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May 04 2010

Religion and women

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Recently I attended a university function where several faculty members were being honored. One of them was a friend of mine and after I congratulated her by shaking her hand, we were just chatting of this and that when another one of the honorees (someone I had not met before) joined us. I congratulated him too and shook his hand. At this point my friend also congratulated him and held out her hand. He declined to shake hands with her saying that it was against his religion. He was wearing a yarmulke so presumably he belongs to a sect of Judaism that does not allow men to shake hands with (at least some) women. The rejection of the proffered hand resulted in a moment of brief embarrassment but my friend is very gracious and lowered her hand and continued the conversation with him. The man did not seem unduly disturbed, presumably because he does this to women often.

I have to say that I was annoyed by the whole incident even though I was not the one whose hand was rejected. What kind of religion requires someone to reject an offer of friendship simply because it comes from a woman? What kind of god would not forgive a gracious gesture by one of his followers to a fellow human being? Why would you even want to worship a god or follow a religion that forbids acts of politeness that harm no one? Even if you like your religious group and want to belong to it, why would you not use your own mind and reject those rules that are so obviously absurd and even offensive?

I know that orthodox Jews (and fundamentalist members of all religions) will say that I just don’t understand, that obeying god takes priority above all human social conventions and that their god has laid out pretty clearly what they are allowed to do, required to do, and forbidden to do, and that it is not the province of mere mortals to question god’s commandments or to pick and choose which rules to obey. To those people, I say simply that I do understand their reasons. I just reject them. I do not respect those people for their commitment to their faith. I think less of them because their blind allegiance to ancient books and their religious leaders takes precedence over how they treat the people around them.

I think that it is the singling out of women that bothers me. I would not have been as bothered if he refused to shake hands with everyone, including me. I know someone who has an obsessive-compulsive disorder about cleanliness, is always washing his hands, and refuses to shake hands with anyone because of the fear of germs. Most people know about this quirk and accommodate it. Those who encounter him for the first time are surprised when he declines to shake hands but when the situation is explained to them they tend to not be offended, recognizing that this behavior is the result of a kind of mental illness over which he has little control.

Similarly it is tolerable if there are cultural practices that apply uniformly to everyone, the way some societies bow in greeting rather than shake hands. But singling out individuals or groups of people whom one will not touch purely because they belong to some group that is deemed untouchable seems to me to be indefensible, but is tolerated as long as it is done in the name of religion.

The strange thing is that it is usually only misogyny that is tolerated these days, as long as it is done in the name of religion. Imagine if Judaism had a rule that said that believers should not shake hands with people of color, and that in mixed groups of people orthodox Jews shook hands with only white people. Such a blatantly racist rule would be met with such strong social disapproval nowadays that teams of high powered rabbinical scholars would have soon come up with a loophole in their religious texts to explain why that rule was a ‘misreading’ of their ancient texts and that deep scholarly study revealed that shaking hands with people of color was perfectly kosher. (For example, see the concerted efforts to undermine the Hindu caste system that treated the ‘lowest’ caste people as untouchable.) But sexist rules don’t seem to bother people that much.

I spoke with a couple of women after this incident and they recounted similar experiences of rejection. What was interesting (and disturbing) was that it was the women who felt momentarily ashamed by the incident, mortified that they had done something wrong by almost defiling the ‘purity’ of these religious men. This is rubbish. It is the men who reject the offered hand, not the women who offer it, who should feel ashamed that their religion makes them forego common courtesies. But such is the power of religion to sanctify that it makes the victims of such rudeness feel that they are the ones at fault. In this case, the man’s rejection of the woman’s hand, rather than being accompanied by a groveling apology (which might have made the act seem less rude) was actually brusque and unapologetic, which likely added to the women’s sense that they were the ones in the wrong, though that is manifestly not the case.

Religions can still be blatantly anti-woman and we are expected to accept it and shrug and act like it is no big deal. As long as such practices arise from old and powerful religions like Judaism or Catholicism or Islam, we are told we must ‘respect’ their right to treat women as second class or worse.

I am not suggesting that we should go out of our way to make people do things they don’t want to do. For example, if I find myself in a situation where I suspect the norms of social behavior are different from the ones I am accustomed to, I try to pick up clues as to appropriate behavior. I do not initiate an offer to shake hands with anyone if I suspect they belong to a group that disapproves of the practice. What I do is wait for them to make the first move and reciprocate accordingly. If they nod, I nod. If they bow, I bow. If they offer their hand, I shake it. But that is different from rejecting an offer of friendship initiated by someone else.

