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Twenty-first Century Religion and the Backlash Against Women's Autonomy: Three Recent Events that Show that Women's Freedom Is Imperiled

Thursday, Apr. 20, 2006

There is a growing threat to women's autonomy arising from religious groups, which deserves closer attention than it has received to date. Three recent events, in particular, should make women who value their freedom shudder.

South Dakota's Anti-Abortion Law

South Dakota recently passed a draconian anti-abortion law on the assumption (or wish) that the new Supreme Court will overrule Roe v. Wade. This remarkable law provides a clear window into the extreme agenda religious entities are pursuing. (The abortion debate has been driven by religious interests - largely evangelical Christians and Catholics - ever since Roe was decided; surely religious lobbies were part of the impetus for South Dakota's law.)

South Dakota's law is extreme: It forbids an abortion, with only one exception: if the life of the mother is at stake. There is no exception for the health of the mother, rape, or incest.

Let's take a look at what living in South Dakota will actually be like for women, in the event that Roe really is overruled - in which case, states will have the latitude to choose either to regulate abortion, or not to do so, as I discussed in a previous column.

If Roe is overruled, pregnant women in South Dakota - at least, those too poor or sick to travel out of state for an abortion -- will have no choice but to carry fetuses to full term even if the pregnancy results in their permanent disability, or worsens the debilitating mental and emotional burdens attached to being forced to carry the product of violence, whether it is rape or incest.

The misogynist quality of South Dakota's legislation is almost beyond comprehension, and hearkens back to the era when women were not autonomous individuals, but rather, in effect, the property of the men around them.

The notion of choice has disappeared. When Justice O'Connor was asked about Roe at the time of her confirmation to the Supreme Court, she made it very clear that she herself would never condone abortion or seek it, but that, as a Justice, she would not presume to make that choice for other women.

That is the voice of reason on the issue, based as it is on respect for women's autonomy. The distance from which South Dakota has traveled from that vision is shocking.

Column continues below ↓

Islamic Defenders' Front Attacks Playboy's Indonesian Offices

Radical Islamicism rests on the assumption of male superiority. Male clerics rule; women are at best second-class citizens, and have no right to be seen in public - indeed, if they do not cover themselves, they face severe repercussions.

The typical defense to a charge of misogyny within the faith is that the covering of women means that they are more valued. They are treasures to be protected. But under just a bit of scrutiny, that defense quickly falls apart.

For those who lived through the public debate over the Equal Rights Amendment, Betty Friedan's novels, and the 1970s in general, this rationalization should sound very familiar. A very effective way to keep women in a subservient place is to put them on a pedestal. That will keep them from fighting for the power men hold so dear in these cultures; after all, it's not "feminine" to fight, to argue, to get down and dirty in pursuit of power, rights, and ultimately equality.

Whether it is the United States in the 1950s or current-day Iran, the idea that women are "protected" by being barred from doing things men take for granted, is noxious. It's an obvious denial of autonomy: Women are forced into the status of supposed "treasure," and forbidden to ever redefine themselves.

The display of women's bodies is so offensive to the radical Islamicists, that the announcement that Playboy would initiate an Indonesian version - without nudity -- was greeted by about 150 members of the Islamic Defenders' Front smashing the Jakarta Playboy office's windows, door, and gate.

The message was clear: The faith will determine what women wear, and where their images will appear. Once again, female autonomy is simply not an option if one adopts this worldview.

Hollywood Touts Polygamy

Meanwhile, Hollywood has put itself in the business of dressing up fundamentalist Mormon polygamy, as though it is nothing more than a sexual romp among consenting adults. Tom Hanks is a producer of HBO's "Big Love" (which would be more accurately named "Big Lie," as I indicated in an earlier column), which portrays polygamy as though it is Ward Cleaver with June Cleaver times three. That image alone should bring to mind The Handmaid's Tale, or The Stepford Wives, both of which were powerful and provocative attacks on male superiority and female subservience.

The message of the show is this: One earnest man deserves to have three women fawning over him, cooking for him, demanding sex, and producing his children. It is the harem mentality: Women once again are property, not autonomous adults.

In theory, women happily "choose" to enter into these polygamous marriages - and that seems to be the case on "Big Love." But in reality, they are often given no choice: Young men are often driven away from polygamous communities. As a result, women will have no choice but to become the second or third wives of the scarce older men, if they want to stay in their community and to bear children - two very basic human desires.

As I noted in a previous column, "Big Love" has acknowledged this practice in its backstory; the husband was driven off by his own father as a teen. But the picture it paints of happy, content wives is propaganda negating that more realistic depiction.

It was very telling when, on Larry King Live, a woman who had been in a polygamous marriage was asked why there should be one man, but multiple women. Her answer was that the Bible said that there is to be only one "master." It was even more interesting when women interviewed on CNN who were part of a non-religious commune-like marriage suggested that they were able to get along so well, because jealousy was an emotion reserved to men. That myth, again, depicts women as passive "treasures" - unsullied by "ugly" emotions like anger, resentment, desire, or the wish for a better life.

Marriage is a social and political institution that determines the relationship between adults. No matter how one slices it, polygamy rests on a notion of male superiority and female subservience, as well as a belief that the male is radically distinct from the female. The values of equality and autonomy are set aside.

Women like myself who grew up believing that the sky is the limit cannot see these developments without real trepidation. The justifications hearken back to the era when women were not fully autonomous. This time, though, it is not the general culture, but rather individual religious enclaves, that are encouraging women to take a step back in time to when they were men's property, rather than their equal. Women in America and across the world should beware: That time was no Golden Age; it was a prison.

Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. An archive of her columns on church/state issues - as well as other topics -- can be found on this site. Her email address is Professor Hamilton's most recent work is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005).

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