Woman In Christianity

(This was first published in Expressions of Christianity, With a Focus on India, Vivekananda Kendra Prakashan, Chennai, 2007, pp. 83-97)

Christian evangelistic literature abounds in condemnations of Hindu society; so do, occasionally, “secular” Indological studies. The favourite bête noire is of course the caste system; the Hindu woman — depressed, oppressed, suppressed, if we are to believe the suave messengers of the Good News — comes a close second. I will not go here into the correctness of the charge, as it has already been abundantly answered. But it helps to look at the way the Christian West treated its women, not only in its scripture but in actual practice.

Let us not be told that this treatment, whatever it was, belongs to the past and is of no relevance to current situations. True, from the nineteenth century onward, the status of woman in the West has considerably improved (although not always as much as is projected). But that in no way prevents us from asking the evangelist how he views the Bible’s degrading pronouncements on woman, and Christianity’s appalling record in the matter. For if he justifies them, he automatically falls from his moral high ground; if he condemns them, he condemns the very creed he is asking others to embrace; and if he attempts to conceal or to overlook them — his usual and safest line of defence, for its strength derives from people’s profound ignorance of history — then he is open to the charge of intellectual dishonesty.

Confronting the past is always a healthy exercise. Let us brace ourselves and have a glimpse of just a few cases studies; they are enough to edify us on what many have revealed, what many more have concealed, and what most remain unaware of.

The root of the evil

The root of the problem, at least, has been pointed out often enough: woman is an inferior being, since, according to Genesis, she was created out of Adam’s rib so he may have a “helper”; having listened to the serpent’s evil advice and eaten of the forbidden apple, she is cursed by Jehovah: “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” 1 (Genesis 3:16). This was the first of an oppressively long and gloomy series of curses thrown at individuals, clans, nations, regions, and sometimes the whole earth. Something had gone seriously wrong with the creation within two pages of God’s only book — and woman was responsible for it.

From then on, she is always portrayed as man’s subordinate, sometimes his property. A man, for instance, has the right to sell off his daughter as a servant or slave (Exodus 21:7-11); he is prohibited from marrying a widow or a divorcee (Leviticus 21:13); a woman is “unclean” for seven days after giving birth to a son, but for fourteen after giving birth to a daughter (Leviticus 12:2 & 5); God even finds time for a long discourse on a woman’s menses, how they are unclean, polluting to others, and must be atoned for through the sacrifice of pigeons and doves (Leviticus 15:19-30). There are numerous commandments on killing or marrying captive women (Numbers 31:17-18, Deuteronomy 21:11), on how a woman who cannot prove her virginity at the time of marriage must be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:20-21), on how a rapist must marry his victim (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) — and on many more such matters so divine that they can only cause loathing and nausea in any normally constituted reader: “horror and indignation at every page,” 2 as Voltaire once put it.

The usual Christian response to the Old Testament’s endless obscenities is that they belonged to a barbaric age and were needed to make a barbaric people mend its ways. A strange argument, when we remember that this supposedly barbaric people is also God’s “chosen” one. Moreover, we must conclude that Christians were as barbaric as the Hebrews, since this sort of language resurfaces in the New Testament. While Jesus, as portrayed in the gospels, treats women equitably on the whole, some of his disciples fall back into the old perversity. Paul, especially, argues at length that a woman, unlike man, should have her head covered when she worships; his clinching argument: “… the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man …, man is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (I Corinthians, 11:3-9). Similarly, in the church, “women should remain silent … they are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission … it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (14:34-35). In fact, “a woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner” (I Timothy 2:11-14).

Early Church fathers and writers took their cue from Paul. Second-century Tertullian wrote, “Each of you women is an Eve. … You are the gate of Hell, you are the temptress of the forbidden tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law.3 … On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die.”4 His contemporary St. Clement added, “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman.”5 For Chrysostom, woman was “a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic peril, a deadly fascination, and a painted ill.”6 Numerous other “saints,” from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas, added generously to such imprecations. So-called “Reformers” did not think there was anything worth reforming in this matter; if anything their attitude was often worse, as they insisted on a rigorous adherence to the Bible.


