Religion’s Oppression of Women, Part 1: Islam and Hinduism

It is a truism that women have been and continue to be ill-treated and subjugated by religion.  As I began to delve into this area of research, I discovered that many contemporary studies on women and gender issues have focused more on cultural questions rather than strictly religious ones.  However, culture, religion and gender matters are frequently intermingled to such an extent that they merge into one single concern.  This blending is particularly evident in three issues which I have chosen to illustrate religion’s oppression of women.  All three subjects are excellent examples of the way religions and their influence on culture have had a deleterious effect not only on women’s legal standing and cultural position, but have helped lead to the physical and economic subjugation of women.

In this first lecture, I shall discuss the role of women in Hindu India and in Islam vis-à-vis religious issues. In my second lecture I shall be discussing aspects of witchcraft persecution and the preponderance of accused women victims, with an emphasis on the witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts and surrounding areas in 1692 and 1693. My position in these talks is that religion-influenced culture stifles and suppresses the women much more than a secular society.  I have concentrated on three regions of the world and three religions because the topic of gender and religion is so vast that many areas of research are simply beyond the scope and time limits of these lectures.

I shall begin with India and a now illegal custom from that nation’s past.  We shall see how the Hindu religion reinforced and often approved of the practice of sati, which consisted of a woman immolating herself on the funeral pile of her dead husband. In other words, she was burned alive, most often voluntarily. There are disagreements among scholars over the translation of a piece of verse from Indian sacred literature that appears to favor sati. The practice was, and remains, controversial with regard to how much it was promulgated by the Hindu religion and its scriptures.

Before I describe the practice of self-immolation of women in India, I would like to discuss the historical status of women in that country and in the Hindu religion.  The lecture will begin with the Manusmrti, which according to Hindu mythology, is the word of Brahma, the god of creation. This code of laws is believed to be the most authoritative statement on Dharma, the religiously proper and obligatory conduct of humans. There is an assumption by many Hindus that the actual human author of the Manusmrti was a man called Manu. According to some traditions he might have been the first king of India. He was likely a member of a conservative Brahman caste in Northern India, although nothing is known about his life.  The work was composed around 200 CE and is a huge compilation of laws and conduct.  Hindu advocates consider the Manusmrti to be the divine guide to human conduct, and that the status of women laid out in the text must be considered divine law. They often quote the verses from it that seem to favor a place of honor for women, but conveniently forget or overlook many other verses about women in the volume that are filled with open hatred, prejudice and misogyny.

Here are just a few.  “It is the nature of women to reduce men in this world; for that reason the wise are never unguarded in the company of females.” “Food offered and served to Brahmans after Shraddha ritual should not be seen by a pig, a cock, a dog, and a menstruating woman.” “A Brahman, true defender of his class, should not have his meals in the company of his wife, and should even avoid looking at her.  Furthermore, he should not look towards her when she is having her meals or when she sneezes/yawns.” “Girls are supposed to be in the custody of their father when they are children, women must be in the custody of their husband when married and under the custody of her sons as widows. Under no circumstances is she allowed to assert herself independently.” “Women have no divine right to perform any religious ritual, nor make vows or observe a fast.  Her only duty is to obey and please her husband and she will be for that reason alone exalted in heaven.” “Veda mantras are not to be recited by women, because women are lacking in strength and knowledge of Vedic texts. Women are impure and represent falsehood.” “A barren wife may be superseded in the eighth year; she whose children die may be superseded in the tenth year, and she who bears only daughters may be superseded without delay.” “Because of their passion for men, immutable temper and natural heartlessness, they [women] are not loyal to their husbands.”

I have discovered about forty misogynist statements in the authoritative Manusmrti document.  There are many more.  Manu does not advocate self-immolation of widows.  But many Hindu documents and holy works, including Manu’s compilation, prescribe a kind of death in life for widows.  The lecture will glance at prescriptive texts for the behavior and status of widows in the Hindu religion in a few minutes. 

When I refer to Brahmans during my talk, the reference is to the priestly and scholarly caste or class, which was the dominant one in India for many centuries.

The meaning of the word, sati, is from the Sanskrit, and means chaste wife or good woman.  As I have stated earlier, the widow of a dead man burned herself to death on his funeral pyre.  The custom was not widely practiced.  Some authorities claim that sati was the ideal of certain Brahman and royal castes.  However, some of the sacred books forbade the practice to Brahman women, although presumably there were no qualms concerning women from more inferior castes performing sati. The first mention of self immolation by women in India seems to have been in the myth of the goddess, Sati, who had yogic powers.  Humiliated because her father insulted her husband, the god, Shiva, she created a fire and burned herself to death.  Her husband, Shiva, never died in this myth, but lived to avenge Sati’s suicide.  He also caused places of pilgrimage established in honor of her act.

The Mahabharata, the Sanskrit epic that was first compiled into its present form in about 400 CE, mentions the practice.  It is the first explicit reference to sati in Indian sacred literature.  But the Greek historian from the 1st Century, BCE, Diodorus Siculus, mentioned the custom and stated that it came from the Indian Punjab region around the 4th Century BCE, which indicates that sati was a very old Indian tradition. There are memorial stones all over India, paying tribute to the widows who performed sati. The earliest one discovered so far is dated 510 CE. 

During India’s medieval era, around the 8th Century, the practice began to spread, which many scholars believe may have been a consequence of the hardships suffered by Indian widows in traditional Hindu society.

Other historians maintain that the custom of sati came from the aristocratic warrior caste of the Rajputs, where women sometimes immolated themselves before their husbands’ expected death in battle in order to avoid being raped by the conquering enemy.  Rape was considered worse than death during that time, which was the so-called Muslim period, or incursions, from the 12th to the 16th Centuries CE. When a woman burned herself to death prior to her husband’s demise, the practice was called “jauhar.” Rajput widows also performed sati, often without their husband’s dead body, because it had been lost in battle. 

There are other historians who maintain that from around 1100 CE and beyond, sati was practiced at a somewhat increased rate among the Brahmans of Bengal.  They argue that sati increased because of the law system in use in the Bengal region, which gave inheritance rights to women.  Widows would be encouraged to perform sati and leave their inheritance to their sons or other male relatives.  However, the practice was always a problematical one and attempts to ban it were made by some of the Mughal rulers in the 16th Century. In the 19th Century, many of the British who ruled India were appalled by sati.  But some Englishmen, while not liking the custom, did not wish to interfere with Indian religious and cultural traditions. They were comfortable with their business affairs in India and did not want anything to disturb them.  So for a long while, sati was tolerated by the British, who tried to discourage it by setting down the legal conditions under which it could be carried out. 

However, their legal maneuver had the disconcerting appearance of approving the practice. The British finally outlawed sati in 1829, after many years of callously tolerating it.  They hypocritically cited their banning of sati as one of the reasons they should continue to rule India.

The traditional practice of sati was conducted in public.  The body of the dead husband was frequently placed in a sort of hut or under a canopy on top of many layers of kindling wood. A fire was lighted at the bottom of the funeral pyre and the flames burned upward.  The man’s widow would enter the hut or canopy, lay her husband’s dead head in her lap, then sit there until engulfed by fire.  There are many accounts from European travelers or business people that describe the sati rituals they had seen and which praise the calm and willing widows who went nobly to their deaths.  But there are different accounts that give the lie to the fantasy that all widows who died during sati went willingly to their fates.  There are frequent descriptions of women dying by so-called self-immolation who were obviously coerced and possibly drugged beforehand.  Some women changed their minds when they began to feel the heat of the fire, and observers recounted how the Brahman priests drove them back into the flames by poking and shoving them with long poles.  Sometimes the priests threatened the women trying to escape with knives in order to force them back into the flames.

 The woman’s mother and sisters would often heartbrokenly try to dissuade the widow from going through with self-immolation.  There are accounts of young widows having to divest themselves of their jewelry and other valuables, and of the greedy way the priests snatched them up.

 There are also dramatic narrations of women succeeding in fleeing a funeral pile and being rescued by the British.  Another interesting way out for unwilling widows was also recounted by foreigners.  Apparently bands of outcast men, rather louche and quite likely criminal, would attend some of the funerals.  This would happen when they heard rumors that the widow was very young and attractive.  Once in a while, a desperate widow would allow herself to be rescued by them.  After that, she would have to go off with outcast band, as such an act would cut her off forever from her family and community.

Such narratives make plain the prevalent and frequently distasteful role played by Brahman priests of the Hindu religion who officiated at the self-immolations.  If you recall, I spoke earlier of some scholars who maintain that the practice of sati might have first been embraced by the high Braham caste.  But by the time of the British rule of India, it was forbidden for Brahman women to perform sati.  I have mentioned that the prohibition did not extend to other, lesser castes.  It is also clear that Hindu priests helped coerce women into practicing self-immolation, persuading and in some cases forcing them to do so, to the extent of pushing women trying to escape back into the flames. Sometimes ropes were used to tie widows to the funeral pyre.

There is an ongoing dispute about whether Hindu laws and scriptures advocate sati, forbid it, or simply do not mention it.  There is still disagreement concerning whether or not the Rig Veda sanctions sati.  Verse 10.18.7 of this ancient manuscript is the principal point of contention.  “Let those women whose husbands are worthy and are living enter the house with ghee applied to their eyes” (as collyrium or an eyewash or application of some sort.)

Then the verse says: “Let those widows first step into the house, tearless, without any affliction and well-adorned.” The next verse seems to instruct widows to return home from the lifeless body of their husbands.

The difficulty with the above verse concerns the question of a so-called mistranslation of it.  One consonant in the word meaning “house,” is said to have been mistranslated to a word that meant, “fire.” Various groups have been accused of the mistranslation. Sometimes the guilty parties were said to be those who needed a spiritual justification for sati. The British were blamed as well, for trying to find proof that stressed the inferiority of the Indian people and religion.  I shall be discussing the claim by post-colonial scholars about the British mistranslation of the word sati shortly.  However, reading the Rig-Veda verse as instruction to widows to return to their houses, tearless and well adorned, does not make sense to me.  Widows who decided to live and not commit sati were obliged to wear a white sari for the rest of their lives, and they were not permitted to wear any jewels or adornment.

Here is a Purana, an ancient Indian text containing legends and religious instructions, which states: “A wife who dies in the company of her husband shall remain in heaven as many years as there are hairs on his person.” The Ramayana contains no conclusive evidence concerning the practice of sati, but the Uttara Kanda of the Ramayana, describes a wife performing sati.  However, this may have been a later addition.

Here is a passage from the ancient law code dated from 700 to 1000 CE.  “Now the duties of a woman are… After the death of her husband to preserve her chastity or ascend to the pile after him.” There are additional law codes which advocate sati.  Brahman scholars from the 12th to the 14th Century often praised the practice and in their reasoning cited the scriptures’ justification of sati.  The Brahman scholars decided the practice of sati was prescribed conduct for widows who were righteous women.  The Brahmans conjured complicated arguments to demonstrate that sati was not suicide.  They stated that since sati was not suicide, it was not prohibited by scriptural injunctions against suicide.  They considered sati as a surpassingly pious act, which would cancel the couples’ previous sins, guaranteeing them a place in heaven and a reunion between them.  The idea of heaven seems to have been a belief arising from before India became Hindu. Other theological theories taught that the self-immolating widow would be freed from the cycle of death and rebirth, an essential belief of the Hindu religion.  Some women, on account of the low esteem females experienced in Indian culture, must have embraced sati, which exalted the widow and promised her transcendence.

