Monday, 27 April 2009

religion and gender equality

a while ago, i was asked by "random lurker" on my own blog what i thought of this BBC discussion about whether or not religion is the biggest obstacle to gender equality. i've been meaning to get back to it, but i suspect i've been subconsciously avoiding it because it's such a difficult topic. i'm not sure that i can give any particular insights, but here are some thoughts.

the discussion happened particularly in the context of a 17 year-old girl beaten by the taliban in northern pakistan, apparently for the crime of having a relationship they didn't approve of. the BBC, in trying to make it a wider discussion (or to be PC according to some of the commentors), threw in a couple of other examples from judaism and catholicism. then they could frame the discussion in terms of "religions" rather than "islam", thereby avoiding any complaints of being racist (against pakistanis) or islamophobic.

nonetheless, despite the fact that i don't like the framing, it's a valid question to consider. the history of most religions show various degrees of violence against women, such as stonings, witch-burning, sati, and the like. then there was the non-violent discrimination which saw women kept out of religious leadership/priesthood, or which saw mensturation and labour pain as a form of divine punishment, or which believed that women must be reincarnated as men before they could reach their final resting place. i'm sure you'll all be able to come up with many examples.

my first thought on reading the question was that you would have to look at societies or communities without religion, and compare these with religious communities. if the former showed gender equality, then one could say that religion was the major barrier. unfortunately, i don't know of any societies that are completely without faith, or which have not been influenced by faith in the way they were set up and now continue to operate.

the only example, one used by many in faith communities, would be that of communism where religion, in all its outer manifestations at least, was outlawed. if the premise was true, then women in communist countries would have gender equality, because of the lack of religious barriers. again, i have to confess my ignorance here: i don't know anywhere near enough about those countries to be able to take any kind of position. all i know is that i've never heard of a woman communist leader running a country and the majority of the leadership in those countries appeared to be male, so total equality was probably not achieved.

the point i'm trying to get to is that barriers to gender equality exist with or without religion. they exist when women don't have, for example, as much of a media voice as men. when they don't have equal participation in leadership as men. when they don't have access to the same financial resources as men. when they don't have access to justice when they are wronged. when they are unable to reach their fullest potential simply because they are thought incapable.

those inequalities exist in all societies in the present day, to a lesser or greater degree. i don't doubt that religion has been a barrier, but i also don't doubt that when a leadership group (such as the taliban) is bent on oppressing a population, they will use what ever pretexts they can come up with to justify their behaviour. religion is convenient, but if it didn't exist, something else would be used instead (survival of the species, culture/tradition, protection of the innocents, whatever).

the problem with religion is that it becomes very difficult to argue against a faith belief. when a person tells you that [insert name of divine revelation here] prescribes a particular way of doing things, and said revelation comes from God, there is very little by way of logic that you can offer as a counter. when women are excluded from learning and from theological debate, it's very hard to provide another perspective.

however, revelation is open to interpretation. i've watched people justify what (to me) are fantastical positions, and pull out various phrases and/or proofs out of context or exclude other proofs that clearly contradict their particular position. inferences can be drawn; words can be taken literally giving one meaning or they can be taken allegorically giving another meaning altogether. a ruling given in a particular instance for a particular context can be generalised unfairly, if it suits the party making the generalisation. and all of this is done with an air of self-righteousness, any opposing argument portrayed as being the work of the devil himself, which very quickly stifles debate.

yup, i've seen it happen often. but i am still a person of faith. and my faith means so very much to me. not only is it integral to my identity, but it is also a source of support and comfort. it gives me inner strength, and inspiration to be better than i otherwise might have been. if you were to take my faith away from me, it would be like taking my inner core, leaving me floundering and helpless, and without hope.

so. to achieve gender equality, my view is that women need to work within their faiths to push for change. movement does happen. look at the progressive jewish community compared to the orthodox. look at the anglicans, who now allow women into leadership positions. i know a female buddhist priest. there are many other examples, but it takes persistance and hard work. just like it does when we work outside a faith context. for example, changes to domestic violence legislation, women's suffrage and the like, have taken hard work and commitment from many, many women.

it's not easy pushing for change within faith communities. but it has never been easy to push for change. anyone daring to challenge the status quo is labelled a radical, is shunned and has often to suffer violence before any gain is made. but someone has to do it, or nothing will ever improve.


