Arab Women, Rihanna and Male-Chauvinistic Religions

Time Magazine recently released their Person of the Year issue to the public. It was not a celebrity or tech guru this year but rather "the protestor." With all the revolutions and Occupy movements around the world, the credit was fitting. In addition, the protestor on the front cover was depicted as a woman. It has been women that we have seen protesting through the streets along with men. Remember the bold move by Iman al-Obeidi, the Libyan woman who stormed foreign reporters at a hotel to tell them she had been raped by Gadhafi troops? The woman that TIME's artist illustrated was not just a face, but Sarah Mason, a 25-year old OccupyLA protester.

But lets not assume too quickly that "girls run the world" or that they are having the best year ever. For if we look closely, we will see that while women may be receiving praise and fighting back, many are still catching hell.

In the few weeks events have shown that this is more than the case. In Afghanistan, Gulnaz, a young Afghan woman, was sentenced to 12 years for being raped by her cousin's husband after she reported the rape. The president, with many believing he was pressured by human rights groups and released her under the deal that she must marry her rapist, recently pardoned Gulnaz. However, her brothers are threatening to kill her, and she is in hiding.

Several days ago the media began broadcasting scenes from Egypt of a woman being severely beaten by the military. The footage captured her being kicked and hit by sticks even as her body lay motionless and her bra exposed. The next day thousands of women protestors (protected by men) protested this violence. An apology was issued.

R&B Singer Rihanna's interview with a Dutch magazine, Jackie, came out this week with the headline" Ni--aB----h (a combination of the N-word and the demeaning term for women). When people began responding to the sexist and racist tone of the article, the female editor in chief offered up an apology that justified the act as a mere joke and then later resigned.

Egypt and Afghanistan are predominately Muslim countries and the Netherlands are more than 90 percent Christian. The question is how can people from such God conscious religious nations mistreat women? Well we can be quick to blame Taliban culture on Afghanistan, insensitivity on the Netherlands, and military stress on Egypt, but lets look at an alternative view.

Deborah Mathieu argues in "Male-Chauvinist Religions" that the cultural assignment of gender roles no matter how unfair or harmful has used religion as its most powerful tool. She calls religions that are used to justify unfair treatment of women: Male-Chauvinist Religions. The three most popular are Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Mathieu notes that their features of one Supreme Being, their book as god's words and deeds, and the depiction of the maleness of god have been used to dominate women throughout centuries.

How can her argument illuminate the three events that I mentioned previously? Lets begin with an argument. Mathieu lays out an unsound argument made by chauvinists. It goes like this:
If God is male, then human males are more like god than human females are. God is male. Therefore, human males are more like god than human females are.

Mathieu suggest that when a woman hears this implied and direct message come forth during religious ceremonies and teachings, it has a psychological effect on them. A woman will not feel angry or offended. It takes education and critical training for this to happen. In Afghanistan, previously under the Taliban rule, education was restricted, and therefore we can see why critical thought and outcry will be limited. Rather, women would feel second rate, disempowered, have low self-esteem, and will simply accept her fate no matter what it is.

Well, in the case of Gulnaz, this is what we are seeing. While in hiding, Gulnaz expresses her fear to reporters, uncertainty about her future, and the thought of marring her rapist (which the Bibles suggest should be the next step). She feels like she has no options.

According to Mathieu's argument, such a woman can feel like her anatomy in someway has shaped her destiny. Being female is not godlike, so perhaps she is destined for this kind of treatment. And since only a subject in god's image can have supreme power like god, she "by nature" is powerless. The power of a god cannot come through her to change her fate, to give her other options, to triumph over the norms of her society, nor to guard her body against her old rapist. This is what she has been taught through the God Male Argument.

I would like to add an additional argument based on this point. I call it the God/Male Reverence Argument. Only that which is godlike should be revered. Males are godlike. Therefore their bodies should be revered. Women are not godlike. Therefore their bodies should not be revered. We can see how this argument, although also unsound, can be shown in the case of the Egyptian woman being abused by the military and also in the variety of cases of women being abused around the world.

If women and their bodies are not seen as subjects that are worthy of respect and protection validated by God, then abuse and violence of women can be considered justified. The Hebrew Bible, which is a source for the three male-chauvinist religions, not only illustrates these acts but also suggest that God at one time ordained them. Remember the offering of Lot's daughters to be raped (Genesis 19:8), the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-22), the mandate to kill women and children (Numbers 31:7-18) and the deuteronomical law that states that a man who rapes a woman must marry her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).

If any change is to take place we must accept, as Mathieu suggest, that these texts are indeed there. But more importantly, I think we must separate these texts, and texts like them, from what is inspirational. This will not be easy. But a part of exegesis is not only acknowledging the cultural norms found in sacred scriptures, but also admitting the ancients peoples' misinterpretation of religious experiences found in scripture and the knowingly abuse of religious authority to perpetuate unholy acts.

Lastly, how can we relate Mathieu's argument to the Rihanna case? Well remember that men are not involved in the incident. The editor in chief was a woman. Many are suggesting because this is the case, then this is not an instance in which male chauvinism is to blame. Well I disagree.

Mathieu acknowledges the reality of "co-opting" females in male-chauvinistic religions. Whether women have done so knowingly or as a result of brainwashing is up for debate. But that fact that women make up a large percentage of these religions, which are male chauvinistic, shows some type of co-opting taken place.

Women who accept male superiority as a fact can go out into the world and not only accept it but also perpetuate it. (I am not suggesting that all do this, but the acceptance can lead to perpetuating.) Not only was the editor in chief's approval of the article out of touch with what is ethically and professionally unacceptable, but also what it shows is the lack of sexist offense that can be present in one woman toward another woman. Remember this same co-opting happened when Rihanna was reportedly physically abused by her then-boyfriend Chris Brown in 2009.

But how could this be? Remember the headline was not only racist but sexist as well. How could this slip through the editor's hands as acceptable to print? It shows that even women in power can carry their male superiority acceptance into the work place, see it not only as OK, but also as a joke rather than an unacceptable chauvinistic attack. They unfortunately pick up where male-chauvinist religious indoctrination left off.

Mathieu suggest that male-chauvinist religions make people question what kind of god will allow this suffering of women to happen? I instead sit back and question what kind of people are we to create and accept stories and ideas about this version of a god that will allow such treatment of women to continually happen.

CORRECTION: Previously in this post, a number of references were made to the Taliban and women in Saudi Arabia. These events actually took place in Afghanistan.

Source: Mathieu, Deborah. "Male-Chauvinist Religion." Readings on the Ultimate Questions. Penguin. (2005): 496-510.