Although it seems familiar and uncontroversial, the idea that people can be or do anything they want regardless of their gender is a radical concept that disproves millennia of patriarchal religious teachings.
I was out for a walk with my son on a sunny spring day when we saw the woman in the niqab.
It was the classic Islamic look: a long, flowing black garment that covered her from fingertips to feet, a headscarf that came down to her shoulders, and a veil that left only her eyes exposed.
I live in a diverse neighborhood of Queens, so this wasn’t an unexpected sight. But my son is 5 years old, and much is still new to him. More importantly, at this age he has no filter.
He saw the woman, and his eyes went wide. I knew what he was thinking, and the last thing I wanted was for him to blurt out “Is that a ninja?” at the worst possible moment.
While she was still most of a block away, I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Don’t stare. If you have any questions, save them up and ask me when we get home.”
Later that day, we had a conversation about it. I told my son that no, he didn’t see a ninja (yes, he asked). I said that women who dress that way belong to a religion called Islam. I explained that they don’t wear those clothes at home. They wear them whenever they’re out in public, because they believe that only their family should see their faces uncovered.
I reminded him of what we taught him about privacy: that some parts of his body are private parts that are only for himself, his parents, and his doctor, and he should keep them covered by clothes the rest of the time. I was going to make an analogy, but he got there first: “So they believe their whole body is a private part!”
I’m really proud of him for the next thing he said, which came without any prompting from me. Kids are capable of amazing insights, and this was a particularly brilliant one:
“But why don’t men have to wear those clothes?”
I said, “That’s a very good question.”
I told him that most religions have different rules for men and women, not just Islam. But, of course, this isn’t an answer to his question, just another way of stating the question.
I deliberately didn’t try to give him a more thorough explanation. I’m pleased that he noticed the inconsistency, and I wanted him to sit with it and ponder it, rather than me trying to wipe it away with a glib answer. In true emperor’s-new-clothes fashion, his fresh sight made it easy for him to notice a discrepancy that adults train themselves to overlook.
In having this conversation this with him, I had a realization of my own. Against the backdrop of millennia of religious patriarchy, gender equality—even in its most mainstream, familiar, unthreatening guise—is a radical notion.
Every major religion is deeply sexist
I’m not even talking about abortion or birth control, but the simple principle that women have the right of self-determination—that they can be or do whatever they choose. They can vote, get an education, own property, have a career, earn an income, marry a person of their choice, or not marry at all. They can be presidents and astronauts and athletes and authors.
This is a bedrock moral belief of a free society. It’s so uncontroversial that we teach it to kids in books and TV shows and kindergarten classes. It’s also a Molotov cocktail flung in the face of every religion that’s ever taught that the God-given role of women is to be subservient wives, mothers and homemakers.
It’s not just Islam, which subjects women to stifling modesty rules and other constraints that don’t apply to men. It’s also the Roman Catholic church, the Mormon church, and the Southern Baptist Convention, which reserve positions of power and authority for men alone. It’s the evangelical and fundamentalist colleges that require gender segregation on campus and blame female students for being sexually assaulted.
It’s also Buddhism, which has extra rules for nuns that don’t apply to monks, and which teaches that women can’t attain enlightenment until they’re reborn as men.
In fact, every major world religion is deeply sexist. All of them have different and more severe rules for women: rules governing proper dress, proper behavior, proper speech, proper attitude. All of them subject women to more pervasive constraints than men. All of them have the effect of making women less-than, trying to keep them unseen, unheard, and subordinate.
As I found out for myself, it’s impossible to justify this to someone who hasn’t been brought up with the idea. A child’s natural impulse is to ask “Why?”—and for these rules, there is no “why” that holds up to scrutiny. There’s no defense that can be made, other than the empty assertion of “Because God said so.”
Why religion and patriarchy go together
The real reason is that, like other religious dogmas, these sexist strictures are relics of a less enlightened time. They come from ancient cultures with a might-makes-right mindset, which believed that the strongest and the most savage were entitled to rule. These men flattered themselves that their greater physical strength equated to greater moral strength, or greater intelligence, or greater understanding of God’s will—which meant that women were weaker vessels who deserved to be subjugated.
Our more advanced understanding of human rights blows this sexism away as the foul smog it is. There was never any substance to it. It was rank superstition born of ignorance. Every woman who achieves more than religious teaching believed her capable of proves that these beliefs are wrong and have always been wrong.
Of course, some liberal Jewish and Protestant denominations have officially embraced gender equality. They ordain women to the clergy and preach that men and women are equal in the eyes of God. And it’s good that they’ve made their peace with moral progress—don’t get me wrong.
However, even these churches still use the old holy books and proclaim them to be the word of God, even though those books teach the sexist attitudes that those churches disavow. This is a case of wanting to have it both ways.
If liberal believers are sincere in believing that women and men are equal, they can prove it. They should make a clean break with the inferior attitudes of the past, and issue new versions of the Bible with the morally unacceptable parts removed.