It was no surprise, therefore, to discover the other two Religions of the Book (Judaism and Islam) seemed equally reprehensible in their treatment of women. I was boggled to discover Judaism seemed to consider women not only "unclean" whenever they performed the absolute miracle of birth — but that a girl child was somehow filthier than a boy child!

A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period… Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding (Leviticus 12:2, 4-5).

Even worse, Islam hadn't simply deprived women of voice and agency — through veiling and burqa the men of Islam seemed to be intent on depriving women of any form of public "face" whatsoever! Both of them set the husband up as lord and master over his wife or wives — and that tweaked my alarm flags concerning the dreadful hierarchy of marriage again.

Hinduism offered me some hope when I discovered it had many lovely goddesses — but as soon as I discovered the "Laws of Manu," I walked away from it as well:

She should do nothing independently even in her own house. In childhood subject to her father, in youth to her husband, and when her husband is dead to her sons, she should never enjoy independence… Though he be uncouth and prone to pleasure, though he have no good points at all, the virtuous wife should ever worship her lord as a god" (Mitter 88).

Curiously, my firm conviction on the essential wrongness of hierarchical marriage was so strong and well supported that I got into very few discussions on the matter. There was apparently something about my directly confronting supporters of this social institution with the essential imbalances implicit in its structure, which caused its supporters to either stutter confusedly, or to abruptly change the subject.

Religion, however, was another matter entirely, as I was still trying to wrap my head around how someone could actually believe such unmitigated crap as that women were essentially inferior to men. I got into a huge number of (sometimes quite heated) discussions in my attempts to understand this attitude, and while I learned a great deal about knee-jerk reactions and the inadvisability of binding one's concept of self-worth to one's personal beliefs, I never really did grasp what would cause someone to believe such silliness.

The best I could come up with was that insecure and fearful people needed personally limiting beliefs such as this in order to comfort themselves and bolster their fragile egos. Needless to say, when I was in the aggressive fervor of fascinated exploration, I was emphatically not the world's subtlest of arguers. ;)

The University Years

By the time I was chronologically an adult, I was effectively living my religious beliefs as best I could: I refused marriage (and later, childbirth) utterly — I would not participate in this lopsided, damaging social structure that was designed to leave me a cheapened piece of property in the eyes of the culture. I fought back quietly but consistently against both that imposed familial hierarchy, and the hierarchy of the corporate state: I researched what I could, and I spoke out against situations I considered unfair, doing my best to not prop them up through my tacit compliance.

I was also, however, spiritually floundering at that time. I couldn't find a religion that "spoke" to me — one that didn't feel like a bunch of kids playing at religion, one blessedly bereft of damaging hierarchy and the patronizing smack of my own supposed inferiority to men. I knew there had to be something out there for me, although I was really hoping it wouldn't be a religion of only one worshipper. I kept searching.

The Fascinating Search for Gnosis

University classes taught me an enormous amount of wonderful new concepts, both about myself as well as my religious beliefs. It was, in fact, at that point I discovered much of the structural underpinnings of my till-then often inchoate, half-formulated beliefs. From French philosopher Roland Barthes came the realization of why I could not effectively speak my anger at this constant injustice, in his elegant musings on the tragedy of a French murder trial where the accused, Dominici, was a mentally retarded man who could not adequately speak French. I found Barthes' comment piercingly applicable to the predicament I found myself in when trying to speak of the injustices I saw around me — and having no words with which to do so:

[T]here was also the spectacle of a terror which threatens us all, that of being judged by a power which wants to hear only the language it lends us. We are all potential Dominicis, not as murderers, but as accused, deprived of language, or worse, rigged out in that of our accusers, humiliated and condemned by it (46).

Even more revelatory was my understanding, through de Saussure's writings, of the complicity of language in patriarchy. He pointed out a sign is the union of a 'signifier,' or concept; and a 'signified,' or sound-image. Meanings are negative, since we define words by what they aren't — and therefore we can use sign opposition to manipulate signs and concepts. By choosing emotionalized sound-images we change the concept, and consequently the sign.

If language creates meaning and constructs reality, if humans are defined by language (as de Saussure asserts), then one can demonize women by one's choice of words: this is the essence of good propaganda (163, 166-8). Therefore, much like Durkheim's definition of religion, when a patriarchal culture creates Man as the sign of what is strong, good, powerful, sacred… then by definition when woman is oppositionally defined through the concept of man, we end up with woman as nothing more than "not-man": weak, bad, manipulative… evil.

This leads to situations like that of Ancient Athens, where the limitations of the language are individually internalized, and culturally naturalized. Consequently, semiologically created role models are offered to women. When they are, unsurprisingly, impossible to accomplish, men are thereby convinced of their own superiority. As Karen J. Torjesen notes in When Women Were Priests: Women's Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of Their Subordination, activeness and penetration was the mark of the male; the weak and female were penetrated: "All power and honor hinged on a man's ability to maintain the appearance of masculinity. …For a man to be used sexually like a woman was the ultimate shame" (184-5).

She also later points out the logical conclusions of such cultural beliefs: "What is being celebrated is the political and sexual power of males, not violence against women per se; but the medium for this celebration is, in fact, sexual violence against women" (200). Unsurprisingly, the horrific implications of this damaging social belief are still visible in our culture today.

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