Women and religion
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The study of women and religion typically examines the role of women within particular religious faiths, and religious doctrines relating to gender, gender roles, and particular women in religious history. Most religions elevate the status of men over women, have stricter sanctions against women, and require them to be submissive. While there has been progress towards equality, religions overall still lag the rest of society in addressing gender issues. There are fundamentalists within every religion who actively resist change. There is often a dualism within religion which exalts women on the one hand, while demanding more rigorous displays of devotion on the other. This leads some feminists to see religion as the last barrier for female emancipation.
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.
Buddhism can be considered to be revolutionary within the social and political realms of ancient India in regards to the role of women. During this time period, members of the highest Hindu caste, called Brahmins, did not allow women to have any involvement with religious rites or sacred texts of the Vedas. Women were further oppressed by the sacred texts of Hindu code, called the Laws of Manu, which stated that “By a girl, by a young woman, or even an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house. In childhood a female must be subject to her own father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent” (V, 147-46, 155). Buddhism can be attributed as revolutionary due to the fact that Gautama Buddha admitted women into the monastic order, during a time when monastic communities were dominated by males in India.
Additionally, one of the main schools of tradition that originated from the early development of Buddhism, called Theravāda Buddhism, expresses the assumption that “all men and women, regardless of their caste, origins, or status, have equal spiritual worth.” Because Buddhism can be described as a religious and philosophical ideology that does not have an explicit “Creator” there is no implied “sacredness” in relation to one’s human form, which means that the practice itself is not bound to the ideas of gender, reproduction, and sexuality.
However, it is argued that Buddhist traditions still have underlying issues pertaining to gender roles. While Buddhist ideologies may be considered a revolutionary step forward in the status of women, many still consider the tradition to be subject to the social and political context of undermining gender issues during its upbringing, and even up to this day. The progression of gender issues, especially between gender and authority, can be seen during the time period of Hinayana Buddhism, when the Buddhist order underwent major reforms of splitting into about 20 different schools. During this time Buddhist narratives and beliefs arose limiting the status of women’s roles within the Buddhist communities, asserting that women could not reach enlightenment, or Buddhahood. This also meant that women would not attain positions of leadership because of the fact that they could not reach enlightenment, unless they “gain good karma and are reborn as men beforehand.”
Alternatively, Khandro Rinpoche, a female lama in Tibetan Buddhism, shows a more optimistic view in regards to women in Buddhism:
When there is a talk about women and Buddhism, I have noticed that people often regard the topic as something new and different. They believe that women in Buddhism has become an important topic because we live in modern times and so many women are practicing the Dharma now. However, this is not the case. The female sangha has been here for centuries. We are not bringing something new into a 2,500-year-old tradition. The roots are there, and we are simply re-energizing them.
In a YouTube interview on why there are so few female teachers in the Buddhist communities, Rinpoche goes on to say that:
It is because of a lack of education. It was a very patriarchal society back in the East. Wherever Buddhism grew, these societies were very patriarchal. It limits the opportunity women have to study and be independent – and you have study and be independent to manifest any kind of realization or understanding…fortunately, that seems to be changing. I really think that opportunities for education have now really increased for women – there becoming very competitive and learned, and things are going to change.
Rinpoche states that while the underlying nature of the patriarchal system that still exists today creates more obstacles and limitations for women in Buddhism, she believes that there is a changing dynamic and optimistic future for women within the Buddhist community.
Some Christians believe Christianity has set a mold for women to adhere to and is one that limits a woman’s freedom in the church. According to the Christian Bible, wives are expected to be submissive in many ways. They are asked not only to be submissive to their husbands, but to the church, their community, and God. "At the head of every household is a man; at the head of a man is Christ; and the head of every women is a man; and the head of Christ is God." Wives are seen as second in the family household, only to that of their husbands. This suggests that men are first hand in Christianity and adds to issue of equal rights for women in the religion.
As according to scripture in Genesis, “the Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet (fit or suitable) for him. The passage suggests that women are to play a supportive role to men and is supported in further passages from Christian Scripture. For example, in Colossians and Peter, the specific passages call for women to submit to their husbands and to stay silent in their shadow. Lastly, in terms of how women are suppressed by scripture, the specific passage in Titus calls for a woman to not teach or preach in public assembly for that would constitute authority of a man.
Leadership roles in the organized churches and sects of Christianity are often restricted to males. In the Roman Catholic and also in Eastern Orthodox Churches and Oriental Orthodox Churches, only men may serve as priests or deacons; only males serve in senior leadership positions such as pope, patriarch, and bishop. Women may serve as abbesses.
Although Christianity professes equality for all and says women and men were created equal, as shown throughout history women have been subject to the patriarchy that is embedded in the religion. “In the midst of the Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures, which viewed women almost on the level of possessions, Jesus showed love and respect for women.” As expressed in the preceding quote, Jesus Christ professed equality and Christianity does express and celebrate equality. It is the patriarchy of society that has influenced Christianity and put men in positions of power. Though women have played a vital role in the church, as expressed by the Acts and many others, none have ever been allowed a position of leadership. Women such as Mary Magdalene, who played a major role in support Jesus’ and the ministry, show just how important women have been to Christianity.
Apostle Paul is a great example in showing this as he worked, “side by side with them for the furtherance of the gospel,” but never appointed any women in roles of leadership or power. Women in Christianity can be roughly summarized in the following quote: “Although women are spiritual equals with men and the ministry of women is essential to the body of Christ, women are excluded from leadership over men in the church.”
However some Christians disagree with the idea that women should not have leadership positions, popular female preachers like Joyce Meyer, Paula White and Kathryn Kuhlman have had or have leadership roles in Church. It is mentioned in the Old Testament that women such as Deborah and Huldah were Prophets. In the New Testament Philip was said to have four daughters who prophesied.
In Hinduism, women are displayed as equal or even greater than men, for instance Kali Ma (Dark Mother) "is the Hindu goddess of creation, preservation, and goddess of destruction" her power symbolized the origin of all creation's life, as well as the end of life. Due to her control over life and death, Kali was seen as a goddess that should be loved as well as feared. Another important female figure is Shakti, a goddess that is embodied as the energy of the universe, "often manifested to destroy demonic forces and restore balance". Because Shakti is a universal force, she is embodied by all the gods in Hinduism and is worshiped as the "mother goddess".
While Hinduism illustrates women as important figures that play an important role in understanding how the world works, women in Hindu society have been overlooked and their importance has been diminished throughout time due to outside forces that cause "girls being made to feel lesser and not as important as boys". These changes created a shift in power between men and women to the point where, "a Hindu woman was preordained to be ruled by the male and was subjected to all kinds of atrocities for these were the standards of being an ideal Hindu woman". Due to this change in perception, Hinduism is now seen as a Partiarchal religion that teaches sexism and inequality, when in actuality it is the people in Hindu society's perception that is sexist rather than the religion itself. However, this view of women being treated as property is slowing beginning to change, as Hindu societies are pushing for more equality and a change in the perception of women.
Islam is a monotheistic religion that was founded in the early seventh century by the Islamic prophet, Muhammad. The notion of a good life for a Muslim person is defined in Islam’s sacred text, the Quran, as well as the Hadith which are the direct teachings of Muhammad. Although these sources covered alot, there were still some situations that were left to interpretation. Thus, Islamic scholars formed a consensus around a set of secondary sources, the most notable being the ijma, qiyas, ijtihad and fatwas. It is important to recognize that the Quran is not a static source with a fixed meaning but a dynamic, versatile one.
Although the Quran emphasizes the equal treatment of all Islamic people, throughout history, the patriarchy has continued to oppress Muslim women since the religion was founded. Although the introduction of Islamic principles was a step in the right direction, men kept the dominant position and women were required to be obedient to their husbands. This was less due to the teachings of the religion but more so due to the mindsets of the era. Before Islam became so widespread, people of the Middle East lived in households in which women were seen as the property of their husbands and were only meant to perform household tasks, ultimately dehumanizing them.
The emergence of Islam also gave rise to the humanization of women and the recognition of women’s rights by placing men and women as equals in their ability to carry out the wishes of Allah and the teachings of Muhammad. Although the introduction of Islamic principles was a step in the right direction, men kept the dominant position and women were required to be obedient to their husbands. This was mostly due to the cultural norms and was seen a way of life by the local community. The three main things which sharia law introduced were a women’s rights to marriage, inheritance, and divorce. It also limited the oppressive privileges of men by placing restrictions on polygamy by limiting marriage to a maximum of four women only if they are taken care of equally and properly.
Muslims must observe the five pillars of Islam: praying five times a day, fasting during the month of Ramadan, making a pilgrimage to Mecca, donating to charity, accepting Allah as the only God and Muhammad as the messenger of God. Women have restrictions on public prayer and are either banned from mosques or have separate private spaces. On top of that they cannot pray during menstruation and if they are pregnant or in labor during the month of Ramadan, they must make up these fasting days. These restrictions and the negative impact of veiling which was otherwise seen as a respectable act yielded in the seclusion of woman from mosques and other Islamic educational centers. This drove a wedge in their advancement and forced them into a dependency of the opposite gender.
Due to their isolation, it became the responsibility of the ummah, or Muslim community, to pass down the customs and traditions that mold a Muslim women's life. This guidance, sharia, and Islamic scripture outlined the structure for her education, employment opportunities, rights to inheritance, dress, public appearance, domestic 'duties', age of marriage, freedom to consent to marriage, marriage contract, mahr, permissibility of birth control, divorce, sex outside or before marriage, her ability to receive justice in case of sex crimes, property rights independent of her husband, and when salat (prayers) are mandatory for her.
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. Throughout historical Jewish texts, all people were seen equal under the highest level: God. The Hebrew bible states that “man” was made both “male and female”, a dual gender, but was later separated into male and female. In Judaism, God has never been exclusively viewed as male or masculine, but rather, he obtains both masculine and feminine qualities. Scriptures and ancient texts refer God as “him” because there is no neutral gender in the Hebrew language.
Because it is an essential building block of marriage, family is strongly emphasized in Judaism. Gender has a bearing on familial lines: in traditional Judaism, Jewishness is passed down through the mother, although the father's name is used to describe sons and daughters in the Torah, e.g., "Dinah, daughter of Jacob". Responsibilities were not taken lightly with regards to the family. The wife and mother in Hewbrew, Jewish language, is called "akeret habayit," which in literal English translation means "mainstay." A Jewish household is expected to live up to the Torah, in which the aketet habayit, or woman of the house, tends to the family and household duties.
Women were highly regarded within the Jewish community because they were capable of a great degree of "binah" (institution, understanding, intelligence). The term, “women of valor,” describes the ideal characteristics of a Jewish woman. Traditionally, she is one who devoted all her energies towards the “physical and spiritual well-being of her family” because she had the capabilities to do so. Her continuous devotion allowed her husband and children to flourish; her personal reward being their success. However, that role has reshaped itself throughout time. The “women of valor’s” effect expanded beyond the household and into the community. Volunteer work allowed women to acquire a sense of self-hood while sharpening leadership and organizational skills. While it may seem that women only had influence in smaller communities, Jewish women eventually established enough authority to emerge as public figures. In 1972, Sally Priesand, became the first female rabbi that was publicly ordained. They were able to lead worship services and read from the Torah on par with men, if not even better because they had an alternative perspective of the text.
The role of women in traditional Judaism has been grossly misrepresented and misunderstood. The position of women is not nearly as lowly as many modern people think; in fact, the position of women in halakhah (Jewish Law) that dates back to the biblical period is in many ways better than the position of women under American civil law as recently as a century ago.
According to Sikhism, men and women are two sides of the same coin of the human. There is a system of inter-relation and inter-dependence where man takes birth from woman, and woman is born of a man's seed. According to Sikhism a man can not feel secure and complete during his life without a woman, and a man's success is related to the love and support of the woman who shares her life with him, and vice versa. The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, reportedly said in 1499 that "It is a woman who keeps the race going" and that we should not "consider woman cursed and condemned, when from woman are born leaders and rulers."
Sikhs have had an obligation to treat women as equals, and gender discrimination in Sikh society has not been allowed. However, gender equality has been difficult to achieve.
At the time of the Gurus women were considered very low in society. Both Hindus and Muslims regarded women as inferior and a man's property. Women were treated as mere property whose only value was as a servant or for entertainment. They were considered seducers and distractions from man's spiritual path. Men were allowed polygamy but widows were not allowed to remarry but encouraged to burn themselves on their husbands funeral pyre (sati). Child marriage and female infanticide were prevalent and purdah (veils) were popular for women. Women were also not allowed to inherit any property. Many Hindu women were captured and sold as slaves in foreign Islamic countries.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Women and religion.|
- Spots of Light: Women in the Holocaust | Faith from an exhibition by Yad Vashem
- Women in Religion section of American Academy of Religion
- Sociologyofreligion.net has a useful bibliography on this topic from the point of view of the social sciences