Eve, Pandora, and the Afterthought Woman

Posted by on September 20, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 4 comments

Image: Adam and Eve (detail), by Titian, 1550, via Wikipedia.

In April of 2012 the online version of the popular politics magazine Foreign Policy released its “Sex Issue“. Unlike the majority of magazines, for which a “Sex Issue” would mean articles like “12 Solutions for Pleasing Your Man in Bed” or “How To Achieve A Better Orgasm”, the Foreign Policy “Sex Issue” focused mostly on women and the troubles they face in this globalised economy. To quote from the online editorial:

“In Foreign Policy, the magazine and the subject, sex is too often the missing part of the equation — the part that the policymakers and journalists talk about with each other, but not with their audiences. And what’s the result? Women missing from peace talks and parliaments, sexual abuse and exploitation institutionalized and legalized in too many places on the planet, and a U.S. policy that, whether intentionally or not, all too frequently works to shore up the abusers and perpetuate the marginalization of half of humanity. Women’s bodies are the world’s battleground, the contested terrain on which politics is played out. We can keep ignoring it. For this one issue, we decided not to.”

The main article was written by Mona Eltahawy, an ex-Egyptian ex-Muslim, titled “Why do they hate us?” This explosive article explains how the Arab and Middle Eastern Islamic cultures treat women as little more than chattels, and deny them the rights that have been granted to women in the West for decades. An incredibly emotive article, it caused a stir among people in both the West and the Middle East, many surprised at just how bad things are for women in a place that just revolted against the tyranny of their dictatorships.

As we continue to see in the Middle-East, this region has been destabilised, and in any volatile situation where people are looking for answers, people tend to point the finger of blame at anything they deem to be undesirable or as the cause of the unrest. Western politics and cultures are to blame; Christian social policies; heretics and infidels; and of course, women.
It’s hard to know from the outside just how bad it really is for women in the Middle East. So many jump to the defence of Middle Eastern countries, stating that things are improving for women on a weekly basis, and that articles like Eltahawy are just anti Islamic rhetoric designed to sell a story. However one wonders, if we are continually hearing these stories, how much truth there is behind them.

Women in the west are also under pressure from social and political agendas. In recent years in the USA there has been a push by ultra-conservative Christians to control women’s reproduction rights, rights to abortion of unwanted foetuses, access to birth control and support, as well as trying to put in place systems which take these decisions away from the hands of women. Dubbed by those who oppose this push as “America’s War on Women”, women in America are seen by some as unable to make these decisions for themselves, and many Christian men would have women stripped of their rights altogether. Some still yearn for the days before women were allowed to vote, and in these people their level of conservatism and the weight they place on their Christianity show a strong correlation. Whether this is causation, or whether this is due to the personality types of people,who tend to be conservative is unclear, but the correlation remains.

None of this is new, in fact one could say it is a yearning for a return to “traditional values”, both in Christianity and Islam. While the rights of women have been making headway in the last 200 years worldwide, there are still those who cling nostalgically to the Biblical and Koranic literalism held by their ancestors.

Of course, if we dig deeper into social and political histories, we can see that it’s not just religion that keeps women down, but many centuries of cultural and societal shunning of women that is to blame. And while it is mainly the cultural and societal pressures which perpetuate this injustice, we see that religion still plays a huge role in this misogyny, backing the prejudices of the men in charge with Biblical and Koranic verses stating that women are no more than the possessions of men. And then there’s the idea of blame.

So why point the finger at religion, when it is society that is to blame? The answer lies in the opening stanzas of the Bible, and also in the Koran and Hadith.

In the Book of Genesis (or in the Koran, verses from “The Heights”?), after God apparently creates the sun and moon, the earth and the waters, the sky and the heavens and all creatures great and small, he creates Adam, a man, out of dust (clay in the Koran). Man gets lonely, so God creates woman, Eve, from a rib from Adam’s side as a companion for him. This may not seem like much, but this small piece of the bible is responsible for much of the misogynistic attitudes toward women for the last 2000 plus years. Think about it; man was first, and women was placed here *for man*. This places a social status on women that puts them in a “less than male” position, and reinforces the stereotypes that no doubt already existed. This may not be the first time in history where the division of male and female was delineated, but it most certainly is the most pervasive. This centuries old manuscript is the basis for the religions of two thirds of the world’s population, and is therefore an important starting point when looking at today’s societies.

It doesn’t end there either. As well as woman being secondary to man in God’s eyes, she also quickly becomes the cause of all of humanity’s ills. Before eve came along, the world was a paradise, without wanting or death, without illness or worries, and most of all, without sex. (What use is sex in a perfect world where everything is in balance?) But Eve, being a woman, was ascribed certain character traits, one of them being gullibility. She was goaded into eating the forbidden fruit, the fruit from the “Tree Of Knowledge Of Life And Death”, by a talking snake. Of course this caused all of the problems we now see in the world; war, famine, disease, plague, illness and injury, jealousy, murder, the list goes on. It was a woman who ate the fruit, therefore women is to blame.

The biblical account of Genesis reads:

Genesis 3:16 To the woman he 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. ”

This is eve’s punishment for disobedience. This punishment has then been passed down from generation to generation, making the woman subservient to men, and causing the horrible pains of birth and menstruation for all women to come.

Not only does the Genesis account blame women, but Adam himself blames Eve for the Fall, saying unto God:

“The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it” (Genesis 3:12).

(While the Koran may not directly attribute the Fall on women, the account still places women as secondary creations of God (Allah). Created from man, though the rib is not specified as the point of origin (this is hinted at later on in the Hadith), she was designed as a playmate for man, who obviously found the company of all the other beasts in Eden to be tiresome. The blame for eating the fruit of the forbidden tree was placed on Satan, and not on the weakness of Eve, and Allah’s punishment to mankind was shared equally between man and woman. Not specifically noted as being toil for the man, and pain and subservience for the woman, the main punishment was shame of their bodies, which they quickly tried to cover up with leaves. This tradition has been taken to extremes in the case of Islamic women).

So the Judeo-Christian account of Genesis does this to mankind’s view of women; makes women secondary, and afterthought if you will, to please Adam and give him comfort; shows women to be easily tricked, and unable to be trusted, easily manipulated and the victims of temptation; blames women for the “fall from grace” apparently experienced in the garden of Eden; and blames women for all the evil on earth thereafter. Remember of course, this is in the opening chapter of the Old Testament, so everything read after this has this story as a precedent. The Islamic account, while not blaming women directly, still places women as an afterthought, or plaything, for Adam. The lesson we draw from this? Man is first, and women shall follow.

The Bible, later backed by the views in the Koran, is not the first place this arises in religion. Predating the Old Testament by some 1200 years, the ancient Hellenic Greeks had their own set of stories which aimed to explain the unexplainable histories and happenings on earth. Since they are no longer considered valid as religions in their own right, we now call them myths. Much like the stories in the Bible and Koran, the earth was once a place free of pain, disease or suffering, a paradise on earth. The heavens were ruled by not one, but many gods, each representing a part of the human psyche or the natural world around us. There were no women, only men and animals roamed the earth. Those who were responsible for populating the earth were called titans, brothers named Prometheus and Epimetheus. At one point, Prometheus, who was given the task of providing gifts and skills to the newly formed mankind, saw that the people below we’re not able to see at night, and that their food remained uncooked. Knowing that man was supposed to become more powerful than all other animals, with the aid of his brother Epimetheus, stole fire from the sun and gave it to the men below.

The god Zeus was angered by the brothers’ thievery, so he called upon the other gods and goddesses to make a woman, the first woman, the most beautiful woman in history (not hard considering she was the first), named Pandora. Zeus then sent Pandora to Epimetheus, who gladly accepted her as his wife. But although Pandora seemed like a wonderful gift to Epimetheus, she was in fact the source of all of mankind’s undoing. Some account say Jupiter sent Pandora to Epimetheus bearing a magical box which she was forbidden to open, while other accounts say Epimetheus was already in possession of this box. In any case, being forbidden to open it in any circumstances, curiosity got the better of Pandora, and she opened the box, releasing all of the ills, evils, diseases and other nastiness into the world, which remain here until this day.

Again we see woman as created by the gods as an afterthought. Again, we see the first woman, Pandora, ruining everything for everyone to come. Again, women are the scapegoat for all the ills and evils on earth.

Today we look at such stories as being little more than fantasies, but to the people of the ancient Hellenic World, these stories were the basis of their own histories. They saw these stories with the same level of seriousness as the people of today to their stories of Jesus and God, of Mohammad and Allah. We see them now as a source of entertainment, and the plots by which to make bad stop-motion movies, but to the Greeks, this was their religion.

In this context it is difficult to condemn religion as the only source of misogyny and sexism, but the enshrining of ancient societal practices and attitudes towards women in sacred texts has served throughout history (and continues to serve) as a severe retardant upon the progression of gender equality, and is often referred to when someone uses religion to justify these innate sexist practices. Male domination goes back much further into history than just the past 4000 years, into the tribal and hunter-gatherer histories of or forebears. These social and cultural practices probably even predate homo sapiens, and we are only now beginning to understand just how complex this phenomenon is. We can easily dismiss the sexual politics of a troupe of chimpanzees or gorillas by saying “That’s just how their communal structures work, and they don’t know any better.” That is simply how their societies work, and we can place no moral or political right or wrong on them. We can, however, on ourselves.

Obviously the male/female dynamics had already developed over the millennia preceding the writing of the Old Testament; it’s not as if this document caused these dynamics, any more than its the definitive guide to the history of the universe. It is likely that men, given our animalistic territorialism and jealous natures, thought it only natural when writing the “inspired” books that this was the case. Moreover, it took existing roles of male and female, and by the hand of a man, formalised the status of men as that of being above women. “Man” being first (the name Adam actually means “the first”) was the most important, and the woman was created as somewhat of an afterthought by a God with a perfect plan.

Whether the holy book justifies the actions of a man against a woman or not, it is not in context of the religion we should be looking at how to treat people. Things have changed, and if religion is to survive, it must leave its stone-age attitudes behind, and move forward into the 21st century.

In any case, the proper course of action for humanity to move forward is to look at these cases of inequality for what they are, in a mythical rather than a historical sense. Where once these may have been accepted as “truth”, if we take the Hellenic example, eventually they are seen as mythology. Whatever the contextual reasoning behind these stories, in today’s modern society there is no place for the stories of mythology to be used as excuses for discrimination against women.

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  1. When I was in 5th grade Mrs. Moore, our teacher, told us to write a story with a female character in it. I wrote a science fiction story about astronauts in space. There was a woman character in it. She was the maid. I added her in when I realized I hadn’t added a female character to the tale. Mrs. Moore came up to me and said, “So, she is there to pick up after the men?”  “Yes,” I replied. I wonder if she still thinks about that day.

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  2. As usual, Martin, very nicely done! Enjoyed it!

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  3. i guess it’s okay for culturally descriptive holy books to be culturally prescriptive as long as the society they describe doesn’t ever change. unfortunately (for men), things have changed. we need to pen down a new revelation of the status quo – it’s high time for another final prophet/messiah :)

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    •  @murraybiscuit  Beat me to it.
      “the misogynistic attitudes toward women for the last 2000 plus years” is responsible for much of “this small piece of the bible”
      I agree it’s a self-perpetuating. And if the text wasn’t so strictly frozen in time, we’d likely be better off.

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