In the recent past, numerous women have spoken up about the discrimination meted out to them under the guise of religion. Most, if not all, religions have a patriarchal bias which has caused undue discomfort to women and have greatly added to their woes. Feminists consider religion as the last barrier to achieve complete emancipation.
But is religion really all that bad? And, if it is, how is it that so many people swear by it?
Let’s take a closer look at this issue.
A history of the relationship between women and religion
The debate over patriarchy in religion is fairly recent, given the extent and degree of discrimination that women have been facing. It is only now that women have begun speaking about their religious freedom (or lack thereof). There are several issues that women face that have come up over time.
Religion has always had a huge issue with menstruation. Menstruation, a perfectly natural process, is looked down upon by most religions but with varying levels of harshness. The forerunner is Judaism. The fifteenth chapter of Leviticus ( the third book of the Torah and of the Old Testament) says, “ Whenever a woman has her menstrual period, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days. Anyone who touches her during that time will be unclean until evening. Anything on which the woman lies or sits during the time of her period will be unclean…When the woman’s bleeding stops, she must count off seven days. Then she will be ceremonially clean. On the eighth day, she must bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons and present them to the priest at the entrance of the Tabernacle.”
Other religions are considerably less harsh in the treatment of menstruating women, but still, consider them impure. Buddhism is one of the least harsh as it doesn’t really consider menstruation impure, but has taken up certain regulations from Hindu societies. The religion says that “a woman loses a bit of her life force – “Qi” – during her period and also that ghosts eat blood, which renders women more vulnerable to spiritual impurities, seeing as how she’d be surrounded by blood-eating ghosts”. Sikhism is the only exception to this rule – according to its founder Guru Nanak, “a mother’s blood is necessary for human life and therefore sacred rather than impure”.
Apart from this long-running debate, there have been several cases where the women have had to approach the judiciary for help in their fight against sexism.
Kerela’s Sabarimala temple had stirred a controversy in 2006 when the Indian Young Lawyers Association sought to reverse the ban imposed by the temple on women, denying them the fundamental right to worship. Women, between the ages of 10 to 50, were barred from entering the shrine. According to the temple authorities, Lord Ayyappa (to whom the temple is dedicated) was believed to have taken a vow of celibacy and the ban was imposed to “keep the deity away from distraction”. The Supreme Court had questioned the ban and referred the case to a Constitution Bench but failed to reach a final verdict.
In 2012, Goolrukh M Gupta, a Parsi Zoroastrian woman, married to a Hindu, had approached the Gujarat High Court challenging the orders of community elders that Parsis marrying outside the community will not be allowed entry into the tower of silence as they are deemed to have converted to their husband’s religion after marriage. The high court ruled against her saying that she ceased to be a Parsi when she married a non-Parsi, despite the fact that she was married under the Special Marriage Act, which allows two people of differing faiths to marry without conversion. Goolrukh went on to challenge the verdict in the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in her favor.
In November 2014, a public interest litigation was filed by Dr. Noorjehan Safia Niaz and Zakia Soman, co-founders of the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, seeking a reversal on the ban imposed by the Haji Ali Dargah Trust that prevented women from entering the Mazar. The Bombay High Court ruled in their favor saying that the Trust cannot enforce a ban “contrary to the fundamental rights” provided to everyone through the Constitution.
Next, on January 26, 2016, women activists made headlines when they forcibly climbed the shrine platform in the Shani Shignapur temple in Maharashtra, breaking a 400-year old tradition. Women were not allowed to enter the shrine in the temple citing the reason to be “centuries of tradition”. A PIL was filed by senior advocate Neelima Vartak and activist Vidya Bal in the Bombay High Court against this practice. The court ruled in their favor and directed the temple authorities to open the temple to women devotees as well. It referred to the Maharashtra Hindu Places of Public Worship (Entry Authorisation) Act, 1956, which says,” no Hindu of whatsoever section or class shall in any manner be prevented, obstructed or discouraged from entering such place of public worship or from worshipping or offering prayers, or performing a religious service…”. The temple authorities eventually gave in to the pressure mounted by the women activists.
