This supplement is a digest of recent events and significant contributions to fostering gender equality - and human development - in various secular cultures and institutions. It is acknowledged that the distinction between the secular and religious dimensions is an artificial one, often blurred in real life situations. In those cases, if the material is predominantly secular it is included here; else it is included in Supplement 5. The selected items are the editor's choice. Suggestions by readers are welcomed. Reporting on good role models is a high priority. The following sections are included this month:
The promotion of gender equality in religion is a slow and painful process, and it is barely beginning to unfold worldwide. But it is a dynamic process, one in which progress begets progress. It is important to stay tuned to relevant news coming from all world regions and all world religions. The Google News box displayed to the right may be helpful. Readers can enhance their web sites with their own version of this box, which is continuously refreshed as significant events are reported, by going to Google News, clicking on "Add a section," and follow simple instructions under "Create a custom section." This is a free service, but you must register in order to use the customization tool.
If you know about recent developments that should be mentioned in this page, please write to the Editor.
Excerpt from Chapter 9, "Buddhism and Violence against Women" by Ouyporn Khuankaew, pp. 176-177:
"The following are forms of suffering identified by the participants to be caused by Buddhism itself:
"Young girls do not have an opportunity for education in the temple.
"Women are told, often by a monk, that the reason they were born as women is because they did not accumulate enough merit in their previous lives; thus, they could not be born in male form.
"Women are often told by monks to be patient with abusive husbands.
"Women who experience suffering, especially sexual violence, are not able to seek spiritual help from monks because they are not sure of their safety and are not sure the monks have the experience to help them.
"Women are not allowed to enter certain buildings or areas inside temples.
"Women are told that they are an obstacle to the monks' celibate life.
"In some temples paintings about Buddhism depict women as inferior.
"Some temples note in their chanting books that certain sutras are exclusively for monks and male novices to chant.
"The institution of Buddhism defines women who have abortions as religiously immoral.
"Generally women are not selected to be part of the temple committee. The roles they are assigned are merely bringing offerings to the monks, and cooking and cleaning when there is a temple festival.
"Monks and religious institutions are silent about gender-based violence.
"In Thailand it is common to hear news about a monk who exploits women sexually or financially by mislreading them into believing that he has a spiritual power to make them attractive to men or to bring back a huband who left his wife for another woman."
Editor's Note: A similar list follows with special forms of suffering for Buddhist nuns. With some variations, all the major patriarchal religions exhibit analogous symptoms of misogyny.
For further study and reflection on religion-induced gender violence:
Definition of Gender Balance
Gender balance is 50/50 male/female presence in a group. So it is a matter of numbers, but it is more than just a matter of numbers. Gender balance is required in both responsibility and authority, in the family and in all human institutions. It must become internalized to the point in which patriarchal individualism and male hegemony are neutralized by a new sense of communion between men and women, and between humanity and nature. It must be a fully inclusive sense of communion that overcomes any exclusivism on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, or any other reason. It must be a communion that seeks the integral development of each and every human person, from conception to natural death. And it must be a communion in which all humans endeavor to take care of each other while also taking care of natural resources. Nothing in this world is perfect, and this new order of things will not be perfect but, far from being utopian, it is in fact inevitable if humanity is to survive in the long term.
Gender Imbalance in Religion
Patriarchy preceded all the major religions that exist today, and biased them all from the beginning in favor of heterosexual male hegemony and domination (Cf. Genesis 3:16). This section is a synopsis about the universality of the deeply ingrained prejudice - undoubtedly based on male-only images of God - that must be overcome if organized religion is not to become an obstacle to integral human development.
