Women Under Theocracy

The lives of most women in the industrialized world have improved enormously over the past hundred years, and especially so, in social, cultural, political, and human rights terms, over the past forty. But in the rest of the world, a great many women lead lives of misery and sometimes of plain horror. They are often considered and treated as the property of men: as children they are seen as burdens, to be married off as soon as possible, and as adults they are sex tools, reproductive machines, and domestic labour. When things go wrong – when sexual rumours are floating around, when the crops fail, when a child falls ill – they are scapegoats to be punished, often ferociously. They have few if any rights, they are kept out of school as children, they are illiterate, they receive less food than men however hard they work, they are confined to the house or required to wear stifling, movement-inhibiting clothing if they go outside, they are denied medical treatment, they are forbidden to vote or drive cars, and they are whipped or beaten if they disobey.

This is not to exaggerate. Consider, for example:

  • In June 2002 a panchayat, or tribal council, in the Punjabi village of Meerwala presided over the trial of a woman named Mukhtaran Mai. Her 12-year-old brother had been accused (falsely, it turned out) of having an affair with a woman from the higher-caste Mastoi tribe. In punishment, the elders ordered that Mukhtaran be raped. As several hundred people watched, four men dragged her screaming through a cotton field. Pushing her into a mud-walled house, they assaulted her for more than an hour.
  • When crops fail or children die of mysterious illnesses, villagers in northern Ghana often suspect witchcraft. Fearing for their lives, hundreds of elderly women in northern Ghana have banded together for protection in sanctuaries known as “witch camps”.
  • During the famine in Niger in the summer of 2005, there were villages in which women and children went hungry while there was still food in their households. Men were leaving their families in order to find work, locking the grain store while they were away. There were women in the villages who had hungry children, but no access to the stocks of sorghum and millet in the granary. There is widespread polygamy in Niger; men take more than one wife, and each woman is given a small plot to support herself and her own children. The women also have to work on the larger family fields, but they have no control over and no access to the production from these large fields.
  • In Jharkhand, India, Ramani Devi was badly tortured after being branded a witch: “I was tortured and forced to eat human excreta just because I was branded a witch by the ojhas (witch doctors),” she reported. According to the crime branch of the Jharkhand police, 190 witch killings have been reported in the past five years.
  • In Guatemala, a man can escape a rape charge if he marries his victim, as long as she is over the age of twelve; having sex with a minor is an offence only if the girl can prove she is “honest” and did not act provocatively; a battered wife can prosecute her husband only if her injuries are visible for more than ten days.
  • In the same country, the bodies of girls and women are often found trussed with barbed wire, horrifically mutilated, insults carved into the flesh, raped, murdered, beheaded and dumped on a roadside. Bodies are appearing at an average of two a day this year: 312 in the first five months, adding to the 1,500 females raped, tortured and murdered in the past four years.

Such treatment is generally sustained and protected by a combination of religion and culture; that combination makes reform very difficult. It is worth examining the way religion and culture function to shield the oppression of women from criticism not only locally but also globally, so that it is not only councils in Punjab and priests in Nigeria who keep the shackles on, but also multiculturalists and diversity-celebrators in the rich world who, muttering apologetically about cultural imperialism, look the other way.

There are also large pockets of conservative inegalitarian treatment of women in the industrialized world, for instance among fundamentalist Christians in the US, Muslims in the UK and Europe, ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel, and Catholics in Ireland. This In Focus will collect material on the subject.

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