The War on Women

Rosemary Radford Ruether
Winter 2001-02

Several years ago, Martin Marty and others edited a prestigious series of important studies, published by Chicago University Press, on the rise of fundamentalisms across world religions. These books saw striking resemblances between the wave of fundamentalisms that were appearing in the Catholic and Protestant Rights in the West, in various Muslim fundamentalisms, in right-wing Judaism–particularly in Israel–and rightist forms of Hinduism, Confucianism and other Asian religions. All these movements seemed to have in common a rejection of modernity and efforts to reestablish the public role of religion, if not religious states, to counter what was seen as evil secularity, with its lack of established public values.

What the Marty books overlooked was perhaps the most striking similarity of all between these fundamentalist movements: namely their efforts to reestablish rigid patriarchal control over women and their hostility to women’s equality, autonomous agency and right to control their own sexuality and fertility. This hostility to feminism or women’s autonomous agency, particularly in sexuality and reproduction, links all these right-wing groups together. One can cite the extraordinary diatribe of Pat Robertson, who in a 1990 fundraising letter for a campaign to oppose a state ERA bill, opined that “feminism makes women leave their husbands, kill their children, destroy capitalism, practice witchcraft and become lesbians.” Even the current Bush administration responded less-than-favorably when Jerry Falwell, backed up by Pat Robertson, suggested that the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon represented God’s punishment of America for allowing the existence of such evils in this country as feminism, gays, abortion providers and the ACLU.

The Vatican is hardly less obsessed with women’s equality and reproductive rights as the epitome of evil modern secularity and the cause of civilization’s demise. At the 1994 UN conference on Population and Development at Cairo, the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women at Beijing and the five-year follow up meetings to these two conferences, the Vatican distinguished itself by tireless efforts to oppose any language that would declare that women’s rights are human rights and that women’s autonomous decision-making about their own sexuality and reproduction were integral elements of such rights.

The Muslim fundamentalism that has swept not only Afghanistan with the Taliban, but has major influence in Islamic states from Algeria and Egypt to Iran and Pakistan, has made war on women the major center of their campaign against modernity and what they regard as irreligion. In Afghanistan under the Taliban, women were banned from even primary school education, paid work and virtually any public presence. Even the windows of their houses had to be blacked out lest they be viewed going about their housework by men looking in from outside.

Why this war on women in the name of true religion? Women seem to have become the scapegoats for male fears of loss of control in society. In a world where anonymous global forces control and decide the economies of nations, control over women seems to become the place where men can imagine that they are reclaiming order against chaos, their dignity, honor and security in a world where there is little available on the macro level. With life out of control for many men, rigid control of the women in their homes becomes the place where they can imagine that they are still in charge.

But such a war on women is totally counterproductive from the point of view of any real emergence from poverty and underdevelopment for those impoverished societies most prone to such fundamentalist takeovers. Studies have long shown that women’s development is absolutely key to betterment of society as a whole. The education of women is statistically closely linked with smaller families, better health and education of children, and emergence from poverty. An Egyptian study found that if women with no education had finished primary school, poverty would have been reduced by one-third. UN agencies have duplicated this study in several other countries.

Economic stability, political moderation and democratic order are closely linked with the higher education and public participation of women. The attack on women has every likelihood of increasing the gap between poverty and wealth, between the underdeveloped and the developed worlds, that fuels the anger of the fundamentalist backlash but is misguidedly channeled into attacks on women, not to mention attacks on public buildings such as the World Trade Center.

For me, one of the areas of particular concern is the potential for alliances between right-wing religious movements, one might say “ecumenical deals” of convenience between Christians–Protestant and Catholic–Jews, Muslims and others, all of whom make fallacious connections between criticisms of modern injustices and anxieties over loss of values with an effort to turn back the clock on women’s emergence as equal human beings in society.

