Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has become much more accustomed to the culture and religion of Middle Eastern and North African countries. One sharp difference is the role of half of that region’s population: girls and women.
“Unfortunately for many Muslims, half of their human capital is repressed or completely silenced, and many academics and reporters who are knowledgeable about the region cite this one fact for lack of progress there,” says Richard E. Kelly, a self-described “survivor” of Jehovah’s Witness.
“But many of us here in the West also come from a religious tradition that has repressed women, and some Christian sects remain faithful to ancient, Old Testament dogmas.”
In the New Testament, gospel writers clearly show Jesus to be a non-sexist, pro-woman figure, says Kelly, www.richardekelly.com, author of “Growing Up in Mama’s Club: A Childhood Perspective of Jehovah’s Witnesses” and its sequel, “The Ghosts from Mama’s Club.” Christians are forced to choose between two points of view on women – that represented by the four Gospel writers in the New Testament and the teachings of the Old. Unfortunately, the latter too often prevails, he says.
“Because we are a pluralistic society that respects differing religious perspectives, we are sometimes afraid to be frank about certain beliefs,” says Kelly, who escaped the “cult” of Jehovah’s Witness as a young man.
Women, who are viewed as being below men, but above animals, in the faith are the most negatively affected by ancient beliefs, he says. Kelly reviews why religions should update their take on women:
• The whole world is watching: In what may be the most stubbornly religious part of the world, rural Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, 15, may be doing more than all military campaigns to turn the tide of Islamic extremism in the Middle East. Yousafzai was shot in the head by members of the Taliban for standing up for girls’ right to be educated. In this day of instant global communication among the masses, Yousafzai’s story has reached millions. The Arab Spring should be a powerful lesson of the effects of social media in uniting people against tyrants.
• Women’s repression insults men: Because the cultural and religious traditions of the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) view women as little more than chattel, members with this perspective are unable to enjoy a healthy relationship. “I’ve experienced the tragic consequences of this view,” he says. “My sister, Marilyn, grew up believing she had less value, because that’s what Jehovah’s Witnesses taught her. Consequently, she suffered abuse at the hands of three husbands, the last of whom took her life.” By viewing women as inferior, men are also victims. They’re denied the mutual respect, trust and shared decision-making of a healthy male-female relationship, Kelly says.
• A moderating influence: Kelly echoes the concerns of other whistle blowers – world-renowned scientists like Richard Dawkins – who worry over the plausible circumstances of world destruction at the hands of religious extremists. “We’re dealing with those who believe that the world’s fate was literally given to them by their God; people who don’t believe in the values of the Enlightenment, but who have the fruits of today’s nuclear technology,” he says. “In any group, women tend to have a moderating influence, and introducing more female influence over and within religious groups may literally mean the difference between the future of the world and the end of it.”
Richard E. Kelly grew up as a Jehovah’s Witnesses. At 20, while working at the religion’s headquarters, he left the group to live with his wife, Helen, in New York City. Because Kelly’s family believed Armageddon was imminent, his education was limited to what was required by law, since there would be no future. However, he went on to earn a bachelor’s in accounting, a master’s in business and become president of a Michigan manufacturing company. He now enjoys retirement with his family and friends.