Random lurker said...

Thanks for that :)

i know a female buddhist priestThere've been female Buddhist priests for a very long time. The (Gautama) Buddha's ex-wife/cousin was one and so was his foster mother/aunt (possibly circa 563 BCE to 483 BCE).

(Before he became a monk and subsequently became a buddha, he was, so they say, a Prince and was married with a son)

Anonymous said...

the only example, one used by many in faith communities, would be that of communism where religion, in all its outer manifestations at least, was outlawed.Really? I don't know of a single former or current communist country where religion was outlawed. Oh sure, the USSR and its satellites tended to close down monasteries and imprison priests, but even they never went so far as to totally ban religious practice. Even at the height of the Stalinist terror there were functioning churches (and for that matter synagogues and mosques) in Moscow.

I think we can all agree that if religions were followed properly, there would be no sexism. I don't know as much about Islam as you do Anjum but I do know that the Koran contains many injunctions for people to treat women equally. Unfortunately the practice has not historically been great (although no worse than that in christian countries) but if all Muslims truly followed the teachings of the Koran, there'd be no sexism in the Muslim world.

WAKE UP said...

"when a person tells you that... said revelation comes from God, there is very little by way of logic that you can offer as a counter."

Oh yes there is - the problem is that they can't hear it.

Psycho Milt said...

the only example, one used by many in faith communities, would be that of communism where religion, in all its outer manifestations at least, was outlawed.Bolshevik societies were also "...influenced by faith in the way they were set up and now continue to operate," especially so given that communism is essentially a faith itself.

I think you missed an essential point: the societies in which women have made the most progress towards equality are the secular ones. Growth in women's equality has thus far been correlated with a decline in religious fervour - correlation isn't causation, but the information is nevertheless significant.

stargazer said...

yeah, i knew i'd get stuck with the communist stuff! i really need to read up some history there...

wake up, i think that's my point. some of these people will not debate with you because their answer is "God told us so", and they won't move beyond that. the only way you can then take the debate forward is to prove to them from their own scriptures that God in fact said something quite different. which can be done, but people tend to hear what they want to hear, and filter out the rest.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's so much that religion causes inequality as that a religion tends to reflect the mores of the time and place in which it became established so a sexist society will produce a sexist religion. The problem is that once codified by religion it is very hard to move on from those attitudes even if they are no longer appropriate,

Anonymous said...

Stargazer, if you want to know about communism in Russia, I'd strongly recommend 'People's Tragedy' by Orlando Figues, it's very good (but quite long - 750 pages!)

Anna said...

Religion does have a lot to answer for, but women can also derive a lot of strength and comfort from it too, as stargazer points out. It's institutional and deeply personal at the same time.

Anon 1#, I'm interested in hearing more about what you said, ie that if the Koran was followed properly there would be no gender discrimination amongst Muslims. I can't speak for other religions, but I feel Christianity broadly supports a complementary idea of the sexes - with the complementarity being more egalitarian in the eyes of some people than others.

Anonymous said...

Well Anna I would suggest you ask Anjum about the Koran's feminism. I like to think of myself as informed about the Koran, but nonetheless I am a non-believer, and I couldn't in good conscience tell you about the Koran as a non-believer when there is a believer available, as that would be disrespectful.

stargazer said...

anna, the best book i've read on this issue is "qur'an and women" by amina wudud. the author takes a gender perspective to the interpretation of the qur'an, and comes up with some very interesting results.

hungrymama, you are totally not fair. i write a post of hundreds of words, and you managed to say the same thing in two sentences. now i feel inadequate!

AWicken said...

The other problem is that belief systems tend to reinforce the social mores of the believer, not just the founder.

I never cease to be amazed that a foam-at-the-mouth homophobe theoretically reads the same edition of scripture that I was brought up on. People, huh?

Bevan said...

A better comparison would be between those countries which are governed by religious laws vs. those which have secular governments.

I think you'll find women are better off in the latter.