Contemporary women are faced with oppressive traditions that restrict their roles in world religions, but notable women are taking steps to promote a more egalitarian future. Nick Maki Historically, women have held prominent and influential roles in several religions, but women have been deprived of these roles as the majority of religions have become increasingly institutionalized. In this analysis, I will review women’s roles in Indigenous Religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to highlight how androcentric cultures have led to women’s diminished religious influence.
I contend that women have been ostracized from religious hierarchies based on ancient cultural beliefs. Therefore, I will show that many misogynistic religious traditions have arisen primarily out of fear of female biology and subsequent attempts to control what was not understood. I believe that our collective human knowledge has advanced far beyond these early superstitions, but many religions still obstinately cling to these primitive traditions because they clearly benefit the ruling male hierarchies.
First, I will give brief overview of each religion, and then I will discuss some of the notable women that are challenging these archaic traditions in order to attain equality in these religions. In order to understand the affect that culture has had on several of these “Great Religions” it is necessary to first examine the roles of women in non-institutionalized religions. These religions are often referred to as “Indigenous Religions,” however there are many other terms used to describe this vast group of disparate religious beliefs, practices, and oral traditions (Eller).
Therefore, “indigenous religions” is merely “a catch-all term encompassing all remaining cultures, generally tribal, in which local religious practices and beliefs are still alive, usually in close relationship to the land upon which the people live” (M. P. Fisher 35). In these cultures, “[r]eligion and everyday life are often so intertwined that the people may have no word for ‘religion’ as a thing apart that occurs only sometimes in temples” (M. P. Fisher 35). Women in these cultures have traditionally held socially powerful roles and “[m]any Native American groups were apparently matrilineal” (M.
P. Fisher 37). Furthermore, women in these cultures have often held considerable political power as well (M. P. Fisher 37). I believe that women in indigenous religions generally have more influence and power since most of these religions do not have religious texts. Instead, these religions are typically passed on orally and these cultures tend to rely on simple subsistence methods of survival. As such, these small tribal cultures must depend heavily on the equal cooperation of every member of its group for survival and I believe this has resulted in more egalitarian traditions.
Paula Gunn Allen, a Native womanist believes that: ‘gynocracies’ by which she means ‘woman-centered tribal societies,’ in which matrilocality [the tradition by which the husband lives with the wife’s community], matrifocality [households consisting only of the mother and her children], matrilinearity [kinship traced through the mother’s side], maternal control of household goods and resources, and female deities of the magnitude of the Christian God were and are present and active features of traditional tribal life. . Some distinguishing features of a woman-centered social system include free and easy sexuality and wide latitude in personal style. This latitude means that a diversity of people, including gay males and lesbians, are not denied and are in fact likely to be accorded honor. Also prominent in such systems are nurturing, pacifist, and passive males (as defined by western minds) and self-defining, assertive, decisive women. . . (M. P. Fisher 38).
Therefore, based upon many of the traditions of various indigenous religions, there is strong evidence to support the view “that the more religion is an integral aspect of life, rather than something institutionalized and separate from daily life, the more women are likely to be involved in it” (M. P. Fisher 39). As such, the lack of religious texts in indigenous religions has helped to prevent the androcentric interpretations that are ubiquitous in many of the institutionalized religions.
Hinduism is considered an institutionalized religion, yet it “is not a ‘single’ unified tradition,” but rather a diverse group of beliefs that have primarily evolved from the Vedas (M. P. Fisher 64). While it appears that women were respected in ancient India, this respect has been slowly eroded (M. P. Fisher 67). As Hinduism evolved, male babies were increasingly favored due to the overwhelming burden of the dowry system. Around 400 BCE to 100BCE it is believed that Brahman men’s influence was threatened and previously independently worshipped goddesses were transformed into the wives of gods (M.
P. Fisher 68). Further evidence of the erosion of women’s roles is found in the Upanishads, the latest of the Vedic writings, which advises “that if a wife refuses her husband’s sexual advances, he should try to persuade her by coaxing, then by gifts, and finally by beating her with his fists or with rods” (M. P. Fisher 67). However, there are contradictory views in the Laws of Manu that assert that “where women are honored, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honored no sacred rite yields rewards” (M. P. Fisher 67).
Therefore, since the Vedas are comprised of a multitude of various additions, there is no singular religious canon that comprehensively defines the religion. I believe that this religious subjectivity has resulted in traditions that are based as much on prevailing cultural practices as on any specific religious texts. As such, Hinduism is open to a broad variety of interpretations that have generally been defined by the ruling, Brahman class. Nonetheless, Hindu women have begun to take progressive steps to overturn these misogynistic cultural traditions.
