Where, Oh, Where Are the Atheist Women?

Last week, I noticed a pingback on my blog from a post on Ms. Magazine by Monica Shores, "Will New Atheism Make Room for Women?"

There are some good things about this piece. I have to say that I'm glad to see the atheist movement making an impact in wider, more traditional media circles. The need to diversify the atheist movement and ensure that we encourage and fairly value the contributions of women and people of color is a valid one, and I've written about it before as well. I welcome more attention being paid to this issue and people being willing to point it out if we've fallen short.

However, Shores' post isn't written in the spirit of helping atheists improve on this issue. It's more in the style of a hit job, taking the stance that we must all be sexists whom no woman would want to associate with:

If you've been following the rise of so-called "New Atheism" movement, you may have noticed that it sure looks a lot like old religion. The individuals most commonly associated with contemporary atheism — Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Victor Stenger - are all male, white and, well, kinda old (69, 61, 68 and 75). Sam Harris, another popular figure who bears mention, has the distinction of being in his early 40s.

Ironically, she spends all her time focusing on the white men who are prominent in the atheist movement, and then at the very end bemoans the fact that atheist women lack "visibility and name-recognition"! Well, Ms. Shores, why do you think that is? Could it possibly be because mainstream, traditional media outlets - even ones as allegedly progressive and feminist as Ms. Magazine - refuse to give atheist women the space and fair coverage they deserve?

What makes this even more bizarre is that Shores is clearly aware of the existence of many atheist women. She references Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Madalyn Murray O'Hair, and links to essays by Susan Jacoby, Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina and Jen McCreight, as well as a post by Sikivu Hutchinson right here on Daylight Atheism. Yet, again, she gives all these excellent writers and advocates only passing mention, so that she can continue to criticize us for the utterly inexplicable invisibility of women and people of color. (It kind of reminds me of this skit from the late, lamented Mystery Science Theater 3000.) To compound this, Shores writes that there's "little indication that atheists are receptive" to the idea of diversifying - and to support this assertion, links to two posts arguing the exact opposite! This is clearly a case of the established media narrative driving coverage of the facts, rather than vice versa.

There are a few other annoying inaccuracies in Shores' post I want to point out. She writes that atheists "can't abide by tolerance of religion", when what we actually say is that religion shouldn't get special privileges or be immune from criticism. She writes that we "dare not hope for eradication of religion outright", whereas many of us do hope for this (by victory on the battlefield of ideas, of course, not by coercion or violence) and have no fear of saying so. And she ridiculously and insultingly mischaracterizes this piece by my fellow blogger vjack of Atheist Revolution as "overtly sexist", when it's actually a thoughtful exploration of the reasons why women may not feel as welcome in the activist segment of the atheist movement as we'd like.

Thankfully, Ms. magazine gave a follow-up post to Jen McCreight, who corrected many of these inaccuracies and pointed out some of the atheist women who are making major, meaningful contributions to the movement. This was a much better piece that rightly highlighted the accomplishments of atheist women, rather than ignoring them and then inexplicably complaining that they're nowhere to be found.

November 9, 2010, 7:41 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink50 comments

Gender Desegregation Wednesdays

By Sarah Braasch

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

Kat and I were working on an English translation of a section of the French website for the women's rights organization, Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS – Neither Whores Nor Submissives). We were struggling with the word mixité. We toyed with "the mixing of the sexes". But, that sounded like one of those speed-dating events. We settled on "desegregation". But, then we included the antecedent "gender", to distinguish our meaning from the more common American connotation of racial desegregation. "Gender desegregation" does capture, in English, the intended meaning of the French word "mixité". But, we were left somewhat dissatisfied. NPNS uses mixité as the last in a three-word chant representing the three ideological pillars of their movement. Laicité, Egalité, Mixité. Gender desegregation doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

As I plowed away, I came to an expression that made me roar aloud with laughter. Kat demanded to know the cause of my apparent mirth. As often occurs in such situations, a painfully literal translation had tickled my funny bone. It just sounded so weird and precious in English. I had translated "Mercredis de la Mixité" as "Gender Desegregation Wednesdays". When I told Kat, she laughed too. Then, we both laughed. Then, we laughed so hard we cried. It was one of those irreplaceable and singular moments of cosmic comic connection, otherwise known as, "you had to be there". It's ok if you don't get it.

But, then, after we had finally stopped laughing, we had a serious conversation about our reaction to my lacking translating skills. Obviously, it was the combination of the ostensibly esoteric with the ostensibly quotidian, like Theosophy Thursdays. But, why did "gender desegregation" sound so academic, so arcane, so removed from the populist vernacular that it incited uproarious laughter when "racial desegregation" or just "desegregation" does not?

Racial equality has been cemented as an indispensable ideological pillar of liberal, constitutional democracy while women continue to struggle for full recognition as human beings and as citizens. While religious justifications for racism are considered barbaric and archaic notions of yesteryear and beyond the pale for a modern, civilized society, religion remains the foremost obstacle thwarting women's aspirations to humanity and citizenship.

The evolution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (popularly known as the LDS or Mormon Church) during recent decades illustrates this point perfectly. The Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) Church broke away from the main sect of "Saints", because they refused to give up polygamy (so-called celestial plural marriage) as a central tenet of the Mormon doctrine, among other complaints.

Imagine, for a moment, an even more strident version of the FLDS Church. Let's call them the Super Fundie Latter Day Saints (SFLDS) Church. Imagine this SFLDS Church breaking away from their Mormon brethren, because they refuse to give up racism as a central tenet of the Mormon doctrine.

If you question whether either or both polygamy and racism were, have been or are foundational tenets of the Mormon doctrine, I invite you to peruse the LDS Church's own literature on their own website. It's quite eye-opening. Copious documentation indicates that generations of Mormons were taught that dark skin is a curse from God, as well as evidence of a less than entirely virtuous pre-human existence, serving to justify everything from racial slavery and segregation and discrimination to Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws. Only public outcry and condemnation and boycott, rising dissent among the rank and file, and the risk of losing federal funding for BYU's students provoked Jehovah into revealing a doctrinal change to the church leadership in 1978.

But, back to our imaginary Super Fundie LDS Church that is incensed with the original LDS Church for abandoning the foundational doctrinal tenet of racism. Imagine that this Super Fundie Mormon sect decides that the best way for it to propagate its originalist vision of Jehovah's intentions for mankind is to adopt as many black babies as possible. The goal of the program is two-fold. It will give these decrepit black souls an opportunity to redeem themselves while in their human incarnations, hopefully with the added bonus of turning their putrid black skins white. And, the black babies will be brainwashed into submitting to their divinely ordained, sub-human status, thereby furthering God's plan for differentiating amongst his creations, according to moral uprightness, by segregating them by race and geography.

