Gods, Shame and Women


Last week, I visited a sick friend in Manly Hospital. What struck me immediately was that her four-bed, open ward included both men and women. The nurses and doctors were both men and women too, and the staff wore variations on the same theme of clothing mostly white t-shirts and dark blue cotton trousers. Indeed, in the short time I was there it seemed the only way you could tell a nurse was a nurse apart from their brisk and efficient air was the brooch-like watch peculiar to nurses, pinned conspicuously to the front of their shirts.

The atmosphere in that ward was friendly, relaxed and comfortable. The patients were clearly ill and all of them were elderly. The woman in the bed next to my friend’s lay with her eyes closed and what looked like a morphine drip in her arm, her presence rousing compassion, but not unease. The gentleman across the way was clearly having breathing difficulties and nursing staff were attending to him throughout the duration of my visit, but he still found the time and energy to fling a couple of self-deprecating, humorous asides to my friend, who responded cheerfully in kind.

Despite the evidence of illness and suffering, that ward was a lovely place to be. I commented on this to my friend, particularly about the presence of both sexes. She responded enthusiastically, confiding that the week prior, when she had been much sicker, she had suffered appalling diarrhoea, but far from this being a cause for embarrassment, the other patients had looked out for her and fetched help whenever she had needed it. ‘That’s what we do,’ she said, ‘we look out for one another.’ She also confided she’d seen more male and female wobbly bits in the last few days than she had in a lifetime, but without turning a hair.

What was missing from this ward in comparison to the hospital wards I remember from my youth and the even worse ones my friend’s generation recall was shame. No one there was ashamed of being either ill or old or male or female. They were not ashamed of their nakedness, their bodily functions or their need for help. Indeed, my friend confided that when she had voiced concern about the amount of work she was causing on the ward, her surgeon had responded by saying, ‘Now you are not to worry about that for a moment. Everyone here knows how terribly ill you have been, they are thrilled to see how well you are recovering.’ He was telling her, again, not to be ashamed. He also told her to call him by his first name.

There was something else missing from that ward: hierarchy patient-nurse, nurse-doctor, man-woman, undressed-dressed, old-young, ill-well. All were treated with equal respect. I don’t know which came first, the lack of shame or the lack of hierarchy, but they seemed to fit very well together. If I get sick, I want to go to that ward in shabby old Manly Hospital.

By contrast, it seems to me that religion all religions hold both shame and hierarchy particularly dear. The story of the fall in the Bible, for example, is an allegory of disobedience leading to shame. Adam and Eve, before they ate the apple, were innocent and comfortable with their nakedness. Once cast out of paradise they are always portrayed covering their private parts, hunched over with shame and terror.

Moreover, because all religions place men higher up the hierarchy than women, it is on Eve that the burden of Original Sin and shame disproportionately falls. Indeed, when the anaesthetic qualities of ether were first discovered and their use to alleviate the pain of childbirth suggested, many religious leaders argued passionately against this, claiming that women birthing children in pain and misery was ordained by God as punishment for Eve’s Original Sin.

Thanks to emo

Fortunately, for Western women at least, Queen Victoria was on the British throne at the time, and right in the middle of producing her nine children. Head of the Anglican Church or not, she saw the sense of pain relief in childbirth and grabbed it I imagine, literally with both hands. (Another good example of why it is so important to have more women and mothers in positions of power.)

Church leaders have been arguing ever since against women controlling their sexuality, fertility, and therefore their lives. Think of any such issue sex education, opposing conjugal rights, divorce, contraception, access to safe abortion, family planning information, IVF, and now inoculation against the Human Papilloma Virus and you will find many religious leaders prominent in their opposition.

There is, in fact, one thing that virtually all the world’s religions have in common: they all regard women as being of secondary value and as inherently dangerous. They all manipulate shame. All the major religious traditions preach that the worst thing a woman can be is ‘shameless.’ Why? What is it women have to be ashamed of that they exist and are sexually attractive to men?

It is therefore highly hypocritical for our Judeo-Christian tradition to lecture Muslims about their treatment of women. Isn’t it the Jews who thank God every day that they weren’t born a woman? And most Christian denominations with the possible exception of Quakers have also always regarded women with suspicion and attempted to control their lives.

In the aftermath to Sheik Hilali’s ridiculous recent remarks, some more enlightened Christians recognised this hypocrisy. Indeed, the Anglican Archbishop of Perth, an outspoken advocate of women’s ordination, acknowledged his own Church’s poor record on this issue only last week. He was loudly howled down. Apparently, some people regard denying women ordination, access to safe abortion, contraception or protection against cervical cancer as reasonable. As if there was some sliding scale of ‘acceptable’ discrimination against women.

Only the secular are really in a position to vigorously criticise the Islamic traditions that regard women as inherently wicked and shameful and unclean, mainly because they are also in a position to criticise all religious persuasions for the way they treat women.

When I made the argument that all religions regard women as second rate to a panel of religious representatives at a recent conference on the Separation of Church and State, no one disputed it, and the only woman on the panel, an Anglican, confessed to her deep personal hurt and conflict whenever she heard her Church debate this issue.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Manly Hospital is a public and secular hospital. It has no vested interest in keeping men and women separate and inherently ashamed of their bodies and their gender. It appears to be an institution genuinely concerned with helping its patients, rather than merely making sure that they continue to do what they are told.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.