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Don't blame God: you'll find the culprit is closer to home

It's too easy to hold religion responsible for women's oppression, says Cristina Odone

                                 Cristina Odone

                                  

o                       Cristina Odone

o                       The Observer, Sunday 12 July 2009

o                       http://static.guim.co.uk/static/76176/common/images/icon_font.giflarger | smaller

o                       Article history

There is a very telling mistake at the beginning of Does God Hate Women? The authors pay tribute to an Afghan poet they call Safia Amajan. Amajan, they explain, wrote poetry in secret because under the Taliban, women were banned from schools and any intellectual activities were suspect and punishable by hanging. In November 2005 she was beaten to death. Her husband, who regarded his wife's literary endeavours as a stain on his name, was arrested for the murder - but got off by claiming Amajan had committed suicide.

1.                              Does God Hate Women?

2.                              by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom

3.                              pp208 ,

4.                              Continuum,

5.                              14.99

6.                              http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Books/Pix/covers/2009/7/9/1247133746478/Does-God-hate-women-by-Op-001.jpg

1.                              Buy Does God Hate Women? at the Observer shop

It is a harrowing story. The problem is that it is not Safia Amajan's story, but Nadia Anjuman's. Anjuman, not Amajan, was the poet killed in 2005. Amajan, the head of the department of women's affairs in Kandahar, was gunned down a year later by the Taliban.

In the rush to drive home their point about all religions' oppression of women, Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom shoved one woman's narrative under another woman's name: their priority is to make their case, not mourn a martyr.

They have trawled through newspaper articles, reports by human rights organisations and various websites to compile a dossier of harrowing tales involving women abused by their husbands in bible-belt America, and murdered by the Tznius, or ultra-orthodox "modesty" police, in the streets of Jerusalem. The description of their trauma is often clunky, and the repetitive hammering home of their suffering sometimes deadening; but these women's plight cannot fail to stir.

Misogyny infects every corner of the globe, but under the most repressive regimes - some, though not all, theocracies - it becomes institutionalised. We see men dominating their women - socially, intellectually, psychologically and sexually - because here at least is one area where they can wrest some control. If you live under the Taliban, or in a Brazilian favela, you are the lowest of the low - until, that is, you turn to the women under your roof. Mocking, pummelling or stabbing her will make you top dog - even if in a small kennel.

Does God Hate Women? splutters with righteous anger. The authors fulminate against the democratic, secular west for its limp-wristed reaction to honour killing or forced marriage even among its citizens; they argue, convincingly, that nowadays multiculturalism trumps women's rights, and that fear of appearing superior or imperialist pushes countries such as Britain and the United States to collude with regimes that condone outrages against women.

But too often the targets of this indignation are the wrong ones. The portrayal of Karen Armstrong as an inveterate Muslim apologist sounds risible, given the restraint that characterises her work on world religions. More important, when the authors pin on God the sins committed by the men of the Taliban, Vatican or bible belt, who sanction a woman's humiliation, rape or murder, the reader familiar with the sacred texts of the Abrahamic faiths balks: surely, we want to ask, the authors have heard of the unreliable narrator? The Muslims, Catholics and Jews who claim that beating up their wife is God's will are false witnesses of religions that call on their followers to respect, love and honour one another; they cannot be trusted any more than the narrators of literary works such as Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire or Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day

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. This being religion, however, they will get away with it: their limited grasp of faith is on a par with that of just about every other liberal secular Briton.

It's a shame. A less simplistic (and flimsy) polemic would shed light on the extraordinary paradox at the heart of the relationship between women and God, raising fascinating questions about culture, gender and authority along the way. For millennia, women have found in God their greatest ally and muse - witness the writings of mystics such as Julian of Norwich and the charitable work of peasant Muslim women. For centuries, the most powerful and liberated women were the abbesses, nuns and consecrated virgins who devoted themselves to God. Women such as Maryam, Jesus's mother, and Khadija, Muhammad's first wife (and boss), play crucial roles in the Qur'an.

Yes, there are men who use God to oppress women; but there are women who use God to stand their ground against men - as countless saints and martyrs who fled male tyranny, or simply advances, testify.

Does God Hate Women? takes us on a terrible journey, where innocent women struggle - often in vain - against an oppressive culture. We should never forget these martyrs, and with their graphic descriptions of female circumcision and multiple rape, Benson and Stangroom ensure we won't. But in explaining how God is dragged into this systemic abuse, the authors are guilty of the flawed logic they abhor in macho regimes. An attractive woman in a miniskirt who walks down the street is not responsible for the men who, distorting her attitude, read it as an invitation to rape; so God, in his many guises, cannot be held responsible for the men who distort his message into an invitation to abuse others.

Cristina Odone is a former editor of the Catholic Herald.

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Review: Does God Hate Women? By Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom

This article was first published on guardian.co.uk at 00.01 BST on Sunday 12 July 2009. It appeared in the Observer on Sunday 12 July 2009 on p21 of the Books section. It was last updated at 00.05 BST on Sunday 12 July 2009.

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