By Vexen Crabtree 2007
Most religious traditions have subjugated womankind1,2,3. The religious restrictions and taboos on womankind have ranged from the openly oppressive and inhumane, to subtle limitations. Women have been barred from leadership, prevented from religious learning and even from secular education, forbidden to hold power, denied fair inheritance and land ownership, denigrated, physically dominated, and sometimes even forbidden to speak4. All in accordance with holy texts, religious laws and guidelines. The Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam have been the worse; but also Hinduism and Buddhism have played roles in the long-term subjugation of women. In Elizabeth Cady Stanton's "The Woman's Bible" (1898) she bemoans that "all the religions on the face of the earth degrade her, and so long as woman accepts the position that they assign her, her emancipation is impossible"5. The much more neutral scholar of comparative religion, Moojan Momen, normally writes positively on nearly all aspects of religion, but when it comes to women, even he is forced into a multiple-page criticism of the historical role of religion6. Although some of this stems from ancient cultural sources before it happened to be codified in world religions7, organized religion has clung on to patriarchalism long after secular society has liberalized. Feminist groups have frequently been anti-religion simply because it is religion that has presented itself as the most consistent oppressor of womankind. The problems from traditional religions are not just historical: even today, religious organisations and powerful international religious lobbies hold back gender equality across the world8.
There is good news. The most readily accepted cure for both intolerance, religion and superstition is widely shown to be education. The position of women improves as education improves and as traditional religions lose their grip on society. Modern society has come to either ignore their traditional texts (as most Christians do) or to abandon religion (as many Westerners have done). Also many new religious movements and alternative religions such as Paganism, Wicca, the New Age and even Satanism practice full gender equality. As long as traditional religions continue to decline and secular society and new religions both grow, the situation of women continues to improve.
In general, the traditional patriarchal religions are more misogynistic and although in developed countries these religions have somewhat weakened, this isn't just a historical battle. The dominance of traditional religions and their cultural heritage seriously hinders the emancipation of women across the globe9. Immigrant communities in the West continue practices endorsed by their home religions - "some estimates suggest that 90 percent of European Muslim wives are physically abused"10. Sexism and women's rights are regularly reported on by secular human rights bodies such as Amnesty International, which finds itself criticizing religious institutions. Amnesty International's 2009 compendium of horrors, "The State of the World's Human Rights", devotes some space to women's rights, including tales of torture and oppression, and compared (as always) the statistics to previous years. "In Iran and many other countries, Amnesty detected a retreat in women's rights, often in the name of religion. [... But] it is not just Muslim theocracies that Amnesty blame for maltreating women" as their stance on equality and women's rights has also brought them into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church11. In his study on fundamentalists, Ruthven (2007) finds that all kinds "are often obsessed with human sexuality, and in particular, controlling expression of female sexuality":
“It appears that nearly all fundamentalist groups or churches studies by scholars reject legal steps to ensure equality between the sexes and typically exclude women from the senior ranks of religious leadership. All or almost all express concern about control of female sexuality.”
“... judging from the fact that the condition of women is most degraded in those countries where Church and State are in closest affiliation, as in Spain, in Italy, in Russia and in Ireland, and most advanced in nations where the power of ecclesiasticism is markedly on the wane, the inference is obvious that the Bible and the religion based upon it have retarded rather than promoted the progress of woman.”
“Religion has been an important source of laws and administrative structures that kept women in an inferior position in society. In Hindu law, Rabbinic law, Christian canon law and the Islamic Shari'a, the testimony of a woman is either worthless or given less weight than that of a man. Indeed, in many societies, women have been relegated to a position of virtual slavery. They have no rights or freedoms by custom or in law. Throughout their lives they are completely dependent on males. A quotation from the Hindu book, the Laws of Manu, sums up the reality of the situation for most women in almost every society: 'In childhood, a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead, to her sons; a woman must never be independent.'
