Liberte, egalite, fraternite, right?  Last week I examined what other patriarchal societies are up to.  This week, let’s talk about what some contemporary patriarchal societies are doing politically – especially in light of the Arab Spring.

Is patriarchy really a term we want to be touting?  Do we qualify as patriarchal when compared to such self-proclaimed giants of patriarchy as Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan?  I’m reminded of the line of Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride:  

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Here’s what some of our fellow patriarchs are up to.

Virginity Tests

As female political protestors took to Tahrir Square in Egypt, they were subject to so-called Virginity Tests, which make the TSA testing look like a polite handshake.  What does a Virginity Test entail?  Pretty much what you might guess.  Members of the military round up female protestors and put them in a room where either a male doctor or a female “specialist” digitally probes their hoo-hahs to verify the presence of a hymen.  In the meantime, male soldiers take pictures of them from the hallway through the windows of the “examination room.”

Initially, the military claimed this was to protect themselves from charges of rape (because nothing proves you didn’t rape a woman quite like sexually violating her).  According to one military official:  “We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place. None of them were (virgins).”  Women who were found not to be virgins were charged with prostitution and jailed. One claimed she was beaten and subjected to electric shocks.  This is apparently not surprising news to Amnesty International.  A 2008 study reported that in Egypt, 60% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women were sexually harrassed on a daily basis.  Strike Cairo from my vacation list!

The real reason for Egypt’s Virginity Tests was pretty transparent:  to silence female protestor’s voices.  To quote the Egyptian military leaders:  these women “were not like my daughter or yours,” implying that the presence of a hymen is direct evidence of the validity of one’s arguments.  In addition to being groped and harrassed by soldiers, female protestors were told to “go home and feed your babies.”

Other countries that favor Virginity Tests:  Zimbabwe (to curb AIDS by making young girls afraid of boys because girls are “more easy to deter” than boys), India (to determine if a woman had been a virgin prior to being raped – what a great deterrent to reporting rape!), Iran (hymenoplasty is popular so that women can avoid being shamed or divorced for failing a virginity test – one enlightened cleric issued a fatwa allowing hymenoplasty to give women more freedom), and Afghanistan where it is required before marriage (failing the Virginity Test can mean the death penalty through “honour killings” to ease the family’s shame and humiliation; this includes rape victims or even more heinously, victims of incest – one girl had her throat slit by her brother when he saw her being raped by her other brother).

Other countries that have banned the practice:  Turkey (in 1998 because young women were commiting suicide to avoid the test), and UK (apparently done to qualify for fiancee Visas until 1979).

No Voice

In Saudi Arabia, although some reforms have taken place, a promise that women would be able to participate in politics in 2011 was broken as it was determined that “Saudi Arabia is not yet ready for women to participate in the upcoming municipal elections on 23 April.” 

Hallmarks of Patriarchy

What are some of the common themes that emerge in these patriarchal societies?  Here are some of these patriarchal gems, and how they compare to Mormonism:

