A Test for Religious Groups: How do they Treat Women?

Renee Rabinowitz

Renee Rabinowitz

Renee Rabinowitz, a retired lawyer whose family fled Nazi-occupied Belgium when she was a child, was settled into her aisle seat on an El Al flight from the U.S. to Israel, her adopted country, after visiting family members in New York.

Soon her assigned seatmate, a middle-aged Hasidic Jew, showed up. He had a brief conversation with the flight attendant in Hebrew, whereupon the flight attendant offered Ms. Rabinowitz a “better” seat farther forward in the cabin. She reluctantly agreed to move.

But when the flight attendant affirmed that the request to move was because the Hasidic man had requested it, she was disturbed. Why should she be asked to move because it was against the religious scruples of some man to sit next to her? You can read the whole story here: “She Was Asked to Switch Seats. Now She’s Charging El Al With Sexism.”

Being asked to switch seats on an airplane may seem like a minor thing. But the question remains: Why should she, a woman, be asked to move to satisfy the religious beliefs of a man? If his beliefs forbid him from having contact with a woman, isn’t it up to him to take responsibility for the consequences of those beliefs? Shouldn’t he be the one to move, or to forego the flight altogether if no one else wants to move to accommodate his strict—and rather rigid—religious beliefs?

Are women really second-class citizens in the eyes of God, so that they must always yield to men when there is a conflict of convenience or of religious principles? After all, Ms. Rabinowitz was an observant Jew herself. In fact, she was the widow of a Rabbi. But she did not interpret the Torah in such a strictly literal way as the man who insisted that the Torah prohibited him from sitting next to an 81-year-old grandmother.

We could go through an extensive survey of religious maltreatment of women over the ages. But we’re not going to do that. Instead, here’s a simple principle:

One way to judge the level of spiritual development and enlightenment of a particular religious group is to look at how it treats women.

Perhaps that’s a bit provocative.

But I do believe it’s a valid test.

The lower the status of women in a particular religious group, and the worse they are treated, the less spiritual that religious group is. And the higher the status of women in a particular religious group, up to full equality with men, and the better that group treats women, the more spiritual that religious group is.

Mind you, this is not the only test of a religious group’s spiritual level. But I do believe it is a fairly accurate one.

Let’s look at it a little more closely.

God originally created man and woman equal

Many conservative Christians, not to mention conservatives of many other religions, believe that God created woman to serve man, and man to rule over woman. For Christians and Jews who look to the book of Genesis, that’s based especially on the story of Eve being created out of Adam in Genesis 2:

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” . . .

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. (Genesis 2:18, 20–22, italics added)

It’s also based on the so-called curse on Eve in Genesis 3:

To the woman he [God] said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. (Genesis 3:16, italics added)

But those who interpret these stories to mean that God wants women to be subservient to men are skipping over the first story of the creation of man and woman, in which they are both created together, and both are created in the image and likeness of God:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26–27)

In other words, God originally created man and woman equal. It is only as the story of Creation continues that woman first becomes a helper to man in Genesis 2, and then becomes subject to man in Genesis 3, after they both sinned against God.

For a fuller explanation of this progression from the original God-created equality of the sexes to a downward progression of increasing inequality between man and woman, please see these two articles:

Gender inequality resulted from human sin and error

Here is the short version:

In the earliest and highest spiritual state of humanity, man and woman were fully equal partners, created together to express the image and likeness of God. But as humanity fell farther and farther away from the pristine state in which God originally created us, the relationship between man and woman become more and more unequal. The status of women sank lower and lower, and women were treated worse and worse.

As shown in the articles linked above, this progression is clear in the first few chapters of Genesis. And the deterioration of the position and treatment of women in society continues right through the narrative of the Hebrew Bible. As the story progresses, men are allowed to marry multiple women, divorce them for any cause, and subject them to harsh discipline.

Women had no such rights in relation to men, although there were some protections for women. And there were also many women who played decisive roles in the Bible story, despite their lower social status. See: “Is the Bible a Book about Men? What about Women?

Jesus Christ and the reversal of the downward trend

It is only in the New Testament that women begin to regain some of the dignity and equality that they had originally been given by God. No, they did not gain full equality. But Jesus’ conversations with women show that he regarded them as having the same claim to dignity and to spiritual understanding as men. And the Apostle Paul stated explicitly:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28, italics added)

It is true that humankind has yet to achieve a society in which there is full equality between women and men. And yet, through many ups and downs, we can see in our history since the time of Jesus, and especially in the last few centuries, that the position of women in society has gradually risen. And today, in most parts of the world there is sustained movement toward more and more equality and dignity for women.

