Feminism and Religion

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  • Created by: Amy
  • Created on: 09-05-13 17:04

Feminism and Religion

Feminists generally start from the view that religion is patriarchal: it serves the interests of men and maintains male dominance and oppression of females. There is evidence that supports this view of religion.

Feminists point out that characters in religious texts are predominantly male. Those females who are found in religious texts are often portrayed in a negative light (e.g. Mary Magdalene was a prostitute and temptress; Eve ate the forbidden fruit), in traditional gender roles (Mary was a mother) or secondary to males (Eve was created as a companion to Adam).

This reinforces views that women’s role is to care for her male partner and children, or suggests that women tempt males and lead them astray. Furthermore, most of these religious texts were written and interpreted by males, and God is portrayed as male, reinforcing the idea that males are more powerful than females. 

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Armstrong

However, Armstrong notes that this image of the all-powerful male God only appeared due to the rise of monotheistic religions over the last 4,000 years.

Before then women were not necessarily portrayed in these stereotypical and subservient roles.

For example, early religions such as Ancient Greece had many Goddesses who were often very powerful, such as Athena, the Goddess of war, wisdom and the arts. Hinduism today still has many Goddesses, such as the Goddess Kali, as does Paganism. 

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Continued

The majority of religious leaders are male. In the Roman Catholic Church there has never been a female Pope, nor can women become Catholic priests.

In the Church of England there has never been a female Archbishop of Canterbury; however, since 1992 women have been able to become priests and now around one fifth of CofE priests are female.However this was a very controversial move and women still cannot move far up the church hierarchy. Women cannot become Rabbis in Orthodox Judaism.

All this maintains the dominance of males on women, not only in religion but also in society as it suggests that it is males who hold the most powerful, high status positions within both religion and society.

Furthermore, although most religious leaders are male, the majority of people who attend church are female, supporting the image of female followers of a male leader.

However, women have been founders of some religious movements, such as Ellen White who was the founder of the Seventh Day Adventist sect.

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Continued

Some religions segregate females from males in their place of worship. Women may be seated behind screens whilst men sit in the more central, sacred spaces. Women in Orthodox Judaism are not allowed to read from the Torah in a synagogue.

This evidence suggests that religion may devalue women, seeing them as inferior to males.

Furthermore, religion can influence cultural gender norms which can lead to inequalities, such as physical punishments for sexual transgressions by women.

Catholicism does not accept abortion or artificial contraception, meaning women have little control over pregnancy.

Some religions may have clear expectations of gender roles for women who are expected to serve the needs of their husband.

For example, in Western Christianity, for much of its history, a woman was traditionally seen as the property of her husband to whom she gave her property on marriage and had to promise life-long obedience. 

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Continued

However, some women may be attracted to religions such as Orthodox Judaism in the USA because it provides women with clearly defined roles to live by, creating certainty and supporting the need for a clear female identity which is highly valued in an otherwise uncertain postmodern world.

However, it is important to recognise that not all women have this choice. For example, Islamic fundamentalism in many parts of the world is still highly oppressive of women and can restrict their activities to the home.

Christian fundamentalism in the USA has opposed women’s ability to control their own fertility through abortion.

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Continued

El Saadawi suggests that it is not religion that creates a patriarchal society but patriarchal society shaping religion. The rise of patriarchal forms of society over the last 2,000 years or so began to influence and re-shape religion, as shown by men interpreting religious beliefs and texts in a way most favourable to men.

Therefore, religion is a conservative force because it helps to maintain the patriarchal structure of society.

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Criticism

However, Woodhead criticises feminist explanations of religion for simply seeing religion as patriarchal. She argues that, in fact, religion can help liberate women and give them greater freedom and respect. She refers to this as ‘religious forms of feminism’.

For example, she argues that the veil worn by some Muslim women may symbolise resistance to patriarchal oppression because it allows women to develop their education and careers without losing their cultural identity and without being subjected to judgements based purely on their physical appearance.

Watson supports this view, finding that many Muslim women in Britain chose to wear the veil as a form of liberation from lecherous stares from males, and as a means of establishing an identity as a Muslim female.

Therefore, feminism could be seen as too deterministic because it ignores the ability women have to make choices for themselves. (Although see also earlier point about the oppression of women by some fundamentalist movements which limits the choices for women.)

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Criticism

However, Woodhead criticises feminist explanations of religion for simply seeing religion as patriarchal. She argues that, in fact, religion can help liberate women and give them greater freedom and respect. She refers to this as ‘religious forms of feminism’.

For example, she argues that the veil worn by some Muslim women may symbolise resistance to patriarchal oppression because it allows women to develop their education and careers without losing their cultural identity and without being subjected to judgements based purely on their physical appearance.

Watson supports this view, finding that many Muslim women in Britain chose to wear the veil as a form of liberation from lecherous stares from males, and as a means of establishing an identity as a Muslim female.

Therefore, feminism could be seen as too deterministic because it ignores the ability women have to make choices for themselves. (Although see also earlier point about the oppression of women by some fundamentalist movements which limits the choices for women.)

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Further criticism

Furthermore, membership of sects may allow women to resolve a sense of marginalisation. Women are more likely to experience marginalisation than men because they are more likely to be poor and lack social status due to their limited involvement in employment.

Sects often do appeal to the poor, and women may find they can develop a level of social status within the sect that is denied to them in wider society.

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Evaluation

There is plenty of evidence put forward by feminists to suggest religion is patriarchal.

However, Woodhead’s religious forms of feminism suggest that practices within religions around the world may have been misinterpreted by some feminists. Feminists may overlook women’s ability to choose for themselves whether to follow a religion.

Furthermore, there has been a decline in women going to church; Brown suggests this may be because women are choosing to reject patriarchy and the institutions – such as religion - that serve it. Nevertheless, feminists have shown why religion may be considered as oppressive to women.

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Comments

Kari

Really helpful and detailed, thanks :) 

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