The Subjugation of Women in Religion

Several years ago a church my family is affiliated with started supporting women in Afghanistan and Iraq. They made cookbooks and sold them as well as having bake sales and other fundraisers, all of the money going to a fund to support women’s rights in Muslim countries. The celebration of a “beyond the veil” day in which stories of Afghani women who were able to remove their veils were read sparked an interesting discussion.


Because that particular church sat a little to the west of the heart of the largest Amish settlement in the world. Every day, parishioners would drive by farms where women wore black bonnets and knee length black aprons to weed their gardens in 90 degree heat. Every day, they walked by women with ten children in tow because birth control is banned by their faith. Every day, they saw sixteen year old girls who feel pressured to marry and start families. Every day, they drove by the buggies, buggies that get in a large amount of accidents because the stricter sects of Amish belief will not allow battery powered lamps or reflective strips. A strong argument can be made for the follies of the Amish faith- there is a high rate of depression, of birth defects, even fatalities when women are told their bodies won’t bear another pregnancy and they refuse hysterectomies. There is one story that stands out in my mind, one where a doctor pulled aside an Amish man and said, “another delivery will kill your wife,” and the man replied, “then I will remarry.”

The argument that Islam is alone in it’s strong belief that women are to be modest, to be wed and submissive, is foolish. Christianity has it’s fair share of extremism where that is concerned. There are churches that pray to Christ where the men and women don’t sit together, where the women have scarves on their heads and ankle length skirts. These churches also could not easily be written off as extreme fundamentalists or crazies. Take the Mennonite faith, for example- they hold to a lot of old tradition, including a notable lack of instruments during worship. They praise God with their voices, they work hard with their hands, in the more traditional churches the women wear head coverings and the men and women sit on opposite sides of the aisle. There are still girls who are raised to not seek out careers, instead to marry and move out and start families of their own. Women rarely go out alone- they marry young and travel in packs until the children come.

In fact, there are a great number of parallels between conservative Christianity and Islam. Trace them back historically and they come from the same roots- Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There are some women who will point out the fact that Christianity traditionally didn’t allow for divorce, even when women were being beaten. In fact, some orders of Christianity encouraged spousal abuse to teach women submission. Islam, on the other hand, teaches that men are to honor their women and treat them well.

I realize that there are failings. There are still honor killings, there are cultures in which Islam is used as a justification for the horrific subjugation of women. But I believe that the cultural differences cannot be blamed on belief any more than Christianity being blamed for the KKK- religion, when abused, loses the touch of faith. It’s not the faith that is to blame, but the abuser. Historically certain parts of the world have always subjugated women, and when religion came along it was twisted for the use of the culture instead of redeeming it. The failure is the culture, not the faith.

I simply find it interesting when I see churches cheering on young Afghani women to remove their veils, while outside in the streets Amish women slave under their bonnets, hands raw from wringing out clothing and hanging it to dry, arms tanned from hours of tilling by hand. The point is that some believe that honor can be found in holy living, and holy living can be found in being bound by the dictates of a restrictive faith. It is a choice that is made, a choice that should be honored. Where culture falls short, by all means call for change.

Just don’t ignore what’s going on in your own back yard.

15 thoughts on “The Subjugation of Women in Religion

  1. Very surprised there are no comments yet.

    Thank you for your thoughts. I agree. I see far too many examples of people blaming a religion, and not a culture, blaming principles, but not their interpretations.

    I hear from folks that are angry with those they went to church with– leaders or just those in the congregations– and hold them up as proof that the principles are flawed. The veracity of a belief system is dependent on how its followers live it? Ridiculous.

    I am not sure if what I just said relates, but your post got me thinking of it.

  2. Thank you SO much, because it IS cultural stuff that we’re talking about here, re. “local” interpretations of Christianity, Judaism, Islam – and whatever else you could name. The stricter Orthodox Jewish sects/groups have very real limitations on what women can wear, what they can do, etc. – although not everyone who is Orthodox handles these things in a restrictive way, many do.

