Jehovah’s Witnesses is a religion that preaches love and acceptance, but the reality is everything is conditional. Love and acceptance is only extended as long as members practice absolute obedience and question nothing, ever. Visit a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, you might notice a few things about their meetings that seem a bit different. One is that all the women will probably be wearing either skirts or dresses. Jehovah’s Witness women can’t wear pants. Women are not, as a general rule, allowed to wear trousers of any sort during their meetings or when in the preaching work, and this includes business trousers or pantsuits.
A woman in pants isn’t just turned away at the door. As an example, when I was an active Witness I knew a woman who worked in a hospital and often could not leave in time to go home and change, and would occasionally arrive to the meetings in her hospital scrubs. However, a woman in pants would not be allowed to be on the platform for any type of public participation, and would also not be allowed in the preaching work. Also, if a woman continued to show up for meetings or preaching in pants without a good excuse such as mentioned above, she would probably be counseled in some way.
Jehovah’s Witnesses will emphatically point out that they do not consider women to be lesser creatures, and that God created male and female equal. The Watchtower magazine often carries positive articles about give-and-take in the marital arrangement, and how husbands should respect their wives, etc. But since the Watchtower is a strong hierarchical system, run by several old men, it is not surprising that many of their attitudes towards women would be passed off to others in the organization.
Like many conservative faith groups, the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a sexist organization. Women are excluded from all positions of authority, except the teaching of other women who are recent converts. The leaders of the local congregation, the elders, are all men. Moreover, members are taught that men and women are to hold different roles within the family; they teach a complete separation of responsibilities and duties by gender. The husband is expected to play the leadership role; wives are expected to be submissive to their husband. Jehovah Witness regard these policies as biblical, and non-sexist. Casual sexism in obvious in Jehovah’s Witnesses literature from either the Watchtower or Awake. For example this statement in the June Kingdom Ministry:
If we are observant and familiar with the content of the magazines, we can choose something from either the Watchtower or Awake! that will interest the householder. For example if we see children’s toys in or around the home, we may choose to highlight an article about family life. If a man comes to the door, we might decide to feature a subject that many men are interested in, such as good government. What’s interesting about this example is that it’s nothing doctrinal, or about so-called headship, or based on a sexist scripture. It’s male chauvinism pure and simple. Furthermore, Jehovah’s Witness in Watchtower literature has always made references to men and jobs, as if women didn’t work! Whenever speaking about training children, the boys are told to be trained by their fathers in various types of work, including trades. Girls are told to be trained by their mothers to do the cooking and cleaning. It’s rarely, if ever, mentioned that boys could be trained to cook, and girls could be taught how to do various other types of work.
One women who was an ex Jehovah’s Witness finally begin to question their controlling, isolating and extremist ways, she was almost always told to discuss my concerns with the elders or pray harder so that she could more fully embrace the teachings. She was too afraid to go directly to the elders so she usually took her questions to other women in the Jehovah’s Witness congregation. Unfortunately, they were just as disempowered as she was.
A Jehovah’s Witness woman can have no position of authority in the congregation.
For that matter, if a 12-year-old JW boy is baptized and he is the only male in a group of older women, HE is the one who will offer prayer, and, if they are going out in field service, HE is the one who will make the decisions. If a Jehovah’s Witness woman is highly trained in a certain field, and is working with an inexperienced JW male in her field of expertise (as in, perhaps, some sort of building project) SHE will have to acquiesce to the inexperienced male, even though SHE is the one who should, logically, be leading the group. The first “step up” for a Jehovah’s Witness male is to be assigned to handle microphones or do some other minimal “privilege” in the congregation. After that, he can be appointed as a Ministerial Servant, and then, possibly an Elder. Within the body of Elders, there are various positions, with Presiding Overseer being the top position at the congregation level. There are many other titles within the Jehovah’s Witness hierarchy…all of which are reserved for men.
