Feminist Views on the Role of Religions
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Last updated 15 Sept 2022
Most feminists argue along similar lines to functionalists and Marxists that religion acts as a conservative force, maintaining the status quo. For feminists, that status quo is a patriarchal society.
Simone De Beauvoir (1953) took a very similar view to traditional Marxists, only instead of seeing religion as assisting in the subjugation of the workers, she saw it as exploiting and oppressing women. She argued that religious faiths encouraged women to be meek, to put up with inequality, exploitation and suffering and doing so will bring rewards in the afterlife.
There are several ways in which religion can promote patriarchy:
- Through religious scripture / teachings
- Through religious ceremonies and practices
- Through the structure and power-relations of religious organisations
Examples of patriarchy in scripture and teachings
- In several religions, women are presented as temptresses who distract men from the serious business of worship. In the bible, it is the first woman, Eve, who disobeys God and then goes on to tempt Adam and bring about his downfall too.
- In many religious teachings across a wide range of religions, women are given the role of nurturing, caring and giving birth. While these roles are presented positively and as essential, they reinforce the gender norms in society and the patriarchal power structures. If women choose not to conform to gender stereotypes, they are not only deviating from gender norms and family expectations, but deviating from God’s will too.
- Religious texts are full of male Gods, male prophets, male saints and male heroes. The books are written by men and interpreted by men.
- The rules of religious organisations – which are often more about culture and custom than scriptures – include a lot of rules that restrict the freedom of women. Rules on abortion, contraception, etc. alongside unequal rules relating to marriage and divorce, all put significant restrictions on fundamental life choices for women that are not placed on men.
- The purdah in Islam, where religious women are secluded from society, including the wearing of veils, etc. is seen by some feminists as exemplifying and entrenching patriarchy.
Examples of patriarchy in ceremonies and practices
- In several religious organisations men and women worship separately.
- In many religions both menstruation and pregnancy are treated as impure or ungodly. For example, in Islam women who are menstruating are not allowed to touch the Koran. Jean Holm (1994) suggests that these various restrictions on the participation of women contribute to the devaluation of women in many contemporary religions.
Examples of patriarchy in religious organisations
- Although some religious organisations do have women in senior positions, they are certainly the exception rather than the rule, and in most cases this is the result of relatively recent reforms. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope, all the cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests are men. Most branches of Islam do not recognise female Imams, although there is some debate among Islamic scholars about whether women can ever lead prayers and whether for female-only or mixed congregations. There have been female Rabbis since the 1970s but it is still condemned by orthodox Jews. Although there have been women priests in the Church of England since 1994, it took a further 20 years before there was a female bishop. Karen Armstrong (1993) argued that the exclusion of women from the priesthood exemplified women’s marginalisation in religious and social life. Linda Woodhead has suggested that the exclusion of women both from positions of authority and from some religious practices comes from a deep-seated resistance to women’s freedom and choice altogether.
- There is a traditional gender division of labour in many religious organisations with an expectation that women will serve tea and cakes after the service, for instance.
Evaluating feminist views on the role of religion
- Not all feminists agree that religion is essentially patriarchal, arguing that many early religions featured prominent goddesses and other female figures. Instead they argue that patriarchal societies have changed religions in order to ensure they reflected and reinforced patriarchal values.
- Karen Armstrong (1993) argues that it was the development of monotheistic religions, with their all-powerful male Gods (such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam) which imbued religion with a patriarchal and sexist core. She points out that various goddesses and priestesses were replaced with male prophets.
- Nawal El Sadaawi argues that religions are not the direct cause of women’s exploitation and oppression (though they are often the tool employed to this end) the cause is a patriarchal society. She argues that powerful men reinterpreted religious beliefs and ideas in order to benefit themselves.
- Linda Woodhead argues that religion is not necessarily sexist or patriarchal and writes of a “religious feminism.” For example, she argues that the veil, in Islamic societies, has been misinterpreted by some western feminists. She argues that many Muslim women choose to wear a veil and see it is a positive and liberating choice. In very restrictive patriarchal Middle-Eastern societies, women have used face veils to allow them to enter society, obtain employment and in other ways empower themselves. In western countries, some women have chosen to wear veils in order to escape the male gaze. However, Nawal El Sadaawi has described the veil as “a tool to oppress women.”
- Others have suggested that religion is becoming increasingly female-dominated, particularly in western democracies. Attendance at religious services is much more common among women, for instance. However, feminists like De Beauvoir would argue that that is because women are the intended audience of the ideological messages being promoted: that women should cook, clean, have babies and tolerate inequality and oppression in exchange for rewards in the afterlife.