The Backlash against Women’s Rights

Religious fundamentalism Islamic, Judaic and Christian is pushing back against progress toward equal rights for women. The fundamentalists want to restore patriarchal dominance and are gaining ground in the Muslim world, Israel and the United States inside the Republican Party, notes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

People often take things for granted, like the concept of progress. My students all assume that progress is continuous, indeed, inevitable.

Mostly they conceive of progress in terms of technology: smart phones and computers of every sort. However, there is also a sense that there is a steady and inevitable movement toward the realization of social ideals. Whether they are conservatives, liberals or libertarians, they all assume that the kind of world they want to live in is the kind of world that will evolve.  

That is also true for the feminists in my classes. They know that they have to fight for gender equality and they are willing to do so. Yet they also assume the betterment of women’s conditions will be continuous and that victory for their cause is inevitable.

In terms of their own local communities, they are sure that conditions for women today are better than they were in their grandmothers‘ day and that conditions will be better still for their own granddaughters. They can’t imagine things going backward.

But they may be in for a shock. It is reasonable to conclude that conditions for women, not only in places far away, but right here at home are deteriorating. That they will continue to do so is not inevitable, but it is certainly possible.

Let’s take a look at the trends. We will start with the ones manifesting themselves abroad and end with the ones here in the U.S.

Most of my feminist students see the Middle East as a central battleground for women’s rights. Of course, they define those rights in terms of Western secular culture and ideals and have a hard time suspending that point of view long enough to consider women’s rights from the standpoint of Muslim cultural ideals. Nonetheless, trends in the Middle East do not bode well for women’s status even in terms of Islamic precepts.

Middle East Trends

Last week authorities in Saudi Arabia refused entry to over 1,000 Nigerian Muslim women who had arrived for the annual pilgrimage known as the Hajj. The Saudi Ministry of Pilgrimage claimed the women were not accompanied by “male guardians” as required by Saudi law.

Actually, the women were accompanied by “male escorts,” but the Saudis had segregated the Nigerians, male from female, and then claimed the women were unescorted. When their mistake was pointed out to the Saudi officials, they refused to listen. I seriously doubt that Prophet Mohammad would have reacted this way.


Perhaps an American feminist would just dismiss this as Saudi backwardness. After all, we are talking about a country that refuses to let its women drive cars, which is a ban that cannot easily be drawn from the Quran or Hadith, the central books of Islamic law that date from the second half of the first millennium, long before cars were invented.

Perhaps feminists feel that, over time, outside pressure will bring the Saudis around to conform to Western standards of gender relations. Yet it is quite possible that influence could flow the other way.

For instance, in early October it was reported that IKEA, the Swedish furniture company with worldwide sales, purged the company’s Saudi catalogue of pictures of females. They just airbrushed them out.

The Swedes generally pride themselves on their equitable gender relations, but obviously some of their business executives are quite willing to accommodate Saudi standards when money is to be made. And, we all know that money, rather than feminist ideals, makes the world go round.

Then there is Iran. An American feminist would again dismiss Iran as a backward place when it comes to women’s rights. But, despite the chadors (under which one can often find designer clothes), this is a Western propaganda image that does not tell an accurate story.

Upon the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, most women’s rights were expanded. They had open access to the job market and earned the same wages as men for the job they held. They also had open access to the country’s universities including those courses of study usually considered male preserves.

Today, women make up more than 60 percent of those enrolled in institutions of higher learning, and women engineers, scientists, doctors, architects and the like are common. That is progress by any standard, east or west.

Yet, progress is not necessarily continuous. In September 2012,  it was reported that 36 Iranian universities have prohibited women from registering for courses in a range of subjects from chemistry and mathematics to education and business.

Apparently, this was a measure demanded by powerful conservative factions who feel that women have become too “active in society” and should “return to the home.” It remains to be seen if this change is long-term.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are countries with Islamic governments, but within the Middle East the challenge to gender equality is not just a product of a conservative Muslim outlook. Thus we can move on to Israel.


According to a recently released report of the Israel Women’s Network, women have made little or no progress over the last decade: “Discrimination against women in this country is spread across all sectors of society and culture.” Twenty percent of Israeli women live in poverty (it is even worse for children and the elderly). This is so even though Israeli women tend to be better educated than men.

