Religion’s Role in Gender Equality
In today’s society and looking back, gender equality is something that the human race, in general, has struggled with since the beginning of our existence. Modern society likes to blame certain groups more for the gender inequalities we are facing than others. More often than not the finger pointing ends up turning to religion. In the Western World individuals often accuse Muslims of oppressing women, when Christianity, historically speaking has not been leading the way in gender equality. That being said, is any one religion at fault compared to others? Can we really blame the gender imbalance on religion alone? The answer to both of these questions is no, “all world religions today maintain male social dominance within societal structures [while] on the other hand, women are more inclined to participate in religious life.” (Klingorova 2) We see this divide due to the power that religion gives to men and the comfort that women take in surrounding themselves with one another, as individuals falling victim to the same inequality. Understanding the root causes of these inequalities however, can help to create a society in which gender inequality no longer exists.
It can be largely understood that, “we consider gender equality and the emancipation of women as important factors for the economic, social, and democratic progress of the world’s regions and for the development of human society.” (Klingorova 1) Religion, for many, can feel like an odd place to start searching for gender equality however, “religion, which serves as a reference point for gender norms and expectations, is often seen as institutionalizing and perpetuating patriarchy, thus frustrating many advocates for women’s rights and equality.” (Berkely) For any problem to be solved people need to change the way their culture exists, the way they respond to situations and the way that they understand the world. Religion, for so many, is a moral compass which helps to guide people to understanding others, the world around them, and how they behave, which makes it religion a logical place to start understanding and fixing any moral problem that society is facing.
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Islam, meaning submission, follows Christianity as the second largest world religion. With around 1.8 million Muslims around the world, it is an abrahamic monotheistic religion worshiping Allah, “God” in Arabic (Editors). This means that like Christians, Muslims believe in one God. Additionally, like Christianity, Islam claims descent from the ancient Israelites and Judaism, worshiping the God of Abraham. Though these are not the only similarities, like Islam, Christianity is not playing its due role in combating the gender inequalities we are seeing today, continued oppression and a lack of reform are both at fault for the injustices women are facing.
Often in western society, Muslim women are used as a prime example of female oppression. Western culture typically sees Muslim women wearing hijabs and dressing modestly as imposed unto them by men. Additionally, it is often assumed that Muslim women have no say in arranged marriages, which are common in Islam. However, for many Muslim women, dressing modestly and wearing their hijab is a choice that they make, a representation that they choose for themselves to honor their beliefs. Furthermore, women do have some control over their arranged marriage, prospective husbands are introduced by their families and it is not forced upon the woman. Many people outside of Islam see the extremists as representative of the whole, they see the woman who is forced to cover herself and child brides, then they think “this must be what Islam is.” But it is far more than the few who take extreme stand points, though some of the underlying truths behind the stereotypes that are formed may hold some truth.
Many Muslims, both men and women believe that women are inferior to men, often justifying it as being inherent in Islam. Islam is often interpreted patriarchally and thus, there is widespread misuse and of verses from the Qur’an that are taken out of context and read literally. This ignores the deep truths told in the Qur’an through the use of symbolic language.
There are three main arguments in both Islamic and Christian tradition that lead to the belief that men are superior to women. First argued is that man was created and from man woman was derived and thus they were created unequally. The second argument is that the fall of man was due to woman, when “Eve” stole the apple she caused the downfall of humans. The last most common argument is that woman was created for man, her existence is not important except as it relates to man. These are all argued in Islam as reasons for female inferiority, however, in the Qur’an man and woman were created of the same material, in the same way, at the same time. Additionally, in Islam Iqbal writes “man’s first act of disobedience was also his first act of free choice; and that is why…Adam’s first transgression was forgiven.” (Iqbal) In agreement with the God creating everyone to be equal, the creation of woman was not to serve man, rather both man and woman were created to serve God.
Riffat Hassan, from the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Louisville says, “I am a Muslim, a theologian, and a women’s rights activist, and while I am critical in a number of ways of the life that most Muslim societies offer to women, twenty years of theological study, as well as my own deepest faith, convince me that in real Islam, the Islam of the Qur’an, women and men are equals.” (Hassan) One of the ways that this is seen is in that the Qur’an expresses a equality before God of all humans, which is one of the fundamental teachings of the Qur’an. A problem historically for Muslim women has been very high rates of illiteracy which meant that they were unable to read and interpret the Qur’an themselves and thus were subjected to what they were told. However, “with the efforts of women and human rights activists who are striving to actualize the liberating vision of the Qur’an — and with the help of God — more and more Muslim women will become educated and aware” (Hassan), which is allowing for more progress to be made within the Islamic faith.
Christianity is an abrahamic monotheistic religion based upon the teachings of Jesus, who is the anointed one of God who lived on Earth. While Christians are often thought to be judgmental and hypocritical, oppression does not typically spring to mind in discussing Christianity. In the Church, certain denominations of Christianity, like Evangelical Lutheran allow men and women to hold the same roles even as pastors. However, in other denominations like Roman Catholicism, women are not allowed to be priests. Pope Francis was quoted just last year saying “I have no problem with naming a woman as head of a dicastery, as long as the dicastery doesn’t have jurisdiction. The one for clergy does, so it has to be a bishop” (San Martin). Catholicism seeks to limit the power and influence of women in religion by limiting the roles which they are able to hold.
When thinking particularly about Catholicism many people traditionally think of nuns wearing habits. This is not unlike the modest dress and hijabs worn in Islam. A nun who chooses to wear a habit or veil or dress modestly, does so as confirmation and commitment to her faith and to God. It is not done in a matter of oppression, though as in Islam it may seem to be.
In the same way that Islam faces gender equality so does Christianity, the same three main arguments exist. First, woman was made from man (Eve from the rib of Adam), second, woman caused the fall of humans, and third, woman was created to serve man. While the bible does say that Eve was created from the rib of Adam, it never alludes to either of them being more than or less than because of how they were created. Furthermore, if Eve was created from Adam, would not Adam be the lesser of the beings as he is the one missing a rib? The temptation story is used to blame women for human sin, however both Adam and Eve took a bite out of the apple, and similar to Islam, this is also the first true act of free will exemplified by Adam and Eve. God created man and woman, both in His image and with equality, not so that one could serve Him and the other serve her counter-part, but so that they both would serve Him.
When understanding the role that religion plays in gender equality, it is important to note that, “male and female roles are…unbalanced in the world religions. The influence of women on the formation of religious norms and traditions is small, even though in certain doctrines, we can find women who succeeded in having their normative views accepted, or men who advocate equal integration of women into religious ceremonies.” (Klingorova 2) It is necessary for people to realize that a few examples do not change a cultural trend, and it will take large scale change to improve the gender imbalances that are facing our modern global society.
I feel that gender equality is not an issue that is just meant for religion to solve, but rather a problem that all of society needs to address. However, this can start by the major world religions working to address gender inequalities and stop encouraging them through misinterpretations of scripture or using scripture out of context. There are so many aspects in our culture today and religion is just one part of that, however for many people it is a large part of their culture, if this one part of our culture can be changed, then perhaps change can spread to the rest of our culture.