While of course, religion is not the sole factor responsible for the suppression of women, it is nevertheless true that this social subjugation is underpinned by the authority of religion. Since religion is the source for the values and morality of a traditional society, religion's doctrinal and moral attitude to women fashions the social milieu that justifies their subjugation. In addition, whether we consider suttee in India, clitoridectomy in Muslim North Africa or the witch-hunts of Europe and North America, it has been religious traditions that have sanctioned and given moral authority to violence towards women. [...]
Women have been excluded from religious learning. Women are forbidden to read and study the Vedas in classical Hinduism and the Talmud in Orthodox Judaism. In the United States, women were excluded from Christian theological faculties and seminaries until the middle of the nineteenth century. The religious hierarchy in most religions is male-dominated. Whether Hindu Brahmin priests, Buddhist monks, Zoroastrian mobeds, Jewish rabbis, Christian priests or Muslim ulema are considered, all are exclusively or predominantly male preserves. Even in Buddhism, where Buddha himself gave permission for the setting up of an order of nuns, the Buddhist scriptures represent him as having been very reluctant to do so [...three times] saying, 'If women go forth under the rule of the Dharma, this Dharma will not be long-enduring.' He said that it would be like a blight descending upon a field of sugar cane. Eventually he relented, however, and allowed an order of nuns. However, the nuns were to remain subordinate to the monks in all ways.”
Pagan and Earth-centered religions not only to treat women equally, but sometimes are dominated by women. When Christianity was still mostly the same as paganism, it treated women equally. Brutal Pauline Tertullian Christianity eradicated this tolerance13 and also gave us modern Christianity. Partially as a backlash against immorality and oppression, Protestantism was a partial return to the more liberal, pagan, ways of Christianity's past. The feminist movement was "pathetically weak" even as late as the First World War, and it only flourished in Protestant environments14.
The struggle for emancipation in areas historically dominated by patriarchal religions is not just a matter of political correctness or liberalism. The prevalence of rape is, for example, directly correlated with the strict religiosity. In a summary of research on rape Hollin (1989) lists the three main social factors in 'rape cultures': "the sexes are clearly separated; there is a general subscription to male dominance; male violence is sanctioned for solving personal problems"15 and notes that symptoms are men taking priority in work, family and sex. Although Hollin does not mention religion, most of these symptoms are clearly associated with traditional religions, and not just Abrahamic ones: Buddhist monasteries are nearly always separated along lines of gender, with the male communities in charge of the female ones and Buddhism from the outset encoded misogyny. Aside from rape, amongst Christians "the probability of wife abuse increases with the rigidity of a church's teachings pertaining to gender roles and hierarchy"16. The approach of traditional religions to womankind in general causes much social malaise.
Although there has been much progress in the elimination of gender bias Bryan Wilson comments that even in developed Western countries Christian churches have remained behind secular society17, which has thankfully now come to accept the equality of women both formally and on the ground. Victor Stenger writes in "God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist" that monotheism's attitude towards women is an indicator that believing in God does not increase one's morality18.
Religious lobby groups in Europe are again pushing to stop the publishing of a report on gender equality in the EU, called the Tarabella Report, which was voted upon in the European Parliament on 2015 Mar 10. The report, written by Marc Tarabella MEP covers "issues such as violence against women, childcare facilities, negative stereotypes about women, the gender-pay gap and paid paternity leave". In 2013, in a similar campaign led to the abandoning of a report on women's reproductive rights after it was narrowly defeated. This time, NGOs have been shoring up support and warning those involved "about what they are calling "misleading" arguments against the report" by religious groups. These groups form what has been called an "ultra-conservative agenda", but, it seems, include mainstream Christian Churches amongst their number, and have been "opposed the advancement of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in the past", and are now rallying against the concept of gender equality in general.8
The NGOs which support the Tarabella report warn that "several regressive anti-human rights organizations - like CitizenGo or European Dignity Watch - have called MEPs to oppose the report [ - ] those are the same that have manipulated the concept of SRHR to impose their ultra-conservative agenda in the past and threatened Edite Estrela for her Report on SRHR in 2013 and Ulrike Lunacek for her Report on EU roadmap against homophobia in 2014".8
|Most Discriminatory (2015)|
Lower is better22
|149||Central African Rep.||0.65|
|143||Papua New Guinea||0.59|
|Most Equal (2015)|
Lower is better22
The graph (right) clearly shows the negative association between religion and gender bias. None of the most equal countries are highly religious, and, all of the horribly inequal countries (scoring worse than 0.4 on the index) are highly religious.
