Men Have Used Religion to Exert Control Over Women

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Below is an excerpt from "On Faith," an Internet feature sponsored by The Washington Post and Newsweek. Each week, more than 50 figures from the world of faith engage in a conversation about some aspect of religion. This week, panel members were asked: "Have women fared well or badly in the world's religions down through the ages? Why?"

Women have fared very badly, indeed, in religions throughout history is the short answer. Most large-scale religions, like most aspects of human culture, have been run by men, who have often used them to control and suppress women, in order to make sure that the sons who inherited their stuff were really their sons.

Religions have therefore regulated both women's procreation and women's right to own property. The two come together in the paranoid male obsession with female chastity, to ensure that male property would be inherited by male descendants.

On the other hand, religion on a local scale is also a place where women have often expressed their resistance, sometimes in their private rituals, which men called witchcraft, or by channeling the voices of angry goddesses.

Women's storytelling, too, and their religious artwork, often mocks men and tells us how women devised various ways -- the weapons of the weak and the arts of resistance -- to get around the dominant male traditions so that women could have their own way in many essential matters.

But the goddess feminists are whistling in the dark when they argue, first, that everyone used to worship goddesses (some people did, but many did not) and, second, that this was a Good Thing for women, indeed for everyone, their assumption being that women are more compassionate than men.

In fact, when men as well as women do worship goddesses, as they have done for centuries in many parts of India, the religious texts and rituals clearly express the male fear of female powers, and the male authors of those texts therefore make even greater efforts to control women, as if to say, "God help us all if these naturally powerful women get political power as well."

There is generally, therefore, an inverse ratio between the worship of goddesses and the granting of rights to human women. Nor are the goddesses by and large compassionate; they are generally a pretty bloodthirsty lot.

Goddesses are not the solution. Equal respect for human men and women is the solution.

-- Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade distinguished service professor of the history of religions, University of Chicago's Divinity School.

To see more "On Faith" online commentary, hosted by Jon Mecham and Sally Quinn, go to

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