Professor Gayatri Spivak, in her 1988 essay, “Can The Subaltern Speak?” has some very interesting thoughts and comments on the practice of sati. In post-colonial studies, subaltern was originally a term for people of third world regions, particularly South East Asia, who had been colonized and dominated by imperial western powers, such as Great Britain. It was appropriated from the military term for officers below the rank of colonel. Spivak maintains that the Indian woman was a subaltern who could not speak and be heard. 

She discusses the difficulty of translating Hindu scriptures with regard to the question of their approval of sati.  But she maintains that the British have mistranslated the word, sati. According to Spivak, in the original language, sati meant something exalted, an achieved transcendence. I believe that she is correct.  She argues that the British description and misunderstanding of the rite of sati added to the oppression of the Indian woman. 

Spivak sees sati as the regulation, or self regulation of women, in Hindu law prior to India’s colonization. But additionally, she views women, subalterns of a subaltern society, double victimized by the British understanding of sati.  Sometimes Indian women were seen as embracing sati as a neurotic form of self expression or as a means to escape social rejection.  We shall discuss the social rejection of Indian widows shortly.  The British saw and described themselves in the role of saving the brown woman from the brown man.  As I have previously mentioned, the British used the abolition of sati by law as one of their justifications for their rule over India.  Spivak is not incorrect in her conclusion that the subaltern, in this case, the Indian widow, cannot speak.  The voice of the Indian woman is lost, prohibited even, in the clash of both cultures. Some widows, embracing their own subjugation by the Hindu religion and culture, did undoubtedly wish to perform sati.  It is a suicide not considered suicide by the Hindu religion.  The enactment of sati would take the widow beyond the ordinary realm of the good and chaste wife or widow.  It would transform her into an object of veneration.

I am not in complete agreement with Professor Spivak, even though it is true that the subaltern, the Indian widow, could not speak.  Brown men and white men have spoken for her. 

It was Indian men who decided that the act of sati would exult the brown woman. The British decided that forbidding her self-immolation was to save her.  Professor Spivak is obviously not advocating the burning of Indian widows.  She is commenting on how little voice the Indian widow had in her destiny. There is a sterling example of what some post modernists would call British arrogance in the much repeated quote of General Sir Charles Napier in the mid 1800’s. He is reputed to have said this when Hindu priests complained to him about the abolishment of sati: “Be it so.  This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile.  But my nation also has a custom.  When men burn women alive, we hang them, and confiscate all their property.  My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed.  Let us all act according to national customs.”  One may inquire if Napier was wrong.  His statement is dripping with condescension toward Indian men, but at the same time, his threat of severe punishment toward those taking part in the ritual of sati seems just.

What would Professor Spivak have us do? Religion, entwined with social custom, has created and perpetuated the subjugation of the female in most societies of the world.  Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism- all these religions and many more, have not merely placed women in a second class position in the past, but continue to do so in the present day.  Is it not a necessity to legislate against egregious and ancient practices to save people, particularly women and children? That brilliant scholar of ethics, Louis Pojman, argues that there are cultures that have some customs that are less advanced than other societies. 

He has suggested it is not attempting to subjugate or oppress them by telling them that continuing heinous traditions is unacceptable.  We have a responsibility to move beyond political correctness and cultural relativity to protect women and children from such practices as sati, the Muslim custom of the woman’s veil, and the circumcision of young girls and boys.

Despite the wrongs of the British Empire, and those wrongs were legion, the fact remains that it was Indians of the Hindu religion who advocated and perpetuated the practice of sati, who may even have mistranslated an innocuous passage in one of their sacred texts to justify it.  The last publicized case of sati in India took place in 1987, by a woman named Roop Kanwar.  Feminists were outraged and termed it as murder.  However, the accusation of murder was not upheld in the Indian courts.  Most sources are in agreement, however, that sati is still practiced, even if very rarely, in India.

Now that we have looked at the practice of self-immolation by widows in India, let us glance at how widows who did not perform sati were expected to live.  We shall see that religion and culture prescribed a sort of death-in-life for them, another form of self- immolation.  Brahman and other high caste women were particularly bound by Hindu laws.  Widows, no matter how young, were expected to remain chaste and loyal to their deceased husbands and never remarry.  They were supposed to wear white saris, eat only once a day, not go out, and live under the protection of their sons or other relatives.  There were remarriages but they were severely restricted.

Widows were typically expected to spend the rest of their lives in an austere devotion to the Hindu religion. Sometimes the widow was expected to shave her head.  Despite the injunction to dedicate the rest of her life to the Hindu religion, the widow was not welcome to attend the religious rites of the family.  Her presence was considered inauspicious. She was, particularly if her husband died young, believed somehow to blame for the death.  The figurative stench of death seemed to hang about widows and they were thought to bring bad fortune to the family. Even today, as the customs change, inauspiciousness hovers around widows and some families are not anxious to take them back if the necessity arises.

Today, for many of the forty million widows in India, life is often described as a “living sati.”  Widows are still expected to wear white, break their gold bangles and other jewelry, and no longer wear the sindoor, the red powder women place on their foreheads to announce their married state.  Some widows still cut their hair or shave their heads.  Widows are expected to fast several times a month, not eating meat, fish or eggs and anything touched by a Muslim.  Muslims traditionally have run the bakeries in many sections of India, so the widow is often prohibited from bread, cakes and biscuits.  Onions and garlic are believed by Orthodox Hindus to heat the blood, and many widows are not supposed to eat them, as well.  During the widows’ fasts, they often live only on fruit for several days.

A widow is often referred to as a “pram,” or creature, because it was only her husband’s presence that gave her a human stature.  Sometimes, too often, she is not referred to as “she,” but as “it.”

The word, widow, is used as an abusive term by some people.  If women violated their restrictions in the past, they would be severely ostracized for their great sin.  Child widows were generally unwanted by their in laws, so they either went to their parents’ home, where they performed unpaid labor, or were sent off to “widow cities,” like Varanasi or Vrindavan. 