Turns your stomach, doesn't it? Strikes you as pretty much the most disgusting, despicable agenda ever, doesn't it?

It was real. This actually happened, or something very similar. Except that black kids weren't the targets. Native American kids were. And, it took place during the latter half of the immediately preceding century.

It was called the Indian Student Placement Program. Mormon families took in thousands of Native American kids and brainwashed them into believing that they were the cursed Lamanites, the black sheep descendants of ancient Middle Eastern Jews. The program's creator and leader, Spencer W. Kimball, former President of the LDS Church, once bragged about the program participants' complexions turning noticeably whiter, as evidence of their having left savagery behind for a Mormon life and salvation.

Do you know what is even more disgusting and despicable? This is still happening. Every day. All over the US. Right now. To women and girls.

All over the US, in religious communities and families, women and girls are being brainwashed into believing that they are sub-human, meant only to obey and serve the men in their lives, meant only to birth and raise more adherents. They are brainwashed into believing that they are the sexual and reproductive chattel of their families and communities. They are brainwashed into believing that they will either submit to God's divinely ordained plan and subject themselves to sub-human treatment, or face dire consequences in the here now, the hereafter, or both.

How do I know? Because, it happened to me. I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness. I was raised to believe that men dictate the lives of women, because women are inferior by design, by God's design.

If it isn't ok to adopt an African American or Native American baby and raise it to believe that it is sub-human on account of its race, why is it ok to take a girl baby and raise her to believe that she is sub-human on account of her gender? I don't care if you birthed her yourself. Your children are not your property to abuse as you please. They are human beings with rights.

How do they get away with this? By claiming this blatant abuse as a religious liberty. We don't let them get away with that anymore with respect to race, but we still let them get away with it with respect to gender. At least, according to Spencer Kimball, the dark-skinned kids can grow lighter as they grow more virtuous. But, what about the poor girls? No matter how much a little Mormon girl prays for her clitoris to grow into a penis, I'm guessing that wasn't part of God's plan. Instead of being so concerned with gay couples adopting and raising children, maybe we should be scrutinizing Christian Fundies who want to adopt girl children and raise them as sex slaves.

Where is the public outcry and condemnation and dissent and government response for gender segregation and slavery as exists for racial segregation and slavery?

Nothing exemplifies this cognitive dissonance as well as the global uproar over public burqa / niqab bans. In the U.S., it is far easier to craft a legal argument against the burqa / niqab as a simple safety measure and general prohibition against identity obscuring masks in the public space than it is to even begin to speak about addressing the ban as a women's rights provision, as an affirmative action provision, as a gender equality provision, as a prohibition on gender segregation in the public space, or as a prohibition on gender slavery in the public space.

Why? Because everyone is ready to bend over backwards to defend the burqa / niqab as the free expression of religious liberty. Because religious liberty still trumps women's human and civil rights in American jurisprudence. Because we still view women as the sexual and reproductive chattel of their families and communities.

History repeats itself. Again and again and again. How quickly one forgets the Civil Rights Era. It boggles the mind how no one seems to realize that we already had this argument. But, it was about race. First, it was about slavery and then it was about segregation. And the opponents of progress and democracy made all of the same arguments. They denounced the Civil Rights Act as the federal government overstepping its constitutional bounds by regulating the behavior of private citizens in the public space. They said that the federal government was trampling on the First Amendment rights of US citizens. And, the proponents of progress and democracy made the same arguments. They said that separate never equals equal. They said that a liberal, constitutional democracy cannot sustain itself with a substantial portion of its citizenry disenfranchised and debased.

Recently, Rand Paul appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show. Rachel Maddow was shocked and aghast at Rand Paul's seeming suggestion that the portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that touched upon the behavior of private citizens in the public space should never have been.

Rachel was eloquent when she replied, "The Civil Rights Act was the federal government stepping in to protect civil rights, because they weren't otherwise being protected. It wasn't a hypothetical. There were businesses that were saying black people can not be served here. And, the federal government stepped in and said no, you actually don't have that choice to make. The federal government is coming in and saying you can't make that choice as a business owner."

You don't get to make that choice, even if you are a member of the persecuted minority, and you want to segregate yourself from the persecuting majority. We are not going to allow racial segregation. We would no more allow a black owned restaurant to refuse to serve white patrons than we would a white owned restaurant to refuse to serve black patrons.

Why shouldn't you be able to segregate yourself? Segregation is not a choice you get to make in the public space of a secular, democratic republic. Segregation is the antithesis of democracy. Segregation is the antithesis of human rights. Segregation is the antithesis of equality. Segregation is the antithesis of equal protection. Separate but equal does not exist. I thought we already arrived at that conclusion in the US with Brown v. Board of Education.

What about the freedom of association? This is not about forcing people to be friends or lovers or cohorts of whatever variety. The woman in the burqa in public is not the black woman with her black friends entering a white owned store. She is the white storeowner putting up a "no blacks allowed" sign in her store window. She is saying, "I demand the right to participate in society fully, but I also demand the right to discriminate regarding with whom I will interact, with whom I will engage in the public space. I demand the right to treat other human beings and other citizens in a discriminatory fashion. I demand the right not to acknowledge the humanity of the other citizens in the public space while I also demand that they acknowledge my humanity."

This is unacceptable in a liberal, constitutional democracy. We must not tolerate gender segregation in our public space, even in the pursuit of religious liberty. It matters not if the "choice" to segregate oneself was coerced or no. It matters not if the woman wearing the burqa is a victim or no. We simply cannot tolerate gender segregation any more than we can tolerate racial segregation. Public segregation is not a choice you get to make.

This is not treating women like hapless and helpless victims, unable to choose their own style of dress. The anti-burqa ban argument is not only condescending to women, it is also contradictory. It is saying that women can and do and should be able to choose gender segregation and slavery of their own accord and volition, but that they may not be held accountable for the choices they make. Talk about having your cake and eating it too. If you can "choose" slavery, then you can be held accountable for choosing slavery.

