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World Religions on Women (Summary)

by Dr. Christine Gudorf

Dr. Christine Gudorf is Professor of Comparative Religions at Miami International University in the United States. This is a summary of the paper she presented at an international conversation between religious leaders and leaders of women's organizations held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, February 29 - March 3, 2004. The conversation on "Women, Globalization, and Religion" also resulted in a statement, the "Chiang Mai Declaration"


The major world religions have both validated the restriction of women to sexual and reproductive roles as well as exhibited moments of reform aimed at protecting women from the worst abuses of the powerless brought on by the very restrictions they supported.

The historical replacement of oral, largely nature-based religions with little hierarchy by text-based religions greatly escalated the exclusion of women from leadership roles in religion.

a) Hinduism began the pattern: while some of the Vedas were written by women, by the beginning of the late Vedic period women were excluded from reading or studying the Vedas.

b) Though Jesus, Mohammed, and the Rabbis who formulated the Talmud introduced a number of reforms that benefited women, the textual traditions that developed after them excluded women from leadership by excluding them from the institutions for formal textual study.

c) Buddhism has a more mixed record, both because full female ordination was retained in some areas and not others, and because Buddhism's central teachings focused on bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, leaving lay life to be largely organized according to local custom.

The general teachings of world religions on women assumed women as created for sexual and reproductive functions and requiring male control.

Historical trends beginning in the early modern period further reinforced such understandings.

a) African slavery legitimized the ownership by some of the labor, sexual and reproductive activity of others based on their difference, thus by analogy justifying male ownership of women based on their differences from men.

b) Colonialism replaced local cultural treatment of women with European Christian law, under which women had no economic or property rights, no legal guardianship of children and little standing before the law.

c) Industrialization moved production out of the home into factories; men followed production into factories, becoming wage earners, and women became consumers in the home, fully dependent on men economically. This pattern in early industrialization created an image of the "lady" -- the "good woman" in the home as ornament and consumer -- which served to further oppress colonized women forced into the colonial labor force.

Today women globally can no longer be restricted to sexual and reproductive functions for a number of reasons:

a) Neither the global environment nor families nor governments can afford the growth rates we have seen in the three hundred years since the demographic transition began.

b) The global economy no longer pays most workers a family wage even in the developed world. Women must work and are receiving more education to support possibilities for employment. Longer education means later marriage and lower fertility. More education and later marriage increases the possibility of equal roles with husbands.

c) As women live longer lives, have fewer children and more education they are more and more involved in social and political life, and more aware of the restrictions traditionally placed on them.

d) But globalization has also caused a worldwide surplus of labor. Industries often prefer to hire women as mechanization no longer privileges physical strength, and women earn lower wages, are more docile employees, and less likely to unionize. Male joblessness leads to rising rates of drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, crime, and family abandonment. Many industrial centers report women increasingly unwilling to marry and support jobless men. Illegitimacy and households supported by single low-waged women workers rise.

Since the modern women's movement began in the 19th century, religious institutions have again and again opposed extending civil and economic rights to women. By the mid 20th century they had largely lost this battle. But few religious leaders outside women's organizations have participated in the struggle for women's rights still occurring. At best they have been silent. This is certainly the case with issues around sex and reproduction, whether we look at women's struggle for contraception and abortion rights, or campaigns against marital rape and domestic battery. The preachers and teachers of the great religions, from the highest levels down to the popular level are either silent, or actively opposed to these struggles.

In the last decade or so in most world religions conservative movements, often called fundamentalist, have arisen. At the core of these movements is a demand that women retreat back to domestic space, under men's control. All the evils of modernity, it is claimed, have arisen from women moving out of their assigned role. Many religious institutions have been publicly silent about these movements. Privately many officials of religions deplore them and research them exhaustively, but they do not publicly condemn this agenda.

In an number of places in the world politicians have supported and manipulated these movements. Unable to deliver on fifty-year-old promises of democracy and economic development, desperate politicians offer the hungry masses not security and participation in decision-making over their lives, but rather control of women.

The core right that women demand, the one that all others depend on, is body right, the right to control their own bodies in everyday life: to decide if and when to marry, engage in sexual activity and give birth, to move freely in society, and to choose the form of labor through which they contribute to the larger society.

It is through body right that selfhood develops in humans. Newborn babies learn that their cry brings a caretaker. They learn to manipulate objects -- thumbs nipples, food into their mouths, to crawl, walk and talk -- all of which give them more control over meeting their needs and desires. They learn agency -- to use their bodies as they want -- and thus come to learn responsibility, for they must live with the consequences of their acts.

Restricting women's body right prevents them from taking responsibility for their lives. It provides excuses for not being responsible. Religions, by collaborating in the restriction of women's body right, have helped create that pitiful cry of too many women: "I had no choice!"

Perhaps the most serious restriction of women's body right occurs in sexual violence, especially when that violence is ongoing. The actions of the violator shout to the victim: "You are not in control of your body or your life; I am. Your needs and desires do not matter; only mine matter." Often the violator reinforces this message verbally. When such violence is continuous, the message becomes true in the woman's life -- her needs and desires do not matter, and eventually she can become completely unconscious of them, lest they become a dangerous temptation. Thus is the self lost. And with a lack of awareness of one's own needs and desires, it is difficult to intuit the needs and desires of anyone other than the abuser. This is terrorism.

The stunting and destructions of women's selfhood should be a central concern of religions if they are truly concerned about women's salvation or destiny. For if women are not allowed to chart their own path in everyday life, how can they possibly direct their journey to moksha, nirvana, or heaven? No one else can make this journey for one -- we must do it for ourselves. It is done through decisions and actions in this life, on this plane of existence. Whether we believe that salvation is achieved by action or inaction, each must be chosen. Whether we believe that it is the self and its unique desires and talents that achieves our ultimate heart's desire, or that our ultimate destiny arises from recognizing the self as illusory and moving beyond it, it is choices that both construct and deconstruct the self.

Despite the failure of religions to stand behind women's demands for full humanity, faith is not absent in the struggle for full humanity for women. The vast majority of the women in the world are religious, and most who struggle for women's empowerment are themselves empowered to struggle, strange as it seems to some, by their personal religious faith. Their personal faith, not their religious institutions, supports them. The ongoing fidelity of many millions of women to religious faith is perhaps the greatest miracle of modernity. But religions should not take this fidelity for granted. In many parts of the world young women, and some not so young women, are asking hard questions about the compatibility of full humanity for women with continued membership in religious communities.

Many religious leaders complain of creeping secularization and loss of faith in our late modern and postmodern world. But reasons for this are not hard to find. This is a time for enlightenment and conversion.

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Page Published: 03/16/2004 · Page Last Modified: Thursday, December 6, 2007
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