Review of “Does God Hate Women?”

Does God Hate Women? is a 178-page tirade by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, editors of the atheist website Butterflies and Wheels, co-authors of A Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense and both senior editors on The Philosophers’ Magazine, on religious misogyny, with a particular focus on Muslims (more than on Islam, as we will see insha Allah). The book received a gushing review last week in the New Statesman by Johann Hari, who reproduced a few of the gut-wrenching anecdotes in the book and declared:

After all the arguments for subordinating women have been shown to be self-serving lies, what are misogynists left with? They have only one feeble argument that is still deferred to and shown undeserving respect across the world, even by people who should know better: “God told me to. I have to treat women as lesser beings, because it is inscribed in my Holy Book.”

Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom are the editors of Butterflies and Wheels, the best atheist site on the web. In Does God Hate Women? they forensically dismantle the last respectable misogyny. They argue: “What would otherwise look like stark bullying is very often made respectable and holy by a putative religious law or aphorism or scriptural quotation . . . They worship a God who is a male who gangs up with other males against women. They worship a thug.”

Another review, by Sholto Byrnes in the Independent, faults the authors for cherry-picking their evidence, failing to consider anything which might lead to a negative answer for their titular question, and “show[ing] no desire to go beyond name-calling and distortion”. I found the book to be spectacularly poorly argued and more reliant on emotion and opinion than logical argument.

It is quite obvious from very early in the book that the authors make little distinction between what religious people do and what their religion actually says; hence we get a chapter full of emotive anecdotes about young women being abducted and buried alive in Pakistan, allegedly for trying to elope to marry men of their choice rather than men chosen for them, Hindu women being cast out and rejected even by their own sons after being widowed, and women in fundamentalist Mormon communities in Arizona being forcibly married off to men with bad reputations at the direction of a “prophet”. The first of these stories will strike any Muslim as a clear example of anti-Islamic behaviour anyway, but its defenders did not refer to religion, but merely to “tribal traditions”, as the book acknowledges on page one.

A word on terminology: many readers, believers or otherwise, will not recognise the “God” being referred to. “God” in this book seems to be a personification of the worst extremes of religious behaviour, such as those they mention:

These religious authorities and conservative clerics worship a wretchedly cruel unjust vindictive executioner of a God. They worship a God of 10-year-old boys (sic), a God of playground bullies, a God of rapists, of gangs, of pimps.

They worship — despite rhetoric about justice and compassion and agapé — a God who sides with the strong against the weak, a God who cheers for privilege and punishes egalitarianism. They worship a God who is a male and who gangs up with other males against women. They worship a thug. (pp29-30)

All this is based on a few examples of injustice perpetrated against women by mostly ignorant religious fanatics: she attacks religion generally based on the example of cultists, ignorant peasants and vengeful fundamentalists. There are numerous obvious logical flaws in this “surgical dissection”, to paraphrase Nick Cohen (whose admiring quotes appear on the front and back of this book), as well as examples of ignorance about Islam, in particular, which my American readers might call sophomoric.

Conveniently overlooked distinctions I: Major religions versus tiny ones

Benson and Stangroom devote much of their book to attacking Islam. However, we get six pages of information on the history and the depredations of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, a small, cult-like sect which exists in a few colonies in the western USA and western Canada, notorious for the unbridled and exploitative polygamy of its leaders. It is a very extreme example and not at all typical even of closed religious communities or of polygamist religious communities. Besides, religion tends to police itself against these kinds of cults fairly quickly, at least disassociating themselves from, and condemning them, as heretics (in the case of Islam, the despotism of early false prophets like Musaylima is as well remembered as their heresy).

Conveniently overlooked distinctions II: Acts committed in obedience to religion and those committed in defiance of it

Pretty much any Muslim, and a fair number of others, including those hostile to Islam, can tell you that burying daughters alive was one of the top of the list of things the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) sought to do away with. Burying alive isn’t a penalty in Islam for anything that merits the death penalty. Eloping or otherwise going against one’s family’s wishes is not a capital offence in Islam. Rape doesn’t merit a 20-year jail sentence for the victim, nor is it necessary to prove rape with four male witnesses and the victim doesn’t get punished for adultery if she fails. Saving human life, including one’s own — let alone someone else’s — is more important than any religious duty, be it the prayer itself or covering a woman’s hair, so you don’t stop women fleeing a burning building without their hijabs. These are all instances of gross ignorance. There is a hadith in which a man with an injury feared that it would kill him if he took a bath, and asked a group of other men who told him that taking the bath was nevertheless compulsory; he took the bath, and died. When the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, heard about it, he said, “they have killed him — may Allah destroy them. They should have asked.” Bear in mind that they didn’t force him into the bath. In some cases, there seems to be a definite urge to be different from the West and to reject its notions of justice, and even to cause outrage in the west.

