Are Catholicism and Islam Both "Worlds Without (Strong) Women"?

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd says the struggles women face in places like Saudi Arabia mirror the inadequacies of the Roman Catholic church she describes as, "an inbred and wealthy men’s club cloistered behind walls and disdaining modernity,” that has, “remained part of an autocratic society that repressed women and ignored their progress in the secular world.” Dowd’s piece on “Worlds Without Women” in this weekend’s New York Times come after a visit to Saudi Arabia. Dowd asked a small group of women, “why they were not more upset about living in a country where women’s rights were strangled, an inbred and autocratic state more like an archaic men’s club than a modern nation.” Naturally, they responded somewhat defensively and defended the slow steps to improved rights for women. Still Dowd wondered,  ”How could such spirited women, smart and successful on every other level, acquiesce in their own subordination?” (Read more at


“To circumscribe women, Saudi Arabia took Islam’s moral codes and orthodoxy to extremes not outlined by Muhammad; the Catholic Church took its moral codes and orthodoxy to extremes not outlined by Jesus. In the New Testament, Jesus is surrounded by strong women and never advocates that any woman — whether she’s his mother or a prostitute — be treated as a second-class citizen,” wrote Dowd. Still I had a hard time making the connect between Saudi Arabian women in Islam and Roman Catholic women unable to stop the continued pedophilia in the church (what most of Dowd’s piece was dedicated to). In a general sense, I get that men are responsible for both, but Dowd stretches her connection, “I, too, rationalized as men in dresses allowed our religious kingdom to decay and to cling to outdated misogynistic rituals, blind to the benefits of welcoming women’s brains, talents and hearts into their ancient fraternity.”


But that’s not necessarily true said Gloria from Philadelphia, “There have always been strong women in the life of the church who have admonished popes, founded orders of religious women to minister to the strays of this world, written books, and otherwise led by example. I also do not think it is fair to compare the treatment of women in the church with the way women are treated in the Islamic world. We do not get stoned to death for committing adultery, for example.”   Whhoooaaa there Catholic sisters. First of all, the cultural inconsistencies in Saudi Arabia–no where in Islam does it say women can’t drive cars–do not mesh with the reality of modern Muslim women in most of the Middle East many of whom do work, are educated, whose father’s, as Dowd writes, are in “dresses”, and do stress education for their daughters.


And let us not forget that many of the conservative customs a Catholic woman may consider restrictive–such as covering ones head or dressing modestly in public–are practiced by strict Catholic women and many Muslim women choose to cover their head and to dress conservatively for the same reasons many Muslim women choose not to. It’s not only because a man told them to. And while women in Islam can’t be Imams (and women in Baptist churches can’t be preachers), sisters (what Muslim women call each other) do lead other sisters in prayer rituals, they share devotional time and mentor one another. There are many strong Muslim women just as there are many strong Catholic women. Saudi Arabia is not the entire Middle East. It’s a country with religious and cultural customs that to other Muslims and outsiders–especially a Catholic New Yorker–seem backward and absurd. But so is kissing the ring of a man who calls himself the Pope and turns a blind eye to child abuse.