Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Middle Eastern Misogyny's Western Roots

Anyone who knows me or who has been reading my blog knows I have little (read no) tolerance for simplistic arguments pinning blame for the world's ills on religion and belief systems.   Yes, religion is a player in the complex systems of life and society and can have positive and negative impacts, but it is one player among many and in most cases where people try to pin the blame on religion I see little more than brainless reductionism.  That's why I put Bill Maher Religulous-type ranting in the same category as Salafist and Puritan and Kach-type extremism.  It's a reflection of blindness to complexity, an unwillingness to even try to understand difficult issues in favor of dumbing things down.  Yes, sometimes we need to cut through the fog and call a spade a spade, but it turns out that most of the world really is grey and we are far too eager to declare things black and white than reality would dictate.

So, along those lines, I get sick of hearing people blame the misogyny and oppression of women in the Middle East on religion.  I could go into how almost identical modes of oppression can be found in many non-Muslim societies in the Mediterranean (Egyptian Coptic Christian or Serbian Christian "honor" killings of women for example).  But without going into all the modalities of the present, I've been reading a very good book about early Christianity that has a section discussing the role of women in the ancient Mediterranean that is very enlightening.  While right-wing kooks who rage against "Islamofascists" (without knowing pretty much anything about either Islam or fascism) talk about Islam supposedly being the source of many of the misogynistic problems they rail against (only among Muslims of course, they are pretty much blind to the presence of the severe violence against women that still exists in their own societies), the author of this book shows quite clearly how many of these practices really have their roots in ancient antiquity.  And not even in ancient Middle Eastern societies like Persia or Mesopotamia, but in traditional Greco-Roman western societies of antiquity and in Mediterranean Jewish society (which lets remember had an extensive presence throughout the Roman world and not just in the lands of ancient Israel).

Enough of my rantings, now for the extensive quotations.  The book is called "Introducing Early Christianity: A Topical Survey of Its Life, Beliefs & Practices" by Laurie Guy who is a "lecturer in church history at Carey Baptist College, Auckland, New Zealand, and he is lecturer with the School of Theology at the University of Auckland."  The parts I am quoting are only in regards to this topic of the ancient western and Judaic roots of misogyny, but if you are interested in the broader topic of the first centuries of Christianity, I heartily recommend the book as a good introduction.  He clearly takes an apologist's view towards his version of Christianity, but his scholarship is honest, making frequent reference to primary sources and he makes it easy enough to distinguish his interpretory (is that a word?) conclusions from his good attempts to review and present the broad topic.

Read on and note the many misogynistic practices which long pre-date Islam.  And for anyone who wants to say "oh but we wonderful westerners have overcome all that unlike those backwards Middle Easterners", I'll invite you to [1] go look up the statistics on domestic violence and murder of women in your own countries, or count the ratio of male to female political and business leaders in your countries, and [2] start reading up on Middle Eastern feminist thought and history and compare the pace at which those trends have been developing compared to the pace it took them to develop in your own countries.  In any case, I think you'll find the following discussion all the more fascinating in that it shows practices that sound familiar today in parts of the world, but were issues in Muhammad's time, Christ's time, and Julius Caesar's time.  Regardless of religion - pagan, Christian, or Muslim.  The source of the problems lie elsewhere beyond religion (even if religion does then often jump into the mix and become part of it), as do most of the solutions.


[From Pages 166-169]

Women in Greco-Roman society.  Marked diversity appears within this category.  One legacy of classical Greece largely kept Eastern women veiled and in the home, without formal education.  The tendency for women to remain in the home had become much more relaxed, however, by the time of the early church.  Many women remained veiled, but many others, especially from the upper class, were starting to go about unveiled.  In some ways, rural and lower class women were freer in their movements than urban and upper class women, for example, in drawing water and trading in the marketplace.  On the other hand, high-status women, Greek and Roman alike, might sometimes transcend gender in determination of social role.  So occasionally, women owned brick factories, became philosophers and acted as barristers.  A few achieved public prominence, but they seldom filled roles that would require their speaking in public.

The Roman world restricted women's movements within the wider society less than did Hellenistic society, and wealthier women had access to education up to age twelve or so.  At the same time, women might sometimes hold public office in the East, Cleopatra being an obvious example.  This was not so in the Roman West, where they could not vote or hold public office; at most they could act as the power behind the throne.

Though variations existed, the overall structure of society was patriarchal.  Men dominated.  Apart from exceptions such as the Vestal virgins and Sibylline prophetesses, women basically had no leadership roles in Greco-Roman religion.  A sharp distinction between the public and the private spheres of life enforced the separate roles: the man's sphere was the public space, the woman's the private place.  Women were created for domesticity.