Ordinarily, such statistics are mostly a side-effect of general development. I.e., prosperity, education and stability might be causing both low rates of religious adherence, and, increased gender equality. But there are signs that this is not the case: Arab states (all highly Muslim hover around a Gender Inequality Index of 0.563 regardless of their development level. For example, the desperately poor countries of sub-Saharan Africa have about 20.3% of their parliament being represented by women - a terrible score and a sign of male bias. Yet in the Arab world the rate is a meagre 12%, with not much variation in the numbers. This shows that culture and religion are often a more important factor in gender equality than development, and unfortunately, the effect of religion on gender equality is harmfully negative for women.
Note that not all the countries in the charts on the right comparing countries, appear in the graph above, and this is because there is not reliable information of religiosity rates for all countries - for example the Netherlands doesn't appear on the scattergraph.
Compare international statistics: What is the Best Country in the World? An Index of Morality, Conscience and Good Life.
The religious hierarchy in Buddhism is typically male-dominated, as it is in most traditional religions. Moojan Momen writes: "Even in Buddhism, where Buddha himself gave permission for the setting up of an order of nuns, the Buddhist scriptures represent him as having been very reluctant to do so [...three times] saying, 'If women go forth under the rule of the Dharma, this Dharma will not be long-enduring.' He said that it would be like a blight descending upon a field of sugar cane. Eventually he relented, however, and allowed an order of nuns. However, the nuns were to remain subordinate to the monks in all ways"6.
Nuns in Tibetan lineages of Buddhism can never be more than 'novices' because there is no ordination process for them; and female Therevada Buddhists cannot become ordained either because the lineage required died out and has not been revived due to opposition from male-dominated Buddhist authorities24.
Lama Choedak Rinpoche explains a little of the current situation in an article celebrating his organising of an ordination event for female Buddhists in Australia:
“The controversy surrounding female ordination is not a problem restricted only to Christianity. Even though ordination of women in Buddhism occurred during the life of the Buddha, his initial reluctance to ordain women seems to have been misinterpreted by many people. This misinterpretation has left a legacy of doubt and indecision among the orthodox Buddhist leaders. Some Buddhist countries did not even introduce the Bhikhuni ordination while others who did could not sustain the lineage for long. The Bhikhuni ordination was never introduced to Tibet even though there are hundreds of nunneries there. Theravadin tradition lost the lineage that they once had and initiatives to revive the tradition in Thailand have faced stiff opposition from the mainstream Buddhist leadership.
Tibetan Buddhists proudly claim that theirs is the complete form of Buddhism, but it would be hard to maintain this if Bhikhuni ordination is not established. It is said that in order to say that there is Dharma in a land there should be Sangha consisting of four members, including fully ordained Bhikhunis. Whatever are the reasons, there are miserably few female teachers in Tibetan Buddhism and a few seem to be in that position because of the merit of there being sisters or daughters of well known male teachers. Nunneries do not have qualified female teachers and even countries, which have a Bhikhuni ordination system, are reluctant to have female Buddhist teachers.”
"The First Bhikhuni Ordination in Australia" (2007)25
Some authors such as Rita Gross, are positive about the relationship between Buddhism and women. She says that "a reconstructed authentic core of Buddhism reflects and supports feminist values, in so far as it is 'without gender bias, ..., and that sexist practices are in actual contradiction with the essential core teachings of the tradition'"26. Given the actual historical relationship, how can she hold to this view? Well, she adds two caveats. Firstly, presumably when she says "core teachings" she defines it in a way that removes social teachings, and secondly the caveat in the middle of her statement (replaced by an ellipsis, above) adds: "whatever the practical record may reveal". Unfortunately, even if Buddhist philosophy was gender-neutral, it is only the practical side that has any meaning! There is no difference between being denied equality and standing by someone who backs it up with a proper understanding of their own religion, and, being subjugated by someone who backs it up with an improper understanding of their own religion. Either way, the religion's teachings ought to state gender equality, especially as no text has been written in times when misogyny and patriarchy have not been infamous. Nonetheless Rita Gross's position is further undermined "when she starts generalizing that all religions were originally non-patriarchal until they were subverted by men" (Hawthorn 2011), and other historians have criticized her approach as "unhistorical".
