Feminist Views of Religion

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Feminism and Other Perspectives

Like Marxists, feminists believe that religion does not serve the interests of society as a whole but rather serves the interests of a particular social group.

Most feminists agree with Marxists that religion tends to be a force preventing change and maintaining the power of the most powerful group in society, but they see this group as being men rather than the ruling-class. They view religion as patriarchal, male-dominated, and serving the interests of men.

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The Origins of Gender Inequality in Religion

Karen Armstrong (1993) argues that religion has not always been patriarchal. She claims that in ealry history women were considered central to spirituality, and archaeologists have found numerous symbols of the Great Mother Goddess. In comparison there were few portrayals of male gods.

It was only around 1750BC in Babylon that the importance of the goddess declined, as the male god Marduk replaced the female goddess Tiamat as the dