Whether religions oppress women and uphold the patriarchal system is a long debated and sensitive subject. Until recently, I was certain that Christianity was a sexist religion. I saw how powerful positions in the church are almost exclusively held by men, how the bible presents male protagonists and heroes and frames women as passive objects rather than subjects.
Most importantly, I stayed in Arkansas for a time with my ex-boyfriend who was born and raised in the bible belt, and this is where I had experienced most of my interaction with the Christian faith.
In churches packed to the rafters with ‘god loving people’ who had been up taking drugs until 4am and then crowded into the church a few hours later. Churches where lightening sound effects where played alongside bible readings and where people vehemently loved and respected Donald Trump and God in almost equal abundance. Staying in a community where men were more highly valued than women, I remember my ex-boyfriend telling me god had a reason for everything. ‘The fact that one in three women are sexually assaulted?’ I asked. ‘What is the reason for that?’
‘Well, I guess it will teach those women not to put themselves in that position again.’
I got up from the table so quickly that glasses went flying. ‘Fuck you.’ I said, with calm rage, left my ex with his mother and friends at the table and locked myself in his pickup truck in protest. In hind’s sight that wasn’t the most mature way to handle my rage but I felt an anger and indignation so strong that in those moments I thought all Christians and all churches a hoax designed to control and abuse women and girls.
The photo featured in this article is of Juan Jose Tamayo, a well-known academic in the world of politics and religion, and my lecturer for a module about conflict and religion. In a recent talk he gave about his latest book: Religion, the Patriarchy and Violence he explained the links between patriarchy and various religions, including Christianity.
He is a good man and engaging speaker who explained that religion systematically disempowers women and girls through the hierarchical structure of the church, which objectifies and oppresses women. He thinks the global patriarchal system has been largely created through the ‘sacredness’ of masculinity presented by the Christian Church. He criticises the religious principles within gender discourse, including patriarchal language and misogynistic organization of religious institutions.
He had some excellent points and I do agree that powerful positions in the church are almost exclusively held by men throughout different Christian denominations. This reflects a structural disempowerment of women within the church, as does the suggestion by the bible that women are the root of evil, through the actions of Eve in the garden of Eden.
I now want to speak to you about Evan. He is my classmate for the politics and religion module I take with Juan and we have had various discussions and debates over a falafel wrap and can of Fanta.
Evan loves God, unreservedly and wholeheartedly. He told me a quote that he thinks sums up the issues of religion and the oppression of women. ‘The worst day in the history of Christianity was when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.’ He thinks that Christianity still hasn’t recovered from being abused and manipulated by the Roman Emporers, though he is a devout Christian and part of the Anglican Church.
Evan believes that the bible is radically feminist. He explained how Christianity comes from ancient Judaism, in which women where undervalued and presented as lesser. But when Jesus is resurrected in the bible, he is found by 2 women. This is radical, he told me, because it comes in a time where the word of women was disregarded and women where not viewed as trustworthy. But the fact that two women saw Jesus come back from the dead, which is the basis for all the Christian denominations, shows that the bible values women far more than previous religions and at the time was a huge step forward for the place of women in society.
Evan also explained to me that he does not masturbate or watch porn, and that he is waiting to marry before having sex. ‘Oh come on’ I said. ‘How can touching yourself be immoral. It’s between you and yourself! It doesn’t hurt anyone and it feels good, so what!’
He smiled and handed me the Fanta. ‘Well, from my point of view when you watch porn or touch yourself it leads you to change the way you look at women. Unintentionally and subconsciously I believe it leads to a sexualisation of women which is degrading and wrong. You go into the street and you see women as objects to be enjoyed, and have a fake expectation of sex and the female body which is harmful and leads to a culture of misogyny and rape.’
I told him about my experiences in Arkansas, where going to church was more about a status symbol than any real connection or love of God, and where I felt like a delicate creature to be protected and controlled rather than an individual with intelligence or personality.
‘Look, I think you have to bear in mind that religion is intrinsically tied up with hypocrisy. That isn’t true Christianity. Christianity isn’t about praying the loudest or the number of times you show up to church. Ever since Christianity became the official religion of Rome it has been wrapped up in power dynamics and hierarchy which of course can disregard women or the LGBT+ community. 300 years before the Roman Church hijacked and changed Christianity, it was always a religion that stood for peace and moral values, today much of what we call ‘religion’ is actually a shadow of those misguided Roman Emperors who used Christianity to meet their own needs and greed, and it gives a bad name to good humble Christians who want to celebrate their love for their Creator’
Evan explained how he thinks Christianity itself is a beautiful and respectful religion, but that modern day institutions have developed over thousands of years to concentrate power and wealth into the hands of a few straight white men, particularly the catholic church. However, this isn’t the fault of God, Christianity or the Bible, but rather more the actions of humans.
I think a true Christian has a relationship between God and himself or herself, and the denomination you belong to shouldn’t matter. The basic principles of Christianity are about love and peace and like Evan explained, they have been warped throughout thousands of years of misinterpretation, power and politics.
My opinion, after speaking to both Juan and Evan is that Christianity itself is not patriarchal nor does it oppress women. However, with countless denominations interpreting the bible in different ways and particularly the hierarchical system found within the Roman Catholic Church, women and girls are inevitably oppressed and silenced in some circumstances, just like they are systematically abused in other religions and non-religious communities. Sexism is a human problem, rather than a Christian one and although some ‘Christian’ communities undoubtedly use their religion as an excuse by which to mistreat women and girls I do believe that this is a disservice to the many kind and humble Christians who value all in society equally.
Christianity doesn’t oppress women, humanity does. Religion is a tool by which some people reinforce the existing patriarchal system, but it is not the system itself.