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In The Handmaid’s Tale, a trending drama on the streaming service Hulu based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, religious scripture is used to justify raping and dominating women. Though the show is fiction, the plot is one that many victims of religious abuse are currently living through.
Also sometimes called spiritual abuse, both encompass the practice of a person in some sort of dominant position using scripture or religion to control, harass, ridicule or intimidate someone else. This could be done by an abusive partner, parent or a religious authority, such as a priest.
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Signs of Religious Abuse
Do you suspect religious abuse from your partner? Following are five common markers to help you spot it.
1. Your partner is preventing you from practicing your religion. It could be that your partner forbids you to attend church on Sunday mornings. Maybe you’re Muslim and your partner is hindering your attempts to pray at the certain times you need to pray. Or, you may be Jewish and have decided to keep kosher, and your partner is demanding you eat pork. “Even if it’s seemingly minor, it’s them exerting control,” says Christina Voors, a domestic violence advocate and speaker focused on abuse, rape and human trafficking.
2. Your partner is ridiculing your beliefs. This might look like your partner belittling you when you talk about your faith. It could be your partner scoffing when you kneel to pray at noon every day. Or, perhaps your partner is insulting when you try to share your religious views, calling you names until you start to question your own belief system, which may be their goal all along, says Voors. “They’re hoping you might give up on religion,” she says.
3. Your partner is using religion to berate you. Maybe you and your partner are the same religion, something you bonded over in the beginning of your relationship. Now, your partner is using religious texts to validate his abuse.
“Let’s say your partner finds out you had sex before marriage, and in scripture, they call those women whores. So he’s using it as an excuse for verbal abuse. [Abusers] use religion as their justification and so, in your mind, it’s also justified,” explains Voors.
4. Your partner is using religion to manipulate you. One verse of the bible insinuates women should be homemakers. An abuser may use that as a justification for why you’re not allowed to have a job or access to money. “He’ll say ‘You have to do this, because of our religion,’” says Voors. Or, he may cherry-pick bible verses that talk about being obedient to a husband, another way in his mind that controlling behavior is justifiable. An abuser may even use the scriptures that talk about obedience to demand you do things you’re not comfortable with, such as things that are illegal or sexually coercive. Questioning him is on par with questioning God, he’ll say.
5. Your partner is forcing your children to be raised in a faith you don’t agree to. Whatever this faith is, you and your partner have not talked about it or agreed upon it, but your partner is insistent your children be taught certain religious values. Shutting you out of this decision is a type of power and control.
Why Religious Abuse?
Voors says some abusers may actually believe religious scripture is dictating they abuse, control or dominate you. “Sometimes, it could be so core in their belief that they exert that on you, though it’s not an excuse.” The other reason may be that, by preventing religious practice of his partner, an abuser feels like he retains possession of her.
“A lot of abusers will isolate you from anyone they can. Whoever can give you an out from the relationship triggers an insecurity [from the abuser] of you leaving them. Church can provide a community that can give you that out, so an abuser wants to make sure you don’t have that support.”
Religious abuse is often a gate key to other forms of abuse—physical, emotional, psychological, verbal and financial, says Voors, so it’s important to not disregard the signs as just “odd behavior.” Voors says those who feel they’re being abused or manipulated through their religion should talk to someone, be it a trained domestic violence advocate or someone trustworthy within the spiritual community. Just be wary of religious leaders who are prone to repeat red flag statements your abuser uses, such as themes of obedience to one’s husband. Religious abuse can be found inside and outside the spiritual community. If you feel like your religious beliefs are making it difficult to leave your abuser, or your spiritual leaders aren’t your allies, read, “Do You Feel Trapped By Your Faith?”
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