Undoubtedly, the Civil Rights Act relied upon the Commerce Clause. While the Commerce Clause has been interpreted in an incredibly expansive manner, the Supreme Court has been narrowing the scope of this interpretation as of late. The questionable nature of applying the Commerce Clause to implement federal civil rights legislation could be avoided if we brought back the Privileges and Immunities Clause. But, regardless of the constitutional basis, our federal government acted to end racial segregation in the public sphere by regulating the conduct of private citizens in the public space. Is it really such a stretch to jump from racial segregation in public accommodations to gender segregation in the public space? I think you could make an even stronger argument that gender segregation in the public space impedes interstate commerce in the aggregate than you are able to make regarding racial segregation in public accommodations.

The fully integrated veil (the burqa or niqab) is more than segregation; it is effacement; it is dehumanization. It is slavery. This is not about morality. Morality has no place in the law. Desegregation, either racial or gender, is not the moral choice. It has nothing to do with morality. It has everything to do with democracy.

It is an issue of democratic representation and power distribution. It is the same issue that inspired the framers of the Constitution to separate powers within a tripartite federal government to create a system of checks and balances and to leave the balance of power in the hands of the states and the People. If any one class or group or entity has too much power, discrimination and oppression are quick to follow. This is why diversity is a compelling government interest. This is what makes affirmative action policies possible. Gender equality and desegregation should be every bit as compelling a government interest as diversity.

Per the current state of American jurisprudence, religious liberty trumps women's rights. This is a violation of the Establishment Clause. This is a violation of international human rights law. This is a violation of the principle of secularism. This places our liberal constitutional democracy in jeopardy. This is why we need the Equal Rights Amendment. Racial equality has had its constitutional moment, and now we need to enshrine gender equality in our Constitution in the same way.

I am a human being, not a whore, even if Jehovah or Allah or Yahweh or Jesus or Krishna or Mohammed or Buddha or Confucius or Rael says otherwise.

Maybe one day Gender Desegregation Wednesdays won't sound so absurd anymore.

We can dream.

September 9, 2010, 5:52 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink115 comments

Creeping Fundamentalism in Israel

Israel, like America, is a modern secular democracy with a noisy religious minority that desires the creation of a theocracy. And as in America, religious fundamentalists in Israel exert political influence disproportionate to their numbers. But Israel's fundamentalist minority, the ultra-Orthodox or haredi Jews, have had some worrying successes lately in imposing their vision on the country.

First, there's this article, about the construction of a light rail in Jerusalem. Yair Naveh, the CEO of the transit company, is proposing that some cars on every train should be "kosher cars", reserved for the use of the ultra-Orthodox and segregated by gender as their sexist laws demand. (There are already bus lines serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in which women are forced to sit at the back, but that isn't enough for haredi men who are too holy to have to come in contact with women.)

The ultra-Orthodox are fighting for segregation not just on public transportation, but everywhere else as well. Witness this story about a religious court which sentenced an Israeli singer, Erez Yechiel, to a symbolic "whipping" for performing before a mixed-gender audience. This quote from the article says it all:

Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak, who heads the Shofar organization for the distribution of Judaism, has been waging a war against religious singers who perform to an integrated audience of both men and women...

At least for now, this court had no legal authority; the singer submitted himself to its judgment voluntarily. (Why he did that, I have no idea - probably because of the widespread delusion that members of the clergy have some unique moral wisdom, when their bigoted and sexist actions show that, if anything, the opposite is true.) But history shows that religious groups which have the opportunity to enact their beliefs into law rarely pass up the opportunity - and one could be forgiven for wondering, if these rabbis had the power, whether those floggings would always be symbolic.

And the power of the ultra-Orthodox may soon be much more than symbolic, depending on this bill currently being debated in Israel's parliament. It would grant authority to Israel's ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate to recognize or deny conversions to Judaism, effectively invalidating all conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis. Since conversion to Judaism grants Israeli citizenship, this would be a very significant matter in determining who can be a citizen of Israel. It would potentially give the ultra-Orthodox a major advantage in elections, granting them the power to deny citizenship to more liberal Jews who might disagree with their views.

But as hard as they fight to gain control of the Israeli state, the fundamentalists contribute little to its upkeep. As many as two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox men don't work - they do nothing but study the Torah and get welfare payments from the government to do so. In effect, they expect liberal and moderate Jews to work to support them, even as they lobby to take away the liberals' rights. And the justification one of them offers for this is laughable:

"Some people drive a taxi, others pray," said Robert Zwirn, 63, a former doctor from Brooklyn who moved to Israel 20 years ago and gradually gave up his practice to adopt an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. "But the Messiah won't come on the merit of you driving a taxi. It will be on the merit of our prayer."

Because of the delusion that endless prayer and scripture study will bring about the messianic age, these people have convinced themselves that their selfishness is actually a good deed - that they have the right to free-ride off society, taking its resources without giving anything back in return. It's the same delusion, that they're the future saviors of the world, that inspires all their other theocratic demands.

September 6, 2010, 7:58 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink45 comments

Why Atheists Should Be Feminists

I've been writing since the beginning of Daylight Atheism about the unique ways that religion harms women. Although men have also suffered innumerable harms from religious beliefs, they're not singled out, treated as an underclass uniquely deserving of condemnation, the way that women are in almost every major religion's sacred texts. That's why I wrote in posts like 2006's "Religion's Harm to Women":

There is only one realistic way to end religion's harm to women, and that is to cut it off at the source: every feminist should be an atheist.

I still stand by this. But over the past year, I've come to the realization that, if we're ever going to make progress rolling back the advance of fundamentalism, this equation also has to flow in the opposite direction.

The feminist cause has made enormous strides over the past century, both in law and in fact, but we have to face up to the fact that our society is still far from true equality for men and women. There's still a persistent pay gap between men and women, and CEOs and other captains of industry are overwhelmingly male. Women are still judged on their appearance to an enormously greater extent than is true for men, and rewarded to the extent for which they're willing to conform and act accordingly. And then there are the direct threats to women's health and lives, including forced prostitution, domestic violence, honor killings, genital mutilation and rape, which are persistent in the West and endemic in the developing world.

And as atheists, we ought to have a particularly easy time recognizing the harm done to women in the name of God. Since our vision isn't clouded by theological biases that excuse sexist treatment as God's ineffable will, we can see the systematic degradation of women in the world's religions: barring women from positions of authority, forcing them to wear dehumanizing clothing, teaching that their proper role is to obey men, and more.