This web site offers an excellent synopsis (with passage quotations, annotated citations, and links to other web sites) about the status of women in the Bible and in early Christianity. It is structured as follows:
During Old Testament times, when the roles of women were severely restricted
Hebrew scripture passages treating women as generally inferior to men
Hebrew scripture passages treating women as property of men
Hebrew scripture passages describing women in other negative terms
Hebrew scripture passages describing women as equal to men (very few)
Hebrew scripture passages describing women as leaders (but not as religious leaders)
During Jesus' public ministry to the people of Israel, when the roles of women were severely restricted in accordance with the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) traditions and practices
Changing roles of women after the execution and resurrection of Jesus (circa 30 CE)
Regressive statements by Christian religious authorities (all male) after the 2nd century CE
By following these lists of biblical and post-biblical statements, the reader is able to verify the descriptive versus prescriptive passages about women, and the significant discontinuities that must be researched, as pointed out in Section 1.
Since their inception most religious traditions have absorbed the patriarchal mindset of male hegemony, and awareness that this is a prejudice to be overcome - rather than a sacred tradition to be conserved and transmitted - is a new phenomenon. Perhaps the impending economic and ecological crises, and the unavoidable need for all humans to collaborate in transitioning to a world of solidarity and sustainability, will induce a religious renewal and help to overcome pseudo-dogmatic resistance to change.
The role of women in Judaism is determined by the Hebrew Bible, the Oral Law (the corpus of rabbinic literature), by custom, and by non-religious cultural factors. Although the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature mention various female role models, religious law treats women differently in various circumstances.
Relatively few women are mentioned in the Bible by name and role, suggesting that they were rarely in the forefront of public life. There are a number of exceptions to this rule, including the MatriarchsSarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, Miriam the prophetess, Deborah the Judge, Huldah the prophetess, Abigail who married David, and Esther. In the Biblical account these women did not meet with opposition for the relatively public presence they had.
According to Jewish tradition, a covenant was formed between the Israelites and the God of Abraham at Mount Sinai. The Torah relates that both Israelite men and Israelite women were present at Sinai, however, the covenant was worded in such a way that it bound men to act upon its requirements and to ensure that the members of their household (wives, children, and slaves) met these requirements as well. In this sense, the covenant bound women as well, though indirectly.
To continue reading the Wikipedia article, click here.
The Wikipedia article includes a very comprehensive bibliography and a directory of links to Jewish religious sources. With regard to current trends on the role of women in Judaism, the following articles may be of interest:
Gender roles in Christianity vary considerably today as they have during the last two millennia. This is especially true with regards to marriage and ministry.
Christianity traditionally has given men the position of authority in marriage, society and government. This position places women in submissive roles, and usually excludes women from church leadership, especially from formal positions requiring any form of ordination. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and many conservative Protestant denominations assert today that only men can be ordained—as clergy and as deacons.
Many progressive Christians disagree with the traditional "male authority" and "female submission" paradigm. They take a Christian egalitarian or Christian feminist view, holding that the overarching message of Christianity provides positional equality for women in marriage and in ministry. Accordingly, some Anglican and Protestant churches now ordain women to positions of ecclesiastical leadership and religious authority (ministers, pastors, priests, bishops).
Despite these emerging theological differences, the majority of Christians regard women with dignity and respect as having been created alongside men in the Image of God. The Bible is seen by many as elevating and honoring women, especially as compared with certain other religions or societies. Women have filled prominent roles in the Church historically, and continue to do so today in spite of significant limitations imposed by ordination restrictions.
To continue reading the Wikipedia article, click here.
Christians for Biblical Equality
Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) is a nonprofit organization of Christian men and women who believe that the Bible, properly interpreted, teaches the fundamental equality of men and women of all ethnic groups, all economic classes, and all age groups, based on the teachings of Scriptures such as Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NIV 2011). CBE affirms and promotes the biblical truth that all believers—without regard to gender, ethnicity or class—must exercise their God-given gifts with equal authority and equal responsibility in church, home and world. CBE's statement, "Men, Women, and Biblical Equality,” lays out the biblical rationale for equality, as well as its practical applications in the family and community of believers. The statement is available in 33 languages. To select a language and read the document, click HERE.
"The Junia Project is a community of women and men advocating for the inclusion of women at all levels of leadership in the Christian church and for mutuality in marriage. We believe that when interpreted correctly, the Bible teaches that both men and women are called to serve at all levels of the Church, and that leadership should be based primarily on gifting and not on gender."
The study of women in Islam investigates the role of women within the religion of Islam. The complex relationship between women and Islam is defined by both Islamic texts and the history and culture of the Muslim world. The Qur'an makes it clear that men and women are equal, however the Qu'ran states in 4:34, "Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient and guard in the husband's absence what Allah orders them to guard." Although the Quran does say this, the superiority of men is interpreted in terms of strength by the context - men maintain women. This verse however refers to a relationship between a husband and wife, not in society as a whole.
Sharia (Islamic law) provides for complementarianism, differences between women's and men's roles, rights, and obligations. However neither the Quran nor Hadith mention women have to cook or clean. The majority of Muslim countries give women varying degrees of rights with regards to marriage, divorce, civil rights, legal status, dress code, and education based on different interpretations. Scholars and other commentators vary as to whether they are just and whether they are a correct interpretation of religious imperatives.
To continue reading the Wikipedia article, click here.
"Women in Buddhism is a topic that can be approached from varied perspectives including those of theology, history, anthropology and feminism. Topical interests include the theological status of women, the treatment of women in Buddhist societies at home and in public, the history of women in Buddhism, and a comparison of the experiences of women across different forms of Buddhism. As in other religions, the experiences of Buddhist women have varied considerably.
"The founder of the religion, Gautama Buddha, permitted women to join his monastic community and fully participate in it, although there were certain provisos or garudhammas. As Susan Murcott has commented: "The nun's sangha was a radical experiment for its time" [Murcott, Susan (1991). The First Buddhist Women:Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha. Parallax Press. page 4.] Dr. Mettanando Bhikkhu says of the First Buddhist council: "Perhaps Mahakassappa and the bhikkhus of that time were jealous of the bhikkhunis being more popular and doing more teaching and social work than the bhikkhus. Their anti-women prejudice became institutionalized at that time with the eight garudhammas, the eight weighty restrictions. We must discontinue that prejudice. There is no anti-women prejudice in Jainism and they survived in India; whereas Buddhism had prejudice and did not survive in India" [see The First Council and Suppression of the Bhikkhuni Order]. Although it must be said that this is factually incorrect, because there are jain sects like the Digambara sect, which believes that women are capable of spiritual progress, but must be reborn male, in order to attain final spiritual liberation. It is also highly doubtful that the garudhammas were motivated by Mahakaasapa's being jealous, as he is said to be an enlightened one and one of the principle disciples of the Buddha. Furthermore there's no support within canon, to suggest that the bhikkunis were more popular, taught more or that they did more social work than Bhikkhus.
"The various schools and traditions within Buddhism hold different views as to the possibilities of women's spiritual attainments. Feminist scholars have also noted than even when a woman's potential for spiritual attainment is acknowledged, records of such achievements may not be kept - or may be obscured by gender-neutral language or mis-translation of original sources by Western scholars. According to Bernard Faure, "Like most clerical discourses, Buddhism is indeed relentlessly misogynist, but as far as misogynist discourses go, it is one of the most flexible and open to multiplicity and contradiction."
To continue reading the Wikipedia article, click here.
The role of women in Hinduism is often disputed, and positions range from equal status with men to restrictive. Hinduism is based on numerous texts, some of which date back to 2000 BCE or earlier. They are varied in authority, authenticity, content and theme, with the most authoritative being the Vedas. The position of women in Hinduism is widely dependent on the specific text and the context. Positive references are made to the ideal woman in texts such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, while some texts such as the Manu Smriti advocate a restriction of women's rights. In modern times the Hindu wife has traditionally been regarded as someone who must at all costs remain chaste or pure. This is in contrast with the very different traditions that have prevailed at earlier times in 'Hindu' kingdoms, which included highly respected professional courtesans (such as Amrapali of Vesali), sacred devadasis, mathematicians and female magicians (the basavis, the Tantrickulikas). Some European scholars observed in the nineteenth century Hindu women were "naturally chaste" and "more virtuous" than other women, although what exactly they meant by that is open to dispute. In any case, as male foreigners they would have been denied access to the secret and sacred spaces that women often inhabited. Mahabharata and Manusmriti asserts that gods are delighted only when women are worshiped or honoured, otherwise all spiritual actions become futile.
There is a wide variety of viewpoints within the different schools and sects of Hinduism concerning the exact nature and gender (where applicable) of the Supreme person or being; there are even sects that are skeptical about the existence of such a being. Shaktism, for example, focuses worship on the goddess Devi as the supreme embodiment of power, or Shakti (feminine strength; a female form of God). Vaishnavism and Shaivism both worship Lakshmi with Vishnu and Parvati with Shiva respectively as beings on an equal level of magnitude (the male and female aspects of God). In some instances such as with Gaudiya Vaishnavism, specific emphasis is placed on the worship of God's female aspect (Radharani) even above that of her paramour Krishna. Thus it could be said that Hinduism considers God to have both male and female aspects, as the original source of both.
To continue reading the Wikipedia article, click here.
8. The Resilience of Patriarchy in Religious Institutions
Gender Imbalance in Religion and Religious Governance
Persisting gender imbalance in religious thinking and leadership is a serious obstacle to the advent of post-patriarchal families. From the perspective of cultural evolution, religious patriarchy may now be the biggest obstacle; for gender equality and gender balance are by now well established as irreversible social trends due to practical economic incentives, but the collective unconscious is still deeply biased by religious practices and rites that perpetuate the mindset of male hegemony. In terms of human fertility, for example, it would be well for some institutions to stop fulminating condemnations about abortion and birth control methods, and start selling the value of virtues such as self-discipline and abstinence. But there is a fear, not entirely unreasonable, that we may throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to reforming religious traditions that have served humanity well since time immemorial. About 80% of the world population is "religious" in the broad sense of believing in God and adhering, at least to some extent, to one of the major world religions. However, it is time to recognize that all these religions were founded after the agricultural revolution (10,000 years or so ago) long after patriarchy had become normative; and they all were, from their inception, contaminated by the phallocentric syndrome as evidenced by the most ancient sacred texts. Given the limitations of human language, and official protestations about God transcending gender notwithstanding, "when God is male, the male is god." It is time to overcome the vexing resilience of patriarchal structures in religious institutions.
Being made male or female should be a gift of God, not a weapon of oppression says a new paper by Christian Aid, "Of the Same Flesh: exploring a theology of gender."
The paper examines how global poverty affects women more than men and explores how Christian theology can provide a positive vision of gender which can make it a blessing not a curse.
Author, the Revd Dr Susan Durber, Christian Aid’s theology advisor, said many Christian Aid partner organisations in developing countries are transforming the way in which gender is lived in their communities through engaging in theology and working with church leaders.
“Christians believe that our being made ‘male and female’ is a gift of God, and should be experienced as joy for humankind”, she said. “It is a scandal then that our gender is so often experienced not as joy, but as a place of oppression.
“When it becomes a source of persecution and fear, this is a distortion of God’s intention for creation. From machismo cultures that skew masculinity, to the striking evidence of the poverty and exclusion of women, there is a sense that the world is not as it should be in relation to gender. This is the common tragedy of humankind, but it is also the particular pain of the most poor and vulnerable.”
“Turning to the Scriptures to shape a theology is not a straightforward process and interpretation should never be simplistic and naive. We need to read with care and learn how to become interpreters who can find the blessing within, behind or even sometimes apparently against the grain of the text.”
“Theologians and church leaders have key voices in shaping the way that gender is understood, experienced and lived out in communities across the world”, Dr Durber said. “The Bible says that God made humankind in God’s image, male and female. This is not a generalised banality about an abstract ‘sameness’, but a radical celebration of a difference that should be strongly rooted in equality and justice.”
Open Letter of Sister Theresa Kane to Pope Francis
Pope Francis, although your formal titles are Holy Father and Supreme Pontiff, I take this sacred opportunity to greet you as a brother, a friend, a collaborator in our service to and with God and with others.
