The Bahrain News Agency reports that on the eve of the religious holiday Id al-Adha the imam of the Grand Holy Mosque in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, Dr. Sheikh Saleh Bin Mohammed Al Talib, said that “women are the sisters of men and they have Virtue and men have a degree above them.”
Sheikh Saleh Al Talib’s sermons are widely followed throughout the Islamic community, so while his word isn’t law, it is highly influential. In this regard, his comments about women are significant. Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are restricted. For example, women must have male guardians and prohibits them from driving. It was the only country in the world that received a zero from the World Economic Forum in the category of women’s political empowerment. (Women will be able to vote in local elections only for the first time in 2015.)
But Islam can’t be singled out for its treatment of women. The Catholic Church, for example, refuses to ordain women priests, many Protestant denominations deny leadership roles to women and ultra-Orthodox Jews confine women behind screens during religious services in synagogues.
So is it really surprising that two Senatorial candidates think that rape can be something less than a crime against women?
"I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God," said Richard Mourdock, who is running for U.S. Senate in Indiana. "And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."
Mourdock clarified his comments at a press conference the next day by explaining, "What I said was, in answering the question from my position of faith, I said I believe that God creates life. I believe that as wholly and as fully as I can believe it. That God creates life. Are you trying to suggest that somehow I think that God pre-ordained rape? No, I don't think that. That's sick. Twisted. That's not even close to what I said. What I said is that God creates life."
Earlier Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, who is also running for the Senate this year, said, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume that maybe that didn't work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child."
Mourdock’s and Akin’s remarks aren’t aberrant. They represent a wide swath of American opinion, just as the Arabian sheikh’s sermon is standard fare.
A subordinate role for women is consistent with a millennium of religious teaching. The bible tells us so, as does the Koran.
At least that is one way of reading the sacred texts. Accepting women as equal to men in all respects, granting women the same rights as men, requires a less than literal reading of the foundational books of Western religions.
But, of course, neither the bible nor the Koran has ever been accepted word-for-word. As soon as the books were created, factions formed around the “correct” understanding.
Women are diminished, then, not because of what religion teaches but because of what men have chosen from the texts to support their own superiority and then cloak their power with piety.
Men have no degree over women, there is no such thing as legitimate rape and God didn’t intend women to be raped. While those who hold these positions will point to their holy books, others can point to the common humanity of the sexes. When religious views and human rights clash, we have to choose one side or the other.
It is incredible that we still find ourselves disagreeing about equal rights for women. But the sad fact is that there still are many powerful men who refuse to give up the perquisites they believe come with their sex.