But for all that, the atheist community isn't completely free of sexism either. There's still too much tolerance of sexist insults, in a way that would never be countenanced for racist or homophobic language. There are still too many notable instances of women being demeaned as less intelligent or less capable of skepticism than men, or in some other way inferior. And then, of course, there are the atheists who are just flat-out stupid bigots, like this one who thinks that the only reason women wanted the right to vote was so they could take away men's right to drink:

Feminism has its roots in the Suffrage movement, which was a movement of radical Christian women who thought that giving women the right to vote was a necessary step in removing men's ability to buy alcohol.

All these things individually may seem subtle or trivial, not worth our time to address. But the overall consequences are obvious and readily visible: the atheist movement has a significant imbalance of men, and the most prominent and visible atheists - the ones who get the lion's share of media attention, the ones who are most often assumed to represent atheism as a whole - are all men. As Greta Christina says, when a situation like this arises, it's almost never an accident.

And there are plenty of people who've noticed this, even if they're not completely clear on the causes. Consider columns like this one, from Sarah McKenzie, calling for greater female participation in the atheist movement (HT: the always-incisive Ophelia Benson). Most of the column is excellent, but where I think she goes astray is this:

After all, girls are taught to be sensitive and emotional, to not cause trouble or be particularly forthright with their opinions. Women who dare to be aggressive or outspoken are often labelled as hysterical harpies, not worthy of being listened to and impossible to take seriously. We should hardly be surprised that some women might be reluctant to come out as atheists.

While I agree that women are underrepresented among prominent atheists, I don't think it's the case that it's because women are put off by confrontational skepticism (though her point about women being attacked for being outspoken is well-taken). Rather, I think it's because there is sexism, and tolerance of sexism, in the atheist community, to a greater degree than I'd like to admit - and women are quite capable of sensing that. It's small wonder that they don't always feel welcome. And what makes it worse is that this problem is self-perpetuating: often, men who notice this gender gap assume it to have some biological basis, as if women were "naturally" more prone to be religious than men - and this kind of baseless, unfounded just-so story exacerbates the problem still further.

This, of course, isn't to say that there are no female atheists. There are many - I've linked to some of them in just this post - and they span the spectrum from peaceful and nurturing to assertive and ass-kicking. It's not as if would-be female atheists are lacking for worthy role models. But more needs to be done, which is why I believe that atheists need to be feminists, both within our own community and in the wider world. We need to learn to recognize sexism, both overt and subtle, and to call it out wherever it appears. We have to be more diligent in recognizing and promoting the contributions of female freethinkers. And most importantly, we need to stop tolerating those among us who make ignorant remarks that stigmatize women and discourage them from participating.

The diversity of the atheist movement is its greatest strength. There will never be a council of elders or an infallible text dictating what atheists must believe, nor would I want there to be. But I think the atheist community can and should act collectively, by unanimous consent, to make it clear to sexists and other bigots that they are not welcome and that we don't want them associated with us - similar to the way Larry Darby was collectively cast out after he revealed his racist, Holocaust-denying beliefs. We should do this not because it's a decree imposed on us from above, but because we all recognize, using our own reason and best sense, that it's the right thing to do, and that we stand to gain many more friends and allies than we stand to lose.

August 20, 2010, 5:51 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink135 comments

Ensuring Access to Abortion

As a neutral observer of religion, one of the most striking characteristics I find is the rampant misogyny in nearly every religion in the world. Worldwide, women are denigrated as lesser beings, barred from positions of leadership, commanded to be subservient, and told that they're weaker or more sinful than men. Even in the relatively few religions where women play a significant role, it tends to be a late-arising development brought about by modern moral progress. By comparison, just consider how many major world religions clearly state in their founding documents that women and men are equal (can you think of any?). Why is the hatred and oppression of women such a common thread, even in faiths that otherwise have nothing in common?

In the wake of some recent discussions about feminism, I had an inspiration, and I'd like to share it: it's rooted in how religion propagates itself.

Despite the evangelistic efforts of some faiths, it's clear that the primary vector of religious memes is vertical, from parents to children. And conservative religious leaders know very well that women hold the key to that effort. Given the choice, most women limit the size of their families, but it's not in the best interests of religious authorities to allow that. Hence, all their misogynist rhetoric, demands for female subservience, opposition to sex education and contraception, and alloting sole authority over sex to men (who, it has to be said, have far less at stake): all part of a strategy to ensure that women don't exercise control over when or whether to have children.

This suggests a counterstrategy: to advance the atheist cause and stop the spread of religions that seek to grow by proliferation, we have to work to ensure that women have access to contraception, abortion and other reproductive health services. And for that reason, I was very pleased to read this article about a massive charitable gift by Warren Buffett:

Last year, The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, named for Buffett's first wife, who died in 2005, gave more than $2 million each to Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Abortion Access Project Inc. and Washington-based Catholics for Choice and more than $40 million to Ipas, which works to expand the availability of safe abortions and provides reproductive health care.

There's also this encouraging article, "The New Abortion Providers". It details how doctors' groups are making a greater effort to train abortion providers and bring them into the medical mainstream, while anti-choice activists' attempts to intimidate and harass doctors are meeting with less success than they used to. There's an important point in it that clinics which only offer family planning services are easy for zealots to target, whereas if abortion care is brought into hospitals and performed like any other procedure, it makes it much more difficult for them.

And besides charitable gifts and support from the medical profession, there's one more very effective way we can give women control over their own reproductive destinies: make it possible for women to abort a pregnancy themselves, without having to travel or find a cooperative doctor or clinic. That's why I was greatly encouraged to read this column by Nicholas Kristof about the increasing use of misopristol, a cheap, common drug used to treat ulcers and hemorrhaging. It's one component of the RU-486 pill, but it's almost as effective at terminating pregnancy if taken on its own. It also causes a miscarriage indistinguishable from a natural one, which is crucial in countries whose theocratic laws punish women who are found to have exerted control over their own biology.

Unfortunately, there are still such countries. One of them is the Philippines, whose laws are largely dictated by the Catholic church. Abortion is outlawed there without exception, with the following result:

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, more than half a million Filipino women undergo illegal abortions every year. Of this number, 90,000 suffer complications, and a thousand eventually die, the center said. Abortion-related complications, it said, are one of the top 10 causes of hospitalization among women in the Philippines. According to the World Health Organization, 20 percent of maternal deaths in the country are a result of unsafe abortions.