I have no doubt your many years in Argentina engaged with the many economically poor people has been a powerful source of strength and grace. Those experiences prepared you to be noted for our deep pastoral spirit, your desire for collegiality and your vision that all of us in the Catholic community are called to be holy -- to be saints!
I am a Catholic woman, a woman religious, a Sister of Mercy, born and raised in the United States, New York City. Through both education and life experiences, I have come to a conviction that anything less than all women in the Catholic community having the possibility of being in all ministries of our church is not only a deficit, not only wrong; it is a scandal to our church and to our world.
For a long time I have believed the Catholic community might serve as a role model and an instrument of reform for governments and religions throughout our world that allow and even legislate that women are less than fully human; that women are objects to be exploited; that it is acceptable and even at times believed natural to violate, to beat and abuse women physically, psychologically and sexually.
For the Catholic church to be agents of God’s message to our 21st century, we need to have a vision that the degradation of women worldwide, in all countries of our planet, is the primary, root issue of social and religious violence and not of God.
We as a Catholic community are called to proclaim fully and lovingly to our entire planet community that such scandalous beliefs and actions of gender inequality are forms and expressions of idolatry. When idolatry is present God is not in our midst. We need to bring a loving, caring, creative God into the center of our everyday lives by eradicating all forms of gender inequality. Only then will God as Companion, as Mother, Father, as our Divine Source of grace be present in our world.
I urge you, Pope Francis, to listen to the women of our church and world who cry out in anguish as women throughout the ages have done. Only radical (at its roots) gender equality in church and in society will begin to diminish the violence, hatred and other forms of inhumanity in our world today.
The Bible says that women should keep silent in church and that they should pray and prophesy. It calls wives the weaker partner and says that men and women are equal.
When it comes to understanding what Scripture says about men and women, those on both sides of the debate can and do marshal strong evidence from the Bible. Why are they able to do this? John Stackhouse boldly contends it is because Scripture in fact says both things.
Does the Bible contradict itself then? Not so. Rather, in this revised and expanded edition of Finally Feminist, Stackhouse describes the single approach in Scripture that guides us with clear direction on these important matters of relationships in the church and the family.
Are you looking for an approach that takes the whole Bible into account and not just bits and pieces of it? While treating Scripture with utmost seriousness, Stackhouse moves us all beyond the impasse in this important debate.
Religion and women’s gender identity is one of the most discussed issues of the last decade. Many debates about women and religion continue today, particularly given the rise in religiously motivated conflicts around the globe. An emotive, sensitive and often controversial subject, religion has become the main focus of many a conflict throughout human history, we will seek to examine its ongoing influence on female gender identity.
One of the reasons women as a social group experience subordination through religion is the influence of lasting patriarchal conventions. Religion and patriarchy are almost bedfellows of some sort, a kind of symbiotic pair, influencing women’s choices and gender identity. Though very different, both religion and patriarchy reproduce each other; religion holds enormous social, political and institutional power in many countries and communities; power that can be leveraged especially by those in positions of authority to control bodies and sexuality and enforce discriminatory, narrow and dogmatic norms. It is often established patriarchal norms that facilitate the reinforcement of such control. Keeping in mind that in all religions and cultures, there is always a range of different interpretations, ideas, practices and beliefs, and also the possibility of transformation, evolution and change, I hope to explore the possibilities this idea opens up.
Religion can be defined as a set of values and rules that people who so desire, adhere to. Patriarchy, on the other hand, is a system of social structures in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women and in which women are socialised and can learn to advocate patriarchal structures and themselves dominate other women and men using these tools. Many definitions of patriarchy exist, and they all involve the unequal treatment of women by men based on an inward, ingrained belief that men are superior and women inferior. One way in which patriarchy is thus enacted is through religious systems.
"Religion and patriarchy are almost bedfellows of some sort, a kind of symbiotic pair."
Whether in Europe, Africa or elsewhere, many of the conflicts that are part of our history could have been well avoided, prevented even, if people could detach themselves from often deep-seated religious convictions, which in many cases transcend national values and boundaries. We are at a crucial time in human history, at which many people’s identities are completely defined by religion. Many conflicts today are characterised by clashes between religious identity and national identity. Although that is not the basis of this article, which is solely concerned with how religion and patriarchy define women’s identity and participation in development, it is important to give a brief analogy of the power of religion in global affairs as a point of departure.
To further explore the issue of how religion defines women’s identity today, it is important to again consider women’s place in society and how women’s spaces are religiously confined, constrained and contentiously controlled. The way in which the contention between religious identity and national identity play out is a rocky trajectory over the course of which women are often heavily subjugated. It can be religion that dictates what women do with their bodies, for instance. This is because women’s bodies, often considered to be the bearers or markers of religious, communal, national or cultural identities, are targeted by all kinds of fundamentalisms, and are thus considered to be rightfully subject to various forms of control.
One of the ways in which this religious control over women’s bodies is made apparent is how women view their reproductive rights, their right to movement and their right to association. Indeed, for many women, choices they make about their lives are controlled by their religious identity. The case of Muslim women, for instance, quickly comes to mind, for whom choices of marriage, fashion and career are tightly controlled by religion. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women can only drive a car if accompanied by a male relative, and women are more concentrated in careers such as teaching and nursing, to reinforce religious patriarchy. For many women of various religious faiths, the way in which they experience this control can be seen in cases of early marriage, male child preference, acceptance of some forms of domestic violence, observance of harmful traditional practices, inability to seek divorce in cases of bad marriages and also the issue of reproductive rights, which I will proceed to explore in more detail.
"For women in certain parts of the world, even the way they dress is defined by religious values."
Anywhere in the world where religious values are strictly adhered to, one generally notices the influence of patriarchy. They are so often inseparable. Religion and patriarchy are some of the most contested issues in much feminist work, as they are arguably central to the whole ideology of biological essentialism. Biological essentialism, or biological determinism, is the belief that we are ‘how we are’ because of our genetic makeup, including race and sex. This particular essentialism, which assumes that that behaviours and preferences are biologically predetermined, rather than the result of choices we make or of the environments we are exposed to, has been used to justify inequality, discrimination and the oppression of women at all levels and the belief systems of many religions can perpetuate this understanding.
Feminists continue to challenge male supremacist theories which suppose that men are better than women in all ways and that women’s brains were modelled differently from men’s. This kind of thinking is common in many religions of the world, and is perhaps the very foundation of female subordination. It reinforces the belief that women are fit to fulfil only certain roles in society, primarily childbearing and rearing. In other words, women’s place was in the private sphere and men’s in the public, an assumption that is still being challenged today, and for which women who have broken through barriers to be in the public sphere have been called many demeaning names.
Throughout history, religion has in effect promoted the idea of women’s subordination. However was this always so? This question can be very difficult to answer unless we take a fleeting look at how societies were organised before the modern era.
For this, I look to the Yakkurr society of modern day Cross River, in Nigeria, which before the coming of the Christian religion practiced a form of traditional African religion in which homage was paid to a female deity. In fact, according to oral history, the Yakkurr people of today owe their very existence as a people to her. Mma Esekpa was a warrior and spiritual figurehead for the people; she fought and conquered wars on their behalf and led them to their present and permanent place of residence in Cross River. One of the ways through which obedience to this deity is displayed can be seen during the annual celebration.
The Yakkurr New Yam Festival, in the month of August, is a ritualistic festival in which all the necessary rituals are performed by male chiefs and traditional spiritual heads. Women can observe these rituals from a distance, but cannot take part in them, even though allegiance is being pledged to a female deity. To this day, Yakkurr traditionalists continue to seek this deity, for protection, good harvest and prosperity. Though this tradition exists, women continue to be considered subordinate. This is perhaps even more true now, since the now widely popular Christian religion has deepened the people’s existing patriarchal structures, and men continue to dominate in both spheres.
Feminists strongly maintain that organised religion controls women and moreover, influences women’s attitude towards empowerment. Religion has the power to encourage women to be passive, to stay in the background, and to not challenge socially agreed norms of femininity, for instance.
This is because religion, as already established in this article, is generally hierarchical: male-dominated, male-led and typically patriarchal. The major religions of the world, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and traditional African religions, are all male-led. The whole hierarchy is male-orientated but with large female followership.
The highest-paid religious leaders are male. There has never been a female pope, and though it sounds extreme, we can say with some certainty that there never will be one. The Dalai Lama is male, the Islamic Imams are male; women do not and should not be seen to aspire to these levels of leadership. Even though it must be said that there is a growing number of Christian female religious leaders in some Christian denominations, the proportion of female religious leaders to male religious leaders in the world over is low. There are currently more male bishops than there would ever be female bishops in the foreseeable future even within the new, less traditional Christian movement.
This clearly has implications for women’s gender identity, which has throughout history been largely defined by the influences of religion. This is so because religion has and continues to recreate demarcations in society: rich and poor, good and bad, black and white, etc., and when women find themselves on the lower, less pleasing, less privileged side of the social divide, they turn to religious values to help them make an understanding of this dysfunction.
For women in certain parts of the world, even the way they dress is defined by religious values. Take the case of Muslim women in some parts of the world (women in purdah), who must conform to an Islamic religious dress code. The whole philosophy of respectability has so much to do with religion; the subordinate ways in which women should address their partners, for example, is clearly embedded in religious teachings. Even the way women access and use birth control, for instance, is clearly defined by religion. Many religious sects hold that it is wrong for women to use birth control, as women were created to fulfil reproductive roles – an argument that does not sit very well with socialist feminists.
In a study in Lagos in 2005 involving women of childbearing age, it was discovered that deep-seated religious influences played a major role in women’s decision whether or not to use contraception. Those who sought advice felt they had betrayed their religious beliefs in some way. Yet for some others, it was “wrong to use unnatural ways to stall conception” as “life is a gift”. These sentiments were common among both literate and illiterate women. In their opinions, it was particularly awful and even degrading to suggest that the use of contraception should be given as much thought and consideration as other values in their lives. They questioned why what could be given “freely” should not be taken “freely”. They interpreted the use of contraception as rejecting something valuable.
Attitudes such as the above are not uncommon in Nigeria and they clearly show how much women’s gender identity has been shaped by religious values. More importantly, they expose how often well-thought-out development interventions can be misunderstood and taken for granted.
Similar instances exist in most other parts of the world. For instance, in South American states (such as Peru), reports show that women are systematically denied contraception as part of strong beliefs firmly rooted in Catholic teachings. State legislation prohibits abortions and women who patronise back street abortion clinics can be prosecuted and face lengthy prison sentences if caught. Many women have died in these unsafe procedures, as the state ill-advisedly refuses to provide safe alternatives. Lack of access to contraception and abortion in places likes Peru is responsible in part for high mortality rates among the female population. Even in instances where complications in pregnancy may place a woman’s life in danger, the state still denies access to terminations or contraception.
Of course, in the case of reproductive rights and birth control, coercive means cannot be used to achieve any sustainable outcomes, as this may in itself further impede women’s rights struggles. In places where these attitudes have been seen to pose a problem for women accessing birth control where it is readily available, a more pragmatic approach involving long term campaigns with local religious leaders can have a more lasting impact on how women view and use birth control.
In conclusion, given the power and privilege that religion holds across societies, ‘speaking on behalf of God’ can carry great influence and weight, which it can be very difficult to challenge. However, as individuals, we need to stand up for our right to celebrate, reject, redefine, reclaim and embrace religions and beliefs, but more importantly, to reject attitudes and impositions which misconstrue and challenge our very existence as women and continuously erode our gender identity. We must not stop campaigning for what is right; we must continue to push boundaries and define and promote our gender identity.