The lecture will now turn to a topic which has finally entered the public consciousness of the West in recent years- widow cities.  While conditions are changing in India for women from the affluent middle classes, many women are still sent off or move on their own to these “widow cities.”  Today there is some government housing in those towns and many widows over sixty finally receive a tiny government pension of about eight Euros a month for food and medicine.  The younger women are sexually exploited because they need money, and the government turns a blind eye to the situation.  The older women beg near temples on busy streets or are employed as poorly paid seamstresses.  At some of the ashrams, they sit and chant in shifts, earning a cup of rice and about seven cents for a four hour shift.

I am not going into bride burning in contemporary India (and Pakistan as well) in any depth, since the Hindu religion does not, nor ever did, advocate or condone the practice.  However, the misogyny of the Hindu religion and culture has sustained and justified the subjugation of women.   The egregious notion of female inferiority has helped give rise to the practice of bride burning.  Brides are murdered, usually by their mother in laws, who pour kerosene on the young women’s highly inflammatory saris and putting a match to them.  Such murder is frequently practiced when the dowry paid the groom’s family is not considered adequate or is partially unpaid.

 Sometimes the woman’s in laws want to keep the entire dowry and gain a second one by killing the first wife and finding a new bride for their son.  A dowry is the provision of money, livestock, gold and/or other valuables paid by the bride’s family to her husband’s family.  Since a wife is considered a financial liability to her husband, this dowry is supposed to pay her way. If a woman escapes being burned, her own family sometimes sends her back, “for honor’s sake.”  Bride murder is an illegal practice, but the authorities generally look the other way, labeling it a kitchen accident.  Approximately every hundred minutes, a bride is set on fire in India. 

I will also not elaborate on the well publicized crime of rape of women, which is growing in India.  The authorities do not enforce the law in these cases, either.  It has never been advocated by the Hindu religion. But looking on women as secondary, inferior and sexually tempting to men, has been endorsed by the Hindu religion. In 2011, about 24, 206 rapes were registered, but experts agree that the actual number of cases is much higher. The latest estimate is a new case of rape in India every twenty two minutes.

There is no question that the negative view of women in Hindu sacred scriptures has contributed substantially to the mistreatment of women in the past, and to its continuation into the present day.  The religious strictures placed on women helped perpetuate their subjugation, not only culturally but as religious practice.  There were repeated descriptions of women as sexually insatiable, untruthful, heartless and so on.  When the female sex is thought to be less than human, or of lesser worth than the male, mistreatment, even murder of women is not seen as serious as crimes committed against men.

In the view of the Hindu religion, women were thought of as barely human and validated as human only by the presence of a living husband.

Pregnant women, even though it is against the law to try to discover the sex of an unborn child in India, receive ultrasounds and often learn whether their expected child is a boy or a girl.  If the parents learn the child is a girl, the baby is often aborted. Aborting a girl and trying again for a boy is motivated by the prestige and economic advantage of giving birth to a son. Yet one cannot help but think that many mothers have an additional reason. They might not wish to bear a girl into a world where religion and culture work together to assure a difficult and unrewarding life for a woman.  Religion, along with its other crimes, stands condemned on many counts for its view and treatment of the female gender.  The horrific treatment of women in India is an excellent example of what religion has helped to bring about in that country.  But India and Hinduism are not singular examples.  In countries where religion holds sway, women are frequently considered the inferior gender and treated as such.  

The lecture will now turn its attention to Islam and the legal status of women in that religion.  I shall also touch on the issue of the veil.  Please keep in mind that I am speaking generally about the status of women in Islam, as Muslim nations have evolved different customs.  Women’s role has slowly begun to improve in many Islamic countries in recent years and Muslim women have begun to press for more rights and freedom. 

I would like to begin my discussion on women and Islam with Islam’s famous scholar and theologian, al-Ghazali (1058-1111).  He is sometimes designated as the greatest Muslim since Mohammed. Here is a direct quote from one of his most important volumes, The Revival of the Religious Sciences, on woman’s role in Islamic society.  “She should stay home and get on with her spinning; she must not go out often; she must not be well-informed; nor must she be communicative with her neighbors and only visit them when absolutely necessary; she should take care of her husband and respect him in his presence and his absence and seek to satisfy him in everything; she must not cheat on him nor extort money from him; she must not leave her house without his permission and if given his permission, she must leave surreptitiously. [When leaving the house] she should put on old clothes and take deserted streets and alleys, avoid markets and make sure a stranger does not hear her voice or recognize her.  She must not speak to a friend of her husband even in need.  Her sole worry should be her virtue, her home as well as her prayers and her fast.  If a friend of her husband calls when the latter is absent, she must not open the door nor reply to him in order to safeguard her and her husband’s honor.  She should accept what her husband has given her as sufficient… she should be clean and ready to satisfy her husband’s sexual needs at any moment.”

Here is al-Ghazali once again in his Book of Counsel for Kings on why it is proper that a woman must suffer.  “As for the distinctive characteristics which god on high has punished women, (the matter is as follows,) When Eve ate fruit which he had forbidden her from the tree in Paradise, the Lord, be he praised, punished women with eighteen things!

(1) menstruation; (2) childbirth; (3) separation from mother and father and marriage to a stranger; (4) pregnancy; (5) not having control over her own person; (6) a lesser share in her inheritance; (7) her liability to be divorced and inability to divorce; (8) it’s being lawful for men to have four wives but for a woman to have only one husband; (9) the fact that she must stay secluded in the house; (10) the fact that she must keep her head covered inside the house; (11) the fact that two women’s testimony has to be set against the testimony of one man; (12) the fact that she must not go out of the house unless accompanied by a near relative; (13) the fact that men take part in Friday and feast day prayers and funerals while women do not; (14) disqualification for ruler ship or judgeship; (15) the fact that merit has one thousand components, only one of which is attributable to women, while 999 are attributable to men; (16) the fact that if women are profligate they will be given half as much torment as the rest of the community at Resurrection Day. (17) the fact that if their husbands die, they must observe a waiting period of four months and ten days before remarrying; (18) the fact that if their husbands divorce them they must observe a waiting period of three months, or three menstrual periods before remarrying.