With regard to marriage, until recently historians agreed that women in the Mediterranean would normally enter marriage somewhere around ages twelve to fifteen.  More recently B. D. Shaw has persuasively argued that this conclusion comes from faulty interpretation of the data and that women in both halves of the empire typically married in their late teens.  Shaw's perspective still indicates, however, that women married at a young age, a factor that would encourage submission to their older husbands.  Moreover, even if a majority of women married in their late teens, quite a number married earlier.  In the Christian community, Melania the Elder was married at fourteen, Melania the Younger at twelve, and Macrina was engaged at age eleven.

Roman culture (though not Greek culture) viewed women as under the tutelage of men.  The father held unlimited power over his household, even that of life and death.  At marriage the daughter usually passed from the hand (manus) of her father to that of her husband.  This practice reinforced a sense of women's inferior nature.  Devaluing of women can also be seen in the common practice of infanticide, which typically meant the exposure of female infants.  This was justified on the basis of an alleged law stemming from Romulus, requiring a father to raise all male children, but only the first-born daughter.  This resulted in a great gender imbalance, with perhaps one-third more men than women.  A study of 600 families based on inscriptions at Delphi has shown that only six of these families had raised more than one daughter.

The hierarchical nature of Roman society and the low status it gave to women is likely evident in Trajan's food distribution programs for children in Italy in the early second century.  According to inscriptions at Veleia (Elea), a town in southern Italy, the monthly allowance was sixteen sesterces for boys, twelve for girls, twelve for illegitimate boys and ten for illegitimate girls.  Of the 300 recipients only 36 were girls.  This sort of data points to a perception of women as inferior, of less value, subject to a dominant man, and with no public role in life.  Exceptions occasionally occurred--through wealth, through connections, through outstanding strength of personality--but they were exceptions.  It was fundamentally a man's world.

Women in Judaism.  Though details differed, the lot of Jewish women overall was not unlike that of their Gentile neighbors.  They had no public role.  As the first-century Jewish writer Philo explained:

  • Market places, and council chambers, and courts of justice, and large companies and assemblies of numerous crowds, and a life in the open air of actions relating to war and peace, are suited to men; but taking care of the house and remaining at home are the proper duties of women; the virgins having their apartments in the centre of the house within the innermost doors, and the full-grown women not going beyond the vestibule and outer courts; for there are two kinds of states, the greater and the smaller.  And the larger ones are really called cities; but the smaller ones are called houses.  And the superintendence and the management of these is allotted to the two sexes separately; the men having the government of the greater, which government is called a polity; and the women that of the smaller, which is called oeconomy [household management].

Along with the rest of the Mediterranean world, Jewish girls married in their teenage years.  Marriage may have had greater honor among Jews, but divorce was not uncommon.  In addition, in contrast to Roman law, Jewish law vested the right of divorce in men only.

Women had no significant role in public worship.  While women were subject to the negative commands of the law (the "thou shalt nots" in the Torah), they were not subject to its positive commands (keeping the festivals, reciting the Shema, prayers at meals, etc.).  Most pronouncements on the matter asserted that women were not to be taught the Torah (though other statements indicated that it did happen--rhetoric and reality often differed in relation to women).  About A.D. 90, Rabbi Eliezer asserted, "If a man gives his daughter a knowledge of the law, it is as though he taught her obscenity."  In praising God for the opportunity to learn the law, a male pray-er in Rabbinic Judaism expressed the sorry plight of women: "Praised be God that he has not made me a gentile; praised be God that he has not made me a woman; praised be God that he has not created me an ignorant man."

Regulations concerning access to the great temple at Jerusalem limited women to the Gentiles' court and the women's court.  Their insignificance in worship is indicated in the fact that they could not be counted as part of the quorum of ten necessary to form a worshipping synagogue congregation.

Pervasive negativity toward women can also be seen in the way Jewish sources regularly viewed the birth of a daughter as a disappointment.  Several Talmudic sayings mark this perspective: "It is well for those whose children are male, but ill for those whose children are female"; "at the birth of a boy all are joyful, but at the birth of a girl all are sad"; "when a boy comes into the world, peace comes into the world; when a girl comes, nothing comes."  The diminished value of women stands out starkly in the fact that they were commonly not acceptable witnesses in court proceedings.  Josephus urged, "Let not the testimony of women be admitted because of the levity and boldness of their sex."  Jewish women shared the low status of women generally in the pervasively patriarchal Mediterranean world.  Within such a world Christianity began.

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