While Many Faiths Have Evolved, Too Many Have Not, Former Jehovah’s Witness Says
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.”
About Richard E. Kelly
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.
With all the talk of a “war on women” during this explosive election year, the notion of feminism is once again in the news – and open to debate. Especially among women.
Nothing illustrates that better than the rash of commentary following the recent death of sexual-revolution era author Helen Gurley Brown, says Heather Huffman, a 35-year-old author whose newest book, “Devil in Disguise,” continues her tradition of upbeat romances featuring strong female protagonists.
“Some writers took her to task for advocating sexual freedom for women,” Huffman says. “They say she wasn’t a ‘feminist’ because she was all for promiscuity, not women’s rights, and her actions led to an explosion of single moms and STDs.
“Others viewed her as the ultimate ‘feminist,’ a heroine who chopped through a cultural thicket to break down repressive social mores.”
The truth is, Huffman says, that Brown did important work on behalf of women.
“While I don’t advocate promiscuity, I do acknowledge that Gurley Brown’s boundary-pushing stance brought the topic of women’s rights to the forefront, paving the way for change,” she says.
The problem is, she says, that when people hear the word “feminist,” they picture a woman from another time, like Helen Gurley Brown. They don’t see themselves at all.
“I hear some women say, ‘I’m not a feminist!’ They think a feminist is a strident, angry man-hater who gets up in arms over any perceived slight,” Huffman says. “That’s too bad, because the world needs feminists as much as it needs any group that advocates for human rights.”
Feminism changes with the times, she says. So what is a 21st century feminist? Huffman offers her observations:
- She (or he) supports a woman’s right to be a mom – or not. When women won acceptance and equal rights in the workplace, we were released from one box and plopped right into another one. “We went from raising children to raising children and working. Too often, that’s the expectation now,” Huffman says. Feminists support a woman’s right to choose her life’s direction, whether that’s staying at home and being mothers, choosing never to become mothers, or some hybrid of work and motherhood. “Having equal rights is having the freedom to choose our life’s direction without being subjected to discrimination because of what other people expect our role to be,” Huffman says.
- Supports removing double standards. “You still see, in the workplace and at home, the tough guy gets praised, and the tough woman, well, she’s a ‘witch’ or worse,” Huffman says. More smart, savvy women have earned respect professionally – Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright – and that’s progress, but we still have work to do. “Professional women still get criticized about their hair style, their fashion choices. Rarely are professional men snubbed for these things.”
- Understands what rights are being legislated and by whom. We all know the hot-button “values” issues that polarize voters. “The reality is a politician’s party affiliation doesn’t paint an accurate picture of who they are or what they stand for. Voting records, corporate associations, and actions are much more telling. As citizens, as women with a voice, we must do our homework to ensure our values are being reflected in Washington. And, in truth, feminism is more than a political movement – it’s the empowerment of women to live the life they were created for.”
About Heather Huffman
Heather Huffman is a women’s advocate, writer, former human relations specialist and mother of three. She and her family are currently homesteading 10 acres in the Ozarks. Huffman is the author of seven novels, including “Throwaway” and its prequel, “Tumbleweed.” A portion of proceeds from sales of her books benefit groups fighting human trafficking.