Marilyn & Malala–Victims of Religious Bigotry

When I first heard the news report about Taliban gunmen shooting a 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl, I thought about my sister Marilyn. Both Marilyn and Malala Yousafzai were victims of religious bigotry. While Malala will survive, my sister died after she was violently attacked. Even though the details are different, if their stories can be presented to the world community as examples of how outdated religious dogma breeds ignorance and fosters crimes against women, they may spark positive changes.

Malala was born in a rural valley in Pakistan at a time when the Taliban ruled the area. Even at an early age, she was acutely aware that girls were treated as second class citizens by a fanatical religious group enforcing an out-of-date religious dogma which strictly forbids any education for girls.

Malala Yousafzai

When she was eleven, Malala began writing a blog for the BBC detailing her early life under Taliban rule, how they’d been expelled from the area, and her own views on education for girls. A few months later, the New York Times filmed a documentary on her life and she began giving interviews in print and on television. She was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize and won Pakistan’s first National Peace Prize. On October 9, 2012, while returning home on a school bus, Malala was nearly killed after being shot in the head and neck. She remained unconscious and in critical condition for days. When her condition improved, she was sent to an intensive rehabilitation hospital in England, where she is now recovering.

My sister Marilyn was born in 1948. Our parents were new converts and passionate believing Jehovah’s Witnesses. They taught Marilyn and me that we lived in a very bad world, but God was going to act soon. He’d destroy this world and all non-JW believers at Armageddon and do it before we reached adulthood.

While my parents loved my sister, they didn’t believe that she had the same rights that I did. God had a pecking order which mandated that a woman’s role be at a lower level than a man’s. For girls, a good education wasn’t important. Our parents also believed that Marilyn’s primary goal should be to please Jehovah so He wouldn’t destroy her at Armageddon.

When she grew up and Armageddon didn’t happen, she wasn’t prepared for a normal adult life in the real world. Due to a limited, ill-advised education she had not been trained to think on her own. She needed a man to take care of her. Unfortunately, Marilyn was attracted to men who treated women as sex objects and not equals. During each of her failed marriages, she was emotionally and physically abused. It did little good to report this abuse to her church elders because their religious dogma dictated that the man be the head of the family and that the wife must always be subject to her husband’s authority.


Marilyn’s life story does not have a happy ending. Only forty-nine, she was brutally knifed to death by her third abusive husband on April 11, 1998.

I tell her story in my book, The Ghosts from Mama’s Club. If people know Marilyn’s story, I believe it could help them so that they, their sisters and daughters will not become victims of religious bigotry. Perhaps it will help some people mature and better understand that there are equally valid religions around the world that meet the needs of their followers. In fact, many religions are willing to be held accountable and to make changes for any of their out-of-date beliefs that foster social injustices toward women.

I would also like to share some similarities between Jehovah’s Witnesses and the extreme Islamic beliefs of the Taliban. First and foremost, both groups discourage education for girls and women. Women do not have any authority to teach religious concepts to men. Both groups have dress codes that fly in the face of common sense. A wife must be subject to her husband. There is no way for a wife to divorce her husband for non-support, acts of violence directed at her, or for sexual incompetence. Divorce and re-marriage are only allowed in cases of fornication and then only when the wife can conclusively prove her case. Even violent criminals cannot be divorced by their wives if they did not perform a provable act of fornication with another woman. Women are not encouraged to have a career. Women must wear head coverings when praying in the presence of men. Women have no positions of leadership at any level, locally or at the religion’s headquarters. Men create strict rules for women in their religious communities and women are not allowed to challenge those rules.

The Watchtower discourages JW women from divorcing their husbands for anything other than fornication. If they choose to do so out of fear for their own safety or for other equally valid reasons, then they are forbidden to remarry. If they do marry again, they are classified as “adulterers” and are subject to excommunication/disfellowshipping and shunning by their friends and family.

In order to create a greater awareness of religious bigotry, I have scheduled fifteen talk show interviews in the next ninety days. I feel that more people need a better understanding about how outdated religious dogma can perpetuate ignorance and rep;ress women. On November 13, I talked with Doug Kellett on WPTF AM 50 (7:05 AM EST) and Frankie Boyer on Lifestyle Talk Radio Network (11:17 AM EST. On November 15, Armstrong Williams interviewed me on Sirius XM Satellite Radio Network (12:50 PM EST). On November 21, I will talk with Larry Whitler and Robin MacBlane on WOCA-AM 1370 at 10:05 AM EST.


  1. Harold Valentine says:


    This is touching and beautifully written, and Ginny should be able to use this for something. If we were to put the circumstances of Marilyn and Malala in a light other than religious, then I think the level of outrage would be exponential. There continues to be a free pass when it comes to motives based in religion, no matter how disgusting. But I think your writing, and that of others, is helping to finally update society’s take on all this. I wish we had more clients like you; thanks for sharing!


  2. Mark Evans says:

    I know how painful this was to you. I really never attributed what happened to Marilyn to her upbringing, but this does add a different perspective to what happened. I’m sure if you extrapolate from this example, there are countless women who are made vulnerable by the prejudices we often witness not only today, but since the dawn of women.

  3. Richard E.Kelly says:

    Mark, I have heard from and about hundreds of women, who have similar stories to Marilyn. While my parents had good intentions, they were still religious bigots. Like true-believing racial bigots, they couldn’t see it, but the damage done was just as onerous. People need to know and change the way they think about out-of-touch religious dogma that they may hold as near and dear and yet it flies in the face of common sense. If they don’t, we will continue to sacrifice the lives of many good young women like your cousin and my sister, Marilyn.

  4. Renee Rojas says:

    Richard, thanks for your message and work. I didn’t grow up a JW, but another “Christian cult”. These are very dangerous and damaging, especially to a child’s world. I know first hand.

  5. Richard E.Kelly says:

    Renee, thank you for your comment. We can change the world, sometimes one step at a time, and perhaps this time in giant steps.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Dick, for the posting. The comparison will be shocking to many and some will consider it “overdone”, but I’m sure you’re ready for that. In the spirit of agreeing strongly with you that hierarchical power structure and weak manipulation of scripture (and not considering the “totality” of New Testament teaching on the equality of women), I might ask you a question:

    1. Given the rather stark limitation women face in the Jehovah’s Witnesses Movement, what is there that attracts a large number of women to quite strong loyalty to the movement? [The same could be said for a number of Islamist movements in various parts of the world--women will strongly defend what they consider the divine teaching on the limitations upon women in society. Hindu women are likewise noted as among the most rabid defenders of the restricted role for women in that cultural tradition. Same for some of the polygamist Mormon groups in the USA.] You might guess that I think there is something more than “brainwashing” going on and its something that others are thinking about as well. That might be an angle to develop that would have significant helpfulness.

    May it go well for you. Your concern is an excellent one!

    • Richard E.Kelly says:

      Anonymous, you asked, “What is there that attracts such a large number of women with a strong loyalty to the movement?
      My response is, It’s a promise of an everlasting life in a righteous new world. They don’t have to ever die. Security in an insecure world. Plain and simple and not very complicated.
      Thanks for your support and interest.

      • don says:

        the attraction is also a haven of predictability and pleasantries at the club; the appearance of a reliable support network. idealists, particularly those recovering from some kind of personal trauma, are often lured by the “spiritual paradise” maintained by excluding all but “lovers of [a particular brand of] righteousness”. it’s a typical in-group/out-group tactic.

        very heartbreaking; i’m so sorry to hear about marilyn.

        • Richard Kelly says:

          Don, thank you for your kind words and astute observations. I will share them verbatim when I am again asked, “So why would a women be attracted to a group that offers her second-class citizenship?”

      • Robin says:

        I used to think it was because when men have headship it can push them to do more, rather than leaving all up that spiritual stuff up to the womenfolk.

  7. Dyllen says:

    That is disgusting! Islam and JWs are no different just like the Mormons — women are treated like shit and are being ignored as if they don’t exist! No wonder I didn’t want to get married when I was in the JW religion, because deep down, I knew I would’ve married a stranger who would treat me like shit because of our abusive religion! I hate these leaders — they should be locked up for good!

  8. Dick, Thanks for speaking out on religions that harm their own members, blindly claiming that they act according to God’s will. Growing up as an Old Order Mennonite, where education was limited to the eighth grade and women were subject to the men, I relate with your story of Marilyn and Malaya. I know you’ll be an excellent representative for all of us as you speak on your talk shows.

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