It could be the Taliban mantra: "Women may not." Women may not work, attend school, go out in public unless accompanied by a male relative. If they take off their burqas in public, they may be beaten; if they commit adultery, they may be stoned to death.
We know women have no rights in Afghanistan. What we struggle to fathom is the impulse beneath the seemingly relentless drive to dehumanize half the country's population -- and the fact that this effort is made in the name of religion. The men who rule Afghanistan invoke Islam to justify their actions. I agree that a kind of religion motivates the Taliban, but the religion in question isn't Islam. It's the religion that the Woody Allen character in the director's latest film, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," identifies as his own: insecure masculinity.
These men are terrified of women.
The bizarre will of terrorist hijacker Mohamed Atta, including the provision that no women be allowed at his funeral or gravesite, is just one example of their sexually insecure mind-set. In Afghanistan, that mind-set has led to the creation of a ghastly religion-based dystopia. In the United States, of course, we don't treat women with the brutality of the extremist Muslims who wrap their masculine insecurities in the cloak of Muhammad. But we should realize that male envy of and hostility toward women is also deeply imbedded in other religions, including Judaism and Christianity.
From the Torah to the Taliban, men throughout history have enjoyed telling women what they may not do. In just the past decade, questions concerning women's "place" have caused bitter controversy in various Christian churches. Consider Pope John Paul II's vehement reaffirmation of the doctrine that women may not be priests, or the Southern Baptist Convention's 1998 proclamation that a wife "is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband."
What has led religions to play a major part in the subordination of women for thousands of years are the prehistoric conditions on which they are based, which reach back to the Neolithic Age and the dawn of agriculture -- a female invention that dramatically transformed the human condition.
The story that Christians call "the Fall of Man" is an allegorical representation of the "fall" that men experienced as a result of women's invention of agriculture (symbolized by Eve's eating from the Tree of Knowledge): Once food could be intentionally produced, the traditional male role of hunter was greatly devalued. This story, like many other myths in other cultures, blames women for the loss of the hunter-gatherer way of life, which from a great chronological distance came to look like paradise to men who were obliged to go "forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground" and earn their bread doing the "woman's work" of supplying plant food. And women's punishment was henceforth to be totally subordinate to men.
Hell hath no fury like a man devalued -- and it was devalued men who retold the story of women inventing agriculture in the symbolic way it comes to us in Genesis, and then used that myth as a basis for dominating women.
This monumental error in understanding (in fact, of course, each parent provides half of the "seed") has profoundly affected recorded history. What had seemed a principally female power was transformed into an entirely male power. No longer apparent bystanders in reproduction, men now claimed to be the reproducers, while women were reduced to the soil in which men's creations grow: in a word, dirt.
This belief inevitably led to the conclusion that the supreme Creative Power must also be male. I recently saw this quotation on a sign outside an Assembly of God church: "The Lord is a man of war." It sounds like something Osama bin Laden would say, but it's from Exodus 15:3. The idea that God is a male, who favors war and male domination of women, comes to the three major monotheistic religions straight from the Bible.
It starts with the Book of Genesis, in which God performs a Caesarean section on Adam and, in effect, pulls out the first woman. Just how basic this is to the women's subordination is apparent in the fact that in many languages, the word for "woman" means "out of man." Even though every man and woman who ever lived was born out of woman, women are known by a word that falsely indicates creation happens the other way around.
The various proclamations restricting roles open to women issued in recent years by the pope, Southern Baptist clergymen and others obviously aren't nearly as extreme as the Taliban's. But they all emanate from the same well of masculine insecurity. Until we all accept a sensible religious view of men and women as equally created in the image of a God who is both male and female, we will run the risk of the sacrilege of insecure men imposing, in the name of God, the sort of reign of terror to which women in Afghanistan have been subjected under the Taliban.
(McElvaine, a history professor at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., is author of "Eve's Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History" )
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.