Hating Women Under the Veil of Orthodoxy
Posted by Matthew J. Tuininga
In a stirring article recently published in Foreign Policy Mona Eltahawy tries to shift America’s focus from the supposed war on women in America to the real war on women in the Arab world. Involved in the protests in Egypt last year, Eltahawy was beaten (she received a broken arm and hand), sexually assaulted, and detained by Egyptian police. Her anger is obvious. The treatment of women in the Middle East is far worse than you think, she says:
Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing — or divorce either.
For Eltahawy the explanation for this phenomena is clear and needs to be said: they hate women. That hatred is hidden behind the guise of orthodox religion and revelation, and opposing it may be viewed as blasphemy, but if so, then we should blaspheme away.
It should be noted that the attitude towards women Eltahawy describes is not limited to the Middle East. One month ago there was a furor in Canada over a book on sale that instructed Muslim men on how to beat their wives. On a regular basis in the United States, women are beaten by their husbands in America, and the courts have to deal with it.
I am very thankful that this problem is not nearly so prominent in Christian churches as it seems to be elsewhere. But at the same time, stories like this should serve as warnings to us. Often conservative Christians who defend biblical prescriptions regarding traditional gender roles act as if the only danger regarding the treatment of women comes from the left, such that the chief danger facing the church is egalitarianism. Those who seek to address whether or not women may be mistreated or excluded under the guise of orthodoxy and tradition rather than on the basis of Scripture are tarred as liberals and called to buck up and submit. For instance, in the context of the Presbyterian Church in America’s current debate on the matter of women deacons one frustrated conservative pastor writes:
This is one of the presiding myths on the topic: women in the diaconate is an exegetical issue and must be dealt with on that level. I can feel some of my readers becoming nervous at this point. What about the authority of Scripture? What about the primacy of exegesis?
Does anyone really think this issue is about what Scripture actually says? Would that it were true. Why is it that men all over the PCA are bringing up this topic at this particular moment in history? Might it have something to do with the air we breathe every day?
Women run for president and vice-president; they serve as CEOs and they are our supervisors and bosses, our teachers and principals and cell group leaders and spiritual directors.
But the roots of this rebellion are not in exegesis, and so we must not fight this battle only on that level. The roots lie in our sin. We don’t love our wives and sometimes they become a seething cauldron of bitterness. We love pornography or commit adultery and so we refuse to call our wives to submit (in any area of their lives). Guilt over our compromised state eviscerates our authority. Fathers sexually molest their daughters and bring rebellion into the church for generations to come. Fathers hold their darling on their lap and tell her how she can become president someday. Mothers push their daughters to get the education she’ll need so that she can earn a good living after her husband divorces her and leaves her with three children. Single women, whose fathers and mothers have failed to teach feminine deference, whine about lacking a voice in the church. Wives of elders “get headaches” when their husbands come home and tell them of the latest action of the session. Why do our youth pastors make young women who muster the courage to say they’d like to become a wife and mother feel like idiots?
Now there is much in this that is worth lauding. I’m grateful to the author for pointing out some of the ways in which men abuse their wives and daughters, and I wholeheartedly agree that the calling to be a wife and a mother should be much more promoted and honored than it currently is. But notice the negative attitude towards women’s education, the value of women’s perspective in the church, and women’s right to discuss these matters of concern. Even worse, the author has no trouble suggesting that we should shove the authority of Scripture to the side and deal with this problem in light of a politicized cultural struggle over the role of women. Whatever Scripture may say, it seems, in this we have to hold the line for the conservative team against the cultural push to the left.
Now my purpose here is not to get into questions of PCA polity, or of what the PCA should do in this debate, although it is worth pointing out that a Reformed Presbyterian denomination significantly to the right of the PCA on the theological spectrum has long given women the office of deacon even as many of its female members (unlike most in the PCA) wear head coverings. There are other ways to view this matter than through the lens of the culture wars.
We need to recognize that in conservative Christian circles there are men who treat women like slaves created to serve their selfish pleasure, there are pastors who don’t want the women in their church to talk about theology, and there are those who don’t want to recognize the possibility that Scripture recognizes an appointed office for women in the church (an office Calvin strongly affirmed and defended from Scripture) simply because they are uneasy about how to interact with women as equals.
It needs to be said: Mistreatment of women and refusal to recognize their equality in Christ is just as great of a problem in the world – and just as harmful to Christian witness – as is radical egalitarianism. Until we learn how to discuss this matter on the basis of Scripture, without acting in reactionary mode, we will be guilty of failing to confront with the gospel the hatred of women that hides under the veil of orthodoxy.
About Matthew J. TuiningaMatthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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