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Nawal El Saadawi: The Hidden Face of Eve

In The Hidden Face of Eve (1980), Nawal El Saadawi considers the role of religion in perpetuating female oppression in the Arab World. She offers an Egyptian Feminist perspective on the role of religion and thus broadens our understanding away from the typically white female voices of feminism.

El Saadawi.pngEl Saadawi is a women’s rights activist, who has herself experienced oppression within Egypt. She has campaigned vigorously for women’s rights in the Arab world and has been imprisoned for her activism.

She was forced to undergo female circumcision as a young girl, without any warning or explanation and points out that male violence against women within the family is common in many Arab cultures. Young females are frequently the victims of violence at the hands of their fathers, uncles or brothers. In addition, women are also victims of forced prostitution and slavery which provide further evidence of patriarchal dominance of Arab men over Arab women.

However, despite the prevalence of female oppression across the Islamic world, El Saadawi does not believe that female oppression is caused by Islam.

She points out that male female oppression exists in many non-Islamic cultures and is in fact just as common in Christian cultures. A classic example of this is in the 14th century when the Catholic Church declared that women who treated those who were ill, without special training, could be executed as witches.

(Possibly our fixation with the oppression of women in Islamic cultures is a result of a broader anti-Islamic prejudice?)

For El Saadawi, the oppression of women is caused by ‘the patriarchal system which came into being when society had reached a certain stage of development’. It just so happened that Islam developed in those areas of the world which already had extremely patriarchal social structures. Over the centuries, Islamic doctrine was thus shaped by men and reflected their interests, with women’s voices being effectively unheard in this process.

Ultimately, El Saadawi believes that where religion evolves within patriarchal cultures, men distort religion to act in their own interests and to help justify their own privilege and the oppression of women.

The Origins of Oppressive Religion

El Saadawi argues that religion became patriarchal through the misinterpretation of religious beliefs by men.

She uses the Greek myth of Isis and Osiris as an example of this in which the evil Touphoun overpowers the male Osiris. His body is cut into small pieces and dispersed in the sea, and fish eats his sexual organ.

To El Saadawi, this story clearly implies female superiority, but men have interpreted it quite differently. They have emphasised the superiority of Osiris because he was created from the head of the god Zeus, who was greater than Osiris, according to Homer and other writers, because he was more knowledgeable.

However, the above is a narrow interpretation which conveniently leaves out the next link in the ‘creation chain’: all male gods were created by or given the ability to move by the greatest deity of them all, the goddess Isis.

Similar distortions have entered the story of Adam and Eve. Males usually portray Eve as a temptress who created sin in the world. However, if we read the original story as described in the Old Testament, it is easy for us to see clearly that Eve was gifted with knowledge, intelligence and superior mental capacities, whereas Adam was only one of her instruments, utilized by her to increase her knowledge and give shape to her creativity.

Monotheistic Religions and Female Oppression

El Saadawi argues that forms of religion that were oppressive to women developed as monotheistic religions (believing in a single god). Such religions were interpreted in the context of patriarchal societies, primarily by men. For example, male representatives of early Judaism interpreted Abraham as a patriarchal figure which served to justify the patriarchal family in which wives and children came to be under the uncontested power of the father.

Islam similarly developed patriarchal doctrines because it was established in the context of a patriarchal social structure: Authority in Islamic society belonged ultimately to the political ruler (the Khalifa) or the religious leader (the Imam), and then down through a small male minority who had power due to their ownership of herds of horses, camels and sheep, and finally down to the level of the lifeworld via the male head of household.

As a result, the enforcement of many laws in Islamic culture remains highly unequal. For example:

  • Although the Qur’an states that both men and women can be stoned to death for adultery, this fate rarely befalls men.
  • Men are permitted many wives, but women are not permitted many husbands
  • Husbands can divorce their wives instantaneously.

