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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Greatest Blasphemy

What is blasphemy, and what would you consider to be blasphemous? When considering such a question, most of us might first think about the old adage of ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain’, that is: using the Deity or the forms of that Deity as an oath. But such oaths have become so common that they have passed into the language. Even an atheist will mutter ‘My God!’ or ‘Jesus Christ!’ in a moment of exasperation. No, the real blasphemies are to be found elsewhere. The blasphemies considered here are far more insidious, because they probably would not even be thought of as blasphemies by those who practice them, and because such blasphemies are committed within the context of, and in the guise of, religious practices.

A Muslim woman wearing a niqab. I have yet to find a single instance in which it can conclusively be demonstrated that such a religious dress code was instituted by a woman. In patriarchal societies it is patriarchal religions, patriarchal traditions and patriarchal values which predominate, it is men who decide on God’s behalf what either is correct or unacceptable to wear, and it is men who therefore grant themselves the greater freedoms of dress.
It is a human conceit to imagine that we know the preferences of God. And yet such a conceit is practiced on a daily basis in religious communities. We decide on God’s behalf what God either would or would not approve of. The hate mongering of the now notorious Westboro Baptist Church with their infamous slogan ‘God hates fags’ is such an instance. How do they know? Do they have God’s private cell phone number? From a standpoint of simple logic one could equally argue that God actually likes gays, because so many good and decent and loving [1]people on this planet are gay. And it serves little purpose to point out that such ‘ungodly’ practices are forbidden by scripture, because that only counts for something if those specific scriptural texts are universally accepted as being the actual word of God, and that is far, very far, from being the case.

I have not been able to identify the church where this notice appears, but it does incongruously seem to suggest that the request for silence potentially applies to only two of these six items. In reality, of course, all six are prohibited for the congregation. But who’s to know if God doesn’t actually like smoking, has a cell phone, keeps a dog, and smiles benignly upon sassy dresses, baseball caps and hamburgers with milkshakes?
Another field rich in human assumptions about God’s preferences is religious dress codes. Perhaps a distinction should be made here between those styles of dress which are intended as outward expressions of religious adherence and community, such as the turbans worn by Sikhs, and those which we presume actually have God’s nod of approval, or even meet God’s demands. We now know that the dress codes for women as prescribed by Paul in his first letter to Timothy (1 Timothy, 2:9-14) are not actually by Paul at all, but were [2]appended under Paul’s name much later by an unknown hand. Even though this passage of scripture is now known to be an anonymous appendage, it still goes on serving the Church’s needs enough to keep it in scripture, and in turn to cite scriptural precedent for keeping women in a subservient role.

A Sikh girl wearing the distinctive turban or dastaar. One of the younger world religions, Sikhism is in its outlook and conduct altruistic and egalitarian, does not seek to convert others, believes that no one religion has a monopoly on the truth, and shuns religious rites and rituals including all forms of circumcision and cutting, believing such rituals to be ‘blind spirituality’.
Here two streams of assumptions come together: The assumption that God requires us to dress in a specific way, and the assumption that God approves of dress codes which undermine gender equality. God wants you to cover your head in a place of worship. God thinks that you should conceal your hair/face/body in public. The list goes on. But such statements say more about us and the ways in which we seek to control others in subtle and in not-so-subtle ways. In a patriarchal society it is patriarchal beliefs which hold sway, and those in power will do what they can to make sure things stay that way.

When such gender-directed religious dress codes are taken to their most extreme expression, women are cyphered away to the point of being non-entities, and the burka becomes the order of the day. And when congregations in a place of worship are segregated according to gender it is as if we are sending a clear signal to God, not only that those men present cannot trust themselves to keep their lustful thoughts in check, but that those same men seek to please God by banishing half of the congregation to an inferior, non-visible status while they themselves maintain an all-too-visible centre-stage profile. ‘Look at me, God, I’m worshipping you!’ Male ego, apparently, demands God’s attention as much as anyone else’s.

The all-covering head-to-toe Islamic burka. Only a fabric mesh allows the wearer a limited window on her surroundings. We hide away that which we most fear, and a more graphic expression of men’s fear of women is difficult to imagine. It has been pointed out that such practices are nowhere mentioned in the Quran, although they apparently are mentioned in auxiliary texts.
It is not clear where or when circumcision originated, but we have wall reliefs from Ancient Egypt depicting the [3]practice. It is therefore likely that it was a custom exported from that country from the years of Israelite exile, and is now customary in two of the world’s religions: Judaism and Islam. There’s another assumption right there: God wants your sons and/or your daughters to be circumcised. As with any of the other above assumptions, we cannot know the mind of God. It is the crucial difference between what God thinks we should do (which we cannot know), and what we think God thinks we should do. Male [4]circumcision is practiced on infants too young to have a voice of their own, and who therefore are legal minors who have no choice in the decision to have non-reversible modifying surgery performed on their genitals. We deny our own children any say in the matter: a state of affairs that in another context would otherwise be looked upon as a particularly bizarre form of [5]child abuse.

