Returning Women to Their Place? Religious Fundamentalism, Gender Bias and Violence against Women

By Zamfir, Korinna | Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

Returning Women to Their Place? Religious Fundamentalism, Gender Bias and Violence against Women


Zamfir, Korinna, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies


In a challenging 2017-article, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz (Valley Beit Midrash, Phoenix) pointed to the potential for intolerance and violence inherent to all religious traditions and their sacred writings, questioning apologetic perspectives which claim that fundamentalism does not belong to the true essence of religions. Instead of dismissing such potential, believers have the crucial moral responsibility to refine these traditions and approach these texts "with an intellectually critical lens and not a morally submissive one". Whenever religious texts (are used to) sustain fundamentalism and unethical behaviour, extremism, hatred towards refugees, the oppression of women and the neglect of the poor, they should be actively addressed and corrected. Such texts, laws, and teachings require an explicit revision. Ultimately, "a critical and reflective hermeneutic does not cancel our piety but enhances it" (Yanklowitz, 2017).

This perspective counters the major assumptions and concerns of religious fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism is understood here as a hostile reaction to modernity, feared to threaten religious beliefs and moral values, inspired by a literalist interpretation of sacred texts, defending decontextualized religious tenets and laws vested with absolute validity, aiming at a selective retrieval of an idealized past, of purportedly timeless traditions (Barr, 1981; D'Arcy May, 2001, 114; Strozier, 2010; Beinert, 1991; Vorster, 2008; S. Frunză, 2015). Fear of the disintegration of (individual and communal) identity leads to hostility against those perceived as enemies of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, appearing to support the forces of evil: other denominations, other religions or political powers. Fear explains the reactive, militant and combative nature of fundamentalism, its potential for and approval of violence (Jones, 1991; Marty, Appleby, 1991; Vorster, 2008; S. Frunză, 2015).

This paper is concerned with one particular aspect of religious fundamentalism, the use of uncritical or patently fundamentalist readings of biblical texts corroborated with arguments from 'natural law' to defend traditional gender roles, even at the cost of minimising serious problems, like violence against women. Over the last decade traditionalist circles of Eastern European Churches and affiliated civic groups have fought an embittered campaign against women's social emancipation, demonising feminism and a blurry "gender-ideology". The crusade meant to defend the "traditional family" against an alleged global gender-conspiracy involves returning women to traditional roles established by the Bible and natural law. The anti-'gender' acrimony originating in Gabriele Kuby's one-sided but all the more influential writings has penetrated Catholic ecclesial discourse both in Rome and in Eastern Europe (Anić, 2015; Anić, Brnčić, 2015; Balogh, 2014; Perintfalvi, 2015). The critique of a misunderstood definition of gender-perspectives has also found its way into Romania through the propaganda carried out by the Coalition for Family, leading to extremely conservative positions on women's roles. The phenomenon is alarming due to the impact of ultra-conservative perspectives on politics. The campaign against the ratification of the Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women is a telling example.

Women's emancipation was traditionally countered with decontextualized biblical texts. Yet, recently conservative discourse refers in addition to secular notions of natural law and essentialist-Aristotelian definitions of human nature (Anić, 2017). This paper addresses the ways biblical texts and secular ideologies incorporating decontextualized biblical echoes are used to curb women's rights, even at the cost of minimising issues like domestic violence. The first part tackles uncritical readings of biblical passages that perpetuate gender stereotypes and negative views on women, endorsing subordination and even domestic violence. …

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