Fighting back against religions which oppress women

El Saadawi concludes that female oppression is not essentially due to religion, but due to the patriarchal system that has long been dominant. She is not hostile to religion, but only to the domination of religion by patriarchal ideology.

‘The great religions of the world uphold similar principles in so far as the submission of women to men is concerned. They also agree in the attribution of masculine characteristics to their God. Islam and Christianity have both constituted important stages inn the evolution of humanity. Nevertheless, where the cause of women was concerned, they added a new load to their already heavy chains. (El Saadawi,1980.)

She believes that the only way for women to free themselves from oppression is to themselves fight for their own liberation.

Thankfully, there is a long tradition of religious radicals doing precisely this, probably the best-known example being Jesus Christ himself who El Saadawi describes as a revolutionary leader who opposed oppression. She also points out that early Christianity tended to have codes which enforced the equal treatment of men and women.

Finally, El Saadawi believes that revolutions are generally beneficial to women and so can thus be regarded as a Marxist Feminist as much as a Radical Feminist.

Sources

Adapted from Haralmabos and Holborn 8th edition 2013

Find out More

El Saadawi (2015) The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (new edition)

 

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Feminist Perspectives on Religion: Karen Armstrong

Feminist Karen Armstrong argued that women were central to many spiritual traditions in early history.

She pointed out that in early history, there were very few effigies of male gods, while symbolic representations of the ‘Great Mother Goddess’ were numerous. In the Middle East, Asia and Europe, for example, archaeologists have uncovered numerous symbols of the Mother Goddess. One common representation is of the mother goddess as a naked pregnant women, which seems to place fertility as central to early spirituality.

Armstrong argues that female figures began to be written out of religion with the acceptance of monotheism. She suggests that this process originated with Yahweh, the god of Abraham, and writes…

‘[this] God of Israel would later become the God of the Christians and the Muslims, who all regard themselves as the spiritual offspring of Adam, the father of all believers’. 

Evaluation

This type of Feminist analysis seems to suggest that it is not necessarily religion itself that is patriarchal. Thus, unlike Marxist perspectives,  we do not need to eradicate religion in order to achieve female liberation. Rather, we, need to ‘get back’ to more female centered spiritual traditions and develop a female-focused spirituality.

 

 

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Mary Daly’s Perspective on Religion

Feminist Mary Daly argued that Christianity was a set of patriarchal myths. She was heavily inspired by Simon de Beavoir.

Mary Daly theorised that women were part of a ‘planetary sexual caste system’ which was patriarchal and exploitative of women. She saw this religious patriarchy as being maintained in a number of ways:

The early Catholic church systematically eliminated religions in which female gods were equal to or more powerful than male gods. It also ‘demoted’ the role of female figures in the historical record: for example, Mary Magdalene, who in reality played a large role in the spread of Christianity, is given less significance than is appropriate, according to Daly.

Churches have also tended to support a type of sex role segregation in society in which women are given a ‘derivative status’. This means that women derive their status not from their own contribution to society, but from their husband. Daly further argued that early socialisation of women into subordinate roles meant that women willingly consented to their inferior status.

Patriarchal religious ideology teaches that patriarchal religious institutions are bestowed by God. This ideology also teaches that the subordinate status of women is God’s will, and that it is virtuous for women to accept such positions.

Much like Simon de Beauvoir, Daly also believed that women encouraged false consciousness. It taught them that the way to redemption was through prayer, rather than concrete struggle against religious authorities in society.

Daly placed particular attention on the role of imagery and language in perpetuating male control and female subordination. For example God is often portrayed as male ‘ which serves to alienate women and places them in an inferior position to men.

In order to liberate themselves from religious oppression, women needed to abolish the male-centered language used by mainstream religions and replace it with a different language. Daly also believed that ultimately women needed to stop relying on ‘religion from above’, and should instead seek ‘spirituality from within’.

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Simone de Beauvoir: Religion and the Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir theorized that religion oppresses women in much the same way as it oppresses the proletariat in Marxist theory.