There is understandably a chapter on FGM, attempting to establish the possibility that religion might have played a role in spreading, or at least perpetuating, the practice. She attempts to refute the argument that, because most Muslims do not practise FGM and many non-Muslims do, that there is no link between Islam and FGM by comparing it to smoking and lung cancer: if you smoke, you are more likely to get lung cancer, but not all smokers get lung cancer and some non-smokers do (p140). However, this analogy holds only in as much as that there are two overlapping groups — Muslims and genitally mutilated women, smokers and lung-cancer sufferers — in each case. Smoking increases anybody’s risk of getting lung cancer; it is a matter of cause and effect. FGM is a custom which is spread across certain areas of Africa in which some people are Muslims and some are not; whether you experience it simply depends on which population you happen to be born into. If you are not African, you almost certainly will not undergo it.

The authors also completely ignore religious efforts to counteract it: it is established that Usuman Dan Fodio, a Muslim revivalist leader of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, preached against FGM in the areas of Niger and Nigeria where he was active, but in recent years the spread of anti-traditionalist, fundamentalist forms of Islam may have had a significant role in curtailing FGM among Somalis, particularly those in the diaspora. This is not a matter of academic research yet, but from the impression I have gained from speaking to individual Somali women, the practice is in drastic decline; there are significant numbers even in Somalia who disapprove of it (although they may be unable to stop others in their family from doing it), many young women have not had it done and nobody I have spoken to approved of or would continue it. This cannot entirely be put down to western influences, particularly given that FGM persisted through and beyond the period of British and Italian colonisation. We have also seen the emergence of an educated diaspora middle class, particularly of women; Somalis have been exposed to foreign Muslim influences and will have come to realise that most Muslim women do not undergo it.

Conveniently overlooked distinctions III: race and sex

There are a number of incidents in this book where it appears that a moral equivalence is drawn between sexism, or considering women to be different from men and better suited to domestic work and child-rearing, and racism and other forms of bigotry: for example:

Mainstream clerics no longer claim that blacks or Jews or foreigners or natives are fitted only for unskilled work. It is only women who are told that they are ‘naturally fitted’ to do one kind of work to the exclusion of all others. It is interesting to note that the first is no longer socially acceptable while the second is. (p75)

However, the moral equivalence is not really valid. Races differ only in colour and other minor details of their appearance; men and women differ in important areas of their biology. Men and women are, of course, capable of carrying out most of the same tasks, but there are two tasks related to child-rearing that only a woman can do, and if the work required to support a family is tough and dangerous, women might appreciate not having to do it. Most, though admittedly not all, women are better suited to caring for children, and indeed adults, than men, which more than explains the preponderance of women in these professions. The authors might like to provide evidence that the women involved find them demeaning; most were not forced into them, after all.

The book does not explore the political aspects of discrimination against women in Muslim countries, perhaps because there remains only one country where women are denied the vote in whatever elections happen, namely Saudi Arabia. However, anti-Muslim writers commonly talk of “gender apartheid” when real apartheid involves races which are enemies to each other by virtue of one having invaded, subjugated and humiliated the other. If a man has the vote and his wife does not, the man is likely to be thinking of his wife and children as well as himself when he votes; one can certainly not assume that a white South African, much less a white southern American during the era of segregation, would have considered the interests of non-whites. This is not to defend refusing women the vote, but simply to demonstrate that the comparison to racism does not hold.

Other problems with their analysis of gender

The authors suggest that men dominate women simply because they can, because they are stronger, and that men (and therefore male-dominated clerical establishments) defend male domination just because it suits them, because they are male and it’s “the other” — women — who suffer (e.g. p.54). The problem is that it requires us to accept a few dubious propositions, such as that most, if not all, men are bullies and that most, if not all, women are doormats, and that at a particular time when this state of affairs emerged, that this was the case. In many societies, there are taboos against men hitting women, and this was the case in Europe long before feminism was heard of. There are those who would tell a 12-year-old boy being bullied by a 16-year-old to toughen up or shut up, and defend a grown woman slapping a 2-year-old for some petty misdemeanour, but condemn a man who slaps a grown woman, or a boy who does the same to a teenage girl, even though she might be bigger than him.