To Jehovah’s Witness women are not worthy of leadership. Jehovah’s Witness does not ordain women. In addition, the use of scriptural texts against women in the Jehovah’s Witness community (found especially in their literature on marriage) compels the judgment that they are is focused or centered on men and patriarchal and oppressive of women. Elders control the congregation, from finances to discipline, to confessions and judgment. Women are never allowed to serve as elders, as members believe they are not worthy of this leadership position. Instead, women are encouraged to focus on volunteer work, going door to door in the hopes of recruiting new members. Ask why women were not allowed to give public talks or handle congregation operations, you will be told that it was Jehovah’s arrangement, that Jehovah directly “shows the light” to the governing body–the group of white men who run the organization in Brooklyn, N.Y.–and they pass the information down.
Therefore, women cannot perform the simplest of duties, such as praying over the congregation. If for some unknown reason a man is not present, a woman must use a head covering to show her submission to Jehovah’s arrangement, then lead the group in prayer. In addition, women were not considered righteous enough to volunteer at the organization’s headquarters until married. Single women had little place in the overall structure of the organization and were viewed as a distraction to the men at headquarters.
For many women whose husbands are zealous Witnesses, whether the wife is one or not, the options seem very narrow: Put up with him or divorce him. So the distress call from either a woman whose husband is a JW and is a tyrant, or who is seeking to leave the Watchtower and her husband is threatening divorce, or worse. What could be worse, you say? Usually these situations are accompanied by either physical or emotional abuse, and often if there are children the threat of a custody suit is hung over the woman’s head.
How the Watchtower Keeps Women in their Place
To the woman he said: “I shall greatly increase the pain of your pregnancy, in birth pangs you will bring forth children, and your craving will be for your husband, and he will dominate you.” (New World Translation)
1 Timothy 2:11-15
Let a woman learn in silence with full submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach, or to exercise authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. Also, Adam was not deceived, but the woman was thoroughly deceived and came to be in transgression. However, she will be kept safe through childbearing, providing they continue in faith and love and sanctification along with soundness of mind. (NWT)
These two passages are the most commonly used by the Watchtower (more often verbally than in print) to keep women in their place. The Watchtower comments on these passages:
Eve should have carefully consulted with her husband regarding any important decision to be made. And especially should she have been alert to inquire of him when being tempted to eat of the forbidden fruit, since the serpent’s enticement was to disobey God’s previous command, given through her husband Adam, not to eat of the forbidden fruit. Recognizing her husband’s headship in this way would have been a protection and a safeguard for her. Submission to his headship by consulting and cooperating with him would have greatly assisted her in obediently rendering proper worship to God…. [Commenting on Gen. 3:16]: It does not appear that Jehovah God directly brought these conditions into existence as a punishment on Eve and, by inheritance, on all her daughter descendants. Rather, by cutting off the woman as well as the man from divine favor, Jehovah was pointing to the consequences and abuses that would result. Childbearing would be very difficult under imperfect conditions. Jehovah foreknew that within the marriage arrangement now, imperfections would often lead to frustration, anxiety and turmoil. It would be a natural desire for a woman to crave a husband, not just for sexual satisfaction, but because of desiring a home and children, security and companionship. These desires would be very strong in a woman even though the fulfilling of them would mean domination by an imperfect husband. (Watchtower, 3/1/76, pp. 159-160)
First of all, the Watchtower still sees the curse of Gen. 3:16 as applying to woman, in that she would inordinately be craving a husband and be driven to seek family and security. For many years women were considered undesirable at Watchtower headquarters (Bethel) because they would draw away the volunteer workers and marry them. They were also rarely used for any intelligent tasks at Bethel. Though this has changed, the mentality remains among many Witnesses both at Bethel and in the congregations. Secondly, women were encouraged not to have children in the forties and fifties due to the “closeness of the end of the system,” and the desires for family life were seen as selfish in view of the greater work of preaching the Watchtower’s message. Many Witness women therefore forfeited having children until it was too late, and many are still bitter as a result.
Women are also seen as more easily swayed and deceived, based on Gen 3 as well as 1 Tim. 2:11-15. They are not as readily trusted as men, and in matters of personal conflict among Jehovah’s Witness couples, the men are almost always favored over the women.