In the last few years, the Israeli problem of gender discrimination has been illustrated by the “back of the bus” scandal occurring in Israeli cities. Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel often impose gender segregation and, as those communities expand out from their traditional urban enclaves, they insist that secular Israelis conform to their standards rather than the other way around.

Thus, busses running routes that go through both Orthodox and secular communities often try to get women to restrict themselves to the back of the vehicle.

Here is how Mickey Gitzen, the director of Be Free Israel, an NGO promoting religious pluralism, explains the situation, “It’s a slippery slope. What starts with women boarding the bus in the back because of modesty can turn Israeli society into a segregated society in which women don’t have a place in public life.” How very Saudi of the Israeli Orthodox!

Struggles in the U.S.

That is there and not here in the progressive U.S.A. Really? Consider the following:

Conservative Christians make up more than 20 percent of the voting public in the United States. Their influence  runs deep in the Republican Party, as can be seen by the statements of many of the recent contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. And, among the lines pushed by this conservative Christian element is an exceedingly patriarchal view of the role of women.

The American Christian fundamentalist Pat Robertson runs a TV program called the 700 Club with a daily average audience of one million viewers. Here is what Robertson is telling his audience about the role of women:

I know this is painful for the ladies to hear, but if you get married you have accepted the headship of a man, your husband. The husband is the head of the wife and that is the way it is, period.”

In an Alternet interview with author Kathryn Joyce, who has researched and written on the subject of conservative Christian views of women, she makes the following points:

1. There is a growing movement among conservative Christians that preach that women should be married homemakers and that each must have “as many children as God will give you.” They see the God-given structure of human society as patriarchy.

2. This point of view has been endorsed by Christian leaders whose long-range goal is to so powerfully influence the U.S. government that they will be able to frame patriarchal precepts into law.

3. For these Christian conservatives the major enemy, the “root of the problem,” is feminism and all those who assert a woman’s right to control her own fertility.

Some of these sentiments can be found in the Republican Party’s national platform. According to Jill Filipovic writing in the Guardian UK, “the entire Republican social platform is structured around the idea of the traditional family where men are in the public sphere as breadwinners and heads of households, and women stay in private, taking care of children and serving as helpmates to their husbands.”

If this Christian conservative sentiment has captured the outlook of one of the nation’s two major political parties, you know it must not stop there. A New York Times report recently asserted that there is widespread social anxiety among American men caused by the confusion of gender roles that has allegedly come with growing gender equality in the U.S.

The report said that this development has brought about a backlash: “The masculine mystique is institutionalized in work structures” and both men and women who try to challenged this are “often penalized.”

You might have noticed how the attitudes toward women of Muslim, Christian and Jewish fundamentalists are quite similar. Each has fixated on the feminist drive for greater gender equality as a threat to their patriarchal concept of social life.

But, as the New York Times piece suggests, the problem is by no means restricted to those who describe themselves as religious conservatives. It is a society-wide, worldwide happening.

In the end, it is much harder to realize social progress rather than technical progress. For the latter, all you have to do is the research necessary to master elements of nature. These elements might take a lot of work to get at, but they do not consciously fight back.

To achieve the former, however, you must go up against vested interests that do fight back. That is why progress in society is hardly ever continuous and never inevitable.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.


8 comments for “The Backlash against Women’s Rights

  1. F. G. Sanford
    October 6, 2012 at 11:58 am

    The right, with its shallow understanding of economic principles and the realities of social stratification, has systematically gutted the engines of society that made patriarchy possible in the first place. This is a kind of schizophrenic detachment from reality also portrayed by the auto industry, which builds ten cylinder engines in the midst of a fuel shortage. I would recommend, for example, Harriet Fraad’s article on They can’t have it both ways. The majority of the child-bearing adult population in the U.S.A. are now single. Jobs that were traditionally ‘blue-collar’ wage-earner jobs are not being taken by white-collar educated Americans with no job prospects. So, those jobs are being filled by illegal immigrants. The “Family Values” crowd can get as apoplectic as they want, but their policies have destroyed the very possibility of the delusional future they envision.

  2. jerry gates
    October 7, 2012 at 11:12 am

    This is a nice article for feminists to consider, given the state of some aspects of patriarchal society in fundamentalist religious bases world wide.

    Lawrence Davidson is no shrinking violet in his understanding of the variations in themes of many human orders and their disorders of the mid as regard women s rights.His constant focus on universal human issues does make him somewhat of an expert witness to women as to their status in differing environs and cultures. Everyone has their foibles and faults, learning the scale and magnitude of paradigms in motion requires Davidsons world view, which is the open mind.

