2 Mar 2011

Author challenges feminists to take on major religions that subjugate and abuse women and children

The Tyee - British Columbia, Canada     January 28, 2011

Ophelia Benson, Public Atheist

The fearless writer, at UBC tonight, says feminists should take on the major monotheist religions.

By Shannon Rupp  |  Tyee contributing editor

Ophelia Benson is the scourge of magical thinking, religion and postmodernist gobbledygook. As such, the co-author of Why Truth Matters and The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense and the popular blog Butterflies & Wheels, is a formidable defender of science and modernity.

Today, however, she has been defeated by technology in the form of Skype. Speaking over the Internet is proving glitchy. We resort to instant messaging.

"Maybe there is a god?" I quip in IM. I'm pretty certain that if there is a divine being he wants her to pipe down.

Benson is amused. She is part of that cadre of professional atheists that includes best-selling authors Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and a host of lesser known writers, none of whom seems to be a woman.

"Oh there are women: Polly Toynbee, Katha Pollitt, Greta Christina..." Benson protests, noting that even the humanist-secularist-atheist crowd is subject to that old problem of blindness when it comes to women's accomplishments. "I've asked conference organizers why there are no women speaking and some say it didn't occur to them, others say they don't know any."

Benson's take on atheism has a distinctly feminist bent. She'll be in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia Friday, Jan. 28, 7:00 p.m., to give a lecture based on her 2009 book Does God Hate Women? Along with co-author Jeremy Stangroom, she explores how the major monotheist religions -- Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism -- subjugate women. The lecture is sponsored by the Centre for Inquiry, a non-profit group that promotes rational thinking about religion, quackery and pseudo-science. They run the atheist bus ad campaign with the poster, "There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Why would God favour men?

Benson's explanation for why the deity is inclined to diss us is deceptively simple: "Because 2,000 to 3,000 years ago these religions were created by men. They conceived of god as a man. They arranged it to suit what men thought was best for themselves at the time."

And with that came all the cultural and social baggage of the era, including misogyny. Eventually it became institutionalized, as the men running these religions began to argue that the holy scriptures written by their ancestors were the literal word of God. In the contemporary world, men now get away with everything from denying women education to murdering them by claiming it's the will of a higher power.

Her book, which details some of the horrific things done to women in the name of faith -- acid in the face for immodest dress, murder for the crime of being raped -- makes a good case for why women ought to be the leading voices on atheism. Although she notes that within the world of university women's studies programs, there is a split between those who agree with Benson's views and those who embrace the abuse of women out of some misguided notions of cultural sensitivity.

When researching, she was surprised to discover a sizeable number of so-called cultural theorists were defending the practice of female genital mutilation.

Against fundamentalism

Benson, an American who lives in Seattle, said that she has watched the growth of dangerous fundamentalist religions with alarm, which is what inspired her blog. She points out that no sector of the globe is immune. In the U.S., Christians are making direct attacks on women by resurrecting anti-abortion laws, or failing that, shooting doctors. Much of the Middle East is under the thumbs of clerics. The famously liberal and secular Europeans can't be too complacent, as waves of immigrants bring repressive faiths with them. And for smug Canadian interviewers, she notes that even in Canada, where we cherish the notion that our Charter of Rights lifts us above the fray, Muslims (backed by Jewish and Christian groups) attempted to give Sharia law power in Ontario in 2005.

"When I was growing up [in New Jersey], it wasn't done to talk about religion -- it was considered excessive. You maybe went to church on Sunday," Benson recalls. "Now people will come up and ask which church you attend."

As noisy rhetoric from the god squad escalated and religious debates began replacing political discourse, she noticed a growing number of attacks on women in the name of religion. She points to the Bishop of Phoenix stripping St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix Arizona of its Catholic designation in December, preventing the hospital saying mass in its chapel because doctors performed an abortion to save a mother's life.

"The Bishop is saying he wants this woman dead," Benson says. "Both she and the foetus would have died if the doctors did nothing. He wanted them to do nothing."

But logic is rarely welcome in the chapels of religion, so Benson suffers a fair number of attacks online for her views. She's described by her critics as "shrill, strident, unreasonable, unnuanced and unfair," but in conversation she is quite the opposite. She has an even, measured tone and a ready sense of humour, although she is firm and unrelenting in her views.

Benson had a running debate in The Guardian newspaper, where she often writes, with columnist Madeleine Bunting who objected to Benson's blunt prose.

Benson also suffers attacks for her views on Islam, especially as the religion has grown more aggressive at pushing its edicts internationally. Since 1990, Iran and other Islamic countries have been pushing the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam as an alternative to the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which they argue fails to defer to their religion and culture.

