The Sparrows have been a pretty big part of the A Song of Ice and Fire book series, and if there’s one thing I can credit Game of Thrones’s fifth season with, it’s that the show did a semi-decent job of keeping its take on the Sparrows mostly true to their book counterparts. In the books, the Sparrows are a perfect example of people using their religious freedom to abuse and oppress others. This is something that we deal with ourselves in the real world, especially when it comes to equality. Women’s rights are something that many Christian churches have been against for nearly the entire history of Christianity, and this oppression is still alive and well today. The Sparrows and their faith are based on the Catholic Church in the middle ages, and how the Sparrows dehumanize people is pretty indicative of some of our current churches’ backward beliefs.
Trigger warning for rape culture and misogyny after the jump. Also, spoilers for the latest season of Game of Thrones.
The Sparrows, so named to reflect their social status in the world of Westeros—sparrows are a common bird, and they are common people—rise up in protest of the War of Five Kings and start gaining power. Eventually, Cersei overturns Meagor’s law, which banned holy men from taking up arms. This allows the Sparrows even more power than they previously had, and they waste no time taking advantage of that power.
Immediately, we start hearing reports of the Sparrows enforcing their beliefs on those around them. To start, the current High Sparrow only gains his position as High Septon because the Sparrows forcefully put him there. The High Sparrow begins his reign by selling all the riches that the Faith of the Seven own. He uses this to buy food for the poor, and while that is a noble cause and shows his desire to take care of people who need it, the High Sparrow does some other unsavory things. First, he targets sex workers and shuts down their brothels. While it should be noted that in Westerosi society, many sex workers were probably forced into that life, most of the ones we meet in King’s Landing chose it for themselves—some even chose it for their own religious reasons—and even if that weren’t the case, what we learn about the High Sparrow and his view on women indicates that he does not care about whether or not the sex workers were willing participants. He only cares about people being sexually pure by his own faith’s standards.
When Cersei protests this action and says that men will turn to rape if there are no brothels (which is pretty sexist of her as well), the High Sparrow doesn’t seem to care so long as sex workers can’t do business in King’s Landing. He also has Margaery and her cousins arrested for being sexually promiscuous, and he has a member of the Kingsguard tortured until he confesses to having sex with Cersei, which leads to Cersei’s arrest. During Cersei’s stay in prison she is also tortured until she confesses her crimes, and is then coerced into doing a penance walk—she’s forced to walk back to the Red Keep naked through the streets of King’s Landing while the Septas shout “shame” at her.
What we can tell about the High Sparrow is that he and his Septas hold some incredibly misogynistic beliefs about women, regardless of whether or not their faith actually justifies those beliefs. Like Christianity, the Faith of the Seven upholds repentance, forgiveness, and mercy. People are to be held accountable for their own actions, and yet the people enforcing this faith victim-blame women and manipulate them and other people into believing that women are responsible for the actions of men. This also encourages the idea that women are inherently sexual, just because other people see them as sexual, and that they should be shamed for it.
During Cersei’s incarceration, she’s tortured into confessing sins she shouldn’t have to confess and is told that it is her sins that pain her and not, you know, the torture:
“I am come to hear you tell of all your murders and fornications,” Septa Unella would growl when she shook the queen awake. Septa Moelle would tell her that it was her sins that kept her sleepless. “Only the innocent know the peace of untroubled sleep. Confess your sins, and you will sleep like a newborn babe.”—A Dance with Dragons, Cersei pg. 719
When Cersei finally confesses to having sex with numerous people, she is taken before the High Sparrow, where we get this:
“These are common sins,” [the High Sparrow] said. “The wickedness of widows is well-known, and all women are wantons at heart, given to using their wiles and their beauty to work their wills on men.”—A Dance with Dragons, Cersei pg. 723
And this is really the heart of the matter. The belief that women are wanton temptresses encourages and even forgives their objectification by society. It is also tells us that women should be controlled by men, that men’s actions toward women are the women’s fault, and that women should feel shame over something they have no control over (men’s perceptions and simply being female).
What the High Sparrow says is something that Christian Church leaders have been saying for centuries.
“Yet consider now, women are not quite past sense and reason, when they want to rule over men.”—John Calvin
“What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.”—Saint Augustine: De genesi ad litteram, 9, 5–9
The negative quotes about women by Christian church leaders are rather overwhelming, and like the High Sparrow, these same leaders have misunderstood their own faith. They have used their beliefs and misogynistic attitudes to foster an environment that is dangerous to women, that invokes victim-blaming and rape culture, and that takes away accountability from perpetrators. Calling women temptresses and claiming they want to rule over men is in direct contrast to what Jesus tells us about adultery and accountability.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”—Mathew 5: 27–30
In this passage, Jesus does not victim-blame nor does he make excuses for people who objectify women. Instead, he puts the blame solely on the sinner and tells them that it is their responsibility to govern their own actions and not their victim’s. What is nice about the Sparrow’s treatment of Cersei and other women is that the books do not justify anything they do. Instead, and especially through Cersei’s character, we are shown exactly how people use religion as an excuse to abuse and control women.
For some reason, however, the show changed this and made the walk a gender-neutral punishment by having the former High Septon suffer the same fate. In the books, Cersei’s walk of shame is something that only happens to women. We don’t see the other walks, but we do hear about prostitutes or mistresses being forced to walk naked through the streets for their sexual behavior. This is not something that would have ever happened to a male character. The Kingsguardman Cersei has an affair with does not suffer the same fate as her, despite both of them having committed adultery and murder. Instead, he is brutally beaten and left in jail. But for Cersei, the High Sparrow went out of his way to make her suffer for being a woman. He attempts to strip her of her dignity and personhood by putting her body on display for all of King’s Landing to see. And even after that, she still has to go to trial for her crimes.
These passages explore how religious leaders like the High Sparrow, and even our own religious leaders, pervert religion into something harmful, whether they do that because they think women are lesser or because they want to escape their own accountability. This is not how religion is supposed to be. The Faith of the Seven, much like Christianity, is supposed to help people and foster an environment of love and forgiveness, not tear them down and treat perceived sinners as less than human.