Religion and Rape Culture

The State of Marriage – Progress or Decay?


On the surface, 2017 represented a peak in a progressive movement to reform marriage around the world. Marriage and family law – and the social practices from which they stem and to which they contribute – have seemed to become more and more similar across the world over time. And marriage appears more equitable, for people of all genders and sexual orientations, than ever before.

In Germany and Australia, same-sex marriage was finally legalised after years of resistance. Meanwhile, across the Middle East and North Africa, in Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon, new laws were introduced which meant that rapists could no longer be exonerated upon marrying their victims. And in India, the Supreme Court voted to outlaw the Islamic practice of talaq – unilateral divorces issued by husbands who declare talaq three times, which brought India’s policy on Islamic divorce in line with that in most other countries.

Not least, 2017 saw the crescendo in a long-standing global debate about marital age, which has often focused on the rights of girls. Germany banned marriages involving minors – and also decided not to recognise most underage marriages conducted abroad. The United States, where marriage as young as 10 years old is allowed in some states, has seen a legislative movement and broader social pressure against the practice.

For reformers, these changes to marriage law signified progress, as older norms about heterosexuality and patriarchy gave way to new values. For critics, by contrast, the changes to marriage across the world in 2017 denoted moral decline. Despite the apparent gulf between these critiques, they nonetheless pointed to a common theme: marriage was seen as a marker of civility.

How one married – or dissolved their marriage – denoted one’s status as both civilised and modern. Indeed, recent developments in marriage have been tied to the modern history of imperialism and statehood and the specific understandings of civility associated with each.

That history unfolded over three main points: around 1800, with the Napoleonic wars and the spread of civil law codes across Europe; over the course of the nineteenth century, and culminating around 1900, with the age of empires and the spread of laws and norms through imperial connections; and, over the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty first, with the rise of new international organisations and social movements and the new language of human rights associated with both.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the collision of war, state building and Enlightenment thought drove a boom in the writing of new law codes that placed marriage and the family at their centre. Perhaps most significantly, in 1804, France introduced comprehensive rules on marriage and divorce as part of its civil code, largely as a reaction against the radical changes introduced as a consequence of the revolution a decade earlier.

The French code civil assumed that the family was both monogamous and based on the rule of men; any other family structure was potentially uncivilised. The code and the thinking behind it would have a tremendous impact across Europe and around the world. It was transported throughout the continent and across France’s expanding empire by Napoleon’s troops, and it shaped legal systems elsewhere, such as in Ottoman Egypt.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, similar ideas about marriage continued to spread around the world in large part due to Europe’s expanding empires. And, these ideas were shaped by encounters between imperialists and their subjects which helped to confirm notions about a chasm between civilised and barbaric marital practices.

Earlier observers like Montesquieu had looked around the world in the eighteenth century to decry polygamy and child marriage. By the late nineteenth century, a concerted movement against these practices took shape, as in the British outcry over the 1884 case of the Indian child bride Rukmabai as well as through the efforts of missionaries.

And yet, imperial authorities also argued that colonies would need to allow for local differences in marital practices, through a system known as personal status law, because the various cultures – and especially the various religions – around the world seemed so different that they could not be reconciled.

By the end of the Second World War, many had come to question whether cultural differences should be honoured when it came to marriage and the family even if this meant that human rights might be endangered. The rights of women and children, in particular, took centre stage in these discussions, shaping the wording of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and subsequent international conventions.

Over the course of the 1970s, as new social movements latched onto the language of human rights to defend their causes, it became increasingly clear that rights to and within marriage and the family would be redefined on a global scale. Accordingly, courts began declaring certain marriage practices void when they seemed to undermine human rights.

This was the case, for example, in December when the European Court of Justice ruled that European countries could choose not to recognise talaq divorces carried out abroad – alongside other ‘private divorces’ that were seen as undermining their own moral codes – even if they had been conducted legally at the time.

By the end of 2017, it seemed that marriage had been made more progressive and equal for many around the world. And yet, the reforms to marriage continue to be shaped by specific notions of civility and modernity that have circulated over the last two hundred years and have been shaped by efforts to build nation states and empires.

These ideas could be found, for example, in both the heteronormative assumptions behind the movement to legalise same-sex marriage and in arguments against the legal recognition within Europe of foreign marital practices like talaq or the marriage of minors. Not least, while marriage seems to have become more progressive than ever before, in some ways, it has become less accessible. As couples increasingly choose not to marry due to difficult financial and social circumstances, to a certain extent, marriage has become the preserve of the privileged.

Julia Moses is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield and currently based at the University of Göttingen’s Institute of Sociology as a Marie Curie Fellow, where she leads the EU/Horizon 2020 research project ‘Marriage and Cultural Diversity in the German Empire’ (MARDIV / Grant #707072). She recently published Marriage, Law and Modernity: Global Histories (Bloomsbury, 2017) and is currently completing a book titled Civilizing Marriage: Family, Nation and State in the German Empire.

Image: Child in white wedding dress, November 2015 [Via WikiCommons].

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How the Bible shapes contemporary attitudes to rape and sexual assault

Content warning: this post discusses rape and sexual violence.

A retiring judge recently faced accusations of victim blaming when she used her final courtroom case as a plea to women to “protect themselves” from rapists by staying sober. Judge Lindsey Kushner restated these views in a television interview on Good Morning Britain, asking, “why shouldn’t you say – be aware ladies?”

Kushner’s comments were met with a mixed response. Some praised her for using her final speech before stepping down from the bench as a gesture of concern and warning to women who, she believes, make themselves more vulnerable to rape after consuming alcohol. Others, including representatives from Rape Crisis and some feminist activists, see these comments as acutely dangerous – comments that encourage and affirm attitudes of victim-blaming which, in turn, perpetuate the stereotypes that underpin rape culture. Unfortunately, Kushner is far from the only judge in a sexual assault case to comment on the “irresponsible” or “provocative” behaviour of women and girls.

As a deeply influential cultural document, the Bible has a lot to say when it comes to attitudes around sex, shame and gender identity. Rape is endemic in the Bible (both literally and metaphorically) and, more often than not, functions as a conduit for male competition and a tool to uphold patriarchy.

For example, David’s rape of Bathsheba is echoed in his son Amnon’s rape of half-sister Tamar, and his son Absalom’s rape of David’s ten concubines. And in Judges 21, the Benjaminites are “saved from extinction” through the mass rape of women from Jabesh-gilead and Shiloh.

A common thread in the biblical text is that women are responsible for maintaining their sexual “purity”. This is not in the interests of their own well-being, but to ensure that as male property, women remain “undamaged”. This seems to be a no-win situation. The consequence for Dinah, who transgresses social boundaries by going “out to meet the women of the land”, is rape. Women who do fulfil feminine ideals, such as Bathsheba, who is described as “very beautiful”, tend to attract negative, often violent, male sexual attention. In other words, one way or another, women are constantly implicitly blamed, both in the Bible and in contemporary culture, for their rape.

A case in point is another “very beautiful” biblical woman, Susanna. Susanna is the subject of an attempted rape by two elders, who spy on her while she’s bathing before conspiring to coerce her into sex:

“Look the garden doors are shut, and no one can see us. We are burning with desire for you; so give your consent, and lie with us. If you refuse, we will testify against you that a young man was with you, and this was why you sent your maids away.”

In the biblical text, Susanna’s beauty is to blame for attracting the attentions of the elders. In a plotline that’s echoed in today’s court rooms, Susanna’s testimony isn’t believed and her sexual conduct is brought into question. It takes a man, Daniel, to advocate for her and to rescue her from execution after she refuses the elders’ offer.

In his successful defence of her and condemnation of the elders, Daniel says: “Beauty has beguiled you and lust has perverted your heart.” Here, as so often in contemporary society, rape and sexual assault are linked to the attractiveness of women rather than a violent crime of power and control. Even in art, Susanna is implicitly blamed for being targeted. As the critic John Berger has observed, Susanna, like Bathsheba, is often depicted looking at herself in a mirror while she’s bathing:

“The mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of woman. The moralising, however, was mostly hypocritical. You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”

Kushner’s words continue this not-so-grand tradition of victim blaming. Kushner suggests that women who do not exhibit “disinhibited behaviour” by abstaining from alcohol are better able to fight off men with “evil intentions”. What is key here is that moderating women’s behaviour does not do anything to address the issue of rape or dismantle rape culture. It just shifts the collective social responsibility to prevent rape and sexual assault to that of individual women.

Women who do not agree to self-police are blamed for others’ actions. What Kushner is giving isn’t “just advice” or “common sense”; it reduces rape to a choice: choose for someone else to be targeted for attack rather than yourself. Rather than continuing to judge women for their behaviour, perhaps it’s time we started to judge a society that blames women for rape.

Katie Edwards is Director of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) and Senior Lecturer in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on the function, impact and influence of the Bible in contemporary culture. You can find Katie on Twitter @KatieBEdwards.

Emma Nagouse is an incoming PhD student in SIIBS researching rape culture in the Bible and contemporary society, with a specific focus on the construction of intersectional gender identities. This research is part of the SIIBS research theme The Shiloh Project. You can find Emma on Twitter @ejnagouse

Read more blogs about religion and rape culture here.

Header Image: David seducing Bathsheba, Anonymous [via Wikicommons].

Image: Susanna and the Elders, Tintoretto [via Wikicommons].

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Sex, Rape and Social History – The Case of the Bible

Content warning: this post discusses rape and sexual violence.

One does not have to look far to find indications of the normalization of sexual violence (a phenomenon known as rape culture) in news articles, pop culture or, indeed, the Bible.

