As with most things, Jehovah’s Witnesses will take their cues on women and domestic violence from the Watchtower Society. Before we dive in, a short review about a woman’s role at the Kingdom Hall is in order.
As I mentioned in a previous article, women who are Jehovah’s Witnesses are told to be in subjection to their fathers and then their husbands after marriage. Women may not teach in the presence of men or perform other duties reserved for men without wearing some sort of head covering as a sign of deference. They are not allowed to give public talks or handle microphones during meetings at a Kingdom Hall. Their only role in meetings is a public demonstration, given at just one of their five weekly meetings (fun!), where the sisters role play for a few minutes. (It’s not a fun kind of role play, so don’t even go there.) These performances were almost identical to a much dreaded part of my morning sales meetings when I worked at a local department store some years ago, except that men and women were treated equally at the store. And we got paid.
Elders are not supposed to talk to congregation sisters in private without a chaperone. This is usually another elder or, in some situations, a woman’s husband or father. I was told by at least three elders at my former Kingdom Hall that this was standard procedure and was intended to prevent sisters from crying rape or trying to “come on” to an elder. Because … you know … chicks, I guess. The elders were not required to do this when talking to a brother, however.
From Watchtower 11/15/91 page 21-22 paragraph 14
It is inadvisable for an elder to make a shepherding call on a sister alone. The elder should be accompanied by another elder or a ministerial servant.
From Watchtower 2/15/93 page 15 paragraph 12
In developed countries some have fallen into Satan’s trap by often being with a member of the opposite sex and without a third person present—such as regularly being in the confined intimacy of a car for driving lessons. Elders doing shepherding calls also need to exercise caution so as not to be alone with a sister when counseling her. Conversations can become emotionally charged and result in an embarrassing situation for both parties.—Compare Mark 6:7; Acts 15:40.
I’m sure some elders at some Kingdom Halls might be willing to bend these rules under certain circumstances, but this policy tells you a few things about the way Jehovah’s Witnesses view (and value) women. Not as much as the Watchtower article I’m about to discuss below, however.
“Happiness is Possible in a Divided Household”
The February 2012 edition of the Watchtower magazine has an article called “Happiness is Possible in a Divided Household.” Go look at it quick before the Watchtower Society changes it or the link! (Or just peek at the clip I uploaded below if you prefer.)
These are the exact words from the article:
12 Selma recalls a lesson she learned from the Witness who studied with her. “On one particular day,” says Selma, “I didn’t want to have a Bible study. The night before, Steve had hit me as I had tried to prove a point, and I was feeling sad and sorry for myself. After I told the sister what had happened and how I felt, she asked me to read 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. As I did, I began to reason, ‘Steve never does any of these loving things for me.’ But the sister made me think differently by asking, ‘How many of those acts of love do you show toward your husband?’ My answer was, ‘None, for he is so difficult to live with.’ The sister softly said, ‘Selma, who is trying to be a Christian here? You or Steve?’ Realizing that I needed to adjust my thinking, I prayed to Jehovah to help me be more loving toward Steve. Slowly, things started to change.” After 17 years, Steve accepted the truth.
Feel free to read it again. I’ll wait.
There’s bound to be someone who misses the point of this quote, so let me spell it out. Selma tells us that she didn’t feel like having a Bible study because she “was feeling sad and sorry” for herself. Why? Because Steve, her husband, had hit her the night before. Why did he hit her? Selma tells us that she “had tried to prove a point.” So, according to Selma, Steve hit her because of something she did. And no one – not even the writers of this article – bothered to point out that Steve has a problem. It’s all about Selma. No one told her to go to the police* or told the reader that they should go to the police if this had ever happened to them. Instead, Selma tells us that she “needed to adjust [her] thinking.” The sister she was studying with had convinced her of this.
Bear in mind that the point of the article is to talk about divided or mixed marriages, where one person is a Witness and the other is “worldly.” I acknowledge that this was a concept that barely existed when I was a Witness. Marriages to “worldly people” were all but forbidden back then. This does show that the Watchtower Society has made some progress on one front (the usual explanation for the change is that spouses can often convert their worldly life partners). But when it comes to women and domestic violence, the whole paragraph feels more than a little backward.
The story with Selma should have been used to counsel women with abusive husbands to seek real help and told them that blaming themselves isn’t the answer. Unfortunately, this article simply accepts Selma’s personal belief that being hit by her husband was her fault and moves on. You will find a link to another article the Society wrote soon after this one that would have been the perfect place for this. But that’s not what happened. It could also be said that this article reinforces the old stereotype of the abusive worldly husband and the powerless sister who is married to him, a stereotype that’s especially strong with older Witnesses.
After seventeen more years of Selma living with Steve, we’re told that he finally “accepted the truth.” (This means he became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses or at least began studying their literature with the intent of becoming a Witness.) That’s supposed to be a happy ending to the story.
If you’re like me, I’ll bet you’re wondering if Steve is still beating his wife. The article doesn’t say.
Why Didn’t Selma Just Divorce Steve?
Jehovah’s Witnesses are only allowed to divorce in cases of infidelity. If Selma had been baptized, she would have been disfellowshipped for divorcing Steve and therefore suffer everlasting death at Armageddon (or so she would have believed as a Jehovah’s Witness). Separation would have been an option, but only so long as she never remarried.
Just in case you’re wondering if I’m telling the truth about domestic violence not being grounds for divorce or not, please consider the following.
“The Bible’s View on Divorce and Separation” – which can be found in a publication called God’s Love – lays out the rules for divorce. I’ve edited the quote below for length, but you can read the full version at the link above.
What forms a Scriptural basis for divorce? Well, Jehovah … finds fornication so despicable that he allows it as grounds for divorce. Jehovah grants the innocent mate the right to decide whether to remain with the guilty partner or to seek a divorce. (Matthew 19:9) ….
In certain extreme situations, some Christians have decided to separate from or divorce a marriage mate even though that one has not committed fornication. In such a case, the Bible stipulates that the departing one “remain unmarried or else make up again.” (1 Corinthians 7:11) Such a Christian is not free to pursue a third party with a view to remarriage. (Matthew 5:32) ….
… An abusive spouse may act so violently that the abused mate’s health and even life are in danger. If the abusive spouse is a Christian, congregation elders should investigate the charges. Fits of anger and a practice of violent behavior are grounds for disfellowshipping.—Galatians 5:19-21.
Notice that it doesn’t say, “Fits of anger are grounds for disfellowshipping and divorce.” So Selma could have separated from her worldly, abusive husband, but she could never remarry. In case you don’t understand what that means, she would never be permitted to have the sex again without going before a judicial committee. (!!!) Note that it doesn’t say the same rules would apply to Steve after he became a Jehovah’s Witness, only that “the departing one” – which would be Selma – would have to remain single whether she wanted to or not.
Of course, the article tells us that none of this came to pass. She remained with Steve and this led to his conversion. In other words, she’s still living with her abuser to this day.
I’m sure he’s a totally awesome guy now, though. Knowing that his wife is supposed to be in near total subjection to him per almighty Jehovah God has surely made him a totally better husband, too. I’m totally sure of it.
OK, I admit it, that last part was just me being sarcastic. Sorry about that.
To be fair, the article says that Selma was studying with a Witness and was therefore, in all likelihood, unbaptized at the time these events took place. The rules of disfellowshipping only apply to baptized Jehovah’s Witnesses. So it seems likely that Selma stayed with her husband for the same reasons that other women stay with their abusive husbands. Being taught that Jehovah would disapprove of a divorce, even for domestic violence, probably didn’t help. Still, we have no idea how long this had been going on before she began studying to become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. What we do know is that she was advised to stay with Steve despite the admission that domestic abuse had been taking place.
See The Article For Yourself
I’m quoting an article that anyone can access on the Society’s website. You can download a PDF of the entire thing here. You can even get it read to you, via MP3 or AAC file, from this link or just go here (scroll down to the February issue) to access the whole page with both options. As you will clearly see, I didn’t make this up and I’m not taking it out of context. The exact quote is in paragraph twelve, but I suggest you read the entire article.
You can read more views about these issues at the following websites:
At least this article from AWAKE! magazine tells us that domestic violence is bad. That’s something. It seems to be directed more at the men committing such violence than at women.
Here is a discussion between some of the Society’s critics (like myself) and actual Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The above article goes into more detail about women and submissiveness than I could have here.
This one’s from AAWA, a group of volunteers who want to make the public more aware of the Watchtower Society’s less savory teachings and policies.
This one was written by a former Witness and fellow critic who goes by the name Cedars. He recently “came out” to his family about his doubts in “the truth” and has begun posting videos about it on his YouTube channel.
Survey Results about the February 2012 article: Domestic Abuse Experience in Feb 2012 Watchtower
* Another point worth mentioning is that Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught a strong distrust of “worldly” authorities and are told to keep disputes within the congregation. You are not allowed to go to the police about a problem between yourself and another Witness unless the elders give you permission first. Doing so without permission can get you disfellowshipped. In this case, it seems that Selma was studying to become a Witness but had not been baptized yet. Her husband didn’t start studying until later. So that rule wouldn’t apply in full force with her, which is why I didn’t mention it above.
There’s also the so-called “two person rule.” This is a policy that has caused many problems, especially in pedophile cases. Thanks to the two person rule, the elders will only find the accused guilty if he or she admits to wrongdoing or if two people saw it happen. Things like domestic abuse and pedophilia rarely happen in front of an audience, so many of these crimes go unpunished and are not reported to “worldly” authorities. Or, if they are reported, the victim is often the one who gets disfellowshipped. 🙁