‘There must be a religion for women as there must be one for the common people, and for exactly the same reason’ (Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949).

According to de Beauvoir, religion is used by men to oppress women and to compensate for them for the second-class status.

De Beauvoir argued that historically, men, who have traditionally controlled most institutions in society, also control religion. It is men who control religion beliefs, and they use God to justify their control of society.

De Beauvoir writes:

‘For the Jews, Mohammedans, and Christians, among others, men is master by divine right; the fear of God will therefor repress any impulse towards revolt in the downtrodden female.’

Religion Simone de Beauvoir.png

However, in modern societies, religion is more of a tool of deception than of direct control. Religion deceives women into thinking that are equal to, or even better than men, despite their inferior status in reality.

For example, the role of mother is given divine status in most religions, and thus encourages women to accept the role of ‘mother’ in society. Religion also provides psychological rewards for women who content themselves with being ‘good mothers’: simply being a ‘good mother’ is ‘divine’, and this effectively carries its own psychological and status rewards for women who accept this role.

However, according to radical feminist theory more generally, the motherhood role is one of the most oppressive for women: it means that women become financially dependent on men and end up doing a lot more work in society, especially in reproducing the next generation.

In fact, de Beauvoir says that those women who accept their religiously sanctioned roles as mother actually benefit religious institutions. This is because they socialise them into religious belief: thus reproducing power inequalities.

Finally, for de Beauvoir, the compensations women receive from traditional religious institutions for accepting their inferior status are not adequate.

Sources

Adapted from Haralambos and Holborne: Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.

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Analyse two reasons why women remain economically disadvantaged compared to men despite the increase in the gender gap in educational achievement (10)

Using material from item A and elsewhere, analyse two reasons why women remain economically disadvantaged compared to men despite the increase in the gender gap in educational achievement (10)

Item A

Girls have been outperforming boys in education for 30 years now. However, despite this, men still earn more than women.

There are many explanations for this: the most obvious being that schools fail to adequately tackle other aspects of gender inequality: such as gender differences in socialisation, social roles and gendered differences in subject choice.

Suggested Answer

gender gap education work

One reason is that despite getting better qualifications than men, women are more likely to work part-time than men.

This is because despite changes to education in the world of work women are still more likely to be the primary child carers, and thus take time off work, putting their careers on hold in order to bring up children.

According to Radical Feminists this shows that schools fail to tackle in-grained gendered socialisation learnt at home and via the media…. girls may increasingly be going into careers, but by the time they get to 35 and have their first baby it is generally women who take time off work, not men.

This might be because schools only focus on the formal aspects of qualifications (i.e. exam skills, grades) and fail to challenge gender-stereotypes about appropriate future work roles for men and women.

This could also be linked marketization – the curriculum narrows to focus on teaching to the test rather than focussing on broader educational issues such as promoting gender equality and diversity.

A second reason may be that girls are more likely to choose caring subjects which are linked to lower paid careers such as health and social care which leads into nursing.

In contrast boys choose more technical subjects which are linked to more highly paid careers, such as maths and computer programming leading onto engineering and computer programming.

According to labelling theory, this happens because of gendered stereotypes held by careers advisors, with subject advisors steering girls and boys into ‘traditional subject choices’.

This criticises the Liberal Feminist view that mere ‘equality of opportunity’ is sufficient to being about wage equality, and supports the Radical Feminist view that patriarchy (in the form of stereotypical assumptions) still works within schools to disadvantage girls.

However, all of this is changing and that a higher proportion of girls are choosing to do traditionally male subjects and are going into male jobs in greater numbers and that things are actually becoming more equal. Supporting evidence for this lies in the fact that women in their 20s actually earn more than men in their 20s.

 

 

Women do lower payed jobs than men.

