Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Religion As a Tool of Oppression

In the spirit of Good Friday, I made a conscious decision to attend Mass, and since it was my first time in Eket, I thought it would be nice to experience Mass in a new and different environment.

My mom and I arrived a few minutes late, so we had to sit on the veranda as the church was filled to its capacity. And no sooner had I sat down than a churchwarden tapped my shoulder motioning that I follow him. Naturally, I ignored him. Then a few seconds later, he returned and tapped me again which prompted my asking what the problem was. He said I should come with me, but I declined saying if he had anything to me he could say to me where I was sitting.

When he saw I wasn't prepared to budge, he said I should go home and change because trousers are prohibited in church. My mom, who was seated next to me began to explain to him, much to my chagrin, that we’d gone somewhere and couldn't go back to change or we’d be late for Mass. Needless to say, her explanation fell on deaf ears because his reply to her was – “In Jesus name, please tell her to go back home and change”, to which I replied in a mocking fashion – “In Jesus name, please allow me to listen to the sermon”. With that, he gave me the evil eye and walked away annoyed.

This incident reminded me of a similar one that happened when I was 17. I was barred from entering church because I’d worn trousers. As I argued with the churchwardens over my clothing choice, the Irish parish priest, who wasn't presiding over Mass that morning, rose from where he sat to tell the wardens to let me in. Later that day, much to my delight, I heard I was the object of his homily in the subsequent Mass he presided over. Although I wasn't aware of what he said, I know he supported my act of protest because no one bothered me at Mass afterwards.

How is it that women can wear trousers in the Vatican without being harassed, but are banned from doing so in certain churches in Nigeria? The response I hear all the time is – “it’s not our culture”. It’s not our culture? OK, so is Christianity our culture? Are the western clothes we wear part of our culture? 

The originators of Christianity permit women to wear trousers in places of worship, so why can’t adopters of the religion do the same? The truth is men, who have always been custodians of religion, conveniently discarded sections of Scriptures that seemed unpalatable to them and selfishly imposed those sections that are restrictive or oppressive to women. It seems as if religion is a front to maintain unfair social mores that aren't beneficial to women.

Religion has long been used as a tool of oppression by those in power. Flip through the pages of the Bible and you’ll find passages condoning slavery which, by the way, slave owners were all too happy to highlight in an attempt to justify slave ownership. 

Another example of how the Bible can be used as an oppressive tool is found in the verse that urges women to submit completely to their husbands. This verse is often read ad nauseam at wedding ceremonies to make women believe they should always acquiesce to their husband's decisions or behavior, regardless of how incongruous they may be, simply because he is the head of the household. Why can't both parties rule the household equally? Does testosterone make one any smarter or more responsible? While society milks that verse for what it's worth, the preceding verse about men loving their wives as they love themselves is either mysteriously forgotten or mentioned en passant. 

Speaking of wedding ceremonies, how come women who opt to marry in church made to submit their wedding gowns for inspection? Are they little kids that they need to be given advice and direction as to what they can and can’t wear on their wedding day? Similarly, why are women subjected to pregnancy tests prior to their wedding and berated, if pregnant, while nothing is said to the fiancĂ©? If the Church is averse to wedding a pregnant woman, shouldn't the man be equally castigated for her 'plight'?

Lately, I've been wondering why women have to wear white, or shades closer to white on their wedding day, while men can wear any color they want. Is this society’s way of perpetuating the erroneous belief that women should be the picture of purity, but not men? There’s a bizarre notion that women have to remain virgins until married, even though men are tacitly encouraged to have sexual experiences before marriage. If that’s the reality we've accepted, then with whom are these men having sex?

Under Sharia law, a woman caught committing adultery is stoned to death or whipped, but nothing ever seems to happen to her 'partner-in-crime'. If at all any punishment is meted out to him, it’s often milder than the one the woman has to bear. Likewise, in the biblical story of the adulterous woman, one wonders why the Pharisees brought the woman before Jesus but not the adulterous man along with them. Are women the only ones culpable for adultery?

Religion is like a knife - in the hands of a chef it can do wonders, but in the hands of a maniac it can wreak havoc. History and recent happenings have shown how religious fanatics have used religion as a tool to oppress people or create hell on earth for those with differing views. 

Moreover, it doesn't help that some texts contained in these holy books are vague, thereby making interpretation contingent upon the interpreter’s bias. With this in mind, adherents of any faith should tread carefully and constantly pose these questions: what is the aim of the message being preached? Does it sit well with my conscience? Will it oppress my neighbor(s)? If tables were turned and I was at the receiving end of these teachings, would I be pleased? Essentially, one has to remember the golden rule: do unto others what you’d like them to do unto you.