Jehovah’s Witness organization immerses members in sexism by inundating them with three weekly meetings, volunteer work in the “ministry” on the weekends and endless studying of Jehovah Witness literature reinforcing harmful aspect to women by the views surrounding women. Jehovah’s Witness organization adamantly referred to women as the “weaker” sex, while men are revered as next in line to Christ. The members firmly believe that men have a more direct connection to Jehovah. For my family, this arrangement meant that even though my stepfather sexually assaulted my mother and physically abused me, my mother was not allowed to leave the marriage unless 1) he died or 2) one of them committed adultery. Adulterers are disfellowshipped. Abuse was not considered grounds for divorce because the Bible does not mention it.
Dangerous message about domestic violence
Jehovah’s Witness magazine contains a worrying message for victims of domestic violence. In the Jehovah’s Witnesses issue of Awake magazine was an article ‘An End to Domestic Violence’. However, what was the message they were giving inside this magazine, and how it linked in with their evangelistic endeavors. The true message of the article tells readers how violent men can be reformed with the help of the Bible. Claiming ‘Bible education has helped many to replace a violent disposition with one of kindness and respect.’ Telling women who are in a violent relationship that their partner can change is downright dangerous. Targeting vulnerable women, who are victims of domestic violence, as a means of evangelism, is very – very – irresponsible.
A chief executive of national domestic violence charity Refuge said: “Violent men often promise to change but they rarely do. Research shows that domestic violence usually gets worse over time. In the worst cases it can end in death around two women are killed by current or former partners every week. Domestic violence isn’t caused by a man losing his temper or drinking too much. These are just excuses for violence. Domestic violence is caused by the abuser’s desire to exert control over his partner.” She added, “it is, possible for violent men to change – but only if they accept responsibility for their behavior and recognize that violence is a choice.” Abusers often learn to be violent from the society they grow up in. Inequality between the sexes means that men have more power than women – inevitably some of them abuse or exploit that power. People who blame violence on their childhood experiences are avoiding taking responsibility for their actions. The Jehovah’s Witness magazine article provides a list of reasons why a women should stay with a violent partner. One reason they do not mention, however, is that many women stay because they continue to believe that their partner can change; that one day their partner will change – perhaps with enough love, enough patience, enough understanding, enough prayer? However, the stark and frightening truth is that for too many of these women, that day never comes. Some will die, at the hands of the man in question, hanging on to that hope. This dangerous article fuels this belief, and puts women at real, and grave, risk.
As if this message wasn’t alarming enough, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are also keen to point out that for them the only grounds for divorce is adultery. Not domestic violence. The article concedes that in some circumstances a married couple could separate, and this does include circumstances where one partner is being violently abused by the other. By telling women who may be in a violent, married relationship that adultery is the only ever cause for divorce, they are essentially proposing that any separation because of domestic violence should only be temporary. When it is estimated that on average a woman will leave a violent relationship up to seven times before leaving for good, and when no other type of crime has a rate of repeat victimisation as high, this message too, is an irresponsible one. The message this article is both dangerous and irresponsible. Nowhere in the article, or on their website, is there any signposting to a single domestic violence charity or organization; no web details, no helpline number, no mention of refuges or actual help. Refuge conducted research earlier this year that found a third of women do not know where to get support if they are suffering from domestic violence. One of the most important things we can do is tell victims of domestic violence where to go, who to call, who can help them – and yet this article in Awake only directs them toward Bible verses and the Jehovah’s Witnesses website. And given that 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence over their lifetimes, that means that potentially 1 in 4 unwilling recipients of this magazine will be experiencing it.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and the subject of sexual violence
Jehovah’s Witnesses because of their sexism choose not to understand what it means to be the victim of the of crime sexual violence. As I’ve brought out in the Rape category, Jehovah’s Witnesses threaten rape victims with excommunication if they don’t scream and resist enough during an attack to satisfy a judicial committee, three elders who review the woman’s experience in minute detail. They have said that without screaming and fighting against her rapist, even if he brandished a weapon, a rape victim “would be viewed as consenting to the violation.” I’ve also brought out how they once referred to a man fondling his stepdaughter’s breasts while she slept as a “minor uncleanness” (see this post) rather than seeing it as a horrific and obscene crime committed against a child, and seemed to imply that the worst thing to happen to a child who is sexually abused is that he or she might grow up to be gay (see this post). Again, they don’t get the concept of what it means to be a victim in these types of cases and fail to adequately address the responsibility of the person committing these crimes.
