A burning house

Deeyah Khan, May 2015


South Carolina lies in the heartland of the Southern Baptist movement; it also has the highest level of domestic homicides in the United States. Reporters writing a Pulitzer-winning exposé of domestic violence found that the churches that formed the social centres of the community provided little support to women at risk: “The ministers told us, ‘It’s really a family issue. They need to work that out’, but in some cases that’s like telling a victim to go running back into a burning house,” said the Oconee county sheriff, representing a small rural area that has seen six domestic violence related deaths in a single year.

But it is not only in the Bible Belt that violence against women comes wrapped in the vestments of faith. Many ‘traditional’ or fundamentalist versions of religion take the preservation of the male-dominated household as their cornerstone. So-called ‘sharia’ courts order Muslim women to return to their burning houses or to send their children to live with their abuser. Some clerics accept male violence against women and children as a form of ‘discipline’; under the terrorising rule of the theocrats of Iran, Saudi Arabia and ISIS, women are executed for the ‘crime’ of adultery, professional women and women’s rights activists may be imprisoned, tortured, even executed. In South America, due to a confluence of Catholic and Evangelical influences, there are no legal abortions, even if the pregnancy endangers the woman’s life - with a resultantly high rate of maternal mortality and death due to back-street abortions. In religions which give men spiritual authority over women, priests and imams alike use this power to abuse those under their authority. Many of those countries with the highest levels of violence against women are deeply religious, and in many cases, religious authorities have moved to restrict reforms that would help women escape abuse.

All major religions bear the imprints of our distant past where men and women’s roles were steeped in patriarchal values. Sadly, many men (and, indeed, some women) of God use these religions to carry these values into our present and justify and excuse the suffering of women and the power of men. Unless we can achieve remarkable changes, some of these will continue to justify the sufferings of our daughters and grand-daughters into the future. Through relating gendered inequalities to divine status, religions justify women’s subservience. This creates a rich vein of victim-blaming, where women are told violence against them is justified by their own failings where the perpetrator is never at fault, but only reacting to her short skirt, the over-salted dinner she prepared, her wish to work or seek education, or her conversation with another man. These positions come from an ethic of control, where women are effectively perceived as children, subject to masculine discipline if they fail to meet his standards for her behaviour. Control is the source of abuse representing a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self, underlying all forms of domestic violence.

Moreover, the patriarchal view of marriage, where women are expected to exchange their liberty for a roof over their head and financial support creates a means for financial abuse and a justification for male control. Worse, that many religious leaders see marriage as sacrosanct means that women are discouraged from leaving abusive relationships, that divorced women do not get the support they need to carry on with their lives: that children are exposed to the continuing brutalisation of their mother in service of the ideal of male power. The connection between the doctrine of wifely subordination and domestic violence becomes harder and harder to ignore.

Research indicates that “abuse victims in religious communities are less likely to leave the abusive relationship, more likely to believe the abuser’s promise to change his violent ways, more reluctant to seek community-based resources or shelters, and more commonly express guilt that they have failed their families and God in not being able to make the marriage work and to stop the abuse.”

This is a betrayal of women’s faith. Leaving an abusive relationship is difficult, which faith has the power to make easier, rather than harder. Religion is a valuable part of many people’s lives, and for religious women who have been abused, spiritual counselling may prove a source of comfort, since they may feel conflicted about wishing to escape an abusive marriage, and may indeed have been abused using religious language. Religious institutions could use their enormous power to support women, to challenge attitudes supportive of male dominance, to work with domestic violence charities – as indeed some do. In other cases, religious leaders receive an undeserved influence over policy, being consulted as experts in theology or representatives of their ‘community’ while activists who do grassroots work with victimised women, the real experts, are sidelined. In positions of power, some leaders minimise the existence of violence against women, blame the victims, or distract attention by making this a debate around theology. If a woman comes to her faith leader for help, she needs more than his theological opinion upon the permissibility of violence: she needs immediate and practical help.

In the long run, Jimmy Carter’s suggestion of increasing women’s entry into positions of religious authority may help to develop more egalitarian understandings of these faiths; however women may be as assiduous protectors of patriarchy as men and it will take time for traditionalists to accept gender equality as an aspect of mainstream faith. We need to draw a line and say, without equivocation, that religious authorities need to accept women's rights to determine their own fates and live free from violence, to be responsive to women fleeing violence, and to actively condemn male violence and the attitudes that underlie it. All religious institutions need to develop mechanisms to ensure that those in positions of power do not abuse them, ensure that all individuals have training in order to deal with people in need of help and cooperate with secular authorities and organisations.

Those that do not take measures to support women vicitimised within their own families need to be reckoned as complicit in violence. So-called men of God who send women back to die into burning houses need to be held to account.

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