Women, Religion, and Violence
by Martha B. Holstein
Violence against women is an old but often invisible story. Virtually every health professional encounters signs of it at some point in clinical practice. Sadly, many women are complicit in their own abuse for economic or social reasons, or even the age-old hope that "next time he will be different." Some are complicit on religious grounds which, of course, complicates matters. Abuse is often wrapped in beliefs about the role of men and the place of women in a divinely ordered universe. An abused wife sometimes believes that it is her duty to suffer, to turn the other cheek, to forgive her abuser because the marriage takes precedence over her own well-being. Belief becomes tangled in ideology and theology, sustained by fear, embarrassment, and guilt. If she accepts patriarchy, must she also accept abuse?
Mandatory reporting laws—for children and elders—can temporarily protect and do noting to address the source of the problem. How can health professionals, who want to protect their patients from harm without trampling on deeply held beliefs, respond? Perhaps the first step is to see how religion can provide source material for abuse.
The opening chapters of Genesis, according to some readers, establishes woman as second in creation and thus inferior to man and also the first to disobey. This reading fosters the perception that women are intrinsically disruptive, disorderly, unclean. Recent feminist reinterpretations of Genesis have not influenced those most comfortable with a male-oriented theology and a hierarchically structured marriage. Without suggesting that such attitudes about women's place, duty, and nature condone violence, these interpretations can make violence seem tenable as a vehicle to subdue what the man might interpret as disorder.
To some students of Christianity, Christ's suffering on the cross tacitly reinforces the argument that women should bear suffering while forgiving the abuser. An easily forgotten distinction is that Christ freely chose this suffering and that the abused woman's lot is forced upon her, a point of critical importance to the health professional. In the Hebrew Bible, Tamar (2 Samuel 13) is the model for the victimized victim, a position that abused women today experience. Amnon rapes Tamar, discards her, and refuses to marry her. The community responds by expelling her as a piece of ruined property, and the Biblical narrative forgets her. When a health professional encounters an abused woman he or she is often seeing a modern Tamar, a woman without communal protection.
In recent times, the murderous gang raping of Muslim women in Bosnia and in parts of Africa replicates the Tamar story. Muslim women do not report the rape because they would be ostracized as spoiled women. Although Islam does not condone the violence, the effect is quite the same. The man goes unpunished; the woman is banished. What recourse does she have but silence?
The concept of women as property has not disappeared in modern America. Some husbands (and some clergy) tell women that they must submit to their husbands. Tamar's story is reenacted whenever clergy counsel battered women to forgive and forget, to turn the other cheek, to save the family and the marriage. Women are idealized as keepers of home, hearth, and children at the same time they are subtly discounted as moral agents, sometimes demonized as temptresses, and sent home to their abusers. Despite having no intention to harm abused women, clergy often do not hear their voices. Instead, women hear their fears discounted and their abuse misunderstood or minimized; women also report feeling blame or being made to feel responsible for what happened to them.
Such abuse, though not always inflicted with religious justification, is very common. Sociologist Nancy Wilson-Clark reports that one out of six women in the U.S. and Canada experienced violent abuse at the hands of their husbands in 1996. Violence happens not only on the streets, but in our homes, where we ought to feel safe, and in our families where hugs, and not bloodied noses, should be the norm.
This is the kind of violence health care professionals often face. So what should they do when encountering a patient who traces abuse to religious justifications? How can they help a woman who believes she must suffer in silence, must submit to her husband, must protect the family at whatever cost to herself, that she must be at fault? How can health professionals help her maintain her faith and reject the arguments that expose her to abuse and suffering?
Few health professionals have the expertise to provide counter arguments from scripture. But they can respect the power of the woman's deeply held beliefs, asking how her belief system shapes her perception of what happens to her without condoning excesses committed in its name. By facilitating talk and by close listening, health professionals can give the patient courage to name her experiences. This simple act may move her toward reclaiming her subjectivity and, hence, moral agency. Abuse radically affects a woman's sense of self, or indeed, her belief that she has any self at all. The health professional can validate a woman's moral worth by taking her story seriously and asking her to explain what she believes her religion does and does not allow her to do. With careful and compassionate questioning, an abused woman might arrive at previously unnoticed options.
The health professional can also remind the patient that virtually all religious traditions (and most secular moralities) teach a version of the golden rule, which tells us to do to others as we would have them do to us. Extending the rule leads to the moral ideals of generous good will, love, and compassion. To live this way means it is evil to cause suffering and it is good to alleviate or prevent suffering. For the abused person to hear this message is a starting place for the woman and an act of ethical attentiveness that the health professional can offer.
Resources I found as well as the article above:
National Institute of Justice: How health care providers can help victims
Mayo Clinic: Know domestic violence signs against men
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