Recent press coverage of Adam Johnson, the ‘Rape Clause’, and responses to rape storylines in Broadchurch and Emmerdale are but a handful of instances demonstrating the complex attitudes bound up in public understandings of rape. Can the Bible – given its considerable influence on Western culture – contribute to the discussion? And if so, how? The new Shiloh Project, which I co-direct with Katie Edwards and Caroline Blyth, seeks to answer that very question.

The Bible is of limited value for reconstructing specific events of the past. For the social historian, however, the Bible holds more promise. When it comes to social values, attitudes and laws concerning sex, the Bible has undeniably had tremendous influence.

For example, one biblical commentator claims that the biblical incest laws ‘have had greater effect on Western law than any comparable body of biblical laws’. 1 The kinship and marriage laws (known as consanguinity and affinity laws), which were used in Christian Europe over centuries, were directly derived from biblical incest laws. 2 They were also used rather fluidly. In the twelfth century, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s marriage to Louis VII of France was annulled (following the birth of two daughters and no sons) on the grounds of a blood relationship in the fourth degree. Next, however, Eleanor married Henry (who would become Henry II of England): her cousin in the third degree!

The rape laws and narratives of the Bible also hold out promise for explorations of attitudes to rape throughout history. Male-male rape is threatened twice (Genesis 19 and Judges 19) and in both cases the rapists are invited to violate women instead – with the implication that rape of a woman is less abhorrent and less ‘wrong’ than the rape of a man.

In Judges 19, one of the most horrendous narratives of the entire Bible, a nameless woman, the wife of a Levite, is cast out to a group of thugs and gang-raped all night. Her body is dismembered and its parts sent to the tribes of Israel. This leads to a war, which leads to the exclusion of a tribe, which leads to more rape: because seizing a group of women for wives is deemed preferable to the extinction of a tribe.

The Bible is not for the squeamish. There are many more examples of biblical rape texts. King David ‘takes’ Bathsheba, the woman he sees bathing – and (in spite of the romanticised retellings in film versions) the likeliest scenario is that she was not asked for her consent and raped. 3 King David’s son Amnon rapes Tamar, who is his half-sister. Jacob’s daughter Dinah (whose tale is another often portrayed in pop culture as one of romance) is raped by a local prince.

Often the rape of women in the Bible is depicted in cavalier ways. Abraham offers his wife Sarah to the king of Egypt and to Abimelech of Gerar . Sarah hands Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate child-bearer and Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel do the same with their maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah. No words identify such actions as trafficking or rape.

The Biblical legal texts prescribe that if an engaged woman is raped in an urban area, she and the rapist shall both be killed – because she should have screamed for help and (tellingly) because the rights of another man (i.e. the man to whom she was engaged) have been violated.

If the rape occurred in the countryside, however, only the man is executed – because the woman may have screamed and not been heard. By implication raped women are ‘damaged goods’ and potentially co-responsible for their violation. A phenomenon known as ‘victim-blaming’ is something we regularly see played out in contemporary media accounts of rape.

In cases where a raped woman was not engaged, a fine must be paid to her father and the rapist must marry the raped woman, with no possibility of divorce. It is clear that notions of female autonomy and consent are barely present in the Bible and that rape is often a matter of male ownership and competition. This is something we have recently seen in news coverage regarding Article 308 in Jordan which would have allowed rapists to avoid jail by marrying their victims.

Religions play a significant part in both confronting and perpetuating the myths and misperceptions that lie at the heart of rape cultures. As such, it is essential that we begin to consider how religion can both participate in and contest rape culture discourses and practices.

The Shiloh Project, a joint initiative between the universities of Sheffield, Leeds and Auckland, is a new research centre which seeks to explore rape in the Bible and also its reception, resonance and afterlives in contemporary settings. The Shiloh Project is named after the women of Shiloh who are seized for rape marriage as a ‘solution’ to prevent the extermination of the tribe of Benjamin. This is a particularly poignant story in the light of the abduction of the girls of Chibok by Boko Haram. Please do join us at the launch of The Shiloh Project on May 8th where we will discuss this research and the transformative potential of its outcomes.

Johanna Stiebert is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Leeds. Her main research interests in the Hebrew Bible focus on self-conscious emotion terminology, ideological-critical readings of prophetic literature, African-centred interpretation, sexuality, and family dynamics. Johanna is co-director of The Shiloh Project and a member of SIIBS. Her latest book is First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible: Sex in the Family (Bloomsbury T&T Clark: London, 2016).

Header image: The Levite of Ephraim and His Dead Wife. Jean-Jacques Henner circa 1898 [via Wikicommons].


  1. Calum M. Carmichael, Law, Legend and Incest in the Bible: Leviticus 18–20 (Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 1997), p.1.
  2. For a full treatment of incest in the Bible, see Johanna Stiebert, First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible: Sex in the Family, Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 596 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2016).
  3. Biblical scholar David J. A. Clines puts it well when he states, ‘the sex is essentially an expression of royal power, and it is much more like rape than love’ (in his Interested Parties: The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible, JSOTSup 205; Gender, Culture, Theory 1 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), p.226.
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