    Women feminists and also male supporters of feminist values must understand that while womens rights are universally depicted as freedom of choice, freedom of thought and freedom of movement wherever, whenever and with whomever they please to associate with, work for or demand their rights from, not all women think the same way or have the same values in terms of religion, social order and or legality written by men regarding their places in various social orders. Some women are quite well comforted by being household bastions of learning, support and nurturing of their childrens and husbands welfare and care first and free people to assert their career choices and feminist desires post child raising years, which is supported in animal as well as human cultures historically speaking with empirical evidences of this dynamic made by students of the natural world and it’s “law”.

    This is not to say that the modern reality of feminism is either ascendant or descendant on any given curve of growth of the basic ideals of feminists but to say that there is room for discussion by various women’s world views among both women and men religious conservative or non religious liberal or any derivative thereof.Free thought requires each of us to allow others their own latitude is aspiring as they will to whatever paradigm their feel is right for them at the time during a lifetime of social engagement both within and outside of their family structures and accepted social mores.

    Feminist free thought then is inclusive of the protections of womens choice as their first basic human right, no matter which way they lean to poupar cultural matriarchal thinking or towards conventional patriarchal culture or any variation on either theme, Diversity is seen in nature, we are natural creatures and this diversity is beautiful dependant opun the eyes of beholders, to each his own.

    All of this said, Lawrence Davidson makes many very valid observations as to where seem women are losing ground they seek to male dominated religious social engineering brought to bare against their general welfare and will as women.

    Jewish religion holds both the stereotypical depiction of women as objects under men’s domain and as in Esther’s story there is room for great respect of the role of women in Jewish history as well as current and future feminist aspirations of self determination.

    Mohammed had his own exaltation of women’s rights which inspired great strides in Equality in Islamic strictures, not all of which are followed or emulated in today’s diverse Islamic cultures Jesus was abandoned on his cross by his male apostles, perhaps to emotional or to worried about the stigma of dissension applying itself after his death in their culture, women of the cross stayed till the end and bare witness to the struggling Messiahs last gasps of breath. These examples of women of great virtue in religious orders carrying the heaviest weights of the patriachal societies is none the less not satisfying to many feminists desires for greater acknowledgement of their equality to men, or perhaps even the better half of the human equation.

    Atheist feminists , Uniteraian Universalists, secular humanist and gay LGBT in any disposition as believers or not are certainly deserving of their aspirations to fully throated ascendance to whatever ideals they seek as women, which is to say that every voice should have the courage to roam in every room and be heard as equal to every other voice, which is universal human rights for all women, which is to be lauded as a good thing for all women, though some women and men may take exception to this freedom.

    Often enough, the surge towards greater freedoms may take on onerous rewards for it’s travelers, Women’s freedom to chose to be pornographers, prostitutes or criminals isnt a good choice in many mens minds, not so objectionable to others, but to be clear and also fair, it must be considered that some youthful and vigorously freedom minded women may use their freedom in ways which might not further their emancipation from males as much as they think . All three Abrahamic faiths have guidelines for morality which protect women from abusing self or their choices which might do them or society hard under the laws we live by. To abandon the law fully isn’t very far sighted if we assay the laws of most societies to basically protect and serve that societies best interests as a whole, Morality is good for any social order.

    All of these same social issues also must apply equally to men if equal rights are to be observed as beneficial to the human element in all of it’s diversity. A male feeling as a women should be endowed with the rights of a woman’s perspective as regards feminism, which sets a cat fight in play between male feminists and female feminists seeking the same basic human rights on the same playing field. A women feminists may be surprised when a male feminine thinker assails a male thinking woman for his rights as a women against her push against his physical manhood, which belies his identity.

    Sure, it all gets complicated, but in a species with billions of individual cells and markers of genetic code, the infinite variety of possible combinations of degrees of maleness and femaleness is worth considering from every possible vantage point if indeed what women feminists want is fully equal rights for all people, not just their own typical female type of feminism.

    Most people heal to various degrees of maleness and femaleness during their lives, early teens explore their gender in a somewhat immature and slightly confused state of learning about the world around them and themselves as an integral part of the commons in which they reside.As we age, many of us become more of whom we naturally are and cannot deny ourselves our free willed choice to pursue our identity in whatever environments we find ourselves, others stunted by religious pressures, societies pressures and work place and peer pressures cocoon themselves inside of a false identity made to conform to the strictures of their in situ cultures demands, This is unhealthy for our hearts minds and bodies which is reflected in our lives and happiness as individuals.