  • Virginity tests.  The only Mormon equivalent I can think of is that youth interviews are always done by a male leader, even for young women.  This practice could easily be curbed by having female leaders do all female youth interviews.
  • Honour killings.  No Mormon equivalent for this; nothing even in the ballpark has ever been permitted or condoned that I know of that targeted women.  Even blood atonement was indiscriminate of one’s sex.
  • Narrow interpreting of religious texts to bolster female oppression.  Perhaps some in the past, but contemporarily, not much, and again, nothing in comparison to these societies.
  • Disparate divorce rules.  In Islam, a man can legally have up to 4 wives and can divorce them by saying “I divorce you” three times, whereas a woman has to jump through major hoops to obtain a divorce, and they often lose custody of their children.  In Mormonism, a man does not have to obtain a temple divorce to remarry in the temple, but a woman does.  However, there is no prohibition on secular divorce and remarriage, and one of the fundamental tenets of LDS polygamy was a woman’s right to divorce her husband if she didn’t like it.
  • Tradition is used to justify against reforms.  That’s certainly true in all societies, including Mormonism.
  • Male-female separation in the workplace.  There is some of this – CES not hiring women, some wards not extending callings based on sex (e.g. primary to men – although this is not mandated by the church), and generally no mixed gender Sunday School presidencies; however, women & men are more integrated than before in ward councils, and I have co-served in callings with men in scouting, nursery, and on all sorts of committees.
  • Keeping women out of decision-making roles.  This is getting better at the ward level, but of course, with no female priesthood, all doctrines are set without female decision-making input (I’m not sure they even consult heavenly mother).
  • Restricting women’s personal freedom:  prohibitions on driving, ability to financially support themselves or their families.  I’m going to call Mormonism mixed on this.  There are no restrictions that are anywhere near as bad as these societies, and women are encouraged to obtain higher education.  However, women are also encouraged (at least culturally, and in the young women’s curriculum) to marry young, have children young, and be financially reliant on their husbands (stay in the home).
  • Curriculum that focuses on the privileged role of the male and the subservient role of the female.  Again, nowhere near as oppressive as these cultures, but arguably priesthood is male privilege, and in some wards more fuss is made of male achievement than female.  Scouting budgets are often much higher than YW budgets.  When priesthood is restricted to its functions, it is used to bless members of whatever sex.  Priesthood leadership, however, is a privilege with some amount of status and power (as well as requiring service to others).
  • Literature that has few or no female heroes or voices; teachings that downplay female contribution.  Obviously we’ve got thousands of years of sexism at play in the Bible, so not much you can do about that.  However, female voices are clearly downplayed in a couple of major ways in General Conference:  1) fewer female speakers (and why not since there are fewer female leaders and they do not have decision making power), and 2) women who do speak often speak to children or in a babytalk voice (or both).  While this is improving, there are also plenty of patronizing talks aimed at mollifying women.

What do the women in these patriarchal societies want?  Food, medicine, peace, a way to support and protect their families, and of course, not to be raped and killed.  Those are certainly basic needs that the church does not hinder and actually helps all women obtain.

Again, I’m forced to wonder why we want to ascribe a term like patriarchy to our church when it almost always denotes hatred and oppression of women, things the church clearly doesn’t seek.  I can think of some possible reasons we still cling to this term when all other rational societies are running in the other direction:

  • It’s a matter of degrees.  If so, that seems like a slippery slope we would be wise to avoid. So we don’t hate women, we just like men more?  We just don’t want to listen to what women have to say?  We love women, so long as we (men) have more entitlement than them and they (women) serve our needs?
  • We think there’s a “good” version and a “bad” version.  This is the old Mormon adage about Satan taking what is good and twisting it into an evil version.  The problem with this theory is that the supposedly “good” version of patriarchy still makes women subordinate by definition which contradicts the idea that women will also become Godesses, Queens and Priestesses.  It simply doesn’t match our theology.  It even contradicts the PoF (in that the PoF contradicts itself).
  • We are sucking up to the sexists.  I get the fact that change takes time, and there are old codgers out their who like to sit on their porch and shake their canes at progress.  However, we are also a missionary church.  To whom would we like to appeal?  By throwing around a loaded word like “patriarchy” we are appealing to the worst in people, people like those I’ve described above.  Google it – that’s what the term means.  Our own in-house definition may differ, but that doesn’t mean investigators will understand that.  Nobody advertises Hitler brand fruit snacks.  It’s kind of a bait & switch.  Maybe we need a slogan:  “Come for the patriarchy; stay for the equality!”  Fortunately, our actions probably speak louder than our words on this one because our actions are simply not very patriarchal by world standards.
  • Patriarchy in our culture is dying slowly.  In a gerontocracy, change comes slowly.  That’s one way we stay adaptive (too much change too quickly can create a brittle organization subject to schism), but of course the criticism is that we look like we are following society rather than setting trends based on our infallible fixed moral compass.

Why do you think the church doesn’t drop this term?  Do you feel the church should drop it?  It seems a little unrealistic for an underdog church to reclaim and redeem a term that has a pejorative meaning.  Discuss.