Perhaps one of the most influential of these contemporary female leaders is Sri Mata Amritanandamayi. She is an extremely popular guru who suggests that women must simply “wake up” and assert their roles in religion (M. P. Fisher 89). She further suggests that women have merely been conditioned to believe that they cannot overturn these outdated hierarchies. Amritanandamayi teaches that women and men can attain the state of universal motherhood which is a “love and compassion felt not only towards one’s own children, but towards all people, animals and plants, rocks and rivers—a love extended to all of nature, all beings” (M.
P. Fisher 91). Therefore, she believes that women must simply awaken from centuries of conditioning in order to once again express their powers of the “Divine Mother. ” (M. P. Fisher 91). Buddhism is an institutionalized religion that is based on the “Four Noble Truths” (Eller). These truths state that all suffering is caused by human desire; by overcoming human desire it is possible to end all suffering and become enlightened (Eller). Unfortunately, the Buddha never wrote down a comprehensive outline of his teachings. Therefore, his teachings were passed down orally for centuries.
As any player of the “telephone game” can attest, the retelling of even simple information can lead to outlandish and entirely incorrect interpretations. Furthermore, if you consider the multiple language translations that were necessary, it becomes even more likely that there were at least minor discrepancies between the Buddha’s original teachings and the subsequent writings of the memorized texts three hundred years later. “In other words, as soon as the Buddha—who had apparently made it clear that women and men were spiritual equals—passed on, culturally-based negative views of women became apparent among the monks” (M.
P. Fisher 104). It is written in the texts that a senior Theravedan monk destroyed a stupa dedicated to a revered sister (M. P. Fisher 105). The monk claimed that it was distracting him from his meditations, but I believe that jealousy was the more likely culprit. Also, the Thai nun Dhammananda points out that many of the weaknesses of women are actually the weakness of the men. She asserts that monks have subjugated women because they cannot control their own sexual desires (M. P. Fisher 118). Therefore, Buddhism, in its purest form, should not make any distinction between genders.
Professor Gross states that “gender roles and gender privilege are matters of worldly thinking, not of enlightened thought. If ‘egolessness’ is the goal, then there is no argument supporting male dominance over women” (M. P. Fisher 119). Of course, this hypocrisy has been noted by women since the inception of the religion and many notable Buddhist women are striving for greater equality. Although there will not be a woman Dalai Lama anytime soon, it is important to note that Buddhism teaches that enlightenment is available to anyone regardless of gender (M.
P. Fisher 119,123). I agree with the Venerable Tsultrim Allione, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, in that we are in a transition and we must facilitate the groundwork for those who follow (M. P. Fisher 120). As such, significant structural change within the Buddhist religion may take a long time, but some diligent women are currently laying the foundation for future changes. Judaism is considered an “ethnic religion” in that it is based as much on tradition as it is on scriptures (Eller). Therefore, Judaism is an epitome for how religions have been molded by culture.
For example, it seems likely that early Jewish cultures were fearful of the female form because it was not fully understood i. e. pregnancy, childbirth, menstruation, sexuality. These fears resulted in misogynistic traditions, such as mikveh, that equate these natural processes with impurity. Furthermore, women were discouraged from studying the Torah so they could attend to other household duties (Eller). This resulted in deep-rooted, patriarchal, male-based interpretations of the Torah that have served to suppress female participation in religious ceremonies.
Nonetheless, contemporary Jewish women are taking promising steps in gaining equality, such as “the right to be called up to the Torah, to be counted in the minyan, to initiate divorce, to have equal rights in carrying out the commandments, and to be rabbis and cantors” (M. P. Fisher 174). As such, “[w]omen are becoming active participants in midrash—the ongoing process of interpretation of the bible” (M. P. Fisher 177). This is a critical step toward long-term, structural changes in the religion, because female interpretations of the Jewish scriptures are finally being acknowledged and studied.
Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Nuemann, who was ordained in 1982, believes that “there was always an attempt to minimize the differentness and the newness of what it meant to be a woman rabbi” (M. P. Fisher 184). However, she embraced these differences because they introduced a new and refreshing perspective to the religion. These new perspectives will provide a reassuring light for the next generation of Jewish women to follow in this religious evolution. Christianity is perhaps one of the most institutionalized of the “Great Religions. This has been a result of numerous divisions and a multitude of differing perspectives. For example, there are striking contradictions between the original teachings of Jesus Christ and the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Mary Pat Fisher, author of Women in Religion, explains that: The movement that developed around [Jesus Christ] was unique in its outreach to people from all levels of society, especially those considered unclean by the Jewish temple priests and rabbis, who placed great emphasis on ritual purity and moral piety.
These marginal people included the very poor, the physically handicapped, those suffering from skin diseases, the socially despised such as tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, slaves, and women. Women had been considered impure because of their bleeding during menstruation and childbirth and were thought of as possessions of men. Collectively, Jesus referred to them all as the ‘poor. ’ He invited them all to eat together at the same table, as brothers and sisters in a community that excluded no one from God’s grace and recognized no hierarchy.
However, the Roman Catholic Church is explicitly hierarchical “with traditionalist, male-dominant policies, such as its stands against birth control, divorce, and abortion, its resistance to liberation theology, and denial of priesthood to women” (M. P. Fisher 215). Further explicit misogyny is contained within the Malleas Maleficarum, a document that justified the torture and execution of millions of women who did not conform to church expectations. However, feminist biblical scholar, Phyllis Trible, believes that Christian sexism and faith are so deeply intertwined that few ever question it (M. P. Fisher 211).
Contemporary women in Christianity “have tried to redefine the interpretation of Christianity so that it is true their understanding and experiences—not necessarily as historically interpreted by men” (M. P. Fisher 221). This shift toward theological feminism coincided with the feminist revolution of the 1960’s, and it focused on “re-evaluating the patriarchal language and patterns of power, as well as making their voices heard on other ethical issues (M. P. Fisher 222). These female interpretations are aimed at re-defining the patriarchal language–which portrays God as an aggressive male ruler—in favor viewing God as a loving figure.
Sallie McFague, an American Christian Theologian, views “God as a lover, a mother, a friend,” while Dorothee Soelle, a German Theologian, argues “that a concept of God as male ruler supports oppression and violence by men against humanity” (M. P. Fisher 223). Islam is perhaps the most feared and misunderstood of the “Great Religions. ” Ironically, Islam shares similar qualities with its rival, Christianity. First, both religions were founded by a prophet who had relatively enlightened views about equality between the sexes.
Muhammad, like Jesus, shared many of his private revelations and visions with women, specifically his wives Khadija and A’isha (M. P. Fisher 237, 240). As such, these women were originally revered and celebrated with temples, but these temples have since been destroyed (M. P. Fisher 238,241). Second, the religion of Islam sustained a massive division early in its development i. e. Sunnis and Shi’as, similar to the split of the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox sects. The foundation of Islam is based on the Qur’an, but many of Islam’s anti-female traditions have been enacted by different legal schools (M.
P. Fisher 243). As such, the Qur’an actually serves to protect the rights of women, yet cultural interpretations have taken it out of context in order to support cultural biases (M. P. Fisher 244). Islamic studies Professor, Riffat Hassan, believes that the Qur’an is inherently “open” and “strongly guarantees all fundamental human rights, without reserving them for men alone,” but, unfortunately, many Muslim cultures have chosen to “regard the Shari’a [the code regulating all aspects of a Muslim’s life] as fixed” (M. P. Fisher 245).
Muslims form the majority in 44 different countries, and there are as many variations in the Muslim practices. Some cultures enforce very strict rules and regulations, such as the Taliban and Deoband reform movement, while other Muslim cultures have adapted a fairly liberal lifestyle (M. P. Fisher 253,254). Therefore, the religion of Islam does innately regard women as inferior, but various cultures have hijacked the Qur’an to further their own cultural beliefs. As you can see, nearly all religions have been molded by the cultures in which they have arisen.
Most of these religions wish to convey absolute truth, but it is impossible to ignore how these truths have been molded by prevailing cultural biases. Therefore, I contend that culture and religion are intrinsically intertwined. These primary components of the human experience do not exist in a perfect vacuum. Therefore, they are not exclusive of each other. It is important to note that women have gained significant levels of equality in many cultures, but they have yet to attain comparable equality in any of the institutionalized religions that I have analyzed.
I believe that misogyny is still prevalent in these religions, because we have been conditioned to believe that religion perfectly iterates the natural laws of the universe and that it is not overtly affected by prevailing cultures. However, religions are always evolving and I believe that as human cultures become progressively egalitarian, religion will eventually reflect these changes, too. Works Cited Eller, Cynthia. (2004-2011). Revealing World Religions 4. 0 [computer software]. Thinking Strings LLC. Electronic. Fisher, Mary P. Women in Religion. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc. , 2007. Print.