Benson notes wryly, that when it comes to human rights abuses, deferring to the Islamic faith is often the problem.

"But if you criticize the system of ideas in Islam, people will call you an Islam-o-phobe -- and it is deliberately deceptive," Benson says, explaining that religion defenders often make accusations of racism. "You don't want to encourage xenophobia, but that doesn't mean you back off from pointing out the illiberal aspects of Islam."

Community without religion

In a variation of that old hate-the-sin-not-the-sinner line, Benson comments that while there are "plenty of wonderful people who follow Islam, Islam is not wonderful." She adds that frequently the faithful have no choice in their religion. In countries like Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, they are subject to the whims of a dictatorship of clerics.

Benson agrees with her opponents that religion's strong suit is that it creates a sense of community, but she argues there's no reason that a community has to be built around religion. "A lot of good people do good things in the name of religion, but they could be doing good things through other institutions."

In Vancouver, she's hoping for an audience that includes those who don't share her views, because she likes to hear what the other side thinks discussed in public -- although the faithful rarely attend her lectures. They just take pot-shots at her online.

All in all, being a public atheist seems like a thankless sort of gig. But Benson says it's important for secularists to be part of the public discourse both as a way of keeping the worst excesses of religion in check and to let other atheists know they're not alone. She says that she and her fellow rationalists used to hear from people who felt intimidated by zealots to the point of remaining silent. Today she sees a growing network of atheist groups, particularly on university campuses, who have made it okay to stand up against religion's increasingly privileged place in society.

An 'obligation' to speak out

And since you're wondering, yes she does hope religion will fade away, although she doubts we'll see it any time soon. And that's not why she speaks out against it, or any of its cousins in the New Age and pseudo-science camps -- she says that she values the individual right to make choices. So to explain why she courts the hostility that goes with challenging any group of true believers, she recalls being inspired by an article Tufts philosophy professor Daniel Dennett wrote about the reaction he got the first time he mentioned, publicly, that he was an atheist. He was surprised when a teenage boy came up after his talk and thanked him.

"He said, 'I thought was the only one,'" Benson remembers. "I think it is your obligation [as a citizen] in public discourse and in writing to talk about this so others know they are not alone."

This article was found at:


Does God Hate Women? A directory of divine misogyny [book review]

Famous Egyptian feminist tackles religious fundamentalism to protect women and girls, but gets no honour in her own country

Child sacrifice and other atrocities ignored by believers who consider the Bible the source of morality

New book on origins of Christianity details the outrageous suffering of children at the hands of ancient religious leaders

Forced into Faith: How Religion Abuses Children's Rights [book]

Mystic Brutality: Understanding Religion as Child Abuse

When Religion Becomes Child Abuse

Christian tyrant Gothard and his patriarchal cult of fear that demands total subservience of women and children

The words of God do not justify cruelty to girls and women

Christian Patriarchy movement's subjugation of women and girls no different than Islamic fundamentalism

Victory Through Daughters: An Excerpt from "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement"

Fearful Quivering in the Quiverfull Movement

For fundamentalist Christian group there is No Greater Joy than biblically beating kids into religious submission

The Nightmare of Christianity: How Religious Indoctrination Led to Murder

Negating women at the heart of Catholic church's criminal failure to protect children from abusive priests

Catholic sponsored hospitals base access to treatment on religious dogma not medical necessity

Catholic Bishop evicts Jesus from church hospital that aborted fetus to save life of mother with four children

Phoenix bishop immediately excommunicates another priest for "grave offense" of ordaining woman, but child abusers are protected

How the Catholic Church silences women impregnated by promiscuous priests who get promoted


  1. http://www.alternet.org/story/151584/how_the_right-wing_group_behind_michele_bachmann%27s_creepy_porn_pledge_pushes_female_submission

    Republican presidential hopefuls Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum have signed on to the para-church group's “The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence upon MARRIAGE and FAMiLY” – a right-wing political policy document which calls on candidates to support a federal "Marriage Amendment," oppose same-sex marriages, pornography, abortion, no-fault divorce and adultery and to encourage "robust childbearing and reproduction" in order to ensure U.S. global economic and political domination.

    The public outrage is justified. The Marriage Vow pledge, which ironically makes a show of rejecting “Sharia Islam and all other anti-woman, anti-human rights forms of totalitarian control" is one of the most misogynistic and totalitarian political policy proposals in recent history.

  2. Film on disfiguring acid attacks gets Women's Day TV premiere

    By Nazima Walji, CBC News March 8, 2012

    This International Women's Day, the U.S. cable network HBO and its Canadian counterpart are airing an Oscar-winning documentary that aims to raise awareness about a barbaric form of domestic violence that affects women in many parts of the world but doesn't get enough attention: acid attacks.

