Dr. Mimi Haddad furthers the discussion of religions’ role in disenfranchising women. She uses her background as a Christian theologian to analyze ways that the Christian church has been complicit in the marginalization and injustice of girls and women and how the church can play a vital role in advancing the rights of women and girls.
Twenty-three years ago, an economist from India, Amartya Sen, reported the largest human holocaust in history. His research showed that over 100 million females had disappeared from society. Though Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research, few were mobilized by the horror he had uncovered.
Likewise, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalists Nick Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn decry how their efforts to spotlight the 100,000 girls routinely kidnapped and trafficked never reached the front page. Instead, news services preferred a story on how “a prominent dissident was arrested in China.”1 How could the world be so disinterested in the suffering and annihilation of females?
How could the world be so disinterested in the suffering and annihilation of females?
The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga offers an explanation. In a world distorted by selfinterest, we unconsciously place ourselves at the center of the universe. Exaggerating the importance of what happens to us compared to what others suffer, our capacity to empathize is often impaired or distorted. Sadly, we rationalize our failures and ignore their impact on others.2 This appears to be particularly true when it comes to girls and women. Consider the facts computed by The Millennium Project:
In the best cases, women are paid 30 percent less than men for similar work. Women do most of the unpaid work and represent 50.5 percent of the 1.52 billion workers in vulnerable employment who often lack legal and economic protection. In most cases, a woman’s economic roles are added to her traditional housework.
About 70 percent of people living in poverty are women. While representing the largest number of agricultural workers globally, women receive only 5 percent of agricultural services.
Women represent about 64 percent of the 775 million adult illiterates.
Female genital mutilation traumatizes about 3 million girls each year, in addition to the estimated 140 million women and girls already affected.
Violence against women is the largest ongoing war is all of history. 70 percent of females continue to be targeted for physical and/or sexual violence. About 603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not a legal offense. And these are the most underreported crimes worldwide.
Of the estimated 800,000 people trafficked annually, 80 percent are female. 79 percent are trafficked for sexual exploitation. Many of these are children.
Under the scrutiny of journalists, humanitarians and researchers, the scope and impact of patriarchy is believed to be one of the most malicious and debilitating forces in history. For this reason, the empowering of the world’s females is viewed as a key objective in “global challenges facing humanity.” To identify root causes of gender abuse, the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that the greater the gender bias in a culture, the more its girls and women suffer abuse and injustice. Intriguingly, this is precisely what Christians discovered in opposing the abuse of girls and women in the 1800s.
Early evangelicals perceived an integral relationship: an inescapable link between viewing females as innately inferior and their subsequent marginalization and abuse.
Like the SIGI studies, the early evangelicals perceived an integral relationship: an inescapable link between viewing females as innately inferior and their subsequent marginalization and abuse. Those in positions of power often legitimate their domination by defining their victims as innately inferior, allowing perpetrators to justify their actions. Unsurprisingly, it is frequently the voice of religion that provides the most exalted, convincing, and irreproachable devaluation of people groups, whereby their abuse is often rationalized.
By advancing patriarchy as a biblical ideal, the church has been complicit in the marginalization and injustice of girls and women — a dangerous error perpetuated by Christians throughout history. Regrettably, it is a practice that continues to this day. Despite the shared leadership of women noted throughout the Bible, Christians have upheld a consequence of sin — the “he will rule over you” of Genesis 3:16 — as God’s ideal. Therefore, males have held authority over women not because of their character, their moral choices, or their intimacy with Christ, but solely because of their gender. This creates a power imbalance that is intrinsically unjust. When an innate attribute such as gender eclipses character as the sole quality for authority, it creates an unjust system that places females at risk for abuse and suffering.
By advancing patriarchy as a biblical ideal, the church has been complicit in the marginalization and injustice of girls and women.
To this day, women around the world routinely report being beaten, raped, molested, and humiliated by husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers, pastors, or other men who believe that God has given males authority over women. Clearly, the authority these men exercised had everything to do with their sex and nothing to do with character. Is this the teaching of scripture or a distortion of it?
Fortunately, scholars have recognized the consequences of such interpretative errors. The suffering of women was a key reason that the eminent theologian I. Howard Marshall found it necessary to reconsider the biblical evidence concerning male-only authority. Marshall realized that a theology that leads to such enormous abuse and suffering is not God’s ideal. Marshall and others offer the church a biblical challenge to critique its own teachings and practices, because as Eugene Peterson observed, religion is often a deadly tool of oppression. According to Peterson, “More people are exploited and abused in the cause of religion than in any other way.” The first line of defense against exploitation driven by religious zeal is attending to the voice of prophets, because “none of us can be trusted,” Peterson warns. We too easily listen to people who agree with us. Since the line “dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” as Solzhenitsyn observed in “The Gulag Archipelago”, the pursuit of justice is inseparable from an honest engagement with the prophetic teachings of scripture and those prophets God sends us in every age.
May the discomfort of their challenge give us the courage to fully empathize with the sufferings, especially of girls and women, even as it provides a critique of our biblical teachings and practices related to gender and authority.
Dr. Mimi Haddad is the president of Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE International), part of the leadership of Evangelicals for Justice, and a founding member of the Evangelicals and Gender Study Group at the Evangelical Theological Society. She has written over 100 articles and blog entries and has contributed to 10 books, including Godly Woman: An Agent of Transformation (2014) and Global Voices on Biblical Equality: Women and Men Serving Together in the Church (2008). She is an adjunct assistant professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Bethel University, and North Park Theological Seminary. Dr. Haddad also serves as a gender consultant for World Vision.
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