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Fear Factor: The Religious Right's Problem With Women

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The world has seen the terror and confusion on the porcelain face of eight-year-old Naama Margolese, who was insulted and spat on by ultra-Orthodox men as she walked to school in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh. The Haredi, to use Israeli term, found her bare arms so immodest that they screamed "whore!"

The video of a very frightened young girl and the furious, arrogant men, who told reporters they were perfectly justified in their actions, has become a flashpoint in what some are calling a struggle for the soul of a country.

As I watched, I wondered: What is it about women that the men of deeply conservative religions find so threatening? What runs so deep that it justifies traumatizing an innocent eight-year-old?

It's a question that echoes throughout the Middle East and beyond. The men of the Haredi and the men of the Taliban won't be getting together any time soon to swap philosophies. But they might find they have a lot in common. In their subjugation and abuse of women, they are brothers united.

Consider the familiar ring of some of the recent actions of the Haredi.

Women on buses that pass through or even by their neighborhoods have been physically forced to the back seats -- and one who refused ignited a small riot. Park benches have been removed from neighborhoods so men and women could not sit together, and women would not have a place to sit outside their homes. "Modesty police" harass and beat women on the streets.

Just last week, a woman was attacked in her car for being "immodestly" dressed. They smashed her car windows, punctured her tires, poured bleach in her car, and hit her in the head with a rock as she fled. A crowd gathered, but no one helped.

You could easily transport those incidents from the streets of Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh to the streets of Kabul and Cairo. Cultures differ, but female separation and oppression are the master gears in the far right's machinery of control. Without them, it appears, there is terror that the machinery breaks down.

Find a place where men oppress women, and you'll hear the same justification: we're doing it for their own protection. It's not protection. It's projection.

The logic: My sexual urges take me away from a focus on God. Women cause me to have those urges. The obvious solution is to beat them down, cover them up, and lock them away. What I can't see won't tempt me.

And so: women see the world through the eye-slit in a burqa, or stay covered head to toe in a brutal Israel summer. They are beaten in the streets for showing a bare arm, a bit of blush, a flash of ankle. They are locked away to become brood mares to cultures that prize large families.

Those hoping for solutions from newly formed governments grateful to the women who were on the front lines of revolution will likely be disappointed. The Arab spring is already giving way to an Arab winter for women -- as governments' first orders of business appear to restore the default settings for female oppression.

Accommodations to the ultra-orthodox parties in coalitions are an increasingly worrisome influence on Israeli policy.

As Haredi men occupy more government positions, they can impose beliefs on a greater portion of the secular majority. The mere presence of ultra-orthodox men recently prevented a noted female Israeli pediatrics professor from receiving an award on stage from the Israeli Health Ministry, or even to sit with her husband.

Fear of female sexuality in religiously conservative Arab cultures often takes us from control to savagery.

Police in Saudi Arabia forced schoolgirls back into a burning building because in their terrified attempt to escape the flames they were immodestly dressed. Girls in Afghanistan had noses sliced off or acid thrown in their faces because they wanted to marry the man of their choice, or ran away from abusive in-laws. The obvious point -- throw them on society's trash heap by making sure no other man will want them.

Some studies indicate such horrors radiate from a violent collision between the imperative to repress and control female sexuality and the cultural power of shame. A female that defies the norms brings a shame to families so corrosive, that it can only be washed clean by spectacular violence -- the kind that not only delivers a punishment, but leaves an enduring message.

Another argument holds that a combination of religious belief and a culture of gender separation cause a deep sexual anxiety in Arab men. If females aren't free to express their sexuality, there can be no comparison-shopping. Women dare to insist on that expression invite violent reprisal.

We can also turn our view to the West, where female repression is alive and well in the precincts of the religious right.

The actions may not be as extreme, but the insistent urge to control female bodies is the same -- from reproductive rights (we'll tell you the answer to the unknowable question of when life begins in your body) to approving reimbursement for Viagra (which facilitates pregnancy) to denying reimbursement for birth control pills (which prevents it). As someone said: if men got pregnant, birth control would be a sacrament.

So the questions remain:

Why is female sexuality and empowerment so deeply threatening to the conservative religious cultures? What would happen to those cultures if women were free to make their own sexual choices, and exercise their own personal power? Would free, healthy, sexual, productive women bring down a society or dramatically strengthen it?