Gender and Religion

Did you know that women are turning away from traditional religions in higher numbers than men? Why do you think this is so?

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Table of contents
    • We will discuss the traditional relationship between gender and religion, citing some statistical data.
    • We will look at some issues on the topic of gender and religion before discussing the relationship of feminism to world religions.
    • We will also discuss the views of Simone de Beauvoir, Mary Daly, and Nawal El Saadawi, among others.

    Religion and gender roles in society

    Miller and Hoffmann found that women were more interested in religion than men, had stronger religious commitments, and attended church services in higher numbers (1995).

    In traditional societies:

    • Women assumed a more passive, caring, and nurturing role, which fit well with the teachings of conventional religions such as Christianity.
    • Women were the primary caretakers of children, the elderly, and the sick, which meant that they had a direct connection to birth and death. The ultimate questions of life and the afterlife concerned women directly, so many of them found comfort and guidance in religions’ answers and explanations.
    • Women mainly used to stay at home; if they worked, it was usually in part-time employment. Miller and Hoffman claim that this allowed them to have time for active participation in religious activities, to a greater degree than men (1995).
    • As long as women accepted the traditional gender roles of being mothers and home-makers, they found comfort, guidance, and a supportive community through religions like Christianity, Islam, or Judaism.

    Religion and gender: issues to consider

    From the mid-20th century, feminists started to criticise the conventional gender roles that religions like Christianity and Islam imposed. Women wanted to have lives and opportunities outside of being home-makers, so religious beliefs and activities were no longer a source of comfort.

    Radical feminists claimed that Christianity, Judaism, Islam and many other religions evolved in patriarchal societies, where men used religious texts and dogmas to justify their superior status in society.

    Some feminists argue that all religions have been flawed from the very beginning. Others believe that some religions were originally women-focused, but men have managed to twist the doctrines, using religion for their own advantage throughout history.

    Different feminists have different explanations for women’s role in religion and offer different solutions to fulfill one’s spiritual needs.

    Religion and gender inequality: UN Women

    The issue of gender inequality in religion is not unknown in the political sphere.

    In a brief released by UN Women1, the following points were highlighted as examples of religion and gender inequality:

    • Failure to adequately challenge the structural determinants of gender inequality
    • The absence of women in positions of religious authority
    • Alliance between conservative religious forces and political elites (to strengthen discrimination based on gender, namely against women and girls)
    • Reluctance to collaborate with feminist faith-based actors

    The brief covered more ways to address this problem, as it is part of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development goals in the 2030 Agenda.

    Examples of gender and religion in sociology

    We'll now look at examples of gender and religion studies in sociology.

    Simone de Beauvoir (1949) and women's roles

    French feminist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir2 saw religion as a tool of deception rather than a tool of direct control in society. She compared the religious deception of women to that of the working class in Marxist theory.

    There must be a religion for women as there must be one for the common people, and for exactly the same reason."

    She argued that religion is 'compensation' for women for their second-class status in society. Traditional religions lift motherhood to divine status, thus deceiving women into thinking that the best choice for them is to stay home and out of public life. According to radical feminists, the role of mother and housewife is the most oppressive as it comes with financial dependence on men, and exploitation through unpaid domestic labour.

    Religion makes mothers and housewives believe they are more special than men for adopting the divine role of childcare and home-making. However, this is a false belief; in reality, men control both religion and society. If a woman attempts to step outside of her role, she would meet harsh opposition and failure.

    For the Jews, Mohammedans, and Christians, among others, men are masters by divine right; the fear of God will therefore repress any impulse towards revolt in the downtrodden female."3

    Consequently, de Beauvoir encouraged women not to accept the false compensation of religion, as that was the only way to break patriarchal control.

    Mary Daly (1968) and women's exploitation

    Following Simone de Beauvoir, Mary Daly contended that women live in a ‘planetary sexual caste system’ which was built on the exploitation of women (1968).

    Daly criticised Christianity in particular for eliminating all historical religions with powerful female gods, creating instead a set of myths based on male superiority. Even within Christianity, the role of originally important female figures was systematically downplayed. She cited the example of Mary Magdalene, whose role in spreading Christianity was completely glossed over by the Catholic Church.

    Gender and Religion, Stained glass Christian window, StudySmarterFig. 1 - According to Mary Daly, Mary Magdalene's role in spreading Christianity has been downplayed by the Christian Church in history.

    Daly claimed that religions (Christianity in particular) normalise patriarchal institutions and men’s superior status in society as 'God’s will'. Women end up accepting their inferior status, seeing it as good Christian behaviour.

    She focused on the iconography and language of Christianity and pointed out that God is often portrayed as male, which immediately put women in a subordinate position. To change this, women have to adopt a religious language different from the male-centred standard used by all traditional religions.

    According to feminists like Daly, women have to look for spirituality from within themselves, instead of looking for religious guidance from above.

    Nawal El Saadawi (1980), religion and Eastern feminism

    Nawal El Saadawi, a prominent Egyptian feminist, discussed the role of women in Islam and the Arab world, thus offering a new perspective to overwhelmingly white and Western-focused feminist theories of religion.

    As a child, she had been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), which was only one of the traditional practices that she protested against in her feminist activism. She has been imprisoned for her protests on many occasions.

    The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (1977)

    According to El Saadawi, Islam is not an inherently patriarchal religion; it just happens to be the dominant religion in those corners of the world where social structures are extremely patriarchal. She claims it was men that shaped and twisted the Islamic doctrine over history to make it into a religion that justifies their superior status in society.

    El Saadawi4 pointed out that religions that became oppressive towards women are all monotheistic - they acknowledge and worship one God, usually characterised as a man.

    The great religions of the world uphold similar principles in so far as the submission of women to men is concerned. They also agree on the attribution of masculine characteristics to their God."

    El Saadawi provides multiple examples of the ways the male perspective has distorted the true meaning of religious myths.

    • Saadawi noticed that the Egyptian goddess, Isis, lost her significance through the male interpretation of her story. At the same time, the male god Osiris gained more and more acknowledgement. Saadawi pointed out that when Greek settlers in Egypt adopted its religion, they worshipped Isis as the mother and creator of all gods.
    • In the patriarchal telling of Adam and Eve’s story, Eve is responsible for original sin. El Saadawi argued that in the original myths of the Old Testament, Eve clearly possesses the knowledge, intelligence, and mental strength, that makes her superior to Adam.

    Gender and Religion, Close up photograph of person holding an apple, StudySmarterFig. 2 - According to El Saadawi, the story of Adam and Eve was told from a patriarchal perspective throughout history.

    El Saadawi drew attention to unequal laws and their imbalanced enforcement in Islam.

    • The Quran says that both men and women could be stoned for adultery, but in most cases, men escape this punishment.

    • Men are allowed to have more than one wife, but women are only allowed to have one husband.

    • Men are allowed to divorce their wives instantaneously, but women do not have the same right.

    She urged women to revolt and fight for their own liberation, as this was the only way out of their oppression and exploitation by men.

    Changes in gender and religion in sociology

    How have sociologists explained changes in gender and religion?

    Linda Woodhead (2007) and Steve Bruce (2012) noted that since the 1960s, more and more women have been leaving traditional religions and joining New Religious Movements and New Age Movements. They argue that these new organisations provide more freeing practices and means of spirituality than the conservative, often patriarchal doctrines of traditional religions.

    Women have been rediscovering ancient female-focused religions, myths, and traditions, and incorporating them into New Age spirituality. They have also found the appeal in an individual spirituality that is based on personal experience and guidance from within, rather than control from above. Feminist theologian Carol Christ articulates a specific ideology of this new feminist spirituality.

    Carol Christ (1997) and female spirituality

    Christ claimed that there cannot be one interpretation of spirituality. What is important is that the spirituality of an individual should come from within themselves, rather than from an all-knowing power. She called this embodied spirituality.

    Embodied spirituality teaches that there is a Goddess who is omnipresent and connects the universe, and one needs to find her through their own personal experiences. Christ asserted that the representation of this Goddess has been around for centuries, giving the examples of the Venus of Willendorf or the Macha Earth Goddess from ancient Ireland, who were both worshipped for their fertility and nourishment. Additionally, she claimed that the Goddess has been present in folklore and other mythological stories of almost all cultures and nations.

    Christ's approach to spirituality and the New Age has since been critiqued and has lost much of its popularity.

    Gender and Religion - Key takeaways

    • Historically, women have accepted traditional gender roles. By doing so, they found comfort, guidance, and support through religions and religious communities.
    • Radical feminists argue that Christianity, Judaism, Islam and many other religions evolved in patriarchal societies, where men had been using religious texts and dogmas to justify their superior status in society.
    • Nawal El Saadawi theorised that Islam is not an inherently patriarchal religion, men have just used it to reproduce and spread patriarchal attitudes and roles. Much of monotheistic religion is interpreted through the male perspective.
    • Women have been rediscovering ancient female-focused religions, myths, and traditions, and have incorporated them into New Age spirituality.

    References

    1. UN Women. (2016). Religion and Gender Equality. UN Women. https://www.partner-religion-development.org/fileadmin/Dateien/Resources/Knowledge_Center/Religion_and_Gender_Equality_UNWOMEN.pdf
    2. Beauvoir, S. de. (1949). The Second Sex. Vintage Classics,
    3. Ibid.
    4. El Saadawi, N. (1980). The Hidden Face of Eve: women in the Arab world. Bloomsbury Academic
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Gender and Religion

    What is the relationship between religion and gender equality?

    Radical feminists believe that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and many other religions evolved in patriarchal societies, where men used religious texts and dogmas to justify their superior status.

    What does religion say about gender roles?

    Simone de Beauvoir argued that traditional religions lift motherhood to divine status, thus deceiving women into thinking that the best choice for them is to stay home and out of public life. According to radical feminists, the role of mother and housewife is the most oppressive for women, as it comes with financial dependence on men, and exploitation through unpaid domestic labour. 

    What is the difference between discrimination based on gender and religion?

    Feminists argue that religion plays a role in gender discrimination, as many traditional religions support women's exclusion from the public sector. Discrimination based on religion affects both men and women of that religion. It is closely connected to racism and ethnic discrimination.

    How did religion affect gender roles in their respective societies?

    Nawal El Saadawi claimed that men shaped and twisted Islamic doctrines throughout history to position and justify themselves as 'superior' in society. Mary Daly argued that Christianity normalised patriarchal institutions and men’s superior status in society as 'God’s will', which led to women accepting their inferior status. 

    What does feminism say about religion? 

    Some feminists argue that all religions have been flawed from the very beginning. Others believe that some religions were originally women-focused, but men have managed to twist the doctrines, using religion for their own advantage throughout history.

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