Monday, May 9, 2011

When religion protects sexism

For those of you who have seem my talk on the intersection of atheism and feminism, one of my key points is that religion doesn't necessarily create sexist ideas, but it does make them untouchable. We unfortunately live in a society where criticizing religious belief is viewed with contempt. We can't question something because it's protected by the bubble of "Respect my beliefs!" And then you get bad ideas - sexism, racism, homophobia, incorrect science - piggybacking on the theology and persisting through time.

My previous post is a perfect example of this. A Hasidic Jewish newspaper photoshopped Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Director for Counterterrorism Audrey Tomason - the only women - out of the White House Situation Room in what is now an iconic photo. I didn't comment much on my previous post because I was busy at work. But I need to say more now that the newspaper has responded to the widespread fury over their photoshopping:
The allegations that religious Jews denigrate women or do not respect women in public office, is a malicious slander and libel.
Except that you are denigrating women, soooooo... yeah, not slander and libel.
The current Secretary of State, the Honorable Hillary R. Clinton, was a Senator representing New York State with great distinction 8 years. She won overwhelming majorities in the Orthodox Jewish communities in her initial campaign in '00, and when she was re-elected in '06, because the religious community appreciated her unique capabilities and compassion to all communities. The Jewish religion does not allow for discrimination based on gender, race, etc.
Except that you do discrimination based on gender, since that's kind of what you did. Not that hard to wrap your head around. You do not post photos of women. You happily post photos of men. Discrimination.
We respect all government officials. We even have special prayers for the welfare of our Government and the government leaders, and there is no mention of gender in such prayers.

In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status. Publishing a newspaper is a big responsibility, and our policies are guided by a Rabbinical Board. Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.
Except it does relegate them to lower status, because your religion is saying the mere existence of women is somehow immodest. You're not giving an impression - you are being disparaging to women. You have a special rule that women can't be seen and men can. That is sexist, no matter how much you scream "We're not sexist!"

And people complain about Islamic extremists who keep their women covered in burkas? At least they can be seen covered up. Heaven forbid if a man knows women actually exist in the world!

Sometimes I think men should be the ones getting most upset about these ridiculous "modesty" laws you see in almost all religions to some extent. They're all based on the idea that men are brutish pigs who can't control themselves and will fall to sin and temptation at the mere idea of something with a vagina being in a ten mile radius of them. Isn't it convenient how the solution to that problem is the oppression of women, and not self control and accountability of the men?

Commenter Chris Lawson had an additional good point that needs to be made:
You know, I might take them seriously if they put a black rectangle over the image of Clinton and labelled it with her name -- it would still be sexist and objectionable, but at least it would be honest and it would let their readers know that she had participated. By photoshopping her out, they are lying to their readers and pretending she is a nobody. That is not respectful.
Exactly. This isn't just about women not being able to be seen. What they've done is rewritten history to remove these women entirely.

Hasidic Judaism is an extremist sect, and obviously not all Jews or all religious people agree with these sort of actions. But this sort of defense of sexism in the name of religion is seen over and over again, and is why it's so important that we speak out. You certainly have the right to practice your religious belief - but I also have the right to say you're wrong and your actions are harmful.

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