Female weakness is accepted. Male weakness is generally considered the man’s fault, and possibly rectifiable. People will not, after all, find fault with a family saloon car for being unable to pull a trailer with a 40-tonne load: you use a truck for that sort of thing. Of course, not all women would have to be bullied into letting their husbands win the bread while they kept house and looked after the children, particularly if they had friends, they played with their own children and other people’s, and spent at least part of the day at friends’ houses chatting over a coffee (or whatever they drank back then) and did a bit of work on the side to raise a bit of extra money. Some might think that was more fulfilling than working down a coalmine, and a lot less dangerous, because much male work is not powerful or fulfilling, but tedious, physically draining and hazardous, and even though giving birth itself has its risks, women do not do that every day of their lives.

Many women like security. Many women expect men to be dominant, and find it attractive and masculine. Men have affection for women, and usually grow up surrounded by them — their mother, aunts, older sisters, perhaps cousins. If they grow up in a culture where younger people obey elders, they idea of taking orders from a woman elsewhere would not necessarily be even unfamiliar, much less “unmanning”. To accept that men established dominance by merely bullying them is to completely overlook the realities of human interaction, or perhaps to accept that there was a time in human history when women were distinguished from men only in being weaker than men, and female. These aspects of human interaction get scant coverage in this book, and the realities of what women often want from men are not mentioned at all.

Over-reliance on opinion and cultural values

The authors devote much of the second chapter to attacking Karen Armstrong, who defended the character of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) in her books, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet and Islam: A Short History (both Phoenix Press, London, 2001). I have already dealt with the matter of the marriage to A’isha (radhi Allahu ‘anha) in this earlier entry, and one might also see Abdurrahman Squires’s article on the subject, on which I drew for that article. Besides the fact that marriages to nine-year-old girls are not exactly common in the Muslim world these days, the judgements based on modern morality and experience made by people who were not there and judge only by the evidence that suits them are of no consequence. I will not consider it any further.

Religion and cruelty

The book, as already stated, gives numerous examples of terrible cruelty perpetrated against women in the name of various religions. As already stated, they do not distinguish between cruelty approved of by religion and that condemned by it. This is particularly significant in the case of Islam, which is a heavily text-based religion unlike say, Catholicism, in which the words of priestly authorities are heavily relied on as direct narrations back to prophetic origins are lacking; most of the Bible consists of stories, not straightforward moral or theological guidance.

The problem is that no reasons for such behaviour other than the presence of religion are even discussed. As Cristina Odone points out in her review of the book in the Observer today:

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.

This kind of behaviour is widely known-of and women and girls are not the only victims. (This seems to be a consistent blind spot for Benson: in this article published in the Observer in May, she mentions the horrors of the church-run Goldenbridge orphanage-cum-sweatshop for girls in Dublin, but neglects to mention that the recent Ryan report stated that most of the sexual abuse was perpetrated against boys; the section on the Fundamentalist LDS does not mention any practice which harms boys, such as the abandonment of groups of young males so as to eliminate competition for wives for the elders.) In settings where people have no power, they pick on those with even less, whether they are believers or not. Practically anyone who has been in a boarding school or a prison, male or female, or in some of the world’s armed forces can tell you that.

Even where the behaviour is not so much cruel as merely unthinking, ignorance and isolation may play as big a role as religion, particularly when commandments of that religion seem never to have been heard of and you would find people doing things that no literate metropolitan follower of the same religion would ever do. In such a community, I find it doubtful that preaching against religion would put these problems right for very long; you might end up with an ossified parody of the humanism you preach and that the situation of women would be scarcely better than when you arrived. Even in a village setting, it is not outside the bounds of possibility that religion would come to the defence of women: the alarm over the gang-rape of Mukhtaran Mai in Pakistan, for example, was raised when the local imam attacked the rape in his Friday sermon and then brought the incident to the attention of a reporter from a nearby town..