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Islam has oppressed women more than any other force in history. Although Christianity was once the greater oppressor, where women were forbidden to preach and learn, and were subject to their husbands' rule, the restrictions under Islam are much worse and enforced much more strictly. There are many barbaric practices associated with Islam that negatively affect women, such as female segregation, female genital mutilation (FGM: which removes the clitoris in order to prevent women wanting to cheat), multiple wives, male ownership and domination of women, restrictions on work and education of women, honour killings and forced marriages. Some of those, such as FGM, are nothing to do with Islam and occur in only some Islamic countries, and predate Islam. Although in its day Islam granted some rights to women that they did not otherwise have, the unfortunate side-effect is that women's rights have been frozen at a partial state in Islamic countries. Almost half of all women in Muslim lands are illiterate. No matter to what extent misogynistic and patriarchal brutality have been cultural rather than Islamic, in Muslim lands women's rights have remained severely restricted because the religion does not promote women's rights apart from a few specifics. Many practices which subjugate women are derived from the Qur'an so that in "most Muslim countries privilege a system that [...] gives priority to the husband in divorce proceedings"28. Even in places like New York City, far removed from Arabic culture, Mosques refuse to let a woman speak an address.
Much of the negative doctrine about women comes from the Qur'an and the canonical hadiths which record Muhammad's sayings. Suras 24:30-31 and 33:59, and hadiths 4092 and 4092 of Abu-Dawud, instruct that women must dress modestly, completely covered, with only hands and face showing. Sura 4:34 states clearly that men have authority over women, and can beat disobedient women. Recorded hadiths confirm that men can beat their women, and that the women who complain about it are reprehensible (Abu-Dawud 2141,2142); rates of wifebeating are very high in Muslim countries, according to Pakistan's own medical institute the rate there is 90%. The hadiths have Muhammad preach that women are inferior intellectually and religiously (Sahih al-Bukhari 6:301, Sahih Muslim 1:142). Sahih al-Bukhari 59:709 states that a nation ruled by a woman will not be successful. Muhammad's most beloved wife Aisha says that men have such rights over women, that if women understood, they would happily wipe the dust from their husband's feet with their faces. Women's testimony is worth less than a man's, and women inherit less. The Qur'an is addressed to males and the text assumes that males are reading it, males are enforcing the rules, and women are subordinate (i.e. Sura 4:15-6). Wives are given permission to do things by their men; never the other way round. Hadiths 3367 and 3368 in Sahih Muslim record that God is only happy with a woman if her husband is happy with her, and, if he calls her to bed for sex, she should comply. The language in the Qur'an is objectifying and talks of women in terms of ownership. Qur'an 2:225 says that "women are fields: go, then, into your fields whence you please". The influence of the Qur'an and the Hadiths, and the entire religion of Islam and all of the countries where it is dominant, have in total formed a system of thorough male dominance and the systematic abuse of womankind. It is rooted in the core of the religion. Like the Christians, Muslims must learn to ignore and overlook the misogynistic verses in their holy text. Until they do that, Islam will remain an enemy of women.
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Honour killings are when the male members of a family murder a female, typically at a young age, for what they perceive to be misconduct. However, this includes things like not following the religion of the parents, not dressing as is their cultural norm, refusing an arranged marriage, dating someone not approved of by the parents, blasphemy against the family religion or for being raped. Although that last one sounds especially horrible, the Qur'an stipulates that if rape cannot be proven then the victim is as bad as having committed infidelity (the punishment for which can be death), and that a requirement for proof is four male witnesses. Women are sometimes at such a disadvantage that little can be done and unfortunately, these types of judgements are often brought into otherwise modern countries by immigrants from places where misogynistic patriarchalism is unquestioned. Honour killings stem from countries which observe strict monotheistic religions, or, from cultures that are still under the sway of such religions. Even if those religions do not actually endorse it, they often endorse male dominance in such a way that allows the practice of honour killing to continue.
