Daughters of Abraham: Feminist Thought in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad John L. Esposito
The three Abrahamic religions are all adamantly opposed to the subjection of one human being by another.
All three insist that men and women were created in God’s image and that both sexes have equal rights and responsibilities before God. All cherish the memory of strong, resourceful women who played a key role in salvation history.
DAUGHTERS OF ABRAHAM: FEMINIST THOUGHT IN JUDAISM, CHRISTIANITY, AND ISLAM
And yet, in common with most of the major world faiths, none of which has been unreservedly good for women, each of the three has pushed women into an inferior and marginal position, excluding them from full participation in the social, cultural, and religious life of the community.
Even though such seminal figures as Jesus, Saint Paul, or the Prophet Muhammad had a positive view of women, relied on them, and treated them as valued colleagues, some of the most revered sages, theologians, and jurists have preached outright misogyny.
In recent years, women of all three traditions have challenged this patriarchal hegemony. Some have argued for a radical revision to correct the prevailing chauvinism, which, they claim, regards women not only as outsiders but as less than human. Women have made great strides.
They have been ordained as rabbis, ministers, and priests. They have written theological and legal works to contest a hitherto unchallenged male supremacy.
But this religious feminism has inspired great hostility, including sometimes from other women, who, for example, have been some of the most vociferous opponents of the ordination of women to the Christian priesthood.
This volume, which includes the proceedings of a conference held at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, is an attempt to look at this perennial problem once again. The religious oppression of women has been one of the great flaws of monotheism.
Despite the fact that it militates against fundamental principles of their faith, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim men have all hijacked the revelation and made it conform to the old, unredeemed patriarchy.
The Jewish Bible is a thoroughly realistic text. The book of Genesis, for example, is quite clear that relations between the sexes are problematic and fraught with suffering. It tells the story of a holy family that is dysfunctional, and in which husbands and wives are often at war.
Yet even though Genesis is undoubtedly a patriarchal text, it does not provide Jews or Christians with a blueprint for the oppression of women. The very first chapter insists that man and woman were both created in God’s image.
In the garden of Eden, Eve may have been the first to disobey, but she is a far more adventurous and attractive figure than Adam, who comes across rather as a stooge, lagging behind his wife and feebly passing the buck when things go wrong.
When Abraham treats his wife Sarah exploitatively, putting her into Pharaoh’s harem to save his own skin, this provokes a destructive chain of events in his own family, as we shall see later. In the next generation, it is the vigorous Rebecca, not the blind, paralyzed, and ineffectual Isaac, to whom God speaks and who takes control of the family fortunes.
And Jacob’s cruelty to his wife, Leah, has appalling consequences, leading to murderous sibling rivalry among his twelve sons, and the text tacitly but strongly condemns his callous indifference to the rape of his daughter Dinah (Leah’s offspring) by the men of Shechem. In later books, the Bible treasures the memory of women who became the saviours and guides of their people:
Deborah, Judith, and Esther. And yet in these pages we see that women were pushed—literally—to an ever more remote corner of the synagogue, were identified with the Evil Impulse, excluded from the minyan, the prayer quorum, and their voices were not heard.
Men would claim that calling women to the bimah to read the Torah would result in the destruction of Judaism. In Jewish law, women are marginal creatures, excluded from mainstream social and religious life, like children and slaves. As one Jewish feminist observed, the woman was “The Jew Who Wasn’t There.”
There is a similar paradox in Christianity. Jesus had women disciples who travelled with him and helped to support him financially. When he visited his friends Martha and Mary at Bethany, he praised Mary, who preferred to sit at his feet, like any male rabbinical student at the feet of his master, rather than help Martha in the kitchen.
When Jesus was arrested, it was, in the main, only women who had the courage to stay with him throughout the crucifixion, while the male disciples went into hiding;
and, according to the gospels, it was women who had the first news of the resurrection. Saint Paul insisted that in Christ there was neither male nor female; the old gender inequality, like the inequalities of class and race, was gone for good.
He spoke of women as his co-workers in ministry.3
On only one occasion, when he commands the women of Corinth to wear their veils when they prophesy in the assembly, does Paul allow the chauvinism of his time to get the better of him.4 Most of the passages attributed to Paul that relegate woman to a subordinate position—in the epistles to Timothy, for example,5 were written long after Paul’s death by a Christian who wrote in his name to indicate that he was Paul’s disciple.