    The annual celebration of women that is marked each March 8 around the world is meant to highlight women's achievements but also to reflect on the current status of women around the world and their ongoing efforts to achieve economic equality and freedom from the many human rights abuses they still face.

    Saving Face, a film directed by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and Daniel Junge that won the Academy Award for best documentary short last month, examines the practice of acid violence — the deliberate use of acid to harm and disfigure another human being, in most cases, women. It depicts stories of the many women in Pakistan who have become victims of this kind of abuse, mostly at the hands of their husbands and other relatives.

    Surgeon repairs acid disfigurement

    Obaid Chinoy, a Pakistani-born journalist who became a Canadian citizen after moving to Toronto in 2004, explained what drove her to make the film in a February 2012 interview with Rick MacInnes-Rae of CBC Radio's Dispatches.

    "I was born and raised in Pakistan," she said. "I had quite an emancipated childhood, and to find that women in Pakistan still have to go through a brutal act such as acid violence really shook me."

    The documentary follows Mohammad Jawad, a Karachi-born, London-based plastic surgeon with the Acid Survivor Foundation, which assists women who have been injured in acid attacks.

    "Dr. Jawad has worked miracles on women who have had acid attacks," Obaid Chinoy said. "In London, he fixed the face of Katie Piper, a very famous model whose boyfriend threw acid on her on the streets of London, and that's when he became interested in victims of acid violence.

    "And when he heard that in his home country of Pakistan, there were such attacks, he started travelling back to Pakistan."

    For the many of victims of acid violence, it is the coming to terms with their new and very different circumstances after the attack that is the most painful and difficult aspect of their experience to adjust to.

    "Ruksana and Zakia, my two main characters in the film, spoke of how they didn't want to leave their home for months after," Obaid Chinoy told MacInnes-Rae. "They felt that they needed to be ashamed. They felt that, somehow, they had caused this, and that's was what was evident in almost all the survivors that we spoke to."

    Women, children targeted

    It's not surprising that the overwhelming number of victims of acid violence are women and children, and their attackers often target the head and face in order to disfigure and blind them.

    Acid attacks are carried out for various reasons, but most commonly, they are committed by the victim's own relatives as retribution for some perceived slight against the family's honour. The effects are always horrific: damaged skin tissue, exposure and dissolving of bones, permanent scarring and blindness.

    Cases of acid violence happen all over the world and have been documented in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the West Indies and the Middle East.

    In Pakistan, about 150 women are reported to have been victims of acid violence.

    "Those are documented numbers," Obaid Chinoy said. "But, of course, there are undocumented numbers, because acid violence is usually carried out by members from one's own family, and given the culture that exists in Pakistan, many are hesitant to press charges against the perpetrators. So, we believe there are dozens more that go undocumented."

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  3. continued from previous comment:

    Justice for victims rare

    In Saving Face, viewers meet 39-year-old Zakia, whose husband threw acid on her face because she wanted a divorce, leaving the left side of her face completely melted away.

    Jawad explained her condition in an interview with CBC Radio's The Current on March 2, 2012.

    "Not only [her] eye … eye socket, eyebrows, lid, everything was gone, and she had a severe distortion on the left side of her face," he said.

    Typically, assailants who carry out acid attacks receive minimal punishment, but Zakia's case proved unique, and it became a catalyst for legal and political change in Pakistan.

    "I'll never forget the look on Zakia's face when she heard her husband would be given two life sentences," Obaid Chinoy told Dispatches. "It's so rare for women to get justice in Pakistan. She felt that, finally, someone had done something to say that this was her husband's fault."

    Last year, two pieces of legislation that aim to address violence against women were passed unanimously by Pakistan's parliament: the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill and the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill.

    The former recommends sentences of 14 years to life in prison and fines of up to one million rupees (around $20,000) for the perpetrators of acid attacks.

    Step in the right direction
    Obaid Chinoy notes that she can see Pakistanis' views on domestic violence changing.

    "You are finding more women who are vocal, who are speaking out against it," she said. "You're finding women in parliament who are empowered to draft these laws and bring them forward."

    Obaid Chinoy said she applauds Pakistan's current government for addressing women's rights and is hopeful for the future, but she also understands that change will not happen overnight.

    "Legislation is one thing, but there needs to be widespread education about what happens to a woman when acid is thrown on her," she said.

    The film was released in the U.S. in November 2011, but with Thursday's premiere on North American television, a larger audience will now be able to view Saving Face and see firsthand the extreme version of domestic violence that many women in Pakistan face.