“'Honour killings' for alleged sexual misconduct by women are far from being limited to mountainous, tribal regions [such as Afghanistan]: they occur in many other parts of the world, and though Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq furnish numerous examples, honour killings are far from being confined to Muslim societies. The culture of 'honour and shame', in which masculine honour and identity are predicated on female virtue, was until recently just as prevalent in Catholic Spain and Sicily, and the Orthodox Balkans, as it [is] in Muslim lands.”
Even in "While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within" by Bruce Bawer (2006), which is a book that actively reports on problems with Islam, the author has to admit that honour killings are not just a problem with that particular religion; in modern times "the first one uncovered in Sweden was by a Palestinian Christian who murdered his daughter in 1994 for spurning an arranged marriage"30. He provides multiple examples, which can serve as examples of what type of thing we mean when we say 'honour killing':
Secular society has made massive progress and in most developed countries there are few areas where women are routinely discriminated against. Where it exists discrimination in workplaces is largely indirect and accidental. This is because the masses have largely grown beyond any systematic subjugation of women: any prejudice that remains is widely condemned. In a recent talk at the Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom & Equality event, the invited speaker Naomi Phillips spoke on women's reproductive rights and said that although secularism doesn't guarantee fair rights for women, it is still a necessary prerequisite simply because of the limiting harm that religion has so far done; the biggest threat to such rights still come from strict religion-based lobby groups.31
Many new offshoots from traditional religions are still steeped in all the old theories regarding gender. For example the Hare Krishnas, of Hindu heritage, was founded by Prabhupada, who instigated many misogynistic practices and teachings within his movement32.
New religions have tended to practice and enshrine gender equality. The Bahá'í Faith (1844CE+) is a liberal Abrahamic NRM. Most Bahá'í doctrine suggests greater equality for women33 but the ruling body of its largest two denominations (the Universal House of Justice, based in Haifa, Israel and the Orthodox Bahai Faith) is strictly limited to male delegates34,35. Despite that limitation, it is overall a vastly more equal religion than its Abrahamic predecessors.
Pagan and Earth-centered religions not only to treat women fairly, but are sometimes dominated by women. Neopaganism and Wicca formed strong associations with early feminists. Feminists joining Dianic witchcraft in the 1980s (influenced by authors such as Zsuzsanna Budapest and Starhawk) outnumbered all other kinds of convert in that decade36, and Paganism in general attracts those who are interested in feminist spirituality and goddess worship37.
Feminism has always been a significant feature of Paganism and Wicca38. As the decades wore on, feminism and gender equality became an increasingly pronounced stance rather than an implied one39. The presence of feminism in Pagan groups is one of the six reasons that American Pagans gave for having become involved in Paganism, according to a study published in 198640.”
The 1960s also saw the rise of organized Satanism. You might assume it to be no place to look for good examples but although in the 1960s Anton LaVey, its founder, sounded misogynistic in his more personal writings, The Satanic Witch (1970) was a highly progressive and liberal volume for its time. Since then, the Church of Satan has thoroughly shed any gender bias, and a female high priestess followed on from LaVey.
Whether it is possible for new religious movements to encourage older religions to embrace good morals is not yet proven; it seems for every step forward there are popularist grassroots backlashes (e.g. - women bishops in Christianity, liberalisation in Iran, etc). It may be the we as species can only progress once we've outgrown our more primitive religions completely.
Religion Versus WomankindWomen as Possessions and Objects of Beauty in the BibleJudaism, Christianity and Women: Biblical Misogyny and Historical SubjugationWhy Do Women Have to Cover Their Hair in Judaism, Christianity and Islam?Islam and Women
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