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.