In ancient Hinduism, the abstract female genital symbol, the yoni, was worshipped as more powerful than its male counterpart, the lingam. Tantrism operates on a central tenet that man can only achieve spiritual fulfilment through sexual and emotional union with a woman’s superior spirituality. Buddhism teaches that Buddhahood resides in the female vulva and Sufi mystics of Islam believe that true rapture can be reached only through a female spirit. Woman, precisely because she is woman, is respected and honoured in these religions as the giver of life and her superior emotional capacity is something to which devotees aspire.
In light of these facts, it is difficult to reconcile the modern-day existence of women. A look back through history shows that in spite of their status in some religious traditions, women have consistently been the subjects of religious persecution. Further examination reveals that the quality for which woman was once revered has been used against her to dominate, repress and make her the servant of man.
In the biblical new testament, the apostle Paul writes, “Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children if she continues in faith and love and holiness, meekly and with modesty.” This verse is widely used in the pulpit for the purpose of female oppression. Despite the fact that Christ himself took deliberate steps to empower women, shattering traditional Jewish precepts in the process, his apostles had no qualms resorting to the Old Testament and original sin to quell the burgeoning efforts of female apostles.
The clitoris is the only human organ with no function other than to feel pleasure, yet women have been conditioned by church teachings to repress sexual behaviour beyond the functional extent of reproduction. This message is presented by Paul, who indicates that woman’s salvation lies in meekly bearing children for man, and was reinforced in the massive witch-hunts in Middle Ages Europe. The Malleus Male-
ficarum, the witch hunter’s manual of the period, is a thick tome dedicated to the recognition, torture and execution of witches. The book states exclusively that witches are female and details a variety of crimes for which a witch may be tried, all of which are sexual in nature. As a result of this era, any behaviour as trivial as licking one’s lips could result in a woman’s trial and execution for witchcraft.
Modern sociological studies show the majority of active church members are women, thus women are constantly subjected to the message that they have a duty to atone for Eve’s original sin and redeem themselves as “the devil’s gateway,” as an early church Father kindly noted. The informal and social norms of any civilization are so closely tied to religious teachings that the church must be considered a major influence on human values and role expectations. Even after the advent of women’s liberation and biblical criticism, women are plagued by behavioural expectations that have their origin in the Bible.
Women have only recently begun to revel in the strength for which they were once revered and to shed the mantle of guilt church doctrine bestowed on them. Such literature as The Vagina Monologues and Ms. magazine is slowly reclaiming such words as “vagina” and “cunt” to give women a sense of sexual identity in which there is no shame. Despite a long dark history of being burnt, beaten, drowned and mutilated in the name of religion, women continue to move towards a recognition by the church of what was once accepted and respected: women empowered as whole, sexual, spiritual beings.