Further, the parts of the world where women are treated the worst are also where humanity is at its worst and most oppressive. In other words, the lower the spiritual state of a human society, the worse is its treatment of women.

After all, true spirituality is about loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and loving our neighbor as ourselves, as Jesus taught (see Matthew 22:37–40). And women are our neighbor just as much as men are.

Jesus Christ raised our understanding of the Scriptures to a higher, more spiritual level. He was the light of God come into the world. And he reversed the downward trend of humanity that had started all the way back in Genesis 2.

Yes, it’s taking us an awfully long time to fully accept the spiritual principles he taught, and to base our society upon them. It’s been 2,000 years, and we’re still working on it!

But I believe that the status of women has been improving in recent centuries, and especially in recent decades, precisely because humanity is finally beginning to understand and accept the spirit of Christianity as it was originally taught by Jesus in the Gospels. For more on this new era of true Christianity, see:

The status of women and the spiritual status of religious groups

It would be time-consuming and tedious to go through each sect of every religion analyzing their treatment of women in comparison with their doctrinal position on the religious spectrum. But here’s the general picture:

  • Religious groups that are very strict, literal, and conservative in their interpretation of scripture and in their doctrinal stances commonly believe that God has ordained men to rule over women, and women to be subservient to men. They therefore tend to give women a low status both in their religious organizations and in society generally.
  • Religious groups that are more mainstream, moderate, and flexible in their interpretation of scripture and in their doctrinal stances commonly retain many traditional gender roles between men and women, but see women as having a more equal status, even if they may still be thought of as being helpers for men.
  • Religious groups that interpret scripture in highly symbolic and spiritual ways, rather than literally, and that focus on inner spiritual development rather than on strict codes of outward behavior, tend to see man and woman as equally powerful manifestations of the nature of God. They therefore tend to give men and women equal status both in their religious practices and in human society generally, even as they continue to celebrate and value the God-given differences between men and women.

Of course, these are only general rules. We humans, and our human groups and organizations, come in a great variety of forms, some of which defy the general trends.

However, if you simply look at the various religious groups, organizations, sects, and denominations around the world, not only in Christianity but in all of the religions of humanity, you will find that the above generalizations do generally hold true.

And I, for one, am happy that the spiritual state of humanity is now on the rise. I am glad that women and men are finally moving back toward the full equality and dignity for which God created us. It is a state of humanity in which every one of us, both man and woman, can make our full contribution to society, and achieve our highest integrity and joy in our relationships with one another—each in our own unique way.

The uniqueness of our contributions to society and to one another is, I believe, why God originally created us male and female, both in the image and likeness of God.

For further reading:


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Current Events, Sex Marriage Relationships
2 comments on “A Test for Religious Groups: How do they Treat Women?
  1. Ozcan says:

    Hi Lee,

    Well, I know that if you take the Qur’an literally, which would be very wrong, men and women are definitely not equal. There are verses about women having to obey their husbands and even that men, as a last resort, could beat their wives, if it would save the family from falling apart. These ideas are competely unacceptable by today’s moral standards and there are millions of women in the Muslim world today who would not agree to this, Even many of those women who wear hijab. So, fundamentalism is a complete dead end, whether it’s Islam, Christianity or Judaism. I also don’t believe in “religious laws” – the Qur’an or Bible are not books of civil law, criminal law or administrative law. You can only get inspiration from religious texts, but if you start applying them literally you can get ISIS or Saudi Arabia as a result…

    • Lee says:

      Hi Ozcan,

      Yes, literalism at the conservative end of things is a problem common to all of the major religions of the world.

      It also helps to understand that many of the ancient religious text were written at a time when the cultures they were addressed to were very materialistic, and not at all spiritual. And for such cultures, a system of fairly rigid laws is necessary to keep the people in line. Otherwise they would break out into all sorts of highly destructive behavior.

      However, when a culture progresses to a less materialistic and more open-minded and thoughtful phase of its existence, it can leave behind the strict systems of laws that are necessary primarily to keep very unspiritual, self-centered, and violent cultures in check.

      As for ISIS and Saudi Arabia, I think those are fine examples of governmental or quasi-governmental groups using religion as a pretext to gain and maintain power and wealth for themselves.

      The Saudi royals, and many others in Saudi Arabia, have become fabulously wealthy through maintaining their strict hierarchical system, for which a conservative, literal interpretation of the Quran serves as a great support.

      And ISIS seems to me to be about pure power, and really to have very little to do with religion at all, even if it is a nominally Muslim movement. Basically, ISIS is what happens when criminals get hold of the governmental and religious system of a region.

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