Finally, we only need look at the example of Mao’s China to know of the cruelty that atheists are capable of perpetrating against both men and women (read the chapter “The Kuomintang General’s Daughter” in Xinran’s book The Good Women of China for an example to rival anything in this book). People driven by ideas unrelated to religion are also capable of cruelty and oppression; we might take the example of the forced sterilisations carried out as part of eugenics programmes in the USA and Sweden, among other places.

Islamophobia

The penultimate chapter of this book consists of an attack on recent attempts to combat Islamophobia in the UK, including the two Runnymede Trust reports, Islamophobia: A Challenge to Us All (1997) and Islamophobia: Issues, Challenges and Action (2004). The authors find fault with them for being “produced by a ‘multi-religious’ committee”, including several imams and Muslim activists and several representatives of the Church of England and the Jewish community. They allege:

Certainly, there is something absurd about the idea that the best way to analyse anti-Muslim prejudice is to assemble a fairly random collection of religious apologists, all of whom have a vested interest in protecting religion from criticism, and many of whom have a specific interest in defending Islam, and then asking them to oversee a research project. After all, almost nobody woudl think that skinheads — however well educated and erudite — would be best placed to examine whether the far right is discriminated against, or that members of Fathers for Justice or Men’s Aid should stand in judgement over whether the move towards sexual equality has gone too far. (pp159-60)

Islamophobia was not a PhD thesis or some other piece of academic research; the Runnymede Trust is essentially a think tank. If the preponderance of religious people on the committee makes it somewhat unbalanced, this is par for the course with think tanks. Even so, those at the receiving end of prejudice are best placed to report on it; nobody would fault a report on racism on the grounds that its authors were black, or at least not quite white, or if they were white, they were foreign or something. Any white person telling a black person that their perceptions of prejudice were not valid because they were biased, or that they were just being a bit oversensitive, would not meet with much appreciation. Feminists often try to tell men that their opinions on “women’s issues” are less valid than theirs unless those opinions are in line with theirs, particularly on the matter of abortion.

Their later attacks on anti-Islamophobia material contains a side-swipe at Smearcasting, the website by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) which names a “dirty dozen” of the twelve worst Islamophobes. The twelve noted are not sober, secular critics of religion but writers and broadcasters noted for attempts to incite prejudice against Muslims. One of them is David Horowitz, a notorious academic witch-hunter; another is Michael Savage, who stated that when he sees a woman in a ‘burqa’, he sees a Nazi who would like to “cut your throat and kill your children”. They would not have been thought of if they were not popular figures among a certain section of the British and American populations. A few quotes from politicians to the effect that “this isn’t a war against Islam”, even if sincere, will not allay the Muslim perception of widespread prejudice, even hatred, when they see it on the front page of a national newspaper, or hear it on the radio, or hear of Muslim women being attacked or charity shops being firebombed.

Conclusion

This is a terribly poorly-argued book. It relies on largely irrelevant anecodes intended to make the reader angry; it conflates the cruelty of the powerless and the unthinking oppression of the ignorant with actual religious observance; it uses one invalid comparison after another; it gets facts wrong, such as confusing the Afghan poetess Nadia Anjuman, murdered by her husband in 2005, with Safia Amajan, a Kandahar politician assassinated by the Taliban in 2006, as pointed out in Cristina Odone’s review. It quotes ‘authorities’ who are no such thing, such as Sayyed Hossein Nasr. It is also sloppily annotated, with the endnote reference numbers in two chapters following on from the chapter before, but the actual notes numbered from one for each chapter.

However, the biggest failing of this book is that it presents the worst excesses of the cruelty of religious people as if they were characteristic of religious behaviour. If one were to write a history of western civilisation and as examples of it offer only tales of bloodthirsty crusaders, inbred Appalachian hillbillies and football hooligans and barely mention the modern, metropolitan educated classes, it would rightly be dismissed as a bigoted, unbalanced diatribe. Benson and Stangroom do not acknowledge that many Muslims, including practising ones, were outraged at incidents like the Madinah madrassah fire and despise the governments which perpetrate such atrocities. They do not acknowledge causes for the problems they identify other than religion. They do not acknowledge that many religious people agitate for change in their societies, against forced marriage, FGM and other examples of the oppression of women and in favour of better opportunities in education, both within the community and without.

In short, they mention a few of the worst recent incidents of cruel and oppressive behaviour involving religious people, and none of the good stuff. This is what makes this book a bigoted, unbalanced diatribe.

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