Gender gap

Educational achievement

Also subject choice

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Women of the World Festival

The Women of the World Festival (WOW), or to give it its full title – The Women of the World Festival for Women Who Can Afford a £20 Day Ticket, makes for a nice little day-trip for A-level sociology students, assuming they can afford the >£20 ticket for the day.

The Festival allows students to listen to talks and engage in discussions on all sorts of topics relevant to the A-level sociology syllabus, and this year’s agenda (focusing on the Friday) is especially relevant: with focus groups on both education and crime and deviance, not to mention a ‘gamalan’ workshop.

I would say see you there, but I let the two women I work with organise this trip, so you’ll see there if you fancy it! I’ve heard it’s a great day out.

It runs Weds 7th to Sunday 11th March, in 2018..

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Grid Girls go Off-Grid for Good

Formula one is getting rid of its grid-girls: the scantily clad, typically young attractive women who hold up a card telling  drivers where to start.

Most Feminist leaning commentators, such as Janet Street Porter, see this as progress for gender equality and women’s rights: employing women just as ‘eye candy for men’ or ‘set dressing’ is just another example of sexism in which women are ‘valued’ merely for their looks, and is thus just another example of the objectification of women. Also being given the boot is the leering and bum-pinching from male mechanics which goes along with the job, according to Beverly Turner who covered the sport between 2001 to 2003.

However, writing in the Sunday Times, Camilla Long criticizes middle class Feminists for effectively ‘slut shaming’ the grid-girls, and effectively dismissing their working-class sister’s right to choose.

Meanwhile, some of the grid-girls themselves aren’t particularly happy about their chosen careers being given the axe either: Rebecca Cooper, for example, argues that it’s their choice to do what they do, most of them are fans of the sport, and the whole cat-calling thing: you get that everywhere in life anyway.

Finally, it’s worth reflecting on where we stand on women using their sexuality to make money more generally: if we are in the camp which thinks sex-work and pornography are ‘empowering for women’, we are going to have to be pretty nuanced in our critique of Grid-Girls!

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The Suffragettes and the Historic Battle for Women’s Votes

Who first called for women’s votes?

The first appeals for women to be given the right to vote date from the early 19th century. One of the first calling for such was Jeremy Bentham, who first suggested that women should be given the right to vote in his 1818 ‘Plan for Parliamentary Reform’.

Women at that time had no political rights at all, they were deemed to be represented by their husbands or their fathers.

A second historic call for women’s formal political equality was made by the radical MP Henry Hunt – who in 1832 presented a petition drawn up by Mary Smith, a rich Yorkshire woman, asking that unmarried women who owned property and paid taxes should be allowed to vote.

NB – to put this in context, following the 1832 Reform Act, only 18% of men had the right to vote, which was linked to property-ownership at that time.

When did the campaign really get going?

The first campaigning women’s groups weren’t formed until the end of the 19th century, initially focusing on the lack of education and employment opportunities for women and their lack of legal representation, and the vote gradually became the central symbolic and practical issue for these groups.

In 1867, Barbara Bodichon and others form the London Society for Women’s Suffrage; other committees then sprang up all over the country and in 1897 the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett was formed.

millicent-fawcett
Millicent Fawcett

How were their arguments received?

The issue gained traction throughout the later half of the nineteenth century. The philosopher and MP John Stuart Mill tabled an amendment to the 1867 Reform Bill, calling for all householders to be enfranchised. And, as the suffragists pointed out, the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 had enabled about 60% of men to vote, some of whom were barely literate; yet well-educated, taxpaying women still did not.

Motions were debated in Parliament throughout the 1870s, but they were defeated on the arguments that women were less able than men, that their natural sphere was in the home, that they were unable to fight for their country, or that they simply did not want the vote.

This later was at least partially true, and supported by some women: Florence Nightingale declared in 1867 that she had ‘never felt the want of a vote’.

What about the Suffragettes?