“I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man,” decreed Paul. This sentence may have sealed the fate of the gifted and admired Hypatia of Alexandria. A mathematician, astronomer and Platonist philosopher, she had many students, including prominent Christians, in this Egyptian centre of Hellenistic culture founded on the Mediterranean by Alexander the Great. Here is how the contemporary Christian historiographer Socrates Scholasticus portrays her:

“There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.”7

Among the statements attributed to her are: “Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all” and “To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.” Hypatia, in effect, headed the Platonist school at Alexandria. She must have known that trouble was brewing: in 391, Roman emperor Theodosius8 acceded to the request of the bishop of Alexandria to destroy Egyptian religious institutions. Amidst much slaughter, Christian mobs promptly razed Pagan monuments, including the temple of Serapis which housed what remained of the famed Library of Alexandria. In 412, Cyril, the new bishop of Alexandria, showed even more zeal and got the Alexandrian Jews expelled two years later; he also grew jealous of the popularity and respect, bordering on veneration, that Hypatia enjoyed. Most scholars agree that he instigated one Peter to take action; Socrates Scholasticus continues his account thus:

“Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. … Some of them [among the Christian populace] therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles [oyster shells]. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church.”9

The event shocked Alexandria and prompted a number of scholars to leave this centre of learning. Symbolically, Hypatia’s murder sounded the end of the classical age and the advent of Christianity’s Dark Ages.


Not surprisingly, Cyril was canonized as a reward for his war on Pagans (and on Nestorius, a Christian heretic).10 Even less surprisingly, later Christian historians portrayed Hypatia as a witch and a sorceress. John of Nikiu, for instance, writing in the seventh century, accused her of “beguiling many people through her Satanic wiles,” described in graphic detail her murder by “believers in God” and congratulated Cyril for having “destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city.”11

The witch hunts

This art of demonizing an innocent victim of Christian fanaticism was to be further refined during the infamous witch hunts of the Middle Ages. Virtually every folk culture in the world practised (and sometimes still practises) some kind of magic, charms and sortileges, often associated with the treatment of disease. But in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Church gave a wholly different meaning to those practices, associating them with a new, uniquely “Christian” belief — that of the Devil. Seized by a growing fear of being overthrown by Satan, it started looking around for its accomplices and remembered its hatred of woman; it also remembered the Bible’s command: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18).12 The Church in effect invented the witch: any woman suspected of practising sorcery now became an agent of the Devil; she had made a pact with him, received her powers from him, and therefore became an enemy of Christ and of Christians; she flew on broomsticks, took part in satanic orgies with other witches, occasionally fornicated with Satan himself, and killed infants to prepare magic ointments out of their flesh, among other heinous crimes. No doubt, men also could practise witchcraft, but the Church, fed on the biblical bias against women, focussed on the latter in what became known as the “witch trials.” Michelet, the famous nineteenth-century French historian, was perhaps the first to expose their monstrosity in his book The Witch (1862), which he intended to be a “hymn to beneficent woman, the victim”; Michelet indeed showed how most of the victims were women: “for one sorcerer, ten thousand witches,” he said metaphorically; today’s historians put the proportion of female victims nearer three-quarters.

The witch hunts began around 1300 and spread to much of Europe. In 1374, Pope Gregory XI declared that witchcraft could only be carried out with Satan’s help and constituted a heresy, a charge amplified a century later by Pope Innocent VIII. In 1486, two Inquisitors, Heinrich Krämer and Jacob Sprenger, published Malleus maleficarum 13 (“The Hammer of Witches”), a treatise reprinted at least thirty times in the next two centuries, widely read and constantly quoted at the trials conducted by the Inquisition, as it included a detailed manual on how to detect “the great multitude of witches” and extract their confession. But first, it provided an elaborate theological foundation for the existence of witches driven by Satan, asserting that to doubt the existence of witchcraft was itself heresy. And it imprinted on the European mind the worst possible stereotypes on woman:

“If we inquire, we find that nearly all the kingdoms of the world have been overthrown by women. … It is no wonder if the world now suffers through the malice of women. … If the world could be rid of women, we should not be without God in our intercourse. For truly, without the wickedness of women, to say nothing of witchcraft, the world would still remain proof against innumerable dangers. …

“The first defect in [women’s] intelligence is that they are more prone to abjure the faith. … [Woman] is a liar by nature, so in her speech she stings while she delights us. … She is more bitter than death, because death is natural and destroys only the body; but the sin which arose from woman destroys the soul by depriving it of grace, and delivers the body up to the punishment of sin. … All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable. For the sake of fulfilling their lusts they consort even with devils…. it is no matter for wonder that there are more women than men found infected with the heresy of witchcraft. …14

Whose “carnal lust,” one may ask? For centuries, theologians and clergymen have perversely projected their own sexual frustrations on women; from the notorious orgies of Pope Alexander VI (member of the infamous Borgia family) to today’s countless cases of sexual abuse of children, the disastrous results of the Church’s hypocritical policy of celibacy are too well known to need emphasis. Our virtuous Inquisitors continue:

“The heresy of witches is the most heinous of the three degrees of infidelity [i.e. that of Pagans, Jews and heretics]. The Apostasy of witches … is so much the more heinous, in that it springs from a pact made with the enemy of the Faith and the way of salvation.” 15

 And so on, page after dismal page. After the theory, here is the practice:

“But if neither threats nor such promises will induce her to confess the truth, then the officers must proceed with the sentence, and she must be examined, not in any new or exquisite manner, but in the usual way, lightly or heavily according as the nature of her crimes demands. And while she is being questioned about each several point, let her be often and frequently exposed to torture, beginning with the more gentle of them; for the Judge should not be too hasty to proceed to the graver kind. And while this is being done, let the Notary write all down, how she is tortured and what questions are asked and how she answers. … The next step of the Judge should be that, if after being fittingly tortured she refuses to confess the truth, he should have other engines of torture brought before her, and tell her that she will have to endure these if she does not confess. If then she is not induced by terror to confess, the torture must be continued on the second or third day, but not repeated at that present time unless there should be some fresh indication of its probable success.”16

Such instructions were zealously put into practice. The Church gave itself all powers to arrest anyone suspected of this crime, and to torture the suspect until she or he confessed. Any mole or wart could be regarded as Satan’s mark on the witch’s body. Denunciations were encouraged, which made it easy to use the charge of witchcraft to settle scores; worse, suspects were tortured into naming imagined accomplices, including relatives and children, leading to further arrests of agents of Satan. The cruellest methods of the Inquisition were applied on the hapless victims, leaving them little chance to escape: either they confessed, and were then often burned at the stake in a public auto-da-fé (with their properties confiscated, which made it a lucrative business for the Church), or they persisted in protesting their innocence: but as this could only be proof that they received their strength from Satan, the severity of the torture increased, until the “witch” either died or confessed.

Salem witch hunt

The witch trials spread beyond Europe to America: in the famous Salem witch trials of 1692 (in Massachusetts), nineteen “witches” were hanged to death, an almost merciful method of execution by European standards. In Mexico, the peasantry found itself persecuted by Franciscans who declared the indigenous religion to be the work of the Devil.

In this dreadful application of “God’s love,” Protestants were on a par with their Catholic enemies: both shared the same gloomy ideology of evil. From the eighteenth century, the witch trials gradually abated as the Enlightenment built up its challenge against Christianity. Still, isolated cases of persecution, and sometimes burning, of so-called witches have continued into the twentieth century.17 Worse, the Church’s mindset on the issue has hardly changed: in 1928, Rev. Montague Summers, while translating the Malleus maleficarum into English from the original Latin, praised it as “admirable in spite of its trifling blemishes”18; fully endorsing its vision of witchcraft, he wrote:

“Who can be surprised if, when faced with so vast a conspiracy, the methods employed by the Holy Office [of the Inquisition] may not seem — if the terrible conditions are conveniently forgotten — a little drastic, a little severe? There can be no doubt that had this most excellent tribunal continued to enjoy its full prerogative and the full exercise of its salutary powers, the world at large would be in a far happier and far more orderly position today.” 19