A wall relief from Saqqara in Egypt dating from 2,400 BCE. The origins of the practice of male circumcision are uncertain, although they certainly pre-date the two world religions which practice it. Circumcision is therefore a custom inherited from a pagan past, and the scriptural assertion that it originated as a demand by God of the Israelites has no anthropological foundation.
But even male circumcision is neither as drastic nor has the same intent as female circumcision. Even to call it circumcision is misleading. If the equivalent operation were to be performed on a [6]male child, then the entire glans – the head of the penis – would be cut off. The term used by those opposing this practice – female genital mutilation, or simply FGM – is therefore an accurate one, the more so when considering the additional factor that the procedure is generally carried out using unsterilized blades and without anaesthetic on young girls who are denied a voice of their own about what is happening to them and the bodies which will carry them through the rest of their life. Such radical cruelty inflicted upon those young girls who have no [7]say of their own is not about religion. It is about [8]power and control and a misplaced sense of [9]tradition – and about the fear that is generated by male insecurity. In a society in which men fear women’s sexual autonomy, the clitoris is perceived as a threat that needs to be removed.

The girl in this photo was told by her mother (at right) that the mother was taking her to a party with her young friends. “Circumcision is a noble act to do to women. There’s nothing wrong with doing it.” This quote comes from Sheikh Mohamad Alarefe, Saudi Arabian theologian and professor at King Saud University. I would suggest that if there is ‘nothing wrong with doing it’, then the sheikh leads by example and has the same procedure performed upon himself.
This to me is the greatest blasphemy: to presume to know the mind of God. Whether that concerns dress or other religious customs, it is the subterfuge that we either seriously believe or are fooling ourselves into believing that such things are done ‘in God’s name’. Now that is taking the Lord’s name in vain, if ever anything is. And think about it: is it not a shocking blasphemy to think that we have the right to modify, that we can [10]‘improve upon’, what God already has created? And yet we do just this when we surgically modify the genitals of those who are too young to resist. Instead, we wield the knife and presume to play God, and then let ourselves off the moral hook by sanctimoniously saying that it is ‘for religious reasons’.

And when it comes to religious dress codes, maybe you see things differently, but I was always taught that God sees what is in our hearts, not what is on our heads, or what is covering our bodies. So if religious constraints require you to wear a hat in church, or to wear a skirt instead of slacks, or to hide your hair or even your face in public, then maybe it’s because your fellow man is demanding more of you than God is.

Since no one really knows anything about God, those who think they do are just troublemakers.
~ Rabia Basri, 8th-century female Sufi mystic and Muslim saint.

[1] Please see my post Sex and Trust.

[2] Please see my posts It's Real! It's Fake! and "Behold This Woman" for more about these spurious letters written in Paul's name. To save you looking them up, the verses are: “...Also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became the transgressor.” (Revised Standard Version)  

[3] Greek accounts by Strabo (left) from the 1st-century BCE mention that Egyptians practiced both male and female circumcision, which confirms that Islam adopted these practices from a pre-existing pagan culture. 19th-century accounts from both Europe and America document secular cases of surgical removal of the clitoris ‘to prevent hysteria and masturbation’. Young boys, apparently, could go at it like a steam hammer, but the idea that females had their own autonomous sexual identity apparently was – and in many circles still is – too much of a threat to the male ego to be tolerated.   

[4] The story that circumcision might help to prevent lower prostate cancer is worth mentioning, although it turns out that this could be more a matter of simple personal hygiene. The story can be read here. The other story that intercourse with a circumcised male reduces the risk of cervical cancer in the female seems to have a number of variables, including the promiscuity of males with monogamous partners, the age at which circumcision is carried out (the younger the age, the less likely circumcision appears to be an influencing factor), and again, personal hygiene-related issues. That story can be read here.

[5] The map at left shows the global prevalence of male circumcision. Blue is above the 50% threshold: the lighter the blue, the more prevalent the practice. Red is below that threshold. While with a country such as the United States the prevalence might be due to social factors, in north and central Africa, the Middle East and Indonesia the predominant religion combined with societal traditions is the determining factor. I would suggest that it is only the fact that circumcision has become so widespread, also outside of religious traditions, which makes it so broadly acceptable. It is only by stepping back and considering the practice more objectively that it might be seen for the bizarre practice which it is. And my point made in this post that it is practiced on legal minors, on those too young to voice their own objections, is what tips it over the line into child abuse. It is. For a father to say ‘if it was good enough for me then it’s good enough for my son’ is the same argument as a father saying ‘I was beaten by my dad and it never did me any harm, so I beat my son too’.

