Using religion to scapegoat women for disasters – opinion

Sadly, things are not shaping up much differently today with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Signs demanding women dress modestly in Beit Shemesh spark battle with court.  (photo credit: ALISA COLEMAN)
Signs demanding women dress modestly in Beit Shemesh spark battle with court.
(photo credit: ALISA COLEMAN)
At various points in history, the world's leading monotheistic religions have been at odds with each other on a variety of subjects. This has led to awful, brutal wars multiple times between Jews, Christians and Muslims. Yet one thing religious communities of all three religions have agreed on throughout time is that women’s actions and appearance have an almost superhuman responsibility - and as such, blame - for what happens in the world.
There are tales in all three monotheistic religions that assign blame to women who use their “bewitching” powers for the downfall of man, and they vary by religion (and sect) in their level of contempt for women. On the contrary, there are also stories of heroic women of valor in all three faiths which have diverse interpretations depending on the community. However, it is not an exaggeration to say that there are recurring themes of sexism in all three faiths. The byproducts of that discrimination are felt in Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities today with social and sometimes legal dictates that oppress women in dress and behavior.
When Iran faced a series of earthquakes that killed hundreds in 2010, Iranian cleric Hojjat ol-eslam Kazem Sediqi, who was the acting Friday prayer Imam in Tehran, stated, "Many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes." In 2016, a senior Iranian cleric in Isfahan blamed women’s “improper veiling” for the drying up of a local river.
Extremist Christian voices don’t sound much different. American Reverend Jerry Falwell and televangelist Pat Robertson, known for their bigoted views, stated that God allowed 9/11 to occur because of “abortionists… feminists” and others. Pat Robertson also blamed feminists and LGBTQ people for Hurricane Katrina.
Sadly, things are not shaping up much differently today with the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Jerusalem, posters were hung in religious neighborhoods blaming women outright for the coronavirus due to a “lack of modesty.” Lest you think this occurred only in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Israel, similar messages were sent out in ultra-Orthodox communities in the tri-state (New York-New Jersey-Connecticut) area of the US. One warned of non-kosher sheitels (wigs), and another community encouraged women to throw away two items of “immodest” clothing in a “tzniut [modesty] challenge” to stop the spread of COVID-19 and become more “righteous.”
IN RECENT years, Jewish communities have struggled with oppressive modesty norms, with some communities becoming more concerned with modest dress and behavior than the integrity of women themselves. Extremist communities have increased gender segregation over time in a deeply offensive (and arguably un-Jewish) way, to the point where women are demonized for being attractive, for wearing colorful clothes, or even for wearing long wigs that have been called “slutty” by certain rabbinical authorities.
Some of these communities have also taken to erasing women from public places and publications, similar to some strictly Islamic communities in the Middle East. And Israel’s largest Orthodox political parties explicitly ban women from running for political office at all – a move even Israel's Islamist political party rejected.
This cultural oppression is only a few steps removed from the legal oppression implemented by Iranian mullahs, or the so-called “morality police” in other Islamic countries. Even more disturbing are the social pressures religious women of all three faiths face if and when they refuse to abide by community expectations. Families are shamed, women are demonized, and their children ostracized as being unfit marriage partners. The implications for future generations of young women in those communities are toxic and frightening.
Teaching young women and girls to associate worthiness with an unobtainable standard of purity, or righteousness with extreme modesty bordering on shame, are acts of misogyny and oppression that foster long-lasting mental-health consequences. Ironically, this reduces women to sexual objects who exist solely for the pleasure, or the beguiling of men. Making women’s modesty a litmus test for the well-being of men or of the world at large is nothing more than scapegoating. For Christians, Muslims and Jews, these attitudes should be unequivocally rejected.
While most religious individuals reject absurd conspiracies and the extreme sexism outlined above, different communities in all three monotheistic faiths tolerate varying levels of sexism – even when they do not see it as such. Normalizing sexism by obsessing over women’s appearance and behavior in religious communities is a part of the problem. In the West or in the Middle East, religious or secular, we have an obligation to speak out when we see such discrimination.
The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative and a research fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute.