Women in Religion

Women, so the sociologists and psychologists tell us, are generally more loyal than men to the religions of their birth. They make up more than half of the world’s devotees, they fill the pews, maintain purity and piety in the Jewish home, perform the rites of Hajj, are taught that they enjoy equality within Sikhism, Baha’ism and so on, and at points in the histories of all the world’s faiths they have figured as exemplars, leaders and mystics. Girls account for more Religious Studies exam candidates than boys. Yet to judge from the syllabuses and school textbooks women are of no significance; indeed they are invisible.

A Stirring of Consciousness

I became conscious of this when I was a secondary school teacher of Religious Studies. There was Deborah, prophetess and stirring leader in the Bible and her contemporary Jael whose violent expolits with a tent peg would bring groans from classes. But such colourful female characters were rare. More often women served as pointers to aspects of human perversity, like Eve, or the wife of Hosea. And where would teachers find a Deborah or Jael in Islam or in Hinduism? The source books scarcely acknowledged that women existed and participated in the common rites, let alone that they enjoy may also have been teachers and thinkers and martyrs had had been revered or reviled for it! There were the worthy Elizabeth Frys and Mother Teresas, of course (and where were their Jewish or Sikh counterparts?), but nowhere was it said that women sometimes served best when defying religious and social stereotypes, or that (just as was the case with men) they might be revolutionary religious figures, challenging prophets and branded as heretics. Their histories were buried, though women are the pillars of the world’s religions. Their tales seemed to be known only in some circles in the religions which nurtured them. And no one was at all concerned that children were being offered male role models in religions where already patriarchalisation was a reality and where metaphors for God and for Good seemed to be derived mostly from male experience.

I knew that in Sikhism there were songs about famous women. I knew from living among and teaching Muslims that tales of Fatima and Khadija were common. I read accounts of Christian sectarianism in which Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and Jehovah’s Witnesses figured large and wondered whatever happened to Mary Baker Eddy or Mother Ann Lee. This was the 1970s and Religious Studies was still contenting itself with itemising beliefs and practices and in some of these women had no part (though often that wasn’t said). It was satisfied with discussing a history which was men’s religious history in religions dominated by men. Which was the more depressing, the realisation that even the Bible, which I valued, left women un-addressed (thou shalt not covet they neighbour’s wife) or that no one noticed, least of all the children?

Perceptions are Changing

Perceptions are changing. From many sources, and from men and women alike there has been a surge of discussion and literature examining such things as women’s social and religious status, their contributions to the histories of religions, the prevalence of masculine religious language and patriarchalisation. There is reappraisal of the Scriptures, liturgies and myths. And above all there is now acknowledgement that the insights, experiences and religious needs of half of humankind have been undervalued or ignored. Slowly the religious history of women is being reclaimed. Inevitable tales of injustice emerge with it, but stirring tales too, of women as catalysts at times of change, as the means of support without which religions would not have grown or flourished, as carers and sharers and self-effacing devotees certainly - but not as those things alone.

All over the world women now declare the distinctiveness and the value of their own spirituality. Some are reclaiming it or finding it for the first time and a few are worshipping experimentally in all-women groups. Within some religious traditions such worship will not be new, of course. But for Jewish women and Christian women, for example, this recognition that they want to move beyond some of the language and liturgy and the teaching of their mother faiths has come with uncertainty and painfully.

In Britain the debate about women’s ordination has obscured these wider concerns. The wider debate is about things fundamental to religions. It is about justice and liberation. It has been about the ways in which, throughout history, the powerful have used and abused scripture and tradition, myth and doctrine. It has challenged us to ask whether the original content and intent of teachings have in fact been distorted in the day-to-day practices of religions. It is about how best to express cherished religions and cultures when these affect women. In all of this, from the simplest level upwards, there is plenty for pupils and teachers to imbibe. The topic is the sanctity of the individual and there is not greater religious issue.

The unfortunate teacher of Religious Studies has special problems, of course. Many of the world’s assumptions about the nature and given roles of women stem from the influences of those religions we teach about. There is need for sensitivity and honesty, as well as information and balance. And sadly the books available for use in schools have their own shortcomings. Not least they feature the invisible women! There has been something of an improvement in very recent years but still Meccan pilgrimage is often described as though only men perform it. Buddhist monaStics are never women and a turban is the mark of the Sikh. Moreover, illustrations support such presentations.

Images of Women?

When women are pictured it is usually as passive onlookers at picturesque male rites. For every photograph of women with Sabbath candles there are a score of men initiating rituals. And when the female of the believer species is more eye-catching than the male (the swathed, veiled Muslim woman, for example) she is sure to be a stereotype, telling us nothing of the social and geographical diversity which exists within religions. A useful exercise for teachers is to discover just what children assume about some significant aspects of religions. Do Muslim women fast, go to Mecca and attend the mosque? What is the gender of Christian priests and ministers? Who receives Amrit? The books we use may be at best ambiguous and if children are not told that practices are gender-related or open to all it may be that they are drawing quite the wrong conclusions. In discussion of religious art, craft, music and dance, too, there are opportunities to look at the contributions of, or portrayal of, women. And the myths of different groups provide examples of negative and positive views of the female. There must be care to avoid misleading selectivity, of course. While it is useful to acknowledge the constraints upon women imposed by religions, it is inadequate to write of the problems of the Muslim woman (as some books do) while failing to discuss the teaching about and practice concerning women in other faiths, not least in 2,000 years of Christianity!

I am more optimistic now than I was when I wrote in the British Journal of Religious Education in 1983. This is not because writers of textbooks or compilers of syllabuses have become markedly more sensitive. Religious Studies has been slower than many subjects to respond in print to the challenge of sex-role stereotyping in its teaching and its school books. I am more optimistic because reference books are now available, and these will be of value to teachers who are familiar with having to fill the gaps in the books they use. It is teachers who will begin to redress imbalances and promote honest discussion. It is they who will acknowledge the silence about women too and consider the reasons for it. And they have to do it while recognising that many regard the silence as good and the relative powerlessness of women as right and God~ordaifled. At all levels teachers can look at their source material with more critical eyes, on the lookout for gender bias as well as other shortcomings. And their language, not least God-language, can be inclusive.

In addition to Ursula King’s bibliography, for the interested teacher there are works like:

  • Not in God’s Image: Women in History by J. O’Faolin and L. Martinez (Virago 1979) which refers to many sources, some religious.
  • T. Foster Carroll’s Women, Religion and Development in the Third World (Praeger 1983) which contains much useful material.
  • Women in the World’s Religions in the McGill Studies in the History of Religions Series (State Univ. of New York Press) edited by Arvind Sharma.
  • R. R. Ruether, E. McLaughlin (eds) Women of Spirit: female leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (Simon and Schuster 1979).

The teacher will still have to seek hard for suitable ready-made material, though there are stories such as those (for the primary age group) of Khadija and Noor Jahan by Begum Naz (Ferozsons, Lahore) and the women in Jamil Ahmad’s Hundred Great Muslims (Ferozson’S). The Shap Working Party’s Source Books, under the headings of individual religions, sometimes include material on women.

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