    Obaid Chinoy remains positive and is confident that the practice of acid attacks will eventually be eradicated, though it will likely take a long time for that to happen.

    "But if more women were educated, then we are one step closer to putting the country back on its right foot," she said.

    Obaid Chinoy's film is one part of that education and awareness-raising effort that could help ease the suffering of women not just in Pakistan but in other countries where acid attacks happen.


  4. Let’s get justice for all the world’s girls

    Nigerian abductions shine spotlight on international reality

    By Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun columnist May 16, 2014

    The outrageous kidnap of more than 270 Nigerian schoolgirls could have one positive outcome. It might change attitudes toward the more than 100 million other women and girls missing in the world.

    Some Canadian commentators have suggested the rescue of the Nigerian girls would have been almost immediate had they been Caucasian. That’s folly.

    The disappearance of the many blond-haired, blue-eyed girls from Bountiful has never received the attention it deserves.

    For decades, schoolgirls have disappeared from fundamentalist Mormon communities in British Columbia, ending up in related communities in Alberta and across the American west.

    Other schoolgirls have ended up in Bountiful as child brides bearing the babies of aging polygamist patriarchs.

    Perhaps if they’d been abducted together and moved across national, provincial and state borders, there would have been an international outcry and a reason for an earlier #BringBackOurGirls campaign.

    For decades, nothing was done to stop those kidnappings and forced marriages.

    More than three years after detailed information was presented in court about how men in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had trafficked 32 girls between Bountiful and the United States, nothing has been done to return those school girls to their communities or bring the men who perpetrated this atrocity to justice.

    There is no chasm between the beliefs of the Islamist leaders of Boko Haram and the FLDS leaders. Their disregard for the value and rights of girls and women inextricably links them.

    For them, girls and women are chattel. Like cattle, their only value is their breeding ability.

    For them, educating girls must be stopped. Allowing it to continue might mean that some day those girls could challenge the patriarchy that enslaves them.

    But girls taken by religious fanatics are only a few whose fates have never been properly addressed.

    For too long, the issue of missing girls and women has been conflated with prostitution. It’s a sly way of suggesting the missing are somehow responsible for their fate. But it makes them easier to forget.

    Only this week, B.C. Attorney General Suzanne Anton insisted the Highway of Tears is now safer than ever even though little has been done other to put up billboards warning girls and women not to hitchhike and improving cellular service so potential victims might be able to make a phone call.

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  5. As many as 43 girls and women have disappeared along the lonely, Highway 16 in northern British Columbia.

    The youngest was 12. All but six of the 18 documented cases were in their teens. More than half of them were Aboriginal and they are among the nearly 1,200 Aboriginal women and girls RCMP have identified as missing or murdered in the last 30 years.

    The perils faced by girls and women in other countries often find their way to Canada as well.

    The ethics of doing ultrasounds that lead to selective abortions has been a local story.

    Last week, a B.C. Supreme Court justice ordered the deportation of Jassi Sidhu’s mother and uncle to India to face trial for Jassi’s murder in 2000. The contract killing of the Canadian-born Jassi is frequently mischaracterized as an “honour killing.”

    Stories of abducted Nigerian schoolgirls and Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl nearly killed by the Taliban alter demanding an education, grab our attention. But they are a tiny part of the broader picture of the missing 100 million.

    In India alone, there are an estimated 25 million and UBC economics professor Siwan Anderson along with New York University economist Debraj Ray are leading the research.

    They don’t challenge other research that suggests as many as 10 million female fetuses were aborted in a 20-year period. But they found it’s only in Punjab (where the majority of Canadian immigrants are from) that the gender discrepancies come either because of selective abortion or deaths before the age of 15.

    But their 2012 research found that in India, at least, female mortality is “sharply highest at reproductive ages.”

    They speculate it’s partly due to death in childbirth or after due to complications, but also due to the high rate of injuries reported.

    They estimated that, in 2003 alone, injuries resulted in the deaths of more 225,000 women, dwarfing the 130,000 maternal mortality deaths. Fire-related deaths are most common, resulting in the deaths of 100,000 Indian women each year.

    They speculate these deaths might be related to dowry, the price a family pays to have a daughter married, and the nonpayment of dowry fees.

    But as important as that research is, Anderson and Ray raise a question that links back to the Nigerian kidnappings.

    Are not the so-called excess deaths and violence against women at least as worthy of concern, study and mitigation as the excess deaths, kidnappings and violence perpetrated against girls?

    The obvious answer is yes. So, alongside the current campaign #BringBackOurGirls, we need another worldwide lobby called #KeepGirls&WomenSafe.