Mine, like some of yours, was a maternally dominated family, and I will always believe that our island culture was and is quintessentially matriarchal, with all the good and bad that entails. The English Penal Laws which limited what Catholic men could and could not do may offer some partial explanation, but perhaps also Roman ecclesiastical authoritarianism played more of a role that we yet understand. I was but twenty years old when my Mother died, but she was and is the dominant female figure in my life. Even in death I could not escape her long reach. It is no surprise then that during my many University years, I willing sat at the feet of brilliant women academics. One of my great personal anomalies, however, is that I initially committed to an way of life and an institution that is so evidently misogynistic. Alas, Catholicism is not alone in its primitive, limited and indeed destructive attitudes towards women, it is pervasive across multiple belief systems.
I have been reflecting about the recent rapes, and the not so recent dowry murders and acid attacks, against women in India. At first it all seemed very distant and primitive; and remnants of an old colonial mind set rose to the surface of my consciousness. Then intelligence triumphed over an initial emotional reaction, and I reminded myself that violence against women is not limited to India, but rather is a universal phenomenon across all cultures. Reflecting further as is my wont, and given the centrality of religion in my life, I concluded that much of the blame for perverted attitudes towards women falls squarely on the shoulders of the major world religions. Indeed, I am prompted at times to have more than one Bill Maher moment, but further thought usually takes me beyond his religious nihilism.
Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam are equally deficient in their attitudes toward women. Orthodox Jewish women wear expensive wigs lest they show much less attractive hair. They may not walk on the street less they disturb the religious purity of ultra-orthodox men. I sat on the Board of CMHC with a wonderful Hassidic businessman who refused to shake hands with Brenda when he was introduced to her because he did not want to be contaminated. He was gentle, generous and totally good, but Neolithic in his attitude toward women. Anglicans are struggling with the problem of admitting women as Bishops, and Catholics are not permitted to even think about the ordination of women. The Taliban murders girls for even wanting a basic education, and the Hindu caste system places women among the lowest of the low, notwithstanding they elected one as Prime Minister. Indeed in certain sects of Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam a woman’s action can bring dishonour to the family and lead to so called honour killings.
I have long believed that the problem is not women, it is men. The God I believe in is not male, why would we confine the awesome otherness that is God to human gender? Go back to the old Baltimore apologist, review the definition of God, and know that the word ‘Him’ is an anthropomorphism. The best Biblical scholars will tell you that there is nothing in the New Testament writings that says women could not and did not preside at the Eucharist. Religion, like men, needs to change. We really are all still so primitive!