How touching a nostalgia for the “most excellent” Holy Inquisition, and what a pity that it could not continue to exert its “salutary powers”! Twenty years later, the good Reverend, in a preface to a fresh edition of his translation, again praised this “most solid work on witchcraft” and admired “the modernity of the book,” its “unflinching logic, and … scrupulous impartiality”; this manual of the Inquisition was therefore “sub specie aeternitatis,” i.e. eternally true. It is hard to believe that we are in 1948 — though not so hard if one keeps in mind that the Church never expressed regret for its actions under the Inquisition or asked forgiveness from the descendants of the “witches” tortured and burned at the stake.

How many wretched women disappeared will never be known. Conservative historians now put the number at 60,000 at most,20 but there is ground to believe that the actual figure is much higher: only a fraction of the records has survived, and many of the victims might never have been recorded, since in some countries the Church did not have the power to execute convicts: it theoretically had to hand over the “witch” to secular authorities for the sentence to be carried out; in practice, however, the Church had ways to pressure the said authorities, and did pretty much as it pleased: there was no compulsion on it to report those who died under torture.

But it is not the exact number that matters. What matters is that many of the Inquisitors believed they were acting “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (to quote Malleus maleficarum). In the name of Jesus, they found it desirable and “salutary” to plunge countless innocents into the darkest abysses of human cruelty. No other religion ever cultivated such heights of perversity.

Christianity’s dirty linen

Despite the age of Enlightenment, prejudices against women have persisted well into our rational age. Matilda Joslyn Gage, a courageous pioneer of the feminist movement in the U.S.A., authored in 1893 a monumental study of the status of woman through the Christian ages.21 Her scrupulously documented book is a call to women as well as a challenge to both Church and State:

“As I look backward through history I see the church everywhere stepping upon advancing civilization, hurling woman from the plane of  “natural right” where the fact of her humanity had placed her, and through itself, and its control over the state, in the doctrine of ‘revealed rights’ everywhere teaching an inferiority of sex; a created subordination of woman to man; making her very existence a sin; holding her accountable to a diverse code of morals from man; declaring her possessed of fewer rights in church and in state; her very entrance into heaven made dependent upon some man to come as mediator between her and the Saviour it has preached, thus crushing her personal, intellectual and spiritual freedom. Looking forward, I see evidence of a conflict more severe than any yet fought by reformation or science; a conflict that will shake the foundations of religious belief, tear into fragments and scatter to the winds the old dogmas upon which all forms of Christianity are based.” 22

Woman, Church and State makes for painful reading, detailing numerous forms of abuse perpetrated right up to the nineteenth century, including the most revolting sexual exploitations ordered by Church authorities and Christian nations.

A few years ago, the case of the “Magdalene laundries” was brought to light, a case that matches point by point some of those narrated by Matilda J. Gage.23 In the nineteenth century, the Good Shepherd Sisters of Ireland founded a few “Magdalen asylums” for prostitutes (named on the false assimilation of Mary Magdalene of the Gospels with a prostitute, a canard started by the early Church). In the twentieth century, however, as the asylums came to shelter pregnant or abandoned girls, unwed mothers, also rape victims, they gradually changed from refuges to prisons of “repentance,” where girls were virtual slaves, identified with a mere number, made to wash laundry for long hours, starved, forbidden to speak, often beaten, sometimes sexually abused. Being too pretty was reason enough for a girl to be sent to the Madgalen laundries. At least 30,000 girls and women passed through these “refuges” in the twentieth century; many never came out: after their death, they were quietly buried in unmarked graves. One such mass grave — of 155 inmates — was discovered in 1993, when these scandalous institutions came to light for the first time, causing widespread shock and disbelief. The last of them closed in 1996.

As a commentator remarked recently, “The moral horror of the Magdalene laundries is that the abuses they perpetrated were not the outgrowths of simple sadism, or even of unmindfulness, but of a belief that they were intended for the victims’ own good.”24 Christian beliefs and “feelings” had once more wreaked havoc with the lives of tens of thousands of women. The Catholic Church never offered an apology, much less compensation for the surviving victims.