These enlightened statements are from the so-called Golden Age of Islam, which lasted from the middle of the 8th Century to the middle of the 13th Century. Some scholars who are advocates of Islam have made much of the fact that before the coming of Islam to the Arab world, there was barbarous treatment of women, such as burying unwanted female infants alive.  But Arabic scholars have found that the burying of baby girls was a religious practice and was very rare.

 Notice that even the earlier egregious practices against females were religious in origin.  Conservatives also point to the fact that Islam instituted inheritance laws which gave women the right to inherit, although under the laws an Islamic woman receives half the share of a man.  Even then, she is frequently not allowed to have any money at her disposal.

I could continue on with misogynist statements made by important jurists, theologians and others, but there are more of them than can be quoted and scrutinized during the allotted time of this lecture.  I would like to quote from the Koran, however, before I continue.  “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend their property for the support of women. So good women are obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded.  As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart; and scourge (beat) them.  Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them.  Lo! Allah is ever High, Exalted, Great.” Ibn Warraq, the author of Why I Am Not a Muslim, 2003, states unequivocally that “Islam has always considered women as creatures inferior in every way- physically, intellectually and morally.”

I would now like to segue to the situation in present day Islam with regard to women’s legal status under its laws.  Please keep in mind that some of the nations that follow sharia law are Islamic theocracies, and many of the others are steeped in Islamic religion.  Women are still considered lesser than men when giving testimony or evidence or bearing witness in court.  Women are presumed to have faulty reasoning and memories, so the testimony of several women is needed to equal one man’s testimony. Adultery is very difficult to prove. 

The Koran states that four male witnesses are needed to state that they have seen the people accused in the very act of fornication.  The Koran prescribes eighty lashes to the accuser who cannot produce the four witnesses.  This prescription would seem to be a protection for women, but it is really not much of one.  How, under these legal restrictions, can a woman prove that she has been raped by a man?  She cannot, for how will she be able to produce four male witnesses who say they saw the rape performed? The actuality of the situation is that if a woman charges a man with rape, she will put herself in danger of being punished herself, as having confessed to immorality of some sort and possibly as a false witness. Furthermore, many Islamic countries operate on the principle of honor and shame.  A woman who is raped, even if it is known that it was not her fault, still brings shame on her family.  There are cases where a father and/or brothers kill the young victim to erase the dishonor to their family.  As a result, most rapes of women go unreported and unpunished.

A husband who finds his wife fornicating with another man has the right to kill them both.  A woman who committed fornication in the past, used to, according to religious precept, be immured alive.  Now she is simply stoned to death for adultery or given one hundred lashes for fornication. When a husband wishes to accuse his wife of adultery, his testimony is equal to four witnesses.  He merely must witness four times to the statement, calling down god’s curse on himself if he is lying.  Luckily, the accused wife may deny the charge four times, calling down god’s curse on herself if she is lying.  She can thereby escape stoning. But as her husband may still reject her, she loses her dowry and any rights to maintenance.

For a Muslim marriage to be considered valid, there must be a multiplicity of witnesses.  Muslim jurists generally agree two men can be a multiplicity, but not two, twenty, or even a hundred women.  There are additional facts emphasizing Muslim women’s subordination with regard to marriage rights and legalities.  In Islam, the man gives the woman the dowry, unlike so many countries where the man receives cash or valuables from the woman’s family. However, the custom is that she is often expected to use that money to furnish the house, or as a gift to her father.  As I mentioned earlier, it is the husband who bears the religious and legal obligations to maintain the family. The Koran is specific on this point. There is no sense of an equal sharing in the work, finances and expenses between the couple. 

In addition, the husband is not legally responsible for paying for his wife’s medical expenses. However, many Muslim theologians state that medical expenses fall under the obligation to be kind to one’s wife and that therefore men do have the duty to pay their wife’s medical bills.  One can see that religious duties and legal injunctions combine to keep the woman in a dependent and subjugated position.  The husband is the provider and the wife is required to obey him in all things. Religion and cultural practices and expectations work together to reinforce the inferior position of women in Islam.

Inheritance laws are inherently unfair to females in Muslim nations.  If a girl is an only child, she is allowed to inherit merely half of her father’s estate.  The other half frequently goes to male relatives.  A male child inherits twice as much as a female child.  These are all rules laid down by the Koran.  If there are more than two girls, they receive two thirds of the inheritance. 

If the deceased has parents and children, they often get one-sixth of the estate.  If he has no child, his mother is entitled to one-third; but if he has brothers, his mother will only receive one-sixth of his estate after payments of any legacy he has left or any bills he owes.  When a woman is left a widow, she only receives a quarter of the legacy.  If there are more wives, they are all expected to share in that quarter of the money; sometimes they are forced to share one-eighth.  It is obvious that under Islamic inheritance laws, parents will prefer a male heir who will legally inherit a larger portion of their estate, thereby keeping the family fortune together.  Daughters are often seen as a legal and financial liability for a family.

Giving birth to a girl, or several girls, is an undesirable event for many Muslim families. There are religious admonitions which reproach men’s negative attitude when a daughter is born to the family.  The father is not supposed to entertain gloomy feelings when his wife bears a daughter, but the religious and cultural practices and biases of the culture practically assure his distress.  A sura expresses quite realistically the unhappy feeling of a man upon the birth of a daughter. “Yet when a new-born girl is announced to them, his (the father’s) countenance darkens and he is filled with gloom.”  So would the child be filled with gloom if she knew the fate that awaited her. A sura is any one of the chapters of the Koran.  There are 114 suras.