Saint Luke is the evangelist who is closest in spirit to Paul, and of the four gospels, his is the most positive toward women. So Christianity was originally good news for women, but at an early date, the gospel was made to serve patriarchal chauvinism.
Like their Jewish counterparts, Christian women were also marginalized and pushed away from their menfolk.
Saint Augustine told his priests to leave women strictly alone; if they were sick or in trouble, another woman could tend them. “What does it matter whether we speak of a wife or a mother?” he wrote to a friend. “It is still Eve, the temptress, of whom we must be- ware in all women.”
Saint Augustine made the doctrine of original sin central to the Western Christian vision; and since it was Eve who was the first to pluck the forbidden fruit, women, sex, and sin became fused in the Christian imagination. For in Christianity, besides bearing the usual burden of perceived inferiority, women were also castigated for their sexuality.
More than any other major faith, Christianity has found it difficult to integrate sexuality with the sacred. Several of the fathers of the Church, particularly in the West, equated marriage with prostitution.
They saw sexual love as inherently sinful and incompatible with the true Christian life. Saint Augustine saw his conversion to Christ as inseparable from a vocation to chastity. The only good woman, in the Christian view, was a virgin: by denying her sexuality, a woman became an honorary man.6
Whereas in Judaism and Islam, women received honour and a measure of respect from being wives and mothers, for the greater part of Christian history, celibacy was the top vocation. It was not until the seventeenth century that Christian matrimony became truly holy.7 Christian women often had to bear the brunt of men’s disgust with their own sexuality.
Luther’s sexual attitudes, for example, were thoroughly Augustinian. He believed that sex was inherently sinful, but that marriage covered it with a veneer of respectability so that “God winks at it.”8 Despite his own marriage, Luther had little time for women, who were to be punished for Eve’s sin by exclusion from public life. A woman, he decreed, was to remain in the home “like a nail driven into the wall.”
Foreword Like Christianity, Islam began with a very positive message for women. Indeed, the faith can be said to have come to birth in the arms of a loving woman.
When Muhammad received the first revelations of the Qur’an, their impact was so shattering that he used to crawl, trembling convulsively, to his wife Khadija, who cradled him in her lap until his fear sub- sided. Muhammad was one of those rare men who actually enjoyed and sought out the company of women.
Women were among the first converts to Islam, and the Qur’an gave women rights of inheritance and divorce that Western women would not receive until the nineteenth century.
As Amira El-Azhary Sonbol points out in her chapter, although there is some debate about the position of Arabian women in the pre-Islamic period, it seems clear that women played an active role in the early Islamic community in Medina.
The Qur’an prescribes neither the veiling of all women nor their seclusion in the house of their male protectors; but some three or four generations after the Prophet’s death, Muslims imitated the customs of the Greeks and the Persians in their new empire, who had long treated their women in this way.
Muslims also picked up some of the Christian misogyny. Like all pre-modern legal codes, the shari’ah reduced women to the rank of second-class citizens, even though the idea of the equality of all believers was crucial to the Qur’an’s message.
Sonbol points out that jurists habitually interpreted Qur’anic injunctions with a patriarchal bias that proved damaging to women. The improved status of women was one of the most significant developments of the twentieth century.
It has irrevocably changed the social, domestic, intellectual, and economic life of society. But, sadly, religious people, who should be at the forefront of this process of emancipation, have often tried to put women back in their old marginal place.
In all three of the Abrahamic religions, the more conservative believers have responded to the emancipation of women in modern culture by over-stressing traditional restrictions. Haredi Jews have been known to attack members of their ultra-orthodox community who allow their wives and daughters to infringe the strict dress code.
In Haredi districts, placards implore the Daughters of Israel to dress modestly.
In some Muslim circles, the veiled woman has become a sign of the integrity of Islam; and in the United States, Protestant fundamentalists—men and women alike—see feminism as one of the great evils of our time.
Husbands feel unmanned and obscurely castrated by the spectacle of the empowered woman.
In all three faiths, the embattled religiosity known as “fundamental- ism” fears annihilation at the hands of the secular and the liberal establishment, and it seems to be the case that when a community feels imperilled, women’s bodies become the focus of concern and attention. In the