The fear of woman

Behind those unforgivable cruelties inflicted on women over centuries, what we discern is not just male chauvinism, sexism or intolerance, but, at bottom, fear. Fear of woman’s true spiritual power, the very power that Hinduism has exalted — also the early Gnostic Christians, who celebrated divinity as both male and female, and were ruthlessly suppressed as heretics by the growing orthodoxy. Indeed, India’s treatment of woman appears almost blameless in comparison. We can surely find a few derogatory statements here and there (although not in the major texts such as the Vedas, the Upanishads or the Gita), and examples of perverse or discriminatory practices in society, but nothing remotely like the Christian record. India would have appeared as heaven to many women of medieval or even nineteenth-century Christendom.

Today’s liberal Christians would argue that their interest lies in Jesus’ central teachings, not in any literal acceptance of every biblical pronouncement; and most would readily condemn the witch hunts, the Inquisition and other abuses. But they must go one step further and call for a frank acknowledgement and sincere apology from the churches responsible for those crimes against woman’s dignity and humanity.

And in the end, the question remains: for a creed to have produced so many monstrosities for so long, should we put it down, as liberal Christians do, to overzealousness, dogmatism or some unspecified aberration, or should we not, rather, question the creed itself?


  1. For biblical quotations, I have used Today’s New International Version of the Bible, except in note 12 below.
  2. Voltaire, “Homily on the Interpretation of the Old Testament,” in A Treatise on Toleration and Other Essays (New York: Prometheus Books), p. 137.
  3. Quoted in “Why Women Need Freedom From Religion” by Annie Laurie Gaylor, at http://ffrf.org/nontracts/women.php.
  4. Quoted by Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History (Orlando: Morningstar & Lark, 1995), p. 115.
  5. Ibid., p. 114.
  6. Quoted by Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman, Church and State: a Historical Account of the Status of Woman through the Christian Ages with Reminiscences of the Matriarcate (1st ed. 1893, republished New Delhi: Voice of India, 1997), p. 74.
  7. Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, VII.15, quoted in the article “Hypatia of Alexandria”, online encyclopaedia Wikipedia (22 July 2006):  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypatia_of_Alexandria
  8. See “Early Christian Destruction of Pagan Cultures” in Part 1. (Eds.)
  9. Same as preceding note.
  10. Symptomatically, the Webster’s New World Dictionary has no entry for Hypatia, but one for Cyril, as a saint.
  11. John, Bishop of Nikiu, Chronicle 84.87-103. See online extracts at: www.cosmopolis.com/alexandria/hypatia-bio-john.html
  12. Here I used the King James version. Today’s New International Version of the Bible has “Do not allow a sorceress to live,” a choice of word clearly intended to attenuate the connection with the witch hunts.
  13. A complete English translation of this infamous book is available online, and is recommended reading for those who wish to understand the workings of Inquisitors’ minds: www.malleusmaleficarum.org/
  14. Malleus maleficarum, Part I, Question VI.
  15. Ibid., Part I, Question XIV.
  16. Ibid., Part III, Second Head, Question XIV.
  17. An odd case: a 1677 English law which condemned anyone predicting the weather to be burned at the stake was abrogated only in … 1959 (though thankfully not applied for the last few centuries).
  18. Incredibly, those “blemishes” do not include torture, but refer to etymological errors. For instance, the authors of Malleus maleficarum derive the word “feminine” from “fe” and “minus”, i.e. “lesser faith”: this was one more proof of the evil nature of woman. (In reality, the Latin word femina derives from felare, to suckle; it has the same root as “fecund,” “felicity,” etc.)
  19. Rev. Montague Summers, Introduction to the 1928 edition of Malleus maleficarum.
  20. See for instance Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2004 edition, article “witchcraft.”
  21. See note 7.
  22. Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman, Church and State, p. 544.
  23. See Frances Finnegan, ‘Do Penance or Perish’: A Study of Magdalen Asylums in Ireland (Piltown: Congrave Press, 2001).
  24. Mary Gordon in the New York Times, 3 August 2003.