Women and the Monotheisms

8 December 2011

Women and the Monotheisms

By Gwynne Dyer

One should not mock the sexual obsessions of Islamic fundamentalists; it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. When a senior academic in Saudi Arabia, Prof. Kamal Subhi, declares in a report for the Shura Council, the kingdom’s legislative assembly, that allowing women to drive would spell the end of virginity in the kingdom, it doesn’t really require further comment. But let’s offer a few comments anyway.

In the report, Prof. Subhi describes sitting in a coffee shop in an unnamed Arab state where “all the women were looking at me. One made a gesture that made it clear that she was available. This is what happens when women are allowed to drive.”

I regret to report that this doesn’t happen to me in coffee shops. In fact, it doesn’t even happen to me in bars, although I am generally reckoned to be the most handsome man of my generation. (The late Jurassic generation.) It doesn’t seem to happen to any of my male friends either, although most of us live in the decadent, post-Christian West, where women drive all the time.

Maybe it’s just that none of us are as amazingly good-looking and sexy as Prof. Subhi, or maybe Arab women are incredibly lascivious and immoral. But it seems more likely that he was just imagining it all, in which case another possible explanation presents itself.

Perhaps he has a mentality so sex-obsessed and so fearful of women that these feverish imaginings seem perfectly normal to him. And they ARE quite normal among Islamic fundamentalists, like the Nour Party in Egypt that demands strict prohibitions against mixed bathing, “fornication”, and the appointment of women to leadership roles – and got a quarter of the votes in last week’s election in Egypt.

But the point is not that Muslims are weird; they are all too normal. All the “Abrahamic” religions, as Muslims call them, have traditionally been sex-obsessed and terrified of women, and the fundamentalists among them still are. Take the increasingly influential and importunate Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews of Israel.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, last week told an audience that included Israel’s deputy prime minister, Dan Meridor, and opposition leader Tzipi Livni that she was shocked by the growing discrimination against Israeli women. She even compared the separate seating for women on some Jerusalem buses to the humiliation of Rosa Parks, the black American woman who made history in 1955 by refusing to give up her bus seat for white passengers.

Clinton also compared the behaviour of some Israeli soldiers who recently walked out on a performance by female singers to the attitude towards women in Iran. But God – at least, the God worshipped by the Haredim – is enraged whenever men listen to women singing, so of course they had to leave. As for Christian fundamentalist attitudes toward women, here’s the Rev. Pat Robertson, one of the most influential US television evangelists:

“The Feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” Not to mention drive cars and hang around in coffee shops making come-hither eyes at ageing academics.

Where does all this weirdness come from? Other societies and other religions have been just as patriarchal and disrespectful of women: it wasn’t much fun being a woman in traditional Hindu, Buddhist or Confucian societies either. But nowhere else was there the same male sexual panic, the profound, ingrained fear of free women that infests all the Middle Eastern monotheisms. Where does that come from?

I started to write this next paragraph three times, and then admitted to myself that I really do not know the answer. It’s clear from the fragments of history that have come down to us from five thousand years ago that there was an intense struggle in the ancient Fertile Crescent between the old female fertility cults and the new male-centred religions, which celebrated war, hierarchy and blind obedience.

The male religions triumphed everywhere: by three and a half thousand years ago, male hierarchies ruled everything, both in the heavens and on the Earth. But why was the struggle so much more intense in the Middle East, and the outcome so much more hostile to women, than in most other places? Dunno.

It doesn’t matter, really. You can’t unpick the history; you have to start from where you are, even if you’d much rather start from somewhere else. And the fact is that people can overcome their history: most Jews, Christians and Muslims today do not have extreme anti-female attitudes. The reason we have a special name for those who still do is evidence enough that they are a minority in the present populations, if you actually needed it.

Fundamentalists are a big minority in countries like the United States, Israel, Egypt and Iran, but a much smaller minority in countries like France, Turkey, and Russia. In some places their numbers are actually growing at the moment, but the long-term trend is sharply down. By today’s standards, ALL Jews, Christians and Muslims were fundamentalists five hundred years ago.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“I started…Dunno”)