It's often observed, but still indisputably true: outlawing abortion doesn't prevent abortion, it just makes women more likely to die or be maimed in the bargain. As in many other countries around the world, Filipino women's lives are being sacrificed on the altar of Catholic dogma, their bodies treated as breeding stock to produce more children for the church. Atheists and freethinkers have every reason to stand against this - to reduce the power of a tyrannical religion, to promote human happiness by ensuring that every child is wanted, and to defend human liberty. But if we're ever going to succeed, we need to build alliances with all women and treat them as full and equal partners in the effort, capable of exercising autonomy over their bodies and minds alike.

August 6, 2010, 5:47 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink110 comments

The Bechdel Test for Religion

If you're an informed observer of media, you may have heard of the so-called Bechdel test, popularized by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, that's used to judge the female-friendliness of movies and other media. For a movie to pass this test, it has to have:

(1) two or more female characters;
(2) who talk to each other;
(3) about something other than a man.

Despite this being such a low hurdle - it doesn't establish that the movie is in any way feminist, merely that it treats women as something more than an appendage or love interest of the male characters - it's amazing how many movies fail it. And once you're aware of this test, it's easy to notice when a movie doesn't pass. This makes it a classic example of consciousness-raising: it highlights Hollywood's tendency to create movies where women exist only in relation to men and not as individuals in their own right.

This is such a useful way of highlighting bias, I think it's worth creating a similar test for religion, to help believers notice sexism in their churches they might have overlooked. My suggestion is as follows. For a religion to pass this test, it has to have:

(1) at least one woman in a position of authority;
(2) who plays a formal, recognized role in shaping doctrine or practice;
(3) that is binding on male members of that religion.

Let me further explain the meaning of these tests. The first asks whether a religion has any roles of authority - any official position within the church that carries power - that are open to women, or whether female members are restricted to being lay members with no power. The second asks whether that authoritative role confers any power to actually define what will be the canonical elements of that religion - to issue decrees, to define the correct interpretation of holy books, to vote on church reforms, to shape official practice - and the like, or whether the only duties of that position are to passively transmit preexisting ideas. If women do have such authoritative roles, the third test asks whether they can set doctrine that applies to men who are members of that religion, or whether their decisions apply only to other women.

If a religion categorically excludes women from all positions of authority, it fails. If it gives women positions of authority, but only so that they can teach and pass on doctrine created by men, it fails. If it permits women to create doctrine, but doctrine that's only applicable to other women, it fails.

For instance, Islam, as it's currently practiced throughout most of the world, fails at the first criterion; women aren't permitted to be imams or to issue fatwas, or to do much of anything other than obey the dictates of men. The same is true of Mormonism, which deliberately bars women from its priesthood, of the Southern Baptists, and of Orthodox Judaism.

Roman Catholicism fails at the second criterion; it permits women to be nuns, thus passing the first test (if only barely). But cardinals, bishops and ultimately the Pope, the only church officials who can define what's authoritative in matters of belief and practice for Catholics, can only be men.

The conservative Anglicans currently threatening to break away from the rest of their church, meanwhile, would arguably fail at the third test. They wanted to permit women to be bishops only on the condition that a separate order of male-only bishops be created to minister to their congregations. This would imply that no male Anglican could be subject to a female bishop if he didn't want to be.

As with the Bechdel test, the mere fact that a religion passes this test doesn't mean that it's a feminist or egalitarian religion. It could still be appallingly sexist. It could still have rules that treat women as inferior to men. And it could still be harmful in any number of other ways. But I would argue that this test is the bare minimum - the first necessary, but not sufficient, step for any religion to genuinely treat women as equals.

July 26, 2010, 5:52 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink49 comments

Anarchy in the U.K.: The Anglican Crackup Continues

I've written before about the ongoing schism within the Episcopal church, but those posts only concerned the goings-on in America. Now that battle has spread across the Atlantic and into the heart of Anglicanism, and it's looking more and more likely that the church will be cloven in two at its roots. As reported by the Telegraph, the Anglican General Synod has rejected a last-ditch compromise brokered by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and nominal head of the Anglican church, to prevent conservative members from breaking away.

Conservative and evangelical Anglican sects have been growing increasingly angered by the appointment of women and gay men to be bishops. They exerted their muscle last week to block the promotion of Jeffrey John, a gay man, to the post of Bishop of Southwark. But the conservatives weren't satisfied with that victory - in fact, as is usual with the religious right, it only led them to make further demands.

The conservative faction of Anglicans don't like women serving as bishops, and they especially don't like being subordinate to women bishops. What they wanted was, in effect, religious apartheid - a certain number of bishop positions reserved for men, with the assurance that conservative congregations wouldn't have to report to or deal with a female bishop if they didn't want to. Rowan Williams backed the proposal - though a liberal himself, he's apparently willing to compromise with bigots, as is also shown by his revolting remarks on sharia law. But the larger Anglican Communion wouldn't go along with the deal, and in a shock vote, Williams' proposal was defeated by a narrow margin.

What's next? The likely result of the vote is that hundreds of conservative clergy and parishes will split off from the Anglican Communion, defecting to the Roman Catholic church, which has offered to accept them and their prejudices with open arms (no surprise there). Personally, I don't see why the liberal Anglicans are going to such effort to keep them. Why would you want to share a church with a bunch of bigots?

If I were a liberal Anglican, I'd not only be welcoming the conservatives' exit, I'd be encouraging them. Yes, they'll diminish the church's numbers and prestige; yes, the money they contributed will be lost. But are those the most important things? This ridiculous effort to preserve unity at any cost, even if it means coddling the feelings of homophobes and misogynists, suggests that the Anglicans aren't ready to move into the 21st century after all. I say to them, kick the bigots out and move on with your lives! Show the world that you really value justice and equality. And while you're at it, you might want to consider reevaluating that book that gave them those ideas in the first place. Get rid of that, and you'd really have a religion worth believing in!

July 14, 2010, 5:51 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink13 comments

Simo Says

By Sarah Braasch

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

The other night I fled for my life. I fled a brawl in Paris. No, I didn't get entangled in a drunken bar fight. Again. Actually, I was in an elementary school.

Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS – Neither Whores Nor Submissives), the women's rights organization in Paris where I have been working as a human rights fellow, organized a public debate on the issue of the anticipated public burqa ban in France. The French Parliament is in the process of enacting a public ban on identity obscuring face coverings in France, which would include both the burqa (the all encompassing body covering) and the niqab (the face covering that leaves a slit for the eyes). The debate over the ban has embroiled all of France, and all of Europe, for that matter, in a battle over the role of religion in both government and public life in a democratic republic that espouses a strict secularism as the only foundation for equality amongst its citizens, including gender equality.

