Francesca Stavrakopoulou is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter. Francesca is an atheist and believes atheism is a better foundation for feminism than religion. She chatted to me about why.
[To the reader: A quick reiteration – the aim of the Faith In Feminism project is simply to represent the many diverse expressions of feminism that exist. For every interview representing one perspective, a counter perspective will follow in a future interview. The views we publish are those of our contributors and in publishing them we are in no way affirming nor rejecting their viewpoint, simply showcasing them.]
VB: You study theology and religion in great depth – you’re already a Professor at a young age. Having researched many of the world’s religions, do you feel their overall bias is toward, or away from, feminism?
FS: A number of the world’s religions today do privilege men over women – mainly (but not solely) because many religions are inherently hierarchical, both in terms of their construction of the relationship between gods and people, and in terms of the relationships within and among the worshippers themselves.
VB: And those hierarchies tend to be male dominated?
FS: Yes. Given that religions are social and cultural constructs, the gendered hierarchies inherent within society tend to be reflected in the religion that society creates and promotes. So if men tend to be valued over women in terms of social, economic and sexual empowerment, they will be in religions, too. That’s why Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the major monotheistic religions of the world, have a deity distinctively imaged as male. It’s no joke to claim that man made God in his own image.
VB: From your research into ancient societies, have there been religions in the past that bucked this trend?
FS: There’s a romantic idea that some polytheistic religions and pre-monotheistic religions, which boast male, female and ‘hybrid’ deities, offer a more harmonious balance between men and women. In the ancient world, this wasn’t the case at all. But some New Religious Movements today, such as Neo-Paganism in the West, do try to promote a greater sense of equality between women and men – often in direct response to the patriarchal nature of Christianity.
VB: In Christianity do you think the Bible and Church history mesh with feminism or stand against it?
FS: I respect, but despair of, those Christians who claim both the Bible and the Church promote a message of equality between men and women. The biblical texts are the products of ancient societies in which the notion of gender equality was unknown. Despite claims at various points in the Bible that women, men and children are all valued by God, men and women are consistently portrayed differently – and unequally – in their perceived value as religious and social beings.
VB: Do you think Jesus or Paul could be said to be ‘radical’ in their treatement of women, when seen in the context of their era?
FS: The Bible occasionally suggests that both Jesus and Paul challenged traditional social divisions, but both are also presented more frequently as upholding the conventional privileging of men over women. Whilst women played important roles in the religious practices of the home in early Judaism and Christianity, these roles were accorded a lesser status compared to the roles of men in the temples, synagogues and churches of these religions.
VB: What about the women in Scripture who are often used as examples that women do play a key role in Christian history?
FS: There are a handful of female characters in the Bible, and female religious specialists in the Church, who are valorised or celebrated, but they stand in bleak contrast to the overwhelming male-centredness of Christianity. Despite hints that some of the earliest Christian groups allowed a handful of women more prominent roles, the near-programmatic downgrading and degrading of women is one of the most shameful aspects of the history of Christianity.
VB: In Islam do you see a message of liberation and freedom for women, or not so much?
FS: Islam has inherited the male-centredness of the ancient religions and cultures from which it emerged. Like Judaism and Christianity, at its centre is a deity constructed as male, who nominated as his mouthpiece a male mediator. It also shares in common with Judaism and Christianity an attempt to define its god as a god without gender. But this strikes me as a theological construct designed to liberate the deity from the constraints of human comparison and worldly categories, rather than a ‘softening’ device recasting the god of Islam as a divine paradigm of equality and oneness.
VB: Aren’t there elements within the Muslim faith that promote women’s freedom?
FS: One of the commonly praised distinctive features of Islam is its explicit instruction that women are to be educated, accorded a notable degree of financial independence, and granted a certain degree of autonomy. These are social values celebrated today as essential platforms on which women’s empowerment must be built. But in Islam, these values sit alongside a pervasive religious preference not only to treat men and women differently, but to distance and segregate women from men: they are (usually) to pray separately, and they are to dress differently. For some Muslim women, segregation and veiling offer liberation from the voyeuristic male gaze, and a distinctive social space in which women can worship. But this rather suggests the problem lies with the men and their deity, rather than the women.
VB: Do you have any thoughts on the covering of the female body within Islam?
FS: In public discourse, much is made of the veiling or covering of Muslim women, but it’s important to remember that these continue to be features of some forms of Judaism and Christianity, too. In all three religions, the imbalance of body-covering between men and women reflects an ancient and deep-rooted cultural ‘othering’ of the bodies of women. Women’s bodies were deemed problematically different – too different – from those of men. And in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, they continue to be: whether the issue is veiling, male circumcision, segregated worship or women bishops, all three religions attest to the on-going problematizing of women’s bodies.
VB: Would you say that atheism and humanism are the only way for true feminists to go, if they want to be true to their passion for liberation and equality?
FS: Some New Religious Movements offer feminists and others committed to social equality a better chance of fulfilling a need for religious activities and experiences. So atheism isn’t necessarily the only alternative in that sense. And some older forms of humanism were not considered incompatible, in philosophical terms, with religious belief. But I find it hard to see how mainstream Judaism, Christianity and Islam can ever offer feminists and their allies a coherent religious framework in which social equality is both fundamental and attainable.
VB: Is there any way of being a feminist and following one of the Abrahamic faiths?
FS: The only way devotees of these religions can serve the cause for equality is by renouncing those aspects which undermine equality in all its forms. This is what some Jewish, Christian and Muslim believers almost seem to do – downplaying or distorting certain aspects; over-emphasizing or transforming others – but it demands an approach to their religious texts, traditions and practices which is so selective that the end result might as well be the formation of a spin-off sect. Ultimately, religious beliefs and practices are human, social constructions. For the religiously-inclined, it would be better to rip up the old blueprints and start again.