Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Is religion a factor in oppressing women?

Here is this week's Texas Faith question in the Dallas Morning News and my response as a member of the Texas Faith panel.
The question:
Nelson Mandela has formed a group called The Elders to address causes of suffering around the globe. One area that the council, which includes such members as Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and Aung San Suu Kyi , has been looking at is whether religions oppress women.

In responding to this new organization, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently observed that:
Paradoxically, the churches in Africa that have done the most to empower women have been conservative ones led by evangelicals and especially Pentecostals. In particular, Pentecostals encourage women to take leadership roles, and for many women this is the first time they have been trusted with authority and found their opinions respected. In rural Africa, Pentecostal churches are becoming a significant force to emancipate women.

This week’s question is two-fold:
Do you think religions are a factor in the oppression of women? If so, how? If not, please explain your view.
Also, is Kristof right? Are Pentecostals ahead of the pack in encouraging women to take leadership roles?


My reaction on reading Kristof's column was, "Well, duh." But having a white male say this in the New York Times apparently makes it news.

Of course religions are a huge factor in the oppression of women, in fact, the major factor. Certainly the three Abrahamic faiths are. Feminist theologians have dealt with this for years. The recently deceased Mary Daly spent a career detailing the ways this is so and discussing the terrible consequences in the lives of women and girls.

Daly's statement, "When God is male then the male is god," perhaps explains it most simply. The insistence by the major world religions that God is masculine leaves women in the lurch. Men may be made in the image of God, but women? Not so much. It then becomes easy to name women as "the other," and once that happens, it is easy to justify all sort of mistreatment as "God's will."

If you trace the objections to women in leadership roles in religion back far enough, it invariably comes down to the fact that women are considered not quite as human as men. The Catholic Church spent decades debating whether or not women even had souls.

For centuries, men have claimed the spiritual realm while relegating women to the physical world. Having done that, men declared that women are "dangerous" to men's spiritual well-being because women are easily tempted -- all Eve's fault of course -- and thus in need of masculine control.

The fact that women bleed and do not die also frightened men, causing leaders of various religions to declare a menstruating woman as unclean and therefore, unworthy.

As to the Pentecostals? It is not hard to lead the pack in encouraging women to take leadership roles, since so few religions and denominations do so. Some progress is being made. For instance, The Episcopal Church started ordaining women in 1977, and now both its presiding bishop and the president of the House of Deputies are women. Lay and ordained women sit in both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies and make up more than half the Executive Council, the body that governs the church between General Conventions. The presence of women in these leadership roles is changing the church, much to the dismay of those men who feel women have taken leadership roles to which they are entitled simply by virtue of their maleness.

Perhaps if a few more men begin to say what Kristof said, eventually the media might begin to pay attention to what women have been saying on the matter for decades. But I'm not going to hold my breath.


Gals - Very Smart Gals said...


Thank you so much for this post! I wish it too were on the cover of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington, etc. Perhaps you should send the editor a letter of opinion?

Unlike myself, who tends to get overemotional about this issue, your calmly make your points with good references and examples. I always feel like such a heretic and fear being pegged as a man-hater when I bring up this issue of how religion perceives/treats women. But then I basically am a heretic, so not bringing it up wouldn’t really change anything, so my point is that when someone like you, highly respected, says it, it resonates.

Have you read “Half the Sky,” which is about the plight of women in 3rd world countries – much of the problems being religious-based? There’s a review of it on my blog, including a brief video by one of the authors. It stands out as one of the best, most informative books I read in 2009.

Thank you for your mind and your voice!


Unknown said...

Absolutely! As long as the Divine Family is made of up three males, the Father, Son, and He-bird, women will be oppressed. This is a strange family, which includes no women. Furthermore, such male worship is idolatry. It not only crushes women, it diminishes God and thus cuts us off from joy (the fullness of God's presence).

To see God as One God who is male universalizes masculinity, and the problem with that is that masculinity is not universal. So, of course women will be oppressed when they can't even be seen or heard. Human begins who do this are engaged not only in idolatry, but in mortal sin--as the Roman Catholics have always had it, the ones they don't even know they are committing.

It's about time for all of us to quit living in blindness, to wake up and see the Light of Christ-Sophia! After all, it's Epiphany, and that means the revelation of the Divinity of Christ, Hokhmah/Sophia.

Joyce L. S. Beck

Muthah+ said...

Part of the problem that we get into is that we allow ourselves to believe the "old man with the beard" is the only way of conceptualizing the Divine or the Holy. I have been conceptualizing "El Shaddai" (God Almighty) as "the breasted-One" (or the God of the Mountains) for years. The Holy Spirit has always been a feminine element because humans have a hard time conceptualizing God as gender neutral. Emotionally it is quite difficult because we are able to encounter God without encountering passion. Gender neutrality conveys passionlessness. T'ain't necessarily so!

In the South we are loath to conceptualize God as something other than what the majority Bible Belt tells us God is. It is important for us to claim the feminine dimension of the Holy and teach it to the men. Certainly many of the Saints understood God ambi-gender. Julienne of Norwich even found Christ as a she.

Anonymous said...

Please don't blame God for what's been done to women in His/Her/Its name. God must be incredibly busy with all kinds of other, cosmic business. But even if He/She/It is not busy at all, the key thing to remember is this: never trust a religion or a religious spokesperson who claims to know what's on God's mind. These people are hearing voices, and it's really best not to return their calls or accept their literature.