We chose a location, Montreuil, which is an inner ring suburb of Paris with a diverse population. We showered the local community with flyers and volunteers, engaging the inhabitants and inviting them to participate in the debate, both those in favor and those opposed to the ban. The goal was to have a real and meaningful exchange of ideas and opinions. Local community leaders and politicians were on the docket, as well as women's rights activists, such as Lubna Al Hussein, the Sudanese journalist who faced 40 lashings of the whip for wearing pants in Khartoum, and Sihem Habchi, the current President of Ni Putes Ni Soumises. Ni Putes Ni Soumises has, since its inception, made a point of holding open, public debates and panel discussions in the heart of the cités and quartiers of France (the ghettoized suburban housing projects surrounding France's major cities, which are primarily composed of marginalized Muslim immigrant communities).

I was absolutely heartbroken by the way in which the evening unfolded. It confirmed many of my worst fears about the fate of humanity and the utter incompatibility of religion and the survival of our species.

One of the women's rights activists would get up to speak. He or she would speak about secularism and gender equality and gender desegregation as the foundational pillars of a safe and egalitarian public space in which all citizens enjoy equal rights and equal protection under the law in a democratic republic.

Then, one of the Islamists would respond by telling us what Mohammed said or did as was recorded in the Quran or the Hadith and how wonderful Islam is for women, because it gives them rights according to their differentness. And, sum up with a lovely comment about how Jews are pigs or something or other and the speaker is an anti-immigrant racist who hates Muslims and is in league with the Zionists.

Then, a veiled woman would tell us that she is afraid of being attacked by Christian and Atheist Frenchmen, and that she thinks French society is disgusting because women wear thongs and Christie's auctioned off a portrait of Carla Bruni.

Then one of the secularists would state that any discussion of Islam is completely irrelevant and that anti-Semitic slurs will not be tolerated.

And, then someone would lunge at someone else.

One of the elected officials would get up to speak. He or she would speak about secularism and gender equality and gender desegregation as the foundational pillars of a safe and egalitarian public space in which all citizens enjoy equal rights and equal protection under the law in a democratic republic.

Then, one of the Islamists would respond by telling us what Mohammed said or did as was recorded in the Quran or the Hadith and how wonderful Islam is for women, because it gives them rights according to their differentness. And, sum up with a lovely comment about how Jews are pigs or something or other and the speaker is an anti-immigrant racist who hates Muslims and is in league with the Zionists.

Then, a veiled woman would tell us that she really likes being the property of her husband, because that's what Allah commands, and no one can tell her that she shouldn't be a slave.

Then one of the secularists would state that any discussion of Islam is completely irrelevant and that anti-Semitic slurs will not be tolerated.

And, then someone would lunge at someone else.

And, so on and so forth.

Eventually the situation became scary enough that the police were called and the debate halted. At one point, my mammalian survival instinct usurped control of my bodily functions, and without a second thought, I fled the premises. I made a beeline for the nearest exit, and I wasn't the only one. Once outside, I turned back to peer in through a window to see what was transpiring. I was standing alongside a woman in hijab, and we both turned to look at each other. Without speaking a word, our faces communicated what we both were thinking, "These mofos are crazy."

It was truly an exasperating, disheartening experience. I literally walked out of that truncated debate thinking, "We're doomed. It's all over. Don't bother. Instead of just metaphorically drinking the Koolaid, we should all just go ahead and literally drink the Koolaid."

Did the Islamists really expect the secularists to acquiesce after a little Quranic exegesis? Oh, ok, well if Mohammed said it or did it, I guess that settles that.

Refusal to consider the religious viewpoint in the context of secular, democratic governance is not bigotry; it is not racism; it is not intolerance. It is common sense. This is why freedom from religion IS freedom of religion. How would you even begin to prioritize the litany of religious opinions on even a single subject? The only results would be either tyranny or anarchy. Do you think the participants in that room would tolerate being lectured on the tenets of Judaism? Of Christianity? Do you think they would say, "Oh, ok, well if Moses or Jesus said it or did it, then I guess that's the way it has to be"?

Islamists are called Islamists for a reason. They really do want to impose Sharia upon the societies in which they reside, and not only upon the Muslim populations within those societies. For them, there is no compromise. There is no other viewpoint worth considering, other than the Islamic viewpoint.

This is the result of brainwashing and indoctrinating and inculcating in religious cults. These people were incapable, quite literally incapable of allowing for a society structured on any other principles than those enumerated in the Quran and the Hadith. It was simply inconceivable to them that someone would not accept and conform to the example of the Prophet. Their brains were hardwired for Islam. All neural networks were devoted to Islam. All synapses were firing for Islam. The notion of the irrelevancy of Islam to the conversation about good democratic governance left them without an argument. They didn't know how to respond. In their desperation to respond to such a blasphemous suggestion, they short-circuited and the unspent energy exerted itself in eruptions of violence. It was scary. Quite simply – it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. Not because of the violence, but, because of the futility of the exercise. For that debate to have actually taken place, in any sort of realistic, credible, viable manner, years of religious deprogramming of all participants would have had to occur first.

I know some, even many, will say that religion is not the problem; fundamentalism is the problem, or fanaticism is the problem. I think this argument is asinine.

Imagine a society in which we brainwash all children to believe that they can fly. From the moment they are born, all children are taught that, if they jump off any sufficiently high precipice, and they are worthy and morally sound, they will be able to flap their arms and take flight, saving themselves from a deathly plunge. With the modernization of society, many parents have ceased to inculcate their children in this belief, having realized its fallacy. And, of those who persist in perpetuating the custom, most reveal the hoax to their children before they are old enough to test its claims. Others have reformed the tradition, advising their children that they best not attempt to test the belief, given that few are so worthy. But, regardless of the claims of modernity, the custom persists, and, as young adults, a certain percentage of our youth attempt just such an act, resulting in many needless deaths.

Now, imagine that the purveyors of this custom defend the practice by claiming that the problem is not that they brainwash their children into believing that they can fly; the problem is that a certain percentage of these children believe it. The problem is that a certain percentage of these children grow into adults who persist on believing it. The problem is the fundamentalists and the fanatics who refuse to reveal the hoax or admonish their children against attempting flight. The belief simply needs to undergo a reformation, an enlightenment, if you will. A moderate version of the belief is acceptable in a modern society, and even compatible with science.

I acknowledge that I work with many wonderful Muslim women who claim their religion and the right to interpret their religion for themselves, who strive on behalf of secularism and gender equality and gender desegregation. We are able to work together in harmony, regardless of our disparate views on religion, because we are both striving for the same goals: secularism, gender equality and gender desegregation.

Obviously, I think it is a waste of time to try to reform Islam into a gender-friendly, or, even, a gender-neutral doctrine. I think women would be better off rejecting religion all together. Trying to find a place for gender equality in the context of religion is like trying to find a place for racial equality in the context of Nazism. But, despite my abhorrence for religion, in a legal context, this is not my fight.

In a legal context, my fight is secularism. My fight is women's rights. The fight for secularism is NOT an act of aggression against religion. The fight for women's rights is NOT an act of aggression against religion. It might appear this way to religionists, because religion is the institutionalization of misogyny. But, the way in which secular, democratic governance appears to religionists could not be more beside the point. I hate religion. I fight against religion, but NOT in a legal context. But, in the open, public marketplace of ideas, as it should be. I would never support the criminalization of religion. Never. I just wish religionists would extend me the same favor.

After the debate, I found myself standing on the street guarding Lubna Al Hussein's luggage and the amp and chatting with Sihem Habchi. Someone who was obviously having trouble cooling off took a last lunge at Sihem. I was impressed by how quickly the police and security guards acted. They swooped in, scooping up Sihem and whisking her away behind a line of stern-faced police officers. Then I realized that no one had swooped in and scooped me up and whisked me away behind a line of stern-faced police officers. And, I was on the wrong side of that line of stern-faced police officers. I was on the side with all of the bearded and veiled Islamists who were having trouble cooling off. "What should I do?" I wondered. I tried to get rid of my scared face and affect an angry face instead.

It was an impossible situation, and a perfect metaphor – law and order standing between the secularists and the violent Islamists.

And, while I hate to be fatalistic, more and more I fear that, eventually, reason will lose out to faith to the downfall of humanity.

But, I'm not going down without a fight.

June 18, 2010, 5:47 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink28 comments

The Reform Against Nature

John Hartwig was the principal of a private elementary school run by the conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Last month, he was fired by a church council. The reasons for his dismissal are murky, but they appear to have something to do with this:

Hartwig's father, a former pastor, authored a document years ago questioning Lutheran doctrine that says women shall not have authority over men. Church members say Hartwig, who has been principal since the summer of 2003, was accused of distributing that document to some members of the congregation.

This interpretation is supported by what happened at the church meeting where Hartwig was fired. Over 300 people attended the meeting, many of them concerned parents who supported Hartwig, to voice their opinions - but not all of them got a chance to do so. By decree of the council president, none of the women who attended the meeting were permitted to vote or even to speak:

Women who wanted to ask questions at the meeting were told to write them on a piece of paper and have a man read them aloud. But some, including Hartwig's own daughter, said their questions were never read.

Doubtless, the church leaders got their inspiration from some of the more viciously sexist passages in the Bible commanding women to be silent and subservient to men. In particular, they were probably thinking of this one:

"Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church."

—1 Corinthians 14:34-35

Ironically, these verses may not have been part of the original text of the New Testament. As Bart Ehrman points out in Misquoting Jesus [p.183], we have several surviving NT manuscripts in which these verses are shuffled around: in some they appear after verse 33, in others they appear after verse 40. This is usually a dead giveaway that the verses in question were originally added as a marginal note by a scribe, then interpolated into the text by later copyists.

But whether they're original or not, it hardly matters. These verses are accepted as part of the canon, believed to be the inspired word of God by millions of Christians, and invoked - as they were invoked in Wisconsin last month - to justify disgusting and regressive bigotry against women. These verses still motivate millions who believe that women are unfit for authority, that their assigned role is to be subservient, that they should have no voice in the decisions of society.

How are we not past this? Since these verses were written, women have been heads of state, prime ministers, powerful diplomats, brave soldiers. They've excelled in law, medicine, business and literature. They've even been the heads of churches. Yet to the fundamentalists with their eyes tightly shut, none of this matters in the slightest. To their minds, morality has no relation to reality, and the success of women at governing is irrelevant to the question of whether women should govern.

Religion is to blame for preserving this unbroken thread of bigotry and sexism through the generations. In the 1500s, misogynists like John Knox wrote about why no woman should ever be permitted to hold any position of authority. In 1869, a preacher named Horace Bushnell wrote Women's Suffrage: The Reform Against Nature, arguing that women were "not created or called to govern":

What now is the general result to which we are brought by this review of the Scripture, but that women are out of place in the governing of men... there is clearly never a thought that women have a claim, on any score, to be set forward as campaigners in the state with men. The assertion of their political equality with men would have shocked any apostle, or other scripture writer, and an agitation by women, based on such equality, to secure the right of open contest with men for political office and power, would have been looked upon even as an offense against nature itself — an outrage on decency and order utterly abominable.

Such writings are doubtless why Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, "In the early days of woman-suffrage agitation, I saw that the greatest obstacle we had to overcome was the Bible. It was hurled at us on every side."

If there's any evidence at all that religious sexism is bowing to the tide of progress, it's this: Although many believers defend the unequal treatment of women, they seem embarrassed by it and are increasingly trying to argue that it's not motivated by prejudice or hatred. Consider this page from the evangelical site Got Questions?:

God has ordained that only men are to serve in positions of spiritual teaching authority in the church. This is not because men are necessarily better teachers, or because women are inferior or less intelligent (which is not the case). It is simply the way God designed the church to function. Men are to set the example in spiritual leadership — in their lives and through their words. Women are to take a less authoritative role. Women are encouraged to teach other women (Titus 2:3-5). The Bible also does not restrict women from teaching children. This does not make women less important, by any means, but rather gives them a ministry focus more in agreement with God’s plan and His gifting of them.

Got that? Men aren't better or smarter than women. It's just that God gives them different roles: men have all the leadership, the authority, and the power, and women stay home, make babies and do what men tell them. They're not unequal, just different! It's the exact same logic that was used by slaveholders to argue that Africans were ideally suited by God's design to be laborers and servants, while the superior Europeans were intended by God to rule the world.

As ridiculous as this argument is, the fact that they even feel compelled to make it shows that they're feeling the sting of embarrassment over their own beliefs. If women are just as intelligent as men, then why shouldn't they be allowed to teach men? Of course, these evangelicals close with the only answer that's available to people defending the irrational and the indefensible: "Because God said so!"

April 7, 2010, 5:41 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink33 comments

Book Review: Half the Sky

Summary: A wrenching chronicle of the injustices and preventable evils committed against women around the world. The bright spots are few and far between, but that should only instill readers with a greater sense of urgency to do something about all this. I felt intense pangs of conscience while reading this book; you probably will too.

In January, I reviewed Michelle Goldberg's book The Means of Reproduction. That was an outstanding work of consciousness-raising, one which enlightened me to the ways in which the success or failure of the atheist movement is bound up with the liberation of women from patriarchal religious traditions. Half the Sky, written by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, follows in the same vein and is a worthy companion to Goldberg's book. Its focus is broader - not just reproductive politics, but all the ways that the world's women experience violations of human rights. That makes it less a single, sustained argument and more a collection of stories, but its narrative force is undiminished for all that.

Kristof and WuDunn address three major areas in which women throughout the developing world still suffer from horrendous, yet wholly preventable, injustices. Those three are: sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence, including honor killings and rape as a weapon of war; and maternal mortality. Collectively, according to Nobel-winning economist (and atheist) Amartya Sen, these have resulted in the deaths of more than a hundred million women. As the authors write:

More girls are killed in this routine "gendercide" in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century. [p.xvii]

All these evils can be prevented or remedied, and in most cases, it would take only a small amount of attention and money from the wealthier nations of the world. Yet because the victims are poor, politically voiceless women of color, their sufferings tend to be ignored or marginalized as "women's issues" - even though, in nearly all cases, educating and empowering women is an effort that pays for itself many times over in terms of economic prosperity and social progress.

The first evil described by Kristof and WuDunn is one that readers may be surprised to learn still exists: slavery. In the past, slaves were used for labor, but many modern slaves are women coerced into work as prostitutes. Some are outright kidnapped; others are deceived by traffickers who promise to find them jobs, only to sell them to brothels. In either case, once they're there, the brothel owners use the same means to induce compliance: threats, beatings, torture, or forcing them to take meth or other drugs. In the rare cases where women escape and go to the police, the police often refuse to listen, or even send them back to the brothels. And since enslaved women obviously have no power to ask their customers to use condoms, many of them end up dying of AIDS. Estimates for the size of the modern slave trade are difficult to come by, but various sources estimate the number of slaves at between 1 and 10 million - many of them children.

Most atheists are aware of the practice of honor killing, where men in (mostly Muslim) societies murder their own wives and daughters for perceived immodesty. The following chapters discuss this as well as other forms of sexual violence: acid attacks, mass rape as a weapon of war, abduction and rape as a means of obtaining a wife, the routine abuse and beatings that women and girls suffer in many cultures, and female genital cutting, a barbaric practice disguised with the innocuous-sounding term of female circumcision. Awful as they are, many of these practices have resisted eradication because they're deeply entrenched in the culture. The authors interview women who agree that husbands have a right to beat their wives if they're disobedient, or older women who perpetuate the practice of female genital cutting on their own daughters, or girls who are rescued from slavery in brothels and then return to them willingly. None of this means that these practices can't be ended or that it's not worth the trouble to try, but, the authors argue, it does show the ineffectiveness of top-down diplomatic efforts that involve changing a country's laws and expecting all its people to follow suit. The authors argue that real social progress, for women and for everyone in developing countries, has to be done at the grassroots level by groups that have an intimate familiarity with local people and conditions on the ground.

The last of the three major issues is maternal mortality. In wealthy nations where C-sections are routine, hardly any women die in childbirth, but in countries lacking a medical infrastructure, death from obstructed labor is still a real and present danger. Even women who survive the ordeal can be scarred for life, such as in the case of fistula, a crippling injury that causes incontinence and paralysis. Fistulas are easily fixed with surgery, but if untreated, it often sentences women to a life of outcast misery. As the authors point out, however, this is not a hard problem to address. Sri Lanka, still a relatively poor country, has maternal mortality rates as low as many industrialized nations. What's needed isn't wealth per se, so much as the political will to confront the problem and to make real investments in clinics and women's health.

I don't mean to give the impression that Half the Sky is one long chronicle of misery. In every chapter there are bright spots, examples of women who've heroically defied religious and cultural oppression to fight for human rights and equality, as well as innovative charities and NGOs working to advance the cause of human equality in the poorest and most downtrodden corners of the world. One of the best examples was the story of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who was gang-raped as the result of a tribal dispute, and rather than commit suicide to cleanse her honor (the expected response of a woman in that situation) defied her attackers and her government and now runs a school for women and girls. Another is Zainab Salbi, who grew up in Saddam Hussein's Iraq and now runs a charity called Women for Women International which aids survivors of civil war and ethnic cleansing worldwide. Another cause for optimism is the fading of female genital cutting, which the authors confidently predict will be eradicated in the near future, just as the once-widespread Chinese practice of foot binding has all but disappeared. And one point I especially appreciated was that the closing chapter lists several immediate steps readers can take (I was happy to see that joining Kiva is one of them!).

If I have one major complaint, it's that the authors pull their punches when discussing religion. They repeatedly emphasize the good that religious charities have done in poor and rural areas (not an unfair point, I acknowledge). Yet they pass up countless opportunities to explain how religion contributes to these very problems: African evangelicals who burn condoms for Jesus, monasteries which teach that AIDS can be cured by drinking magical water, religions that encourage witch hunts and teach that the role of women is to be subservient to their husbands, American conservatives whose votes have resulted in the shutdown of life-saving family planning clinics and the teaching of ineffective abstinence programs throughout the Third World. Even the Vatican's deadly opposition to birth control is only mentioned in passing (they spend more space discussing a few brave Catholic priests who hand out condoms in defiance of Rome's orders).

To an extent I understand this decision, since they're clearly trying to build a coalition between left and right to address these issues and don't want to drive off any potential allies. But I think their argument is hampered by their refusal to face up to the real cause of the problems they're battling. I don't expect this book to be an atheist tract, yet it would be much stronger if the authors would clearly state even that some forms of religion are oppressive and brutal to women and should be abolished.

That said, Half the Sky is a powerful work of consciousness-raising. We citizens of the First World have by no means abolished sexism, yet women and girls here enjoy a level of freedom and autonomy that's light-years beyond the status of millions throughout the world. This is a huge accomplishment, but we can't forget how much remains to be done. There's a truly huge gulf that remains to be bridged, and this book gives a glimpse of how deep it runs - and, with luck, what we have to do to get to the other side.

March 22, 2010, 5:45 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink10 comments

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