By Prarthana Mitra
The patriarchal overlords of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian society in The Handmaid’s Tale often and quite extensively quote portions of the Bible for dramatic effect. The trajectories of Rachel and Leah, especially, prefigures the central worldview of the novel, which hinges on treating women solely as childrearers and raisers.
Omission and oppression in religious texts
In another novella, the Canadian author retells Homer’s Greek myth of The Odyssey through the lived experiences of Agamemnon’s patient and loyal wife. The Penelopiad thus makes for a marvellous example of revisionist feminist mythology, that addresses double standards between the sexes and the classes, rectifies historical misconceptions and revives historically neglected female characters.
Carrying this forward, a group of feminist theologians made a solemn pact to re-situate and recontextualise the sexist tropes of the Holy Bible in modern times, with a new book that is stripped of the era’s misogyny, to make it suitable for the 21st century.
What is the woman’s Bible?
Une bible des femmes, a book of commentaries about Scriptures, hopes to emancipate women from “the lingering patriarchal readings that have justified numerous restrictions and bans on women.” Published in October, The Women’s Bible is a labour of faith and feminism put in by scholars and theologists across the Catholic-Protestant divide from Canada, France, Switzerland, Germany and Africa to offer women a #MeToo moment in religion.
No holy book should be weaponised as a tool for oppression
Take American evangelists’ crusade to ban abortion rights, for example. The very notion of “pro-life” is embedded in the Biblical precepts governing the miraculous birth, the gift of life and bases itself on the woman’s role as a vessel.
Institutionalised faith has oppressed minorities including women for way too long and a lot of it has to do with the fact that religion has always been a tool for patriarchy and power. The Bible was reportedly compiled by the Lord’s male apostles, whose gospels entrenched negative images of women, as was prevalent in the society at the time.
Typecast as servants, prostitutes or saints, women in the Bible are constantly debased, dehumanised and patronised. Long tracts contain instructions on how men should treat women, as punishment for the Original Sin episode. The Book of Exodus, verses 21:7-8 say:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
A fundamental character like Mary Magdalene has been completely misappropriated by pop culture today, lamented Elisabeth Parmentier, a professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. “We are fighting against a literal reading of the texts,” she told AFP. Letters written by Saint Paul, containing instructions for how women should be treated, are radically anti-feminist, but “It’s like taking a letter someone sends to give advice as being valid for all eternity,” Parmentier said, describing the onerous task of placing the events in their historical context.
How alternative commentary can yield positive interpretations
Offering an alternate commentary on passages like these, the authors hope to bring about a change in how people approach the deeply layered text today. Additionally, the book also looks at some of the most noxious Biblical tropes through the thematic lens of body politics, seduction, motherhood and subordination.
“Feminist values and reading the Bible are not incompatible,” insisted Lauriane Savoy, one of the 18 women behind the project. “A lot of people thought they were completely outdated with no relevance to today’s values of equality,” the 33-year-old told AFP. But by challenging the conventional interpretation that cast Biblical women as weak and subordinate, the commentary hopes to subvert religious orthodoxy with the help of etymology and epistemology.
The introduction lays down the book’s agenda to “scrutinise shifts in the Christian tradition, things that have remained concealed, tendentious translations, partial interpretations.” Parmentier explains, by referring to a famous anecdote in the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus pays a visit to two sisters, Martha and Mary.
“It says that Martha ensures the “service”, which has been interpreted to mean that she served the food, but the Greek word diakonia can also have other meanings, for instance it could mean she was a deacon,” she said.
Other instances of revising mythology
Back in 1898, American suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted a feminist Bible with the help of 26 other women to refute the ideas and expectations it perpetuated about women and subservience. Alternative readings of religious and mythological texts have become a scholarly practice, especially for postcolonial, race and gender theorists. Hindu mythology is replete with texts and figures who demand a retelling. The demonisation and contrived death of half-human, half-buffalo Mahishasura is emblematic of the persecution and marginalisation of India’s Dalits.
Numerous modern retellings of Mahabharata on film as well as in literature have focused on overlooked aspects of the extant epic. While Chitra Banerjee’s Palace of Illusions picks up the narrative from Draupadi’s perspective, anthropologist Irawati Karve’s Yuganta, published in 1968, humanises the characters and places the events in a socio-political context that resonated with India’s problems at the time. In a way, they offer a voice to underrepresented communities to defy prejudices and claim their place in cultural histories.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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