    To Lawrences feminist thinkers, it is wise to learn as much as one can with a compassionate heart for every human stripe and also to agregate with every type of gender specificity with an open minded approach to rendering freedom to all types without condoning destructive behavior in early teen years which may inhibit the identity of our later years in long lives. If we seek true freedom , we also must acknowledge the freedom of thought in others outside of our specific environs and peers groups as vital to their happiness and sense of gender self.

    A old favorite line in a song about women and men says it all about how feminism has ascended in every culture, especially American pop culture, the line goes like this; When a man loves a woman, he’ll sleep out in the rain, if that’s the way she says it ought to be, I offer this rejoinder to that line… If a woman loves a man, she wont ask him to sleep out in the rain. Be wise keep an open mind, our sexuality changes slightly throughout of lives, be wary of offering advice about gender to young people other than to explore their feelings carefully with the morality which keeps us safe from harm and does no harm while keeping us safe.

    • F. G. Sanford
      October 7, 2012 at 3:10 pm

      which is supported in animal as well as human cultures historically speaking with empirical evidences of this dynamic made by students of the natural world and it’s “law”.

      There is no such thing as animal “culture”. Animals have “patterned behavior”, but they are incapable of culture. Culture requires at a minimum an “oral history” to perpetuate itself. “Natural Law” is a term you may get away with when speaking of biological or physical processes, but there is NO EVIDENCE that it can be applied to human behavior. We may hold some truths to be “self-evident”, but those kinds of truths are often delusional or anthropocentric. Margaret Meade and Jane Goodall would roll over in their graves if they could hear this nonsense.

      • G.M. Weber
        October 13, 2012 at 2:16 pm

        I appreciate your comment about Margaret Meade, but Jane Goodall would not appreciate it~! She maintains a very active speaking schedule and continues to raise funds for her “Jane Goodall Institute” for Wildlife and Conservation based in Virgina.

    • rosemerry
      October 9, 2012 at 3:29 pm


      • Romi Elnagar
        October 12, 2012 at 5:26 pm

        Like most Islamophobes, Borat broadbrushes Islam. It’s just the extreme cultures where women are in a lesser role [and were since long before Islam]. There are many women Muslim leaders, even Prime Ministers. However oppressive, these Muslims take a backseat to Zionist Israelis were little children are murdered in “antiterrorist” killings, forced to cover themselves completely in rags and denied education, or maimed by settler assholes who throw chemicals in their faces for being Arabs. [Not to mention all the chemical and radiological weapons, like white phosphorus and DU that Israel uses in Lebanon and Gaza.] Borat is a bigoted Jew whose bullshit feeds these stereotypes.

        see, for example,

  3. October 7, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    I’m affraid the writer is ignorant of the status of women among the three Abrahamic religions and Hinduism. Jewish and Christian Bibles call women “Sinners” by birth while Hindu says that females are created to serve the males in their families. Holy Qur’an, contrary to all that, claims that both male and female childs are born in “purity (Islam)” – and it’s their parents and society which turned them to Jews, Christians, Hindus or Atheists. They’re not created to serve their husbands or father or brothers as slaves – but as equal. According to Prophetic Hadith, cooking for the family is not the job of wife or mother. When she does that – Allah considers it a charity.

    What the West see being practiced in the Muslim societies, while living its own self-denial – is cultural oppression of women and sanctioned by Islam. Islam freed women from oppression and slavery over 1400 years ago. Now compare this to Canada where women were considered male family members’ property and were not allowed to vote until 1939s. There was not much relief for the American women across the border. Since the establishment of USA, no woman has been elected President or the Vice-president of the country. Four Muslim countries, Pakistan, Turkey, Bangladesh and Indonesia, on the other hand, have elected women as the head of governments during the last three decades.

    YES, a woman is not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, but she is allowed to run her own business. In New York city and Jerusalem, a woman is also not allowed to drive, sit next to a male in public bus or train – and even walk on the same footpath where men walk.

    Read more at the link below:

    • bobzz
      October 13, 2012 at 3:45 pm

      I’m curious. Where does the NT call women sinners from birth, or the Tanak, for that matter?

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