Let me make my point clear. People can avoid any groups of people they like for any reason. That is their right. But they have no right to expect that the rest of us approve of such actions. They are rude and they should realize that others think of them as rude. Religious people have no right to expect that society should be accepting of rude behavior simply because it is based on religious beliefs.

Acts that demean women do not become less so because they are done in the name of god.

POST SCRIPT: The one true god

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Gregory Sutton

    Mano,

    the jewish man was ‘Shomer Negiah’, which, as a religious principle, is consistent with your appeal to treat people equally. A man who is Shomer Negiah does not shake hands with women, and, likewise, a woman who is Shomer Negiah does not shake hands with men; consequently, if the academic had been female, she would have shaken hands with your colleague, but not you. This religious constraint is internally consistent for both genders.

  2. 2
    Matt

    Mano,

    Do you know if this man rejected the handshake because his religion deems women unclean or somehow beneath them, or because of a belief that he is honoring women’s chastity/modesty/whatever by not touching women who are not his family or wife? I realize that most (all?) religions deem women to be lower than men, but I’m curious about the specifics of the handshake rejection.

    Either option makes it socially awkward, but the former would fall under the accepted misogyny you mentioned, while the latter may not.

    Even among my best friends I do not offer to hug women who are not my family or wife during greetings or goodbyes, and I have actually gone so far as to reject a hug offered to me by such a woman. I am an atheist so it is not a religious thing, and I hug my good male friends without issue, so it is not a distaste for personal contact. I don’t mind when other men hug my wife in the same situation – I just personally don’t think it is appropriate for me to do it. A hug is different than a handshake, and I don’t have institutionalized religion to blame, but if this guy’s rejection of the handshake comes from the same place, perhaps it is understandable?

  3. 3
    Norm Nason

    This reminds me of a story an old friend once told me. He said that he and a priest-friend once were invited to dine with others at their home on a Friday. Meat was served, and the priest happily ate the meal in its entirety.

    After the event my friend said to the priest: “I thought you weren’t supposed to eat meat on Fridays.” To which the priest answered: “God will forgive me for eating the meat, but he would not have forgiven me for offending my hosts.”

    Even thought I am an atheist, I have always remembered that story for the message of good will and tolerance that it conveys.

  4. 4
    Mano

    Norm,

    I had a similar experience when we organized a dinner and invited some people whom we knew kept kosher in their own home. So we took a lot of precautions to make sure that we did not violate any rules, even going to the extent of checking each and every ingredient to make sure we did not mix milk and meat.

    But at that time (we were new to the US) we were completely ignorant of the rule against shell-fish and we served them shrimp! They ate it and we did not notice anything. Only a few weeks later did we accidentally learn about this rule. We were mortified and asked some other friends of ours who also kept kosher if we had done anything seriously wrong.

    They said that it was ok and that my guests probably followed pretty much the same policy as the priest in your story,

  5. 5
    Mano

    Matt,

    I see your point. But whatever the reason for the rejection, I think that when you discriminate that way, you should accompany it with a groveling apology to make it clear to the other person that it is you that has the problem that is giving rise to the act of rejection.

  6. 6
    Bill

    ‘…recognizing that this behavior is the result of a kind of mental illness over which he has little control…’

    So we forgive this sort of thing from the religious for the same reasons?

  7. 7
    kuraL

    The hardest thing to accept about ritualistic observances is the self-righteousness that goes with it. A Muslim academic may have acted likewise, and if a Hindu had acted so I would not have been surprised.

  8. 8
    Lindsay

    Hi Mano,

    Thanks for writing about this. This happened to me recently – my research adviser introduced me to visiting researcher and I extended my hand to shake and the guy did the exact same this as you described above, making me feel embarrassed and guilty like it was I who had done something wrong. My adviser seemed uncomfortable as well. After they left I sat at my desk feeling angry and demeaned. I am still not sure the appropriate way to deal with the situation, especially when other people are around.

  9. 9
    Mano

    Lindsay,

    The first thing is to realize that it is the other person who has acted like a jerk and that you have nothing to feel bad about.

    As to what you can do, I think you should react that way you would with any other act of rudeness, and that is turn away from the rude person and talk to other people.

    In this case, where there was (I think) just you, your advisor, and this rude person, you could just talk to, make eye contact with, and address just your advisor, acting as if the rude person was not there.

    If enough people do this, then maybe those people would realize that they need to really apologize for their actions rather than thinking that it is appropriate behavior.

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