Three Western experts, along with other scholars, find that Islam is a sex positive religion, because it is not negative about sexual relations.  It did not ever entertain thinking like the early Christian belief that the best form of marriage was a celibate one. But let us examine if Islam is truly a sex positive culture.

A Muslim woman’s sexual virtue is vital to her entire family, as well as to herself and her husband. The concept may be different from the Christian church’s injunction to young girls to imitate the Virgin Mary, but in Islam, a woman’s purity is often quite literally a matter of life and death.

Some researchers seem to be misled by the fact that the Islamic religion enjoins women to be ready to submit to their husband’s sexual desire, even and I am quoting here, ‘on a scorching oven or on the saddle of a camel.”  This statement might be a pedagogic hyperbole. But the injunction was in a hadith, so it must be taken seriously. Hadiths are defined as the collective body of traditions relating to Muhammad and his companions. Apparently there is no right to refuse a husband’s conjugal prerogative on the part of the wife.  Withdrawal is an accepted method of birth control, but again, there is not the vociferous opposition to contraception in Islam as there is in Catholic nations.

A situation in which women are religiously prescribed to fulfill their husband’s sexual desire at any time and any place would seem to create a veritable sexual playground for men in Islam.  But religion does not allow any of its adherents too much control over their own bodies.  Cultural difficulties also necessitate the frustration of male desire in Islamic countries.  In the present day, the high unemployment rate for young men often precludes them being able to afford a dowry and then the maintenance of a family.  Maintaining several wives is a large expense for many men who have good salaries, and so they must satisfy themselves with merely one wife.  Those who are inclined to several women merely employ the relatively fast divorce process of announcing to their wives they are divorcing them, and take on a new wife. 

Serial marriages take the place of a household with several wives and children to support.  However, there is family and community pressure on respectable couples to remain married and there is even counseling an alienated husband and wife must undergo before divorcing.

Although a woman has a religious duty to fulfill all her husband’s sexual desires, she has been described and is seen as unclean and impure, not just when menstruating but as a woman at all times.  Here are some religious sayings on the topic. A hadith states: “Three things can interrupt prayers if they pass in front of someone praying: a black dog, a woman and an ass.” Here is part of an injunction from the Koran on pollution: “…and if ye be ill or on a journey, or one of you cometh from the closet (bathroom,) or ye have touched the woman, and ye find not water, go to high clean soil and rub your faces and your hands …” Such an obsession with cleanliness and the polluted state of woman must greatly interfere with the natural pleasure a man would experience being with a woman.  The hadith equates bowel movements with touching a woman. 

Ibn Waraq states that in Islam intercourse itself renders a person impure. This notion is not specifically stated in religious law but is discussed and argued by theologians.  Major impurity is believed to come from sexual contact; until the man is cleansed, he cannot pray or touch the Koran, recite the Koran or enter a mosque.  Washing of the entire body rids it of impurity.  How sex positive can a culture be that finds intercourse and women sources of impurity?  Ibn Waraq states that in the Islamic religion, a menstruating woman is considered so impure she is not allowed to pray, fast, read or touch the Koran, enter a mosque or even have sexual relations with her husband. 

There is a commonality here with other religions- most of them seek to control people’s bodies and minds.  Men are allowed to enjoy a submissively sexual woman, but then are rendered impure by the contact.

Several centuries ago, people were enjoined in this manner by that Golden Age theologian, al-Ghazali : “A man marries in order to have an untroubled mind as far as house work is concerned: kitchen, cleaning, bedding.  A man supposing he is able to do without sex is not capable of living alone at home.  If he were to take on himself the task of doing all the housework, he would no longer be able to dedicate himself to intellectual work and knowledge. The virtuous wife, by making herself useful at home is her husband’s helpmate…and at the same time satisfies his sexual desire.”

So, we see that women are to tend to the house, the children and be there at all times for their husband’s sexual gratification.  They are not supposed to leave the house very often, especially for pleasure.  Here is an exact quote, filled with unconscious irony: “By leaving the house, a woman runs the risk of meeting dangers which are contrary to the spiritual qualities of womanhood which she incarnates and with which she fulfills the noblest virtues in life.  To leave her house is to go against the will of god and is condemned by Islam.  Her household chores are limited and the experience which she acquires is also limited; whereas the man’s tasks are outside the house, embrace a wider horizon, his experience and his relationship are more varied.”  That is a classic Catch 22.  How can a woman gain crucial experience of the outside world if she is not allowed to enter it?  She must not leave the house because her experience is limited. 

How than can she gain experience?

As I transition into this section of the lecture, I would like to share the fact that I reluctantly decided that the question of the veil for women in Islam is too important to leave out. The veil is a religious obligation and therefore it is necessary to discuss the topic and not omit it. But I am aware that not all Muslim women, even some feminists among them, consider the veil a complete subjugation.   The veil is a topic surrounded with ambivalence even for many Westernized, secular Muslim women. I recently had the opportunity to see the work of an expatriate Iranian artist, a woman photographer, and to observe in photographs and the printed work accompanying it, the mixed feelings of Islamic women toward the veil.  There are some Western feminists, too, who hold that trying to impose a ban on the veil is sexist and simply wrong.  If the women from the Islamic religion choose to wear it, they say, the women should be free to do so.  My agreement with this position is limited.

For myself, an atheist and a feminist, the veil is offensive, a red flag, so to speak.  To me it is a visual symbol of the oppression of religion and of men oppressing women. However, I also believe that people living in the United States have a constitutional right to wear the veil, reprehensible as I deem it.  Exceptions would be driver’s license photos and workplaces.  I am opposed to teachers, health workers and other employees and employers wearing the veil during working hours.  Their free time is their own and they should be allowed to wear what they wish.  I know this position is a controversial one.

Many scholars maintain that both the injunction for women to stay at home and to wear the veil came with Islam.

