Can cults really be empowering for women?

Dec 21, 2016 at 12:23 p.m. ET
Image: Sarah Swinford EyeEm/Getty Images

While cult membership can be described many ways, typically, them being “empowering” for women isn’t one of them.

Sociologist Dr. Elizabeth Puttick, the author of Women in New Religions: In Search of Community, Sexuality and Spiritual Power spoke with Broadly about how some women are empowered by belonging to cults — or as she refers to them, “new religious movements.”

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Just to be clear from the outset, she’s not talking about “more fundamentalist NRMs like the Children of God, the Branch Davidians, the Unification Church and above all Scientology” being positive experiences for women. Rather, she focuses on NRMs that were founded or run by women, including the Brahma Kumaris and Sahaja Yoga, as well as the Osho movement, which she was a part of for five years.

Puttick’s argument is that women have traditionally been treated badly by the old religions, “despised as the weaker sex morally and physically.” However, NRMs, like the Osho movement, the more progressive Buddhist movements, pagan and shamanic groups offer women “spiritual power and status, including a path to becoming enlightened in the Eastern-based movements,” she explained.

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But Steven Hassan, a licensed mental health counselor and rehabilitation expert — himself a former cult member — “disagree(s) wholeheartedly” with Puttick’s assertion.

Hassan finds the Brahma Kumaris group, which Puttick singled out in her Broadly interview, particularly problematic.

“I’ve worked with women who were beaten and raped in the group — including by leaders. So it’s just complete bull on so many levels,” he told SheKnows.

However, Hassan did agree with Puttick’s distinction that some pagan and nature-based movements can be positive experiences for women and tend to be anti-misogynist.

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As far as the differences between cults and other groups that may be empowering for women, Hassan defers to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

“Freedom of religion means freedom of mind first, and freedom to have informed consent and freedom to leave and question the guru,” Hassan said.

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