U.S. ally Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in the news for supporting a cleric-mandated code of conduct for women in his country. This code is rightly seen as a huge step backward for women’s rights in Afghanistan, but though American fundamentalist Christians like to attack Islam over its treatment of women, their own attitudes are no better, and amount to no less than a Christian Code of Conduct for Women.
There is no code of conduct for men in America, of course. Islam has nothing on Christianity where the ideals of patriarchy are concerned. Fundamentalism seems to bring out the worst in religion – in any religion. In fact, religious fundamentalism is found in all major religions, including not just Islam and Christianity, but Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. It seems to be the bane of the 21st century and the biggest threat to our freedoms.
Afghanistan’s new code is also rightly seen as part of an attempt to make the laws more amenable to religious extremists – the Taliban, just as America makes its laws more amenable to religious extremists, those we refer to as Talibangelicals.
Afghanistan’s new code would allow husbands to beat their wives. Well, this isn’t anything new for Americans is it, many of whom believe in the right to discipline their wives? It also encourages segregation by sex, which is exactly what religious extremists in Israel are pushing for, and which is at least in part mandated by the Bible and which is also practiced by Christians to varying degrees.
It seems rather silly to point fingers at somebody for doing exactly what you are doing.
And gender apartheid, while as a term generally applied to the non-Western world, is increasingly applicable here once we begin to talk about “proper roles” for women like childbirth and homemaking, or excluding them from various activities, like the priesthood or politics or even any kind of out-of-home job, or combat roles in the military.
Americans need to recognize that Christianity has never been the most woman-friendly religion. The so-called egalitarianism of the early Church is largely a myth; Christians did not stop owning slaves and treated them no better than had their Pagan masters. It is often claimed that women flocked to Christianity because they were better treated, better appreciated in the new cult. But as MacMullen points out in what can only be called an understatement, that “there are difficulties here.”
He notes the occasional deaconess but says that “otherwise, women were valued for the renunciation of their sex or of their wealth, while barred from worshipping in groups at a saint’s martyrium or entering to offer their prayers…likewise, they were forbidden to approach the altar or to teach or preach. In the huge homiletic corpus they and their concerns hardly appear: the preacher addresses himself to the ‘brethren.” There were no female priests in Christianity, and certainly no Popes or High Priestesses. Contrast this to Paganism where, says MacMullen:
[I]f we judge by their presence in inscriptions…but also in works of fiction, female deities like the ubiquitous Tyche/Fortuna, Isis, Diana, the Matres, Cybele, Caelestis-Tanit, and so forth, were quite as often appealed to as the male. Priestess as wives or as themselves alone presided over their entire provinces in the imperial cult; they led hardly lesser city cults or larger or small cult groups, some wholly of women; presented votive performances in oratory, singing, dance or athletic contest, lectured in public on religion; underwent the full range of initiations if they wished to; and enjoyed sole entrance to one or two cults as men did to one or two others, likewise. In sum, while very much less often found in positions of prominence than men, during the period of relevance post-200, let us say, and while differing in the choices available to them from one city to another, women enjoyed access to a great range of activities, experiences and authority among traditional cults. These were lacking within the church.
As for the deaconesses noticed by MacMullen, it would be a mistake to make too much of them. The Deaconess Order was established in the Eastern church in the third century and recognized by the councils ofNicaea(325) andChalcedon(451) and though she was ordained, a deaconess “had no ecclesiastical authority.” Their only function in the church building itself was as an usher to women attending services. Hardly something to compare to the role of women in Pagan religious hierarchies.
And in the Western church things were not even this good. Robert Tucker notes that “By the fifth century this order was established in the Western church amid much opposition.” Rather than two councils recognizing the order, two councils, Orange (441) and Epaone (517) condemned deaconesses, which in an understatement Tucker says “were never truly popular with the Western church.” Tucker’s conclusion is that “One cannot claim for woman…any important place in the early church.”
Indeed, the sum of Christian edict on women is one of restrictions, in the form of you can’t do this, you can’t go there and so forth. Clement’s Paedagogus lists them for us: “Suggestive social settings were identified and barred to women; suggestive sights on the stage as well; singing and erotic verse, or even poetry in general, for its presumed effects.” In other areas, expectations of women did not differ from what had come previously, in Pagan society.
This sounds like nothing less than a Code of Conduct for women. It should be no surprise that Christian fundamentalism only exacerbate an already inherent misogyny. No one should be surprised by Limbaugh’s outburst; it was quite in keeping with a long historical tradition within Christian fundamentalism. Nor should we be particularly surprised by the war on women that stands front and center in the culture wars.
Opposition to women’s reproductive rights is a natural off-shot to these patriarchal schemes to control women’s sexuality, from availability of contraception to abstinence only sex education and the many laws against abortion. And the issue of rape is also part of this – women have no right, apparently, to decide when to have sex – one of the reasons for fundamentalist opposition to contraception and for Rush Limbaugh’s referring to Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute.” If women dress a certain way a man is within his rights to rape her just as a husband is within his rights to rape his wife, and a woman who is a victim of rape and incest is required to give birth to her rapist’s child.
Religious fundamentalism is conservative in nature and it is the nature of conservatism to resist change. What the pre-science Bible said 2000 years ago is every bit as applicable to us today as it was then, despite advances in almost every facet of human existence. And that is the essential nature of Christian fundamentalism’s opposition to treating women like human beings. One gets the idea they would be no less horrified if we suggested that a broodmare should be more than just a receptacle for male sperm. It is hardly surprising that they react to support for marriage equality by likening it to bestiality. They literally cannot see the difference. Any departure from holy writ will lead to dogs and cats mating. And no, this should not come as any surprise either for a group that can compare women to livestock, as State Rep. Terry England did recently in Georgia. Livestock can’t control their own bodies, particularly those used for breeding, so why should women? It’s how God wants it, after all.
 Ramsay MacMullen. Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 7-8.
 Robert Leonard Tucker, “The Place of Woman in the Church,” The Biblical World 54 (1920), 578.
 Ramsay MacMullen, “What Difference Did Christianity Make?” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 35 (1986), 325-326.