Chapter one - theories of religion - feminism

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  • Created on: 26-09-18 13:30


Feminists see society as patriarchal (based on male domination). Many feminists regared religion as a patriarchal institution that reflects and perpetuates this inequality. Religious beliefs function as a patriarchal ideology that legitimates female subordination. 

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Evidence of patriarchy

  • Religious organisations - are mainly male dominated despite the fact that women participate more than men in these organisations. For example, Orthodox Judaism and Catholicicism forbid women to become priests. Armstrong (1993) sees exclusion from the priesthood as evidence of wome's marginalisation. 
  • places of worship  - Often segregate the sexes and marginalise women, for example seating them behind screens while men occupy the central and more sacred spaces. Women's participation may be restricted, for example not being allowd to preach or read fro scared texts. Taboos that regard menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth as polluting may also prevent participation. For example, in Islam, menstruating women are not allowed to touch the Qur'an. Jean Holmes (2001) describes this as the devaluation of women in religion.
  • sacred texts  - Largely feature the doings of male gods, prophets etc.,usually written and interpreted by men. Stories often reflect anti-female stereotypes, such as Eve who, in the Christian story of Genisis, caused humanity's fall from grcae and expulsion from the Garden of eden.
  • religious laws and customs  - May give women fewer rights than men, for example, in access to divorce, how many spouses they marry, decision making, dress codes etc. Religious influences on cultural norms may also lead to unequal treatment, such as genital mutilation or punishments for sexual transgressions. Many religions legitimate and regulate women's traditional domestic and reproductive role. For example, the Catholic Church bans abortion and the use of artifical contraception.  Woodhead (2002) argues that the exclusion of women from the Catholic priesthood is evidence of the Church's deep unease about the emancipation of women generally. 

However, feminists argue that women have not always been subordinate to men in religion. Armstrong (1993) argues that early religions often played women at the centre. For example, earth mother goddesses, fertility cults and female priesthoods were found throughout the Middle East until approx. 6,000 years ago. 

While religion may be used to oppress women, Nawal El Saadawi (1980) argues that it is not the direct cause of their subordination. Rather, this is the result of patriarchal formsof society coming into existence in the last few thousand years. However, once in existence, patriarchy began to influence and reshape religion. For example, men reinterpreted religious beliefsin ways that favoured men/patriarchy. Thus religion now contributes to women's oppression. Like Armstrong, El Saadawi sees the rise of monotheism as legitimating the power of men over women. 

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Religious forms of feminism (1)

Woodhead (2009) criticises feminist explanations that simply equate religion with patriarchy and oppression of women. While accepting that much traditional religion is patriarchal, she emphasises that this is not true of all religion. She argues there are 'religious forms of feminism'  - ways in which women use religion to gain respect and greater freedom. 

Woodhead uses the example of the veil worn by many muslim women. While western feminists tend to see it as a form of oppression, to the wearer it may be a means of liberation. According to Sophie Gilliat-Ray (2010) some young British Muslim women prefer to wear the veil in order to gain parental approval to enter further education and especially employment, where Muslim women'  prsence has traditionally been problematic. For them the Hijab is a symbol of liberation that allows them to enterr the public sphere without being condemned as immodest. 

Women also use religion to gain status and repect for their roles within the private sphere of home and family.  For exampe, as Elizabeth Brusco (1995) found in Columbia, belonging to a Pentocostal group can be empowering for some women. Despite the stong belief in traditional gender roles that such groups hold, women are able to use religion to increase their power and influence. For example, a strongly held belief among Pentocostals is that men should respect women. This gives women power to influence men's behaviour by insisting that they practise what they preach and refrain from 'macho' behaviour.  Similarly, women make use of activities linked to the church such as Bible study groups to share experiences and find support. 

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Religious forms of feminism (2)

Piety movements  - Rachel Rinaldo (2010) sees this pattern as typical 'piety movements'. These ae conservative movements that support traditional teachings about women's rol, modest dress, prayer and Bible study. They include Pentecostal and evangelical groups, and some forms of non-Christian religions. 

Like Brusco and Woodhead, Rinaldo argues that even within conservative religions, women may sometimes find ways to further their own interests. However, she notes that it is middle class, urban women who are most likely to join piety movements.  These women may already have other resources e.g education and income, with which to pursue their goals. 

Liberal Protestant organisations - such as the Quakers and the Unitarians, are often committed to gender equality and women play leading roles. For example, a third of Unitarian ministers are female. The Church of England (official state church in England) has had female priests since 1992 and female bishops since 2015. Over a fifth of its priests are female.  

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