    An Egyptian friend has been saying for years that wearing hijab (head scarf) is *cultural* for many, many people – and she’s got a very good point there. (She doesn’t wear one, although she does dress modestly in public, which is something that all Muslims are supposed to adhere to – men and women.)

    I could turn this comment into a 10,000 word rant, so I’d better stop before I get started. 😉 Again, thank you for this post!!!

  3. You make some excellent points here. Our church celebrates the Gifts of Women each year. You’ve given me some food for thought about the content of the service.

    God bless.

  4. To make such a distinction between culture and religion is mendacious: religion has always been the root and foundation of culture. If someone can find a way to justify their atrocities by their holy texts, then that text was myopic and at fault. For example, I would challange anyone to justify rape, racism, hegemony and so on using the Dhammapada. Not even the ingenuity of a Talmudic scholar could derive such things from that text, which is why it is never pounded at lynchings and help up for photo-ops next to AK47s. People can only build a culture on what their religion permits.

    That said, I am surprised you single out the Mennonites and Amish as some sort of representative “unsavory” culture. The depth of their integrity and the strength of their communities is something we should all admire and try to emulate.

  5. My stance is not that the Amish or Mennonite culture is “unsavory”- much to the contrary. I was simply drawing a parallel between conservative Christian practices and Islam, because there are similarities to be seen. Sharing land with an Amish community I’ve had chance to experience some of the problems that come from it (like the wrecks because of black buggies without reflective strips or lanterns) and all I’m saying is that with every doctrine comes problems. It is highly ironic to see people standing up for the rights of Muslim women to wear western clothing- a right that Muslim women may not even want while applauding the Amish women who choose to dress in similar conservative garb.

    My statement is thus: If it is wrong for Muslim women to wear veils and long skirts, it is wrong for Amish women as well. If it is noble for Amish women to dress the way they do and live the life they do- it is equally noble for Muslim women.

    If people take issue with Islamic law and the way it is enforced, that is a problem of the state and a totally different conversation.

  6. Funny how we *never* hear about “the rights of…” (women and whoever else) in some of the most populous Muslim countries in the world: Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Guinée-Bissau… (I could go on.)

    But wait – they’re not Arabs! And guess what – they’re peaceful!!! And… so on.

    (Apologies for the sarcasm; I am *so* tired of the old and new prejudices against Muslims & Arabs that have been deliberately fanned up by the current administration and the US media.)

  7. “…like the wrecks because of black buggies without reflective strips or lanterns”

    Well, yes – I live in an area with a large Amish population and have come very, very close to rear-ending a buggy or two at night, because some of the stricter churches here use oil (or kerosene) lamps only on buggies *and* refuse to put reflective triangles (etc.) on their vehicles, too. It’s very frightening – and yet, I’ve seen these issues reported on as a matter of “religious intolerance” (by the local “English”) in publications like Christianity Today.

    all of that makes me think ???!!!! – because I *don’t* want to hurt anyone who’s out on the road at night (or their horses, for that matter), but every time I drive the main drag near here after dark, I’m taking big, big chances (as are the Amish who are out after dark).

  8. e2c: Fortunately the area I’m mostly from (Kidron, OH) has put in a lot of “buggy tracks” beside main thoroughfares so that the buggies will be safe and the ones with iron-only tires won’t tear up the roads (another common complaint. The roads are atrocious.)

    It’s interesting- because the local government wants them to obey vehicle safety laws for their own good. And most Amish groups these days do have reflectors and electric headlamps, but the Swartzentruber and other more conservative groups won’t commit. There’s also a problem with kids not wearing jackets with reflective patches when walking to school- there have been so many deaths because of that.

    I won’t go into detail here, for my own privacy, but suffice it to say while I respect the ways of the Amish and their right to their beliefs- it doesn’t always come without a cost.

  9. I’m in Mifflin Co., PA, which is a very isolated area. In consequence, the Amish churches here are (in many ways) FAR less progressive and aware of the world around them than is the case down in (for example) Lancaster County. There have been local outbreaks of polio – even adult deaths – due to the fact that many in the area Amish communities refuse to take the oral vaccine.

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