There is no question that the earlier Bedouin culture provided a great deal of freedom for women.  Some historians believe that the custom of the veil for women was adopted by the Arabs from the Persians. The obligation for women to stay at home was likely adopted from the Byzantines, who had taken it up from the ancient Greek culture. Hijab is the most common word for the head covering of women. There are various styles of the hijab in Islamic countries, based on the type of coverage it is believed a woman must wear in order to fulfill her religious obligation.

I am quoting Ibn Waraq in this passage on the definition of the veil and the various translations of the word. “The Arabic word “hijab” is sometimes translated ‘veil,’ but it can signify anything that prevents something from being seen- a screen, a curtain or even a wall- and also the woman’s hymen.  The root of the verb, ‘hajaba’ means “to hide.” By extension, hijab is used to mean something that separates, demarcates a limit, and establishes a barrier.  Finally the hijab has the sense of a moral interaction.  The Koran also uses the words, “djilbah” and “Khibar.” The former is likewise translated as “veil,” but also as “outer garment,” and even “cloak.”  When researching this topic, I found at least twenty-two other names for the veil in around twelve Muslim nations.  I am sure I missed others. For example, The New York Times reported that in Iran in 1992, after the Revolution, “the most acceptable garment after the all-encompassing chador which is held in place by one’s hand or teeth, was the rappoush, a long loose garment worn with a scarf.”

The hijab was imposed by the Koran with this injunction, among several others.  Section 24-30-31 enjoins believing women “to turn their eyes away from temptation and to preserve their chastity; to cover their adornments-except such as are normally displayed; to draw their veils over their bosoms and not to reveal their finery except to their husbands.”

Muslim theologians seem to have embraced a different version of the origin of the hijab than the quote from the Koran. Many of them maintain that the correct version is that the custom of the hijab was adopted from the Persians, as I mentioned earlier. Other Muslim scholars state that the origin of the hijab was imposed by god to please one person, Omar ibn al-Kattab.  There is a well-established tale that one day Omar said to the Prophet: “The pious and the profligate have easy access to your house and your wives.  Why don’t you order the mothers of all believers to cover themselves?” According to another version by one of the Prophet’s wives, Omar accidently touched her hand one day, and while excusing himself, said that had he the power, no one would steal a glance at her. There are other variants.  But according to Waraq, the real function of the hijab is to cover up the ‘awra’ we have no right to see.  By ‘awra’ is meant “the shameful parts of the body and those parts we hide out of dignity and pride.”  As for women, says Waraq, “they are considered entirely ‘awra.’

Muslim jurists state the ‘awra’ for men is those parts between the navel and knees and they are enjoined to keep them covered and let no one see them except their wives and concubines.  There is one sect of Sunnis that maintains, in theory at least, a woman may uncover her face and hands as long as it does not lead to temptation, seduction, or any discord. If a woman is at all pretty, however, the veil is ordained for her. 

Even old women are advised to keep wearing their veil.  The other three Sunnite sects maintain that a woman should only go uncovered in an emergency, such as needing medical help.  The Koran states that “It shall be no offense to old spinsters who have no hope of marriage, to discard their cloaks without revealing their adornments.  Better if they do not discard them,” 24-60.  Muslim experts issue contradictory opinions on the issue of the extent of coverage.  Some even insist the heels of women should be covered.

Such focus on the woman’s hair and its radiance, her face and smiles, body and hands and feet and their temptation to men, would seem to imply that a woman should entertain a complete lack of trust in her father, brothers and husband. No man appears to be exempt from sexual temptation by any woman, even his sister or daughter.  It also seems to mean that a woman is an object to be used only by her husband, and then wrapped up and put away, like a piece of silver or a ring. Even though she may be compared to a valuable object, it still implies that she is an object. It is all important that another man should not even covet her.  The word, “hijab” also refers to the hiding of a woman behind the walls of her house.  The wives of the Prophet are ordered to stay in their homes in sura 33.33.  Reformers maintain this rule only applied to the Prophet’s wives. Conservatives argues it applies to all Muslim women.

A conservative theorist, Ghawji, has very methodically set out under what conditions a woman may leave her home, giving out many quotes from the Koran and the hadiths.  A woman should never leave the house except for a real need, and only with the permission of her husband and legal guardian. 

When she does exit, she must be well-covered, even her face, and walk with her head down, looking neither to right or left.  She must avoid tempting any men and must wear no perfume.  A woman with perfume on who passes by men may be regarded as a fornicator.

A woman apparently does not have the right to walk in the middle of the road among men and she must walk in a chaste and modest manner.  When talking to a stranger, she is supposed to use a normal voice. This rule puzzles me.  Does it mean not to have a flirtatious tone or something else? If a woman must go into a shop or an office, she must avoid at all costs being alone with a man behind a closed door.  It is believed the devil interferes and tempts both parties to their worst.  She must never shake a man’s hand. If away from home, visiting a woman friend, she must not remove her covering in case there is a man hiding in the house.  If a woman must go beyond a thirty kilometer distance from her house, she must be accompanied by a husband or a relative.  Finally a woman must never attempt to imitate a man.

Jurists have made up very specific rules about what a woman who must leave the house should wear.  The clothing should cover all of her except her face and hands. It should not be too fine, too elaborate, or transparent.  It should be of thick material and not cling too tightly to her body; it should be loose, instead.  It shouldn’t be too glamorous, luxurious or of too great a value.  It should not be perfumed.  It should not resemble any kind of men’s clothing or the clothing of unbelievers.

There are more restrictions imposed by Muslim jurists, quoting hadiths that forbid women to wear perfume, wigs, make-up or in any way interfere with nature. 