[6] The map at right shows the global prevalence of female genital mutilation, with those areas of greatest prevalence shown in light blue. Egypt and Somalia have the highest rate, with 91% to 98% of all females undergoing some form of genital cutting. There are different types of FGM procedures, from excision (cutting off) of the clitoris to infibulation, the most extreme form, which also involves excision of the inner and outer labia and almost stitching shut the vaginal opening. To read and/or download a fact sheet about FGM please visit The Clarion Project

[7] When interviewed by the BBC (BBC HARDtalk, 11 January 2016) pro-FGM activist Fuambai Sia Ahmadu (left) claimed that type 1 FGM (excision of the clitoris) “is equivalent to male circumcision”. It is not. As mentioned above, the male equivalent would be to cut off the head of the penis. Ms Ahmadu said that the lack of a clitoris had not made any difference to her sex life. But with no comparision to draw upon, how could she possibly know? Ms Ahmadu also claimed that a woman feels more feminine without her clitoris because of its resemblance to the male penis: a statement which finely demonstrates my point about the human hubris of presuming to know better than God what is ‘correct’ for us. Human sexuality is a shifting thing. In early embryonic development all human genitalia are identical.

[8] The so-called Islamic State militant group has declared their intention that if (as far as they are concerned, when) they create their caliphate, then all women in Iraq between the ages of 11 and 46 will be forced to undergo FGM. I remarked in a previous post (Isis in Paris) that IS is deeply misogynist in its intentions. This news is a further confirmation of that, although IS now deny the story. A report can be read here.

[9] The Question of Tradition: Tradition is the usual defence offered by those who seek to maintain these practices: ‘It’s an important part of our tradition’ is what we hear. Anthropologically, tradition is a primitive mechanism inherited from our distant past, most probably as a survival mechanism. ‘We did such-and-such this way, and nothing bad happened to us, so we’d better do it the same way from now on, just in case.’ I recently heard a leader of a religious community expressing his concern about the possible disappearance of circumcision as a (to him) valued religious tradition. “If such an essential tradition disappears” he wondered, “what would we be left with?” Hmm... just a wild idea on my part, but maybe… God? 

[10] It is worth making the point that I am drawing a distinction between such procedures which are carried out on minors as a religious practice and those body modification procedures which are carried out in a secular context by adults who have chosen such procedures for themselves. If you choose to have a stud in your tongue (or anywhere else) that is really up to you.

Niqab photo from the Huffington Post. Photo of Sikh girl from Michael Freeman Photography. Photo of FGM being performed on a young girl from The Clarion Project. Other photos from uncredited sources. Global map of male circumcision prevalence adapted from a work by AHC300. Global map of FGM prevalence by Woman Stats Project.


  1. Thank you, D., for broaching the horrific subject of FGM, and exposing it as what it really is. I confess, this subject has been on my mind as of late - for a variety of reasons - but, I've been silenced by the magnitude of my own outrage. FMG is certainly NOT the equivalent of circumcision, and I'm glad you pointed that out.

    BTW, I've recently read that this practice was actually "medically prescribed" in America and various parts of Europe as late as the 1930s.

    Which leads us to this quote, purportedly from Aristotle: "If the clitoris is the seat of woman's pleasure, then away with it! Women are meant to bear children; that she should draw pleasure from the sexual act is unthinkable."


    1. Thank you for commenting, Dia. I'm grateful that my own outrage about this subject found its voice in this post, and that perhaps that voice can speak for both of us. These things do need to be spoken out, and more than anything I feel for the wrong done to those young girls who have no power of their own to resist. It is child abuse of a particularly pernicious kind, and any adults who involve themselves in it are morally culpable. That something happens to be a part of religious tradition does not by default make it right.

      The quote by Aristotle is shocking, but not so unexpected. My understanding is that, with the notable exception of the city state of Sparta, Ancient Greece treated its women as second-class citizens, and Greek women were envious of the freedoms which their Spartan counterparts enjoyed. Neither would I be surprised to learn that this practice is 'medically prescribed' here in some parts of the West even today. Male fear of female sexuality can run deep.

  2. Excellent article and I share your outrage on all these and other instances of the world in the grip of patriarchy and the use and abuse of religion as their weapon of preference. That sign on the church door are on many churches in Europe and especially the Notre Dame de Paris and the Sacre Couer in Montmartre

    1. Thank you for letting me know about the prevalence of the church sign, Hettienne. Even those who blog on these subject do, I believe, make a difference somewhere. It's a question of raising awareness of these and other issues. Male-based religions are gender-biased, and this to me is self-serving aggrandizement which has little to do with any sincere spirituality. So I'm bound to agree with your 'weapon of preference' description!


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