In 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union was formed in Manchester by Emmeline Pankhurst and other campaigners. The WSPU, frustrated by slow progress on women’s rights, was committed to ‘deeds, not words’.

In 1905, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney repeatedly shoted over a speech by the MP Sir Edward Grey, asking ‘Will the Liberal government give votes to women?’. They assaulted police officers when asked to leave and were arrested. A series of mass processions followed: more than 250 000 women protested in Hyde Park in 1908, shocking Edwardian England.

How effective were their protests?

Most historians believe that the suffragettes were very effective in mobilising women around the campaign for votes for women. Many were arrested and treated brutally, with prisoners on hunger strike being force fed for example.

Over time their tactics became more radical: smashing shop windows and setting fire to letter boxes, libraries and even homes…. and in the most famous event of the period, Emily Davison threw herself under the kind’s horse on Derby Day, 1913 and was killed.

However, at the time, it was thought these violent and dramatic tactics were a step-backwards for their cause.

The First World War and Vote Reform

It was the First World War which finally brought the vote for women. The sacrifices of the war bolstered support for expanding the suffrage to women. The war saw more than a million women employed outside of the home – in munitions factories and engineering works for example, and the vote had traditionally been based on occupational status.

In 1918, The Representation of the People Act was passed be an enormous majority which gave women over 30 who were householders or married to one, or university graduates, the right to vote. However, the act also extended the vote to nearly all men over the age of 21.

It was not, however, until 1928, with the Equal Franchise Act, that men and women had equal voting rights.

Sources 

The Week, 3rd Feb 2018

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A Sociological Christmas 

Family, friends, gifting and food, these are the main things which people say makes ‘Christmas important to them’, at least according to a survey carried out by YouGov this time last year, on behalf of the British Humanist Association

And less than 25% of the population seem to think religion is an important part of Christmas, at least as measured by the two questions in this particular survey (about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ and attending a religious ceremony), both of which tap into whether people actually do anything ‘religiously active’ to celebrate the tradition.

Personally I’m inclined to think the results of this survey as valid, as this is an online survey (so anonymous) and people get to choose (NB the format of the above version varies slightly to how the original was administered!

The Social (Media) Construction of Christmas

Some oddball versions of the history of Christmas take it all the way back to the birth of someone called Jesus Christ, but the modern (real?) version of Christmas didn’t really start to take shape until the 19th Century….In other words Christmas is a social construction… 

Goose was the popular choice for Christmas dinners for generations. Middle-class families with lots of relatives might go for a boar’s head, while the seriously rich showed off with a swan. The turkey really took off with the Victorians after Charles Dickens had Scrooge ordering a turkey in A Christmas Carol.

The mastermind behind the Christmas cracker was a London sweetshop owner called Tom Smith. In 1847, after spotting French bonbons wrapped in paper with a twist at each end, he started selling similar sweets with a “love motto” inside.

They were so popular as a Christmas novelty that Tom made them bigger and included a trinket. But the real flash of inspiration came when he poked the fire and a log exploded with a sharp CRACK! That gave him the idea for a package that went off with a bang. By 1900 he was selling 13 million a year.

The red robes, white beard, and booming ho-ho-hos we associate with Santa Clause has only existed since 1935, when this colour-combo was created Santa Claus for a Coca-Cola campaign.

In previous lives he was thinner and paler, a character based on a 4th Century Asian bishop called Nicholas, who became the patron saint of children in most of Europe. Different countries still have their own variations on the theme, but the coca-cola version has pushed them all to the cultural margins.

And personally, I can’t imagine Christmas without Christmas Movies, and especially Christmas Songs. I mean in one sense, Christmas didn’t really exist before 1986….

 

A Marxist Analysis of Christmas…

A broadly (read ‘simplified’) Marxist approach to Christmas would probably highlight the extent to which Christmas has been hijacked by Corporations to become hideously commercialized, with advertising basically manipulating us into spending money on shit we don’t need which puts us into debt and makes profit for Corporations.