Sexual Harassment Advice for Teens
This shameful failing of theirs was recently repeated in a section on their official website, JW.org, meant for teens and young adults. The subject was sexual harassment: “Speak up and calmly but clearly tell your harasser that you won’t tolerate his speech or behavior. If anyone touches me inappropriately, tell them to not touch you again. If your harasser persists, be firm and don’t give up. When it comes to maintaining high moral standers.”
Note the last line, which talks about “maintaining high moral standards.” Let me ask, what do moral standards have to do with the victim of sexual harassment and his or her response?
What Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t seem to grasp; someone who victimizes another person with unwanted sexual behavior of any sort is not asking for a date, but they are inflicting or forcing themselves upon this person without their consent or permission. The moral standards of the victim here have nothing to do with someone else’s crass and obscene behavior or the victim’s response. Their entire implication is that if you don’t handle sexual harassment the “right way” or do what they instruct, then your morals are in question or you’ve even brought it on yourself.
This information also betrays their serious lack of understanding and sexism in what it means to be a target of unwanted sexual behavior in any form. In many cases sexual harassment can come with threats. The harasser may have friends at work or school who support them in their behavior, and the victim may feel as if they’re being “ganged up on” with little recourse. A child at school especially may feel that they have no one to help; it’s easy to think they can just talk to a teacher but how many stories have been reported about bullying and harassment at school that is outright ignored by teachers? A child especially may be afraid of retaliation; if they “tell on” the person harassing them, what if that person or his friends physically assault them after school or in the locker rooms? A coworker may threaten to lie about the person to their boss or the boss may threaten the person’s job if they don’t give in to unwanted advances. When being sexually harassed a person can feel not only threatened but isolated. At work not all companies have a Human Resources department that supports employees and harassment claims can be difficult to prove in court. This may leave the victim with few options except to find another job, which can be difficult if not impossible for many people. It’s also good to remember that many people hate confrontation of any sort. It can be especially difficult for women to be firm with a harasser as they are often taught to be “soft and sweet” especially for Jehovah’s Witness women who are taught to be submissive and silent before men.
Speaking of women taught to be submissive and silent, Jehovah’s Witnesses silences women to protect rapists.
A schoolgirl who left the Jehovah’s Witnesses exposed the organization’s cover-up of abuse and sexual violence inflicted on women and its effort to silence the victims. The girl recalled her own experience with the church and recounted the stories of three women who were abused and sexually assaulted by men in the church. All these crimes were covered up by the leadership of organization and the victims were silenced or shunned from the community, she said. The most disturbing revelation came from the stories of three women, whom the girl personally knew. The three women, all of whom remained anonymous, were abused or raped by male members of the church. After they reported to the elders of the church, they were blamed for the violence against them and excommunicated or threatened to. One of them was a mother of two. After years of abuse by her husband, she finally got a divorce. The elders of the church, who turned away from her when she went to them for help, forbid her to see her children after the divorce and left the children to be raised by her abusing husband who was a devoted Jehovah’s Witness. “To make matters worse her children were taught not to speak to her because she was evil, they were isolated by her ex-husband and know nothing other than this religion. They are also terrified of disappointing their father and their god,” the girl said. Another woman who was raped was told by the church elders that she was raped because her job put her near men and she dressed inappropriately. To avoid being “disfellowshipped,” she had to drop the charges against her attacker, quit her job and dress more conservatively. The girl stated that she and her mother had left the Jehovah’s Witness organization at a price that they had been shunned.
By Damien Marie AtHope