
For example, religious-based violence is quite prevalent among women in Kenya, where about 81 percent of people identify with some form of Christianity. Child marriage, forced genital mutilation and sex slavery are common occurrences among Kenyan women and girls.
Religious leaders and institutions repeatedly reinforce these traditions among their followers, further perpetuating violence against Kenyan women and normalizing it within their communities.
That is not to say religious violence against women and other marginalized groups is a phenomenon of the developing world.
In a January 2018 column in The New York Times, Sam Brinton details a horrific personal account of gay conversion therapy, which he describes as torture, at the behest of his Southern Baptist parents. This violence was justified as a religious duty, as Brinton's parents believed being gay was a sin.
When religious institutions passively tolerate violence, they are actually promoting it. Often, religious followers may take matters into their own hands and seek to actualize their own ideas of mercy. This is viscerally demonstrated when a Muslim father stones his daughters to death for "dating the wrong boys," -- such as in the case of Canadian Mohammad Shafia's "honor" killing of his three daughters. Or when someone publicly assaults a gay man — such as in the brutal beating of Christopher Bradford, a gay single father who was leaving a nightclub in Montrose, one of Houston's (and the country's) most LGBT-friendly neighborhoods.
When it comes to religion, it would be low-hanging fruit to take an analogy to the pro-gun argument: religion doesn't kill people, people kill people. By this logic, one might say that religion is not responsible for violence, that the essence of the scriptures and their mere existence has nothing to do with the matter, but that's not the case.
John Carlson, associate professor of religious studies and the associate director at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University, is an expert in the field of religion and how religion impacts society. He is the director of ASU's Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.
“It is clearly the case that people who are invoking religion have been involved in violence in every nation and religion in the world,” Carlson said. “From Al Qaeda to ISIS, to John Brown and the Salem Witch Trials, violence can happen in the scholarship to support religion, but to what extent do people who are resorting to violence represent their tradition?”
Carlson answers this question with something along the lines of "not very well." He thinks, in general terms, religion is a function of culture and that it is up to believers whether they interpret the text to support different forms of violence.
I disagree. Religion gives followers an explicit excuse to inflict violence on women.
However, religious scriptures themselves, such as the Bible or the Torah, often do not explicitly condone specific acts of violence toward women.
An example of this can be seen in how stoning is not specifically determined to be an adequate punishment for adultery, but countless Muslim women have been stoned for cheating on their husbands or being accused of having an affair.
“The Taliban in Afghanistan believe that their treatment of women, including denying girls the opportunities to go to school, and not allowing women to go out in public or drive, would not necessarily meet the standards of violence. But those who broke out of this oppression were certainly subjected to violence,” Carlson said.
While Carlson said that culture is the major facilitator for violence rather than religious scriptures, I believe that religion serves as the necessary foundation for the reasons behind this violence.
When a man inflicts violence upon his wife for cheating on him because his religion tells him to, he may hold the belief that carrying out this violence will strengthen his relationship with his God.
If religion, as an institution, did not exist, what would be the motivating factor behind that violence? Would the man simply defer to other traditions or cultural artifacts to justify what he would have done anyway?
Interpretation plays a large role in influencing the way people within a certain religion act, regardless of whether that religion’s scriptures or core sentiments align with said interpretation. While the Bible itself does not explicitly state that women are inferior to men, it depicts a clear power struggle between men and women. Women are expected to be submissive and follow men's demands — if a woman does not, she may rightfully be punished.
Religion and culture go hand-in-hand in perpetuating this violence because religious traditions and procedures often overlap, and many cultures can adopt religious traditions as their own without even realizing it.
“Violence towards women has more to do with ways that religion has been interpreted by the culture. Religions don’t exist outside of cultures,” said Carlson. “Every sacred scripture came about at a particular time and place, and traditions currently evolve and change over time. Religion can be a very important influence within culture, and the two of those things together can be strong in influencing people’s identities, practices and way of life.”
Is religion itself solely responsible for promoting violence towards women? Obviously not. There are numerous factors that come into play when considering why societies normalize violence towards women, including the establishment of an inherently patriarchal society. It would be wrong to say that religion is the sole reason for these acts of violence.
However, religion is an institution most frequently manipulated to oppress women. For example, denying women the right to have an abortion is often justified on religious grounds rather than legal ones.
The fact that women who are victims of violence often do not see themselves as victims truly depicts just how normalized this oppression is, within both religious and cultural institutions. By not understanding what constitutes violence or the violation of one's human rights, these women are, once again, victimized by being led to believe that maltreatment is simply the way things are.
Allowing this violence to be normalized within a certain religion or culture forces women to grow up believing that they deserve the horrors that are inflicted on them. “That’s just the way it is,” can no longer be a valid excuse.
Society often makes excuses for religious-based violence because people are deeply afraid of offending or ostracizing certain groups. For example, many Westernized feminists stray away from commenting on the negative aspects of Sharia Law out of fear of offending Muslim feminists.
Sharia Law, a frequent perpetrator of VAWG, is not a legal system, but rather a code of religious guidelines that Islamic people must obey. As stated in a September 2016 Huffington Post article by Deeba Abedi titled, "As Long As There Is Sharia Law, Women Will Not Have Human Rights," Sharia Law can be used to strip away women's rights and gives authority to the males to have guardianship over their wives.
Many Western feminists fail to comment on the oppressive and violent tendencies within Sharia Law out of fear of shunning a specific culture's way of life. While this fear is understandable, to an extent, mainstream feminism cannot afford to allow women to go on believing that they do not have a choice under Sharia Law.
Radicalism emerges from failing to recognize the faults within a system. However, it is possible to recognize the flaws within a religion or institution while still respecting it.
One cannot be a feminist while blindly supporting Sharia Law. While many countries whose legal systems fall under the sway of Sharia Law are starting to give more freedom to women and girls, many Islamic regions still severely restrict women's rights. With much of Sharia Law still in existence, women will continue to be violently oppressed in many Islamic regions.
The reality is that religion can exist without promoting violence. It is up to the followers of that religion to humanely interpret religious scriptures and refrain from using religion as a moral code to justify violence.
That is not to say religious people can find any wiggle room around openly violent or misogynistic texts. Such texts should be categorically denounced and disregarded. And if believers feel the outdated and violent elements of holy texts are an essential element of the religion, then they should consider giving the religion up altogether.
There is no room for the oppression of women in contemporary society, and not even religion is above the norm of gender equality. When violence is associated with religious motivations, religion itself is diluted and corrupted.
Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.
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