IN 2020 NETFLIX AIRED THE FOUR-PART MINI-SERIES Unorthodox, loosely based on Deborah Feldman's memoir of the same title, depicting the flight of a young Satmar Hasidic Jewish woman from her arranged marriage in the insular and oppressive ultra-orthodox community in Brooklyn where she had grown up, to a life of freedom--albeit alienated from her family and that social world--in Berlin, previously the epicenter of the Holocaust.
As we watched the series, we were reminded of similar gripping memoirs of women escaping from extreme forms of other religions. Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel (followed by Nomad and Heretic) described her escape from a Somali version of Islam--which included her suffering genital mutilation--to avoid an arranged marriage and find freedom and education in the Netherlands. Amber Scorah's book Leaving the Witness chronicles her exit from her family's three generations of devotion to the Jehovah's Witness religion that left her in Shanghai with no education or support system, and what it was like starting her life over that eventually led her to pursue education and a new life in New York City. And Tara Westover's memoir Educated described her exodus from a school avoiding survivalist Mormon family in rural Idaho. She endured physical dangers, physical abuse, and coercive psychological control in a determined effort to achieve an education, even though it would challenge her most deeply held and unquestioned beliefs; and she ultimately received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Cambridge.
We began to wonder whether these memoirs constituted a new literary genre or subgenre. Despite the differences of language, culture, geography, and religion, the stories were basically the same. A woman grows up in an insular religious community, where formal education is denied to women (reminiscent of the way American enslaved people had not been allowed to learn to read and write), where contact with the larger world is minimized, where she has a status greatly inferior to that of men, and where her predetermined life path consists of subservience to religious and other community norms, and to the roles of childbearing, infant care, childrearing, and homemaking.
Were these works actually part of a pattern? Was this primarily a phenomenon of women, or of religious extremism, or was it part of something larger--of inequality in general? And if so, where does gender inequality fit in? These are the questions that prompted this article and that it aims at exploring.
Of course, it isn't only in extremist forms of religion that people in the category of women find themselves in inferior positions to those in the category of men. While not discounting the possibility of rare exceptions, it is fair to say that gender inequality characterizes religions in general, in differing ways and to differing degrees. Religions (and secular ideologies with the same function) are important because they serve as the justification societies use for the social order they impose, including the conferral of power and privilege. However, religions are not the only place where women as a category of humans find...