Hopefully you appreciate the irony!

An important part of this which links to the family is that Christmas is a key event which reproduces the norms of materialism and consumption – as kids come to expect lots of shit they don’t need. This also links very nicely (horrifically) into Toxic Childhood.

An excellent documentary which criticizes the commercialisation of Christmas is…..What Would Jesus Buy in which Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping ask the question ‘What Would Jesus Buy?’…

 

A Broadly Feminist Critique of Christmas

There is some scope for a Feminist Analysis of XMAS…

According to The Conversation, Christmas adverts come with the gift of gender stereotyping… with characters such as the overworked dad and the mischievous boy contrasted to the mum doing all the cooking and the fairy princess.

According to this Daily Mail Article, American women spend twice as much money as gifts on men, and according to this (earlier) article, the burden of Christmas tends to fall disproportionately on women

This all certainly seems to tie in with the gendered results from the BH survey above – women seem to be more involved with Christmas than men.

One final thing…. there is maybe a hint of frustration in the results of this survey from YouGov…. Is it Father Christmas, or Santa Claus? Of course men are more likely to the think the former, and women more likely the later…evidence of female frustration at the Patriarchy, or is that reading too much into it?!?

And Something Extra…

Black Lives Matter are currently calling on people to boycott a ‘white Christmas’, which basically involves not shopping with white corporations in order to divest them of money, and to invest in black shops by shopping only in them.

 

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What is Patriarchy?

Working definition

The systematic domination of women by men in some or all of society’s spheres and institutions

Origins of the Concept 

Ideas of male dominance have a very long history, with many religions presenting it as natural and necessary.

The first theoretical account of patriarchy is found in Engels theory of women’s subservience under capitalism. He argued that capitalism resulted in power being concentrated in the hands of fewer people which intensified the oppression of women as men passed on their wealth to their male heirs. (I’ve outline this theory in more detail in this post: the Marxist perspective on the family).

The main source of patriarchal theory stems from Feminism, which developed the concept in the 1960s, highlighting how the public-private divide and the norm of women being confined to the domestic sphere was the main source of male dominance and female oppression, highlighted by the famous Feminist slogan ‘the personal is the political’.

Subsequent Feminist theory and research explored how

Today, there is much disagreement over the concepts usefulness within the various different Feminist traditions (for the purposes of A-level sociology, typically divided up into Liberal, Marxist, Radical).

Meaning and Interpretation

The concept of Patriarchy forms the basis for radical forms of Feminism which has focused on how Patriarchy is reproduced in many different ways such as male violence against women, stereotypical representations in the media and even everyday sexism.

Sylvia Walby re-conceptualized Patriarchy in the 1990s, arguing that the concept failed to take account of increasing gender equality, but that it should still remain central to Feminist analysis, suggesting that there are six structures of patriarchy: Paid Work, Household Production, Culture, Sexuality, Violence and the State.

Walby also argued that analysis should distinguish between public and private forms of patriarchy.

Critical Points

The concept of patriarchy has been criticized from both outside and within Feminism.

The concept itself has been criticized as being too abstract: it is difficult to pin it down and find specific mechanisms through which it operates.

Many Feminists argue that Patriarchy exists in all cultures, and thus the concept itself is too general to be useful, as it fails to take account of how other factors such as class and ethnicity combine to oppress different women in different ways.

Black Feminists have criticized the (mainly) white radical Feminist critique of the family as patriarchal as many black women see the family as a bulwark against white racism in society.

Postmodern Feminism criticizes the concept as it rests on the binary distinction between men and women, the existence of which is open to question today.

Continued Relevance 

Much contemporary research focuses on discourse and how language can reproduce patriarchy. For example Case and Lippard (2009) analysed jokes, arguing they can perpetuate patriarchal relations, although Feminists have developed their own ‘counter-jokes’ to combat these – they conclude that humor can act as a powerful ideological weapon.