Women and world religions

A close look at Religious Studies and RE materials soon discloses an almost total unawareness of the existence of women. But why should one look separately at women and religion? Why not look at men separately, too? Or, rather, why not deal directly with religious teachings on people in general? Again, when one looks at women’s studies courses and programmes, one often, too, notes a surprising absence of concern for topics pertaining to religion. Yet it is evident that in both past and present religious and spiritual values have influenced and shaped people’s thoughts and actions and affected their lives, not least the lives of women, in many important ways. Even if not always plainly apparent at first, many current issues in the secular debate about women — women’s self-understanding, image, status and role in all institutions of society — are often still directly dependent on religious teachings and world views, even when these are sharply criticised and rejected.

Sexism by omission

There are several reasons for looking especially at women in world religions. First of all there is the importance of women and world religions as a subject in its own right, a subject that has so far often been overlooked and ignored, not only in women’s studies courses, but in RE too which has been described as practicing sexism by omission through not considering women at all. But besides being a subject worthy of consideration in its own right, the study of women in world religions also relates to many other subjects of the curriculum, whether English language and literature, history, geography, multicultural studies, black studies, general studies, economics or current affairs. How religions have affected and shaped women’s lives, what place women have held in different religions, what contribution they have made and still make to religious life and practice, these are all important issues for RE. They are also issues important for contemporary feminists and issues of growing importance for the internal debates and decisions of different religious institutions.

One cannot fully understand the rise of the women’s movement in the early nineteenth century without looking at its religious roots. The vision of universal equality, justice, love and peace which inspired the early feminists was not only based on ideas of the Enlightenment but was often nourished by biblical teachings and by a strong religious commitment. The American women who worked with great fervour for the abolition of slavery realised that their conscience called them to strive with equal zest for the abolition of the subordination and oppression of women found in society and church alike. Christian and Jewish women, and black women too, worked together as sisters of the spirit to bring about a better life for all women. These historical roots of contemporary feminism and the religious motivation of many early feminists are often not sufficiently recognised. Nor are western people always aware of the global and cross-cultural ramifications of contemporary feminism which, far from being only an urban, western, white middle-class phenomenon, has developed truly international dimensions and is affecting the consciousness of people everywhere. Many young women and girls growing up now have already internalised the ideas, choices and changes of consciousness stemming from the women’s movement without necessarily belonging to an organised women’s group or wanting to be called a feminist. Religiously committed women are raising voices of challenge regarding many traditional religious teachings, but they are also rediscovering the female side of their religious heritage which can be a source of affirmation and strength.

A New Perspective

How do we approach the topic of women and world religions? First, it is important to realise that this topic has not only a historical, but also an important contemporary dimension. It is not simply a question of adding women as yet another new theme to the RE curriculum by describing what religions teach or have taught about women. On the contrary, looking at women and world religions requires a new perspective and raises new questions which affect the teaching of other RE topics, too. Traditional religious teachings are set in a patriarchal and androcentric framework, that is to say, they are almost exclusively the creation of men who have taken their experience as normative and universal without taking into account the experiences and thoughts of women. To make a comparison here, this exclusive, self-sufficient male stance is not so unlike the exclusive religious attitude of some people towards other religions whereas entering into dialogue requires a new attitude — one has to listen and accord the other person’s position equal recognition and respect (and the more one enters this path and the deeper the dialogue grows, the more one receives and gives and the more one grows humble about one’s own position). The dialogical approach is not only needed among religions, but also between men and women if we want to transcend an exclusive, patriarchal stance.

The existence of patriarchy has been a major focus of women’s critique in contemporary feminism. The wider meaning of patriarchy relates to theories of history and society and even of religion which need not detain us here, but the word patriarchy is often simply used to refer to an all-male power structure — a situation which exists in most religions we know. Whilst the word patriarchy is mostly applied in relation to institutions and attitudes, the term androcentric is more applicable to thought structures and language. It refers to a situation where the male experience is without question taken as the universally valid human norm. This is true of many religious teachings just as many religious institutions are guilty of what some women theologians have called the sin of sexism, i.e. the exclusion and subordination of women by not recognising their contribution or marginalising their existence.

The Rise of the Modern Women’s Movement

The rise of the modern women’s movement has led to a critical reconsideration of traditional religious teachings on women by many contemporary women scholars and writers. In Britain this is perhaps less obvous than in the USA where many colleges and universities have specific women and religion programmes. Particularly well known is the ‘Women’s Studies in Religion’ programme of Harvard Divinity School, founded in 1973, and its publications. Women’s new awareness and self-understanding makes them examine religious data with specific attention to gender differences which in the past remained unquestioned as people were mostly not conscious of them, taking them as either natural or divinely ordained whilst it has become clear to us today that the inequalities between men and women have been historically created. The marginality and frequent invisibility of women in religions is also apparent in the way religions are studied and taught, and this includes the teaching of RE in the classroom. This situation needs to be criticised and changed if women are ever to gain true equality of recognition and status.

Teaching on women in world religions involves more than a critique, however. In the last few years more and more material has become available either in the form of general surveys on women in different religious traditions or in more specialised studies dealing with women in one religious tradition or period, with women saints and mystics, women’s religious rites or women’s spiritual quest.

So far, most material on women and religion has been concerned with Christianity and Judaism as most women writing on religion usually come from either of these two traditions, but there is now also a growing body of publications dealing with women in Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. If one wants to approach the topic of women and world religions systematically and comparatively rather than simply historically, three major perspectives can be singled out for consideration. These concern both external and internal aspects of religion and imply a progressive level of depth and interiority:

1. What is women’s role and status in different religious traditions and their institutions? What are the patterns of participation or exclusion from ritual and liturgy? What religious authority can women wield? Are women given equal status in the religious life, i.e. in priesthood, monasticism or religious leadership? Have women formed their own religious communities or created rites of their own? It has been shown that generally women hold higher positions in archaic, tribal and relatively non-institutionalised religions than in the highly differentiated religious traditions which have evolved complex structures and hierarchical organisations over a long time. In both primal and ancient religions we find the widespread presence of women magicians, shamans, healers, visionaries, prophetesses and priestesses. Also, during the formative period of a religion women often play a leading role or are closely associated with the work of the founder whilst later they are relegated to the background (see the women associated with the work of the Buddha, Jesus or Mohammad for example).

2. How are women presented in religious language and thought? What do different scriptures teach about women? Do they project images of women which are strong and powerful or debilitating? Does their language remain exclusive and androcentric, emphasising the subordination of women, or does it express equality and partnership? Are feminine symbols used, especially in relation to an ultimate transcendent focus or in speaking about the experience of God or the disclosure of the Spirit? In the Judaeo-Christian tradition the whole theological ‘sexology’ under- pinning the traditional exegesis of Genesis 1 and 2 and the teaching about being created in the image of God have come under much scrutiny by feminist theologians. Such work highlights the metaphorical nature of all religious and theological language. In contrast to Christianity, where the father model of God has been dominant to the exclusion of almost all other models, Hinduism provides us with one of the richest traditions regarding feminine perceptions and embodiments of the Divine, whether in terms of the power of shakti or celebrated in the forms of Ambaji or Durga or eloquently praised as Great Goddess, the Mahadevi. This rich tradition provides inspiring resources for teaching, but the wealth of female religious symbolism in the Hindu tradition perhaps more than any other raises the difficult, if not unanswerable, question of what is the relationship between the realm of the symbolic and real women in day-to-day life? As a Japanese woman student once pointed out to me, a religion may have many goddesses but that does not necessarily mean they enhance the actual lives and status of women. One can therefore ask whether the symbolic in any way reflects empirical reality or merely compensates for its deficiencies. However, the most important issue is not what world religions teach about women, thus defining them extraneously in a way women do not necessarily understand themselves. It is true to say that in most religions women are largely defined, and marginalised, in terms of their sexual functions as wife and mother, rather than seen as beings in their own right. Thus the third perspective is of special importance and should be emphasised in teaching:

3. What is women’s own religious experience? How far has it been reflected upon and integrated into the intellectual articulations of religious doctrine and spiritual teachings? What is the pattern of women’s religious lives, their experience in the ordinary sense of day-to-day religious practice, but also their extraordinary experiences as expressed in a rich tradition of mystical and devotional literature? In an informal and largely non-institutionalised way women saints and mystics have provided much spiritual counsel, guidance and leadership through the ages, and shining examples of this can be found in all religious traditions. It comes as no surprise that women of spirit, women of spiritual power or the power of holiness, exercise much fascination on contemporary women as these women of the past provide strong role models in terms of female identity, autonomy and strength. So far, the many studies on religious experience have hardly paid any attention to gender differences, but the comparative study of the writings of female and male mystics, which is only in its infancy, raises some new and challenging questions, not least for religious practice.

If rightly approached and sensitively explored, these perspectives could provide much material for discussion in the classroom, especially with older pupils. It is important not simply to teach about women in different world religions and leave the presentation at the descriptive level, but to analyse, question and discuss the issues inherent in the material presented and thus to link the material of the past to concerns of the present. Far too many people associate the understanding of feminism in church and synagogue only with the debate abut women priests and rabbis, and yet the issues are so much wider and more complex. Pupils could explore some more specialised work in feminist theology, whether Jewish or Christian, or one might discuss the problems raised by both for their relationship with each other. Yet another perspective, which I have explored at length in book-form, concerns the explicit and implicit spiritual dimensions found in contemporary feminism. Some writers even speak of a ‘spiritual’ or ‘metaphysical feminism’, some of which may be too inward-looking but much of which is closely interwoven with urgent contemporary concerns about world peace, reverence for life, non-violence and the search for a sound ecology.