I agree with Ibn Warraq who questions the prohibition against interfering with nature vis-à-vis the custom of excising a young girl’s clitoris.  He argues that the various excisions of a girl’s private parts in various Muslim nations according to their customs is regarded as somehow not interfering with nature, but as a “pious act.”  However, I shall not delve into the question of circumcision in this lecture because it is not a requirement of the Koran or the hadiths and is cited by Muslims as a custom rather than a religious obligation.  Muslim boys are also circumcised.

The question of education for Muslim women is another controversial issue.  Conservatives continue to maintain that women were never prohibited from education, that it was the duty of every Muslim man and woman to educate himself or herself.  But in the past, how were women to do this, if they had to remain at home and not talk to strange men? Most families were not capable of providing girls with home schooling. We have very frequently seen in the news in recent years the attacks on girls in schools or on the way to schools in some Muslim countries, sometimes with acid thrown in their faces by fundamentalists.

I would like to conclude this section of the lecture with Ibn Warraq’s revised list of what we began with- what a woman must suffer because of Eve’s transgressions. I am repeating some of my earlier statements, but it is important to emphasize these restrictions on women.  Many women continue to be subjugated and repressed in Islam, although many others have been able to greatly improve their situations.

Women are forbidden to (1) be a head of state; (2) be a judge; (3) be an imam; (4) be a guardian; (5) leave their house without permission of their guardian or husband; (6) have a tete-a-tete with a strange man; (7) shake a man’s hand; (8) put on make-up or perfume outside the house; (9) uncover their faces for fear of temptation; (10) travel alone; (11) inherit the same amount as a man; (12) bear witness and accept that one woman’s testimony is worth only half a man; (13) perform the religious rituals when menstruating; (14) choose where they will live, at least before they are old or if they are ugly; (15) marry without permission from their guardians; (16) marry a non-Muslim and often (17) have difficulty divorcing their spouses.

Of course, as we have seen, and will continue to see, many of these prohibitions are slowly changing in certain Islamic areas and countries.  Many women have somehow prevailed, often at great personal cost, have become educated, entered the professions, gone to work, gotten the vote and are beginning to serve in politics and other spheres of influence.  Nevertheless, religion has served, and continues to serve the egregious practice of the subjugation of women.  Islam is an example of theocracy and of the control that religion exercises over people’s minds, hearts and actions.

Both religions, Islam and Hindu, that I have discussed in this lecture display what occurs in religion-influenced and theocratic countries.  One of religion’s chief objectives is control.  It is important to gain control of people’s bodies- their dress, comportment, cleanliness, sexuality, intercourse, pregnancy prevention and so on, all become subjected to artificial rules and regulatory compunctions.

Cultural and religious traditions that describe the female sex as barely human, sexually insatiable, and a threat to man and the social order are very common in nations where religion holds sway.  Women are repeatedly described as less intelligent and less capable than men. With regard to all positive characteristics, women are considered inferior to men. The people young women love, trust and respect repeatedly give voice to such nonsense and too many women to believe it is true. They internalize negative social constructions of females and come to view themselves as lesser humans. They are often discouraged and frightened from venturing beyond what is deemed their “proper” place by religious and secular law.  In many countries, the penalties have been, and continue to be, severe for flouting the received wisdom of women’s inferiority and their second class position.  Religion controls and oppresses both men and women, body and mind, and gives men license and rationale to control women.My second lecture will concentrate on women vis-à-vis Christianity and its construction of the female gender.  I shall be looking at the opinions of the early church fathers concerning women and sexuality, and then focus on the witchcraft trials in Europe, and more specifically, Salem, Massachusetts in 17th Century colonial America. 

I would like to close this lecture with a quote from the brilliant and influential 19th century Utilitarian philosopher, John Stuart Mill, on women and equality:

“I am convinced that social arrangements which subordinate one sex to another by law are bad in themselves and form one of the principle obstacles which oppose human progress.  I am convinced that they should give place to a perfect equality.”

Video of Lecture: Religion’s Oppression of Women, Part 1: Islam and Hinduism

Lecture: Religion’s Oppression of Women, Part 1: Islam and Hinduism

Video of Discussion: Religion’s Oppression of Women, Part 1: Islam and Hinduism

Discussion: Religion’s Oppression of Women, Part 1: Islam and Hinduism


Books and Printed Articles

Bosquet, G. H. L’Ethique Sexuelle de L’Islam.

Bullough, Vern L. and James A. Brundage, Eds. A Handbook of Medieval Society.  New York and London: Garland Publishing Company, Inc., 1996.

Bullough, Vern L. Sex, Society and History. New York: Science History Publications. 1976.

Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough. Sin, Sickness and Sanity.  156 Fifth Ave. New York, New York: New American Library, 1977.

Bullough, Vern L., Brenda Shelton and Sarah Slavin.  The Subordinated Sex: A History of Attitudes Toward Women. Athens, Georgia and London: University of Georgia Press, 1988.

Bukhari.  Sahih. Trans. M. Muhsin Khan.   New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 1987.

Hayes, H.R. The Dangerous Sex: The Myth of Feminine Evil.  New York: Pocket Books Inc., 1965.

Warraq, Ibn. Why I Am Not a Muslim. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2003.

________. “Women and Islam.” In Tom Flynn, Ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.  826- 829.

Online Articles

Elst, Koenraad. “The Rg-Vedic Reference to Sati”,

Encyclopedia Brittanica. “Suttee”,

Jayaram, V. “Traditional Status of Women in Hinduism”,

Kannan, Shilpa.  “India’s Abandoned Widows Struggle to Survive”,

Kramer, Daniella. “Women Are the Root of all Evil: Misogyny of Religions”,

Patwari, Hirday N. “The Status of Women as Depicted by Manu in the Manusmitri”,

Ramendra, Dr. “Why I Am Not a Hindu”,

Spivak, Gaytari Chavravorty. “Can The Subaltern Speak?”,

Sujan, Dheera. “The State We’re In.” and “A Life of Ashes: The Story of India’s Widows”,

Wikipedia. “Sati,”