Religion and Gender: Religion and Women

Religions really don’t seem to do very well when it comes to women and equality. Equality is usually understood to mean both equality of value and equality of opportunity. So we say that a human boy is of the same value as a human girl. Gender does not make one greater or lesser. In modern thinking, the belief that we all share an equal human value should lead to everyone having the same opportunities, especially when it comes to questions of power and authority.

An astonishingly brief history of gender

Of course in “past times” men were in charge, women had few rights, little legal recognition and tended to be seen largely as property to be passed from father to husband to son. Men dominated positions of public authority while women might be given authority over the home. Usually this idea was bound up with their role as mother and came laden with expectations of production of heirs (most importantly boys of course). Of course women were lifted up to positions of great importance in these contexts (defined by their reproductive capacity) and there is no doubt that the role of the ‘mother’ is highly valued in all religious traditions. So women were given a ‘not equal but extra special’ status (in fact this argument is still common today). In the past, women had less access to, or status in political decision-making or legal processes and society at large – this much is difficult to deny.

religion and women

So when religions suggest that women are equal but different and special, and this then is used to justify limiting their ability to be priests, bishops, popes, imams, rabbis, lamas, etc. (there are exceptions in some denominations but this is largely the case) we might ask a few questions of religion. This sounds as if religion has not moved on with the rest of society. Is it acceptable to move from ‘equal but different’ to ‘equal but cannot be in charge’? We can accuse religion of seeming to be adrift from the values of society, but should it? Religions may consider themselves to be counterpoints to commonly accepted values. They may seek to challenge accepted ideas which have come about in this world, with reference to another contact point such as God.

Then there are some dubious specific religious practices which religions have to work very hard to explain away. For instance we might ask Buddhism why a woman should be first reincarnated as a man, before reaching enlightenment? (this is a widely held belief). We might ask why so many Churches do not allow women to hold positions of authority. We might ask why Muslim women seem to have so many special rules for which there are no male equivalents, such as dress codes.

Religions can respond to these sorts of problems in one of three ways:

1) Yes it is true, women are not as valued as men (on the whole this argument is not used!)

2) The practice is misunderstood, needs to be seen in context, and in fact there are other teachings which show how important women are and balance out the fact that these practices seem a bit unequal. This is common among more conservative wings of traditions who want to stay true to the traditional interpretation of the teaching. So, for instance, Christians may argue that the New Testament presents a revolutionary idea of the role of women, has women at the centre of some of the most powerful stories (for instance the Nativity, the woman at the well, the empty tomb). St Paul may have suggested women should not speak up during services, but he also said that we are all united in Christ.

3) These practices are wrong, are inherited from times past, social or cultural practices, which are not part of the received truth of the religion and can be dropped. This tends to be the case in liberal wings of religions. For instance, Tariq Ramadan argues that many of the restrictions placed on women in Muslim societies are cultural but directly contrary to Islamic teaching. For instance, he argues that women should have as much access to education as men, should have as much of a right to go to work as men and that this is clearly Islamic.

Assuming that we can discard ‘1’ when considering ‘2’ and ‘3’ we have to look at the repercussions for religious authority in doctrine and dogma.

Conservative approaches to religion are going to find it more difficult to change because they tend to place a great deal of importance on the teachings and practices of religion as they have been. On the other hand liberal interpretations which adapt religious teaching and practices for modern times appear to rewrite sacred truths. Obedience to authority is important and truth is important – these are values which should not be pushed to one side.

Liberals find it easier to adapt to modern values and reinterpret sacred texts and traditions, or discover truths previously hidden. Some religious groups allow for women leaders (priests or rabbis for instance). However, as one Evangelical Christian friend once said to me – once you start down that path, how do you decide which doctrine you can change and which you can’t? Are they all up for grabs, in which case, is your religion just a reflection of the current age, rather than a reflection of some ultimate truth?

The website Religious Tolerance has some useful articles on this topic. The site strives to be representative of different perspectives within different religious traditions.

For perspectives on the role of women in society see: www.religioustolerance.org/fem_bibl.htm

For the question of the role of women in positions of leadership in religion see:
www.religioustolerance.org/femclrgy.htm

It also has a news feed on women’s issues:
www.religioustolerance.org/fem_newf.htm

Download the entire essay here

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