One can cite various efforts to make such alliances. In the United States, some right-wing Focus on the Family-type Protestants have long hoped for an alliance with conservative Catholics. Such an alliance has been impeded by the very different authority structure of the two religious groups and the not-too-distant memory among Catholics of the anti-Catholicism of fundamentalist Protestantism. Before September 11, George Bush clearly saw the placating of conservative Catholic demands against birth control, abortion, fetal tissue use and other such sex- and gender-related issues as the way to cement support for his next presidential election bid, having won the last time with a razor-thin majority in key states and by dubious tactics. The Bush administration courted and was photographed surrounded by smiling Catholic prelates.

Another such ecumenical deal was sought by the Vatican with conservative Muslims at the Cairo Population and Development conference in 1994. Hoping to create a common Catholic-Muslim front against birth control, abortion, women’s equality and recognition of diverse forms of the family, the Vatican adopted rhetoric that pilloried Western feminists as assaulting the cultural traditions of the third world. In this effort, the Vatican posed as a defendant of cultural pluralism against Western cultural hegemony, an unlikely role given its own history as the epitome of Catholic or universalist religio-cultural hegemony.

This alliance partly fizzled because Muslims had reason to doubt the Vatican’s sudden support of cultural pluralism, and also due to the somewhat different agendas of Muslims in population and development issues. Although some Muslims share a desire to subordinate women to an authoritarian male-dominated family and curb what they see as Wstern sexual promiscuity among women and youth, they are not against birth control either in principle or in terms of contraceptive methods. Although generally against abortion, they adhere to a medieval Aristotelian view that the fetus is not ensouled until the 120th day of gestation and thus early abortion is not murder. Oddly enough, this is a position that was shared by medieval Catholics and was changed only in modern times in favor of the strangely disincarnate view of the fertilized egg as a full human being.

But such right-wing Christian and Muslim alliances against women’s development and reproductive rights are still possible. Despite the horrendous treatment of women by the Taliban, George Bush recently suggested that the “Alliance against Terrorism” should not make women’s rights a central issue since this would “offend Muslims.”

Right-wing “ecumenical deals” between Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims often employ rhetoric that draws on a post-modern critique of liberalism, modernity and universalism in order to serve a reactionary, pre-modern agenda. One finds an appeal to cultural relativism or pluralism to assault efforts to establish a standard of universal human rights, particularly when these explicitly include women. Post-colonial resistance to Western colonialism, which historically denigrated the traditional cultures of colonized regions such as the Middle East, Africa and Asia, is evoked to suggest that any principles of universal human rights are cultural colonialism and Western hegemonic dominance. Feminism is billed as a purely Western, and of course culturally decadent, movement that is foreign to the cultural traditions of Africa, Asia or the Middle East.

Western liberals, who themselves invented and support such post-modern critique of Western cultural hegemony, are often at a loss to respond when such principles are used against them to support pre-modern social patterns that subordinate women. As I have mentioned, the Vatican made an appeal to exactly this kind of anti-Western rhetoric in its bid for a Catholic-Muslim alliance at Cairo. Such right-wing ecumenical deals typically feature males of both religious cultures shaking hands with each other, excluding women of either group from speaking for themselves. Western feminists are demonized, while women of the non-western culture are pictured as vulnerable innocents liable to corruption from said evil western feminists.

I had an experience of such an appeal to the myth of sacrosanct traditional culture to reject feminism ten years ago when I was teaching and lecturing on feminist theology in South Africa. At one of the Bantustan universities, an African Anglican priest in elegant cleric dress and speaking the Queen’s English rose to declare that feminism could not be accepted in Africa “because it is against our culture.” “And culture cannot be challenged,” he declared in ringing tones. Earlier one of the African women had warned me against such an argument and given me a good response. I repeated her words, saying to the African priest, “Well, white racism is a part of white culture. Does that mean it can’t be challenged or changed?”

This demonization of feminism as Western totally ignores the fact that for more than two decades women of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East have been creating their own contextualized forms of feminism and speaking about their rights and demands in their own voices. This globalization of feminisms was evident at the Beijing world conference on women, where representatives of women’s movements from every nation gathered and networked with each other. This kind of networking across women’s movements in every country and culture could well represent the alternative to the kinds of ecumenical deals of men against women that are being hatched by the Vatican and right-wing Protestants and Catholics.

