Without Religion 

By Debra LoGuercio

©Copyright 2002, Debra Lo Guercio, all rights reserved

    From the pages of the May 17 San Francisco Chronicle, I plucked two stories that make me grind my teeth in fury. So close in print -- scarcely a few pages apart -- yet the stories take place a world apart, literally and figuratively.

    One is the story of a Sacramento stripper shunned by her church, her daughter expelled from its kindergarten; the other of a Muslim woman facing death by stoning in Kohat, Pakistan. Her crime? She was raped. Two entirely different stories. But peel away the layers, and they're identical.

    Christina Silvas, 24, and her 5-year-old daughter were told they "were not welcome" at the Capital Christian Center any longer after a church member discovered that Silvas, a single mother, was paying for her daughter's $400 monthly kindergarten tuition by working as a nude dancer.

    The outrage was promptly reported to a pastor. Church officials decided the Christian thing to do was to cast Silvas and her daughter out of the church immediately. Surely Jesus wouldn't approve of interacting with sinners or tolerate them in his presence.

    Oh sure, Jesus reached out with compassion to the sinners of his day like prostitutes and tax collectors, and went around saying things like "do not judge, lest you be judged" and "let he who is without sin cast the first stone," but why get bogged down in the details. It feels so much better to put on your clean, pressed clothes and go to church on Sunday, and get your righteous indignation batteries recharged than to fuss over what Jesus might do or say.

    While Silvas searches for a different job so she can beg for acceptance and forgiveness from those loving Christian folk who turned their backs on her, 26-year-old Zafran Bibi sits in a Pakistani jail on the other side of the world.  Repeatedly raped by her brother-in-law while her husband was in prison, Bibi, a peasant woman, "had become the plaything of at least one of his brothers." She had appealed to her parents-in-law for help, "but they just turned away."

    According to an Islamic law known as HUDOOD, extramarital sex is punishable by death, regardless of whether or not it was consensual. But a death sentence requires proof. An illegitimate child (and in Bibi's case, it was indisputable because her husband was imprisoned) is proof that a woman had extramarital sex.

    In addition, when a woman accuses a man of rape, she is admitting that extramarital sex took place. She is automatically guilty. But what about the man? Is he not guilty as well? Not so fast. A Muslim woman's word is meaningless. To actually convict a man of rape, "four male witnesses, all Muslims and all citizens of upright character, must testify to having seen a rape take place." Yeah, that's gonna happen. "The testimony of women or non-Muslims is not admissible." So, the rapist walks free. The woman dies.

    When Bibi's case went to trial, the Muslim judge, "thumping a fat red statute book" as he spoke, said he'd "simply followed the letter of the Koran-based law, known as HUDOOD." He pointed out that Bibi didn't disown the illegitimate child, which reinforced her guilt, and by accusing her brother-in-law of rape, Bibi admitted that extramarital sex took place.

    "The lady stated before this court that, yes, she had committed sexual intercourse with the brother of her husband," said the judge. "This left no option but to impose the highest penalty."

    Yes, the rules of religion must be obeyed. There's no room for logical thought, compassion or common sense. And the penalty for a sinful, filthy, wanton woman whose body has given pleasure to men? Cast her out. She doesn't deserve to exist with us.

    Who? Bibi? Silvas? Both. They both got exactly the same treatment. Both stories are merely shades of the same ugly color of religious intolerance and misogyny that brings swift and severe punishment to women whose bodies are used for any other purpose than to please their husbands. It "leaves no option but to impose the highest penalty."

    The highest penalty? Expulsion from our pure, holy, righteous presence. In Silva's case, expulsion from the church. In Bibi's case, expulsion from life itself.

    The difference between the two stories is choice. At least Silvas has one. Actually, I pity Silvas for making such a humiliating, degrading life choice. And I don't mean nude dancing. I pity her for choosing to back down, compromise herself and seek a new job in hopes of being accepted. If there is anything more degrading than pleading, "OK, I'll change anything about me that you want, just please love me," I don't know what it is.

    As for Bibi -- and Muslim women everywhere living with abuse, repression and injustice -- her mother's words as they read her daughter's death sentence say it best: "I have been sucked dry by grief."

    When I think of the misery and suffering women have endured in the name of religion over the course of human existence, I too feel sucked dry by grief. At least I live in a country where I can choose not to participate in organized oppression. I can exercise not freedom OF religion, but freedom FROM religion.

    God Bless America.

    Considering the magnitude of suffering, bloodshed, cruelty, oppression and strife done in the name of religion over the course of human civilization, as well as stories like Silvas' and Bibi's, maybe the single biggest improvement that could be made for the state of humanity would be to wipe organized religion from the face of the earth. Maybe if we wipe religion from our eyes, we'll be able to see God a little more clearly.