The relationship between violence against women and new religious and spiritual movements is more complicated than some media claim.
by Massimo Introvigne*
*A paper presented at the webinar “Violence, Women, and Freedom of Religion or Belief: Honoring the Women of Tai Ji Men,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on November 25, 2023, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
An article already published in Bitter Winter on November 29th, 2023.
Religion and violence against women have a complicated relationship. Several religions honor their women martyrs, victims of religious persecution. On the other hand, religions sometimes discriminate and abuse women. Cases of abuses of nuns by priests and monks have surfaced in Roman Catholicism as well as in other religions.
My analysis will focus on new religious and spiritual movements. They have three different relations with violence against women.
First, there have been leaders and members of new religious movements who have abused women, sexually and otherwise. Their actions are not protected by freedom of religion or belief. If convicted of crimes, they should go to jail. There are, however, four footnotes to add. Footnote A: leaders of unpopular groups stigmatized as “cults” should not be treated more leniently, but also not more severely, than any other defendants accused of the same crimes. All are entitled to a fair and impartial trial, no matter how obnoxious the crimes they are accused of.
Footnote B: the fairness of trials is compromised when media sensationalize the cases of “cult” leaders and judge them in advance of courts of law. Recent anti-cults series by Netflix are a textbook example of how media may poison the wells.
Footnote C: there is evidence, particularly in the works of the late sociologist Anson D. Shupe, that sexual abuse is more common in “old” religions than in new religious movements, not only in absolute numbers but also in percentage. Yet, the media sometimes pay more attention to abuse in “cults” and create the false impression that sexual abuse is more prevalent in the “new” than in the “old” religions.
Footnote D: a perverse effect of the media campaigns is that not only the leaders or others accused of sexual abuse, who may be guilty, but all members of a spiritual movement, who are certainly innocent, are discriminated and slandered, and may even lose their jobs.
This leads me to the second point of my analysis. There is a subtler form of violence against women members of religious or spiritual movements slandered as “cults.” Even if they insist that they are not “victims” and that they have joined their movement willingly, they are treated by the media and sometimes by prosecutors as “brainwashed zombies” who became victims without knowing it. This is particularly common among women who freely decide to join religious movements experimenting with alternative forms of sexuality, but also happens in other cases. Those who claim that these women, in some cases highly educated and with prestigious jobs, are victims without knowing it, pretend they are protecting them from themselves and the “cults.” They may not realize it, but it is the anti-cultists and the prosecutors who are victimizing these women, denying their free agency and their liberty of making non-conventional choices, including decisions about their bodies and their time.
The third point of my analysis is that these spectacular cases where women members of new spiritual movements are publicly slandered and made into false victims are just the tip of the iceberg. This is an extraordinary form of violence, but there is an ordinary violence that occurs daily. When a group is labeled a “cult” or a “fraud,” in my experience, which is not short, women are the first to suffer. They are discriminated twice, as women and as members of a slandered group.
To their credit, women are often also the most active among those who demonstrate and protest for freedom of religion or belief. This seems to me to be the case for Tai Ji Men, although of course there are also many men and young boys I have seen fighting for justice. But this means that women are victims of yet another form of violence, directed against their freedom to allocate their personal resources. They are compelled to devote time and other resources that they might have used otherwise to protest for freedom of religion or belief. Sometimes, they are also victims of direct violence, as demonstrated by the case of Ms. Huang, a Tai Ji Men volunteer mistreated by the police in September 2020 during a demonstration.
Thus, this is a day to reflect on how the relationship between violence against women and religion, including new religious and spiritual movements, is not as simple as some media claim it is. It is also a day to honor the resilience, courage, and conscience of the admirable women of Tai Ji Men.