Religion Counts is an initiative that aims at a progressive ecumenical alliance between Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists that supports women’s equality and reproductive rights. It met in Rome in January 1999 and issued the “Rome Statement on the International Conference on Population and Development,” which sought to explore common principles on women, sexuality and reproductive rights across the world’s major religions.

The United Nations and international media too often pay attention only to right-wing or fundamentalist religion. The media typically assumes that feminist Christians or feminists in other religions are marginal and don’t really represent their own religious traditions. It is right- wing men in leadership positions who are treated as the authentic spokespersons for the religious tradition. Thus religion is unwittingly portrayed only in its conservative or fundamentalist expressions against secularism, thus reinforcing the right-wing religious polarity of religious values versus secular lack of values. Religion Counts seeks to mobilize and ally the progressive voices across the religious traditions and to make these progressive voices players in public culture and decision-making. This has remained a very small initiative, but I think represents an important alternative that needs to be cultivated.

Secularity is being portrayed as a failed modern experiment that has resulted only in valueless anomie. I think this is far too simple. There was and is in secular liberalism valuable principles that need to be vindicated, but that is the subject for another time. For the moment a key way to combat the claim that religiousness is authentically represented only by patriarchal, misogynist religious traditions is to vindicate the progressive, egalitarian principles within religious traditions themselves. This is essentially what Christian and Jewish feminisms have been doing for the last thirty years. Christian and Jewish feminists have mined their own traditions to show their potential for an egalitarian reading. Muslim feminists today are also developing a similar strategy of pro-women, pro-egalitarian rereading of the core religious values. For Muslim feminists, such as Riffat Hassan, a Pakistani leader of Muslim feminism, the Koran is essentially an egalitarian scripture. Hassan and other Muslim feminists do close readings of the Koran to show that mistreatment of women, their segregation, imposition of the veil, and denial of education, political and business involvement is nowhere found in the Koran. Rather these traditions come from the incorporation of Arab or other local customs. In some cases the arguments for women’s inferiority were actually imported from Christianity.

Hassan, for example, has done her major work on the texts for the creation of humanity, male and female, in the Koran. She has shown that the Koran lacks the tradition of Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib and her sin as the cause of the Fall. These concepts do not exist in the Koran, which contains only the story of Genesis I of the creation of the human, male and female, equally and at the same time. The stories of Adams rib and the apple were imported into later Islamic commentaries from neighboring Christianity and, as in Christianity, used to argue for women’s inferiority and punishment. In a tradition that sees the Koran as the norm for what is truly Islamic, such arguments carry weight.

These more progressive and feminist voices of Islam need to be supported. These are the movements that not only can allow Western anti-Muslim bigotry to see a different, more progressive face of Islam, but also, even more important, can allow Muslim cultures themselves to embrace democratic, equal-rights agendas as compatible with Islam, rather than as humiliating Western cultural impositions. Interestingly enough, the current anti-terrorist campaign, with all its gross errors, and I count our bombing war against Afghanistan as a major error, has done one thing right. It has realized that if it is to build a Western-Muslim alliance, it cannot simply demonize Islam. It needs to publicize the positive, progressive voices of Islam. Thus most Americans have probably read and heard more about the diversity of the Muslim world in the last 75 days than all their previous lives.

The very existence of Muslim feminist movements and their strategies for a progressive, egalitarian reading of Islam have been well-kept secrets from most Western Christians. There has now been some discussion of such movements as Women Living Under Muslim Laws and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, but there needs to be much more. Progressive Muslim women’s movements need to be given space to speak and develop. In the process it is important that the distortion that has happened in Western feminism, partly due to feminists themselves, but mostly through hostile interpretation by Western media, needs to be corrected.

It needs to be made clear again and again that equal rights for women is the best way for the whole society to emerge from poverty and authoritarianism. Feminism is not about women against men and children. Feminism is about men and women becoming real partners in a way that can develop their fuller humanity for both of them and will allow children the best chance to flourish. It is male domination that impoverishes us all.


Rosemary Radford Ruether is the Georgia Harkness professor of applied theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and the Carpenter Professor of Feminist Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. She is on the board of directors of Catholics for a Free Choice and is editorial advisor to Conscience.

Catholics for Choice