A Bibliographical Guide

To mention a few helpful book titles for teachers and anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of the relationship between women and world religions: a first orientation and introduction is provided by Nancy Falk’s article Women: Status and Role in World Religions in the Abingdon Dictionary of Living Religions (edited by K. Crim, Nashville: Abingdon 1981) and Constance Budhanan’s article on Women’s Studies in The Encyclopedia of Religion edited by Mircea Eliade (London 1987; see vol. 15, pp.433 —440). In the same Encyclopedia Rosemary Ruether has a thought-provoking essay on Androcentrism (see vol. 1, pp.272—6).

Surveys on women in different religious traditions are found in a number of books. Widely used is the small book by Denise Lardner Carmody, Women and World Religions (Nashville/Tennesse: Abingdon, 1979, available in Britain) and it could serve as a textbook for older pupils. A more recent and far more substantial work, but only suitable for teachers, is the volume edited by Arvind Sharma, Women in World Religions (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987). Equally recommended can be the volume of papers edited by Nancy A. Falk and Rita M. Gross, Unspoken Worlds: Women’s Religious Lives in Non-Western Cultures (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980), but this may be difficult to find, whereas this is not the case with the book edited by Pat Holden, Women’s Religious Experience: Cross- Cultural Perspectives (London: Croom Helm, 1983) which contains some especially good chapters on women in Hinduism and Judaism. For a survey of women in Christianity the earlier work by George H. Tavard, Women in Christian Tradition (Notre Dame! Indiana and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1973) is still worth consulting as it contains not only a historic survey but analyses contemporary images of women in the Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic tradition. For historical and contemporary articles on women in Judaism the Reader edited by Elizabeth Koltun, The Jewish Woman — New Perspectives (New York: Schocken Books, 1976) will be found wide-ranging and most stimulating (its bibliography includes books for children). Equally stimulating are the contributions by women from different faiths brought together by Diana L. Eck and Devaki Jam, Speaking of Faith: Cross-cultural Perspectives on Women, Religion and Social Change (New Delhi: Kali for Women and London: The Women’s Press, 1986). I have edited a set of papers on Women in the World’s Religions, Past and Present (New York: Paragon House, 1987) which contains historical and theological material; of particular interest are the chapters on women in African traditional religions (not easily found elsewhere), on women in the Hare Krishna movement, and on the rise of evangelical feminism in American Christianity.

It goes beyond the scope of this article to discuss the many publications which have appeared on feminist theology, a term which on the other side of the Atlantic is understood to include both Jewish and Christian works. The lively debates in feminist theology are carried on in an ecumenical spirit and a classic Reader which brings all these aspects together is that by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow (eds), Womanspirit Rising. A Feminist Reader in Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), available in women’s bookshops in Britain. It makes an excellent source-book and could be used with Sixth-formers. This is also true of the following titles which, in different ways, survey developments and debates in contemporary Christian feminism: Susan Dowell & Linda Hurcombe, Dispossessed Daughters of Eve: Faith and Feminism (London: SCM, 1981): Sara Maitland, A Map of the New Country, Women and Christianity (London: Routledge & K~gan Paul, 1983); Monica Furlong (ed.), Feminine in the Church (London: SPCK, 1984), and Ann Loades, Searching for Lost Coins, Explorations in Christianity and Feminism (London: SPCK, 1987), also suitable for use with older pupils, perhaps even in conjunction with teaching English literature, as the women figures discussed in this book include among others Dorothy Sayers, Virginia Woolf and the author of the first autobiography in English, the medieval mystic Margery Kempe.

The wide-ranging debates surrounding women and spirituality are perhaps best reflected in the large volume edited by Charlene Spretnak, The Politics of Women’s Spirituality. Essays on the Rise of Spiritual Power within the Feminist Movement (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday & Co., 1982) but probably difficult to obtain. Essays reflecting the depth and variety of contemporary women’s spiritual quest are found in Mary Giles (ed.), The Feminist Mystic and Other Essays in Women and Spirituality (New York: Crossroad, 1982), Jo Garcia and Sara Maitland (eds.), Walking on the Water: Women talk about Spirituality (London: Virago, 1983) and Linda Hurcombe (ed.) Sex and God. Some Varieties of Women’s Religious Experience (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987).

The many studies on religious experience have so far largely ignored differences, and the close inter-relationship between sexuality and spirituality requires far more attention than it has been given so far. In this context it is of some importance to know that the World Council of Churches is currently engaged in a study on Female Sexuality and Bodily Functions in Different Religious Traditions as this subject has great relevance for understanding the image of woman in different world religions. For a general overview on contemporary developments on women and world religions including debates about feminist spirituality and theology readers may refer to my book Women and Spirituality: Voices of Protest and Promise (London: Macmillan, 1989). Of particular interest to teachers may be my article on World Religions, Women and Education in the journal Comparative Education vol. 23/1, 1987, pp 35—49 which was a special issue devoted to Sex Differences in Education.

These few titles give an idea of a new and exciting field of studies which is growing larger every day. An effort is needed to explore these new perspectives but if the effort is made, pupils and teachers alike will soon realise that they will be amply rewarded in both personal and educational terms. The subject of women in world religions has much to offer and can enrich RE teaching in many different ways. I very much hope that more and more teachers will take up the challenge of this new perspective.

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