By Caryl Rivers
Wednesday, January 16, 2002
When religious fundamentalists consign women to a subservient role the result too often is discrimination and abuse, though neither the Koran, the Bible nor the Talmud condone the mistreatment of women, argues Caryl Rivers in this week's commentary.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Two recent news stories, halfway around the world from each other and very different in character, illustrate the fact that when women have no power in religious organizations, women and children are in danger.
In Massachusetts, Monday, in the most recent event in a sad series, another Roman Catholic priest was arrested on child rape chargesâ€”this time for allegedly assaulting a 15-year-old girl repeatedly during a four-month period.
The arrest comes soon after Cardinal Bernard Law had to apologize after the Boston Globe ran a series of articles offering proof that the cardinal and other church authorities moved a priest from parish to parish without taking any disciplinary action, even though they knew that he had raped and abused dozens of children.
Meanwhile, across the world in Afghanistan, women were still fearful of removing their all-concealing burkas, which they were required to wear by the fanatically religious Taliban. While women can now work and attend school, a religious official recently said that he would punish adultery by death by stoning. Throughout the developing world, a growing fundamentalist brand of Islam preaches that women should have no legal rights--and in fact should be chattels of men.
Here in the U.S., the Catholic Church has long had a severe problem with pedophiles. Too often, the men perpetrating the abuse have been protected. In Massachusetts, a headline-making case nine years ago brought attention to this problem. The Reverend James Porter began abusing children in the 1960s in St. Mary's parish, and over the years as he was moved from parish to parish by church officials, he continued abusing children. When his former parishioners went public with their experiences years later, Cardinal Law berated reporters who broke the story.
Father Porter continued to be abusive after he left the priesthood, married and had a family. He was finally sentenced to prison for sexually molesting a babysitter in his home in Wisconsin. He was ultimately brought to justice and went to prison in Massachusetts for his offenses in St. Mary's parish after dozens of his victims came forward--no thanks to church officials.
Despite this experience, the church has continued to protect pedophiles. Another priest, John J. Geoghan, is currently on trial for raping and abusing children--mainly grammar-school-age boys--for three decades. As the Globe reported, "Geoghan was assigned to parishes throughout the 1980s and often oversaw youth groups, including altar boys, even though (Cardinal) Law and other ranking church officials were aware that he had abused children in at least three parishes." And the Globe asked, "Why did it take a succession of three cardinals and many bishops 34 years to place children out of Geoghan's reach?"
I think I know. My brother, Hugh, was molested in a Catholic military school by a member of the clergy, which I believe led to his suicide after years of depression. Thus, I have given this issue considerable thought.
The Catholic Church continues its medieval power structure barring women from not only the priesthood but also the inner circles where decisions are made and questions are asked. If the church did not bar women from the priesthood and from all positions of real power, I am certain pedophiles would not be protected for years with so much resulting human misery and suffering.
Muslim Fundamentalists Often Use Violence to Subordinate Women
In the Muslim world, the rise of fundamentalism based on male dominance also spells trouble for women and children. Spousal abuse is a huge problem in that world, too often ignored--or justified. Women interviewed by CNN in Kabul said that, although they did not like the Taliban, they accepted the fact that men could beat their wives if women did not obey them. In Afghanistan, girls were sold into virtual slavery to Taliban members. The director of an aid program for women in Kabul told Newsweek that girls were often kidnapped and abused.
"There were a lot of forced marriages during this time because it made life easier for the Qaeda Arabs." In some areas in the Middle East, honor killings still exist. Women who have sexual relations before marriage--or who are even victims of rape--are murdered by male members of their families because they have violated the family "honor."
In the fundamentalist religious schools that are springing up in Pakistan, young boys are allowed no contact with females other than a mother or an aunt, and they develop no social skills in dealing with the opposite sex. They come to regard women as unclean, a source of sin and a temptation to male virtue. The rage against women incubated in these schools spells disaster for the future of women and children since, throughout the Middle East, more than 50 percent of the population is under 25. Reporters noted the extreme youth of many of the Taliban. In Afghanistan, callow youngsters beat women on the streets with whips if their burkas so much as slipped a few inches.
When men are permitted several wives, younger, junior wives are often vulnerable to rape by other family members. Time Magazine reported that one Afghan woman recounted that her 14-year-old sister was married off as the third wife of an older man; she was raped by her husband's brother, a local mullah.As Fundamentalism Spreads, Women's Vulnerability Rises
As fundamentalism spreads, more women around the world may be vulnerable to such abuse.
Religious leaders of all denominations, here and abroad, must speak out against the abuse of women and children--and emphasize the fact that neither the Koran, the Talmud nor the Bible justifies such behavior. But even so, the abuse of women, under the guise of religious edict, crops up in every religion. The legitimate beliefs of religion need to be separated from practices that buttress male dominance simply for the aim of controlling women. Outmoded religious interpretations of scripture that all too often define women as the source of sin and unclean sexuality is used to justify their abuse.
Historian Gerda Lerner notes "To the question 'Who brought Sin into the world?' Genesis answers, "Woman, in her alliance with the snake, which stands for free female sexuality.'"
The notion of woman as the source of sin in the world has more to do with superstition than with religion. Some historians argue that in prehistory, men seized control of religion to compete with women's power to create life. Myth and misogyny became entangled with legitimate religious belief and practice.
We have to untangle those threads to make sure women and children are not victimized--and to insure, as well, that religion can ennoble, rather than enslave us.
Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University and frequently contributes to Women's Enews.
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"Tahmeena Faryal: Democratic government is best hope for Afghan women":
"Afghan women looking for a voice":
"Sahar Saba: Women's rights in post-Taliban Afghanistan":