The fight between women and religion isn’t just restricted to women outside of religious leadership. Women are facing discrimination within the various systems of religious leaders as well. In a blog post dated May 3, 2018, Beth Moore, “ a professing Evangelical”, opened up about the discrimination she faced “in the conservative Evangelical world”. Moore says that as a woman leader she learned to show constant deference to male leaders, “and when placed in situations to serve alongside them, to do so apologetically. I issued disclaimers ad nauseam. I wore flats instead of heels when I knew I’d be serving alongside a man of shorter stature so I wouldn’t be taller than he. I’ve ridden elevators in hotels packed with fellow leaders…and not been spoken to and, even more awkwardly, in the same vehicles where I was never acknowledged. I’ve been in team meetings where I was either ignored or made fun of, the latter of which I was expected to understand was all in good fun…I was the elephant in the room with a skirt on. I’ve been talked down to by my male seminary students and held my tongue…”. She goes on to talk about the harsh treatment she faced when she was “publicly maligned for being a false teacher by a segment of hyper-fundamentalists”. When she asked them whether they’d read any of her Bible studies their answer was no. “They refused to study what a woman had taught. Meanwhile, no few emails circulated calling pastors to disallow their women to do my ‘heretical’ studies.”
This fight for power is characteristic of all religions where learned, educated women are now challenging the male leadership for greater, bigger roles. In 2012, the Church of England found itself in a crisis after it rejected the appointment of women as bishops, and eventually reversed its decision. This can also be seen in Buddhist countries, where nuns are asking for the same clerical status as monks, and in Islamic countries as well.
Is religion really the problem?
All this debate over the alleged patriarchy in religion begs for a closer look at what exactly the world religions say about women. A simple Google search is enough to see that all our religions weren’t originally patriarchal, but were influenced over time by the prevalent patriarchy in the society.
Gautam Buddha was the first to admit women into the monastic order at a time when monastic communities were dominated by men. Moreover, one of the main schools of Buddhist tradition – Theravada Buddhism – says, “ all men and women, regardless of caste, origins, or status have equal spiritual worth”.
Jesus Christ professed equality and Christianity once celebrated it, but the patriarchal society influenced it and put men in positions of power.
Hindu literature has important and powerful female figure as goddesses – goddess of death Kali, warrior goddess Durga etc. Yet, Hindu societies are among the most sexist and have a lot of restrictions on women. Manusmriti, one of the most controversial scriptures known for its blatant sexism and casteism, has of late lost its popularity for those very reasons.
Islam, which is largely portrayed in mainstream media as being oppressive towards women, actually did much work to protect women from the biases in the society. Historians note that before the Quran was written, the Middle Eastern society was extremely biased against women. The Sharia law is credited with introducing women’s rights to marriage, inheritance, and divorce. Moreover, it is important to note that the Quran, of its own accord, is not a static source but a dynamic, versatile one.
What is common among all the religions is that when they originated there were no hints of sexism or bias that is so common today. All religions uphold the equality of men and women. The bias came on over time, as the patriarchal societies influenced them and put men in powerful positions, who in turn reinforced the patriarchy bringing religion into the mix.
Is there a solution?
Before talking about the solution, it is important to understand what the problem is. Religion, per se, isn’t the problem, our fundamentalist approach to it is. Evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein offers an interesting solution to this. Weinstein says,” I would argue that there is a simple way of reconciling the correct understanding that religious beliefs often describes truths that, in many cases, fly in the face of what we can understand scientifically, with the idea that these beliefs are adaptive. I call it the state of being literally false and metaphorically true.” Although he doesn’t specifically talk about patriarchy in religion, this idea will definitely help us in correcting the bias within our belief systems.
It is important to understand that what we know today as our religion has come down to us through generations of heavily biased societies. The scriptures that we so devoutly follow were written by men with their own biases and understanding of the world at that point in time. Instead of blindly following their directions to the letter, we should allow for discussion and debate over what is correct and what isn’t, with the understanding that God created us all as equals and loves us so.
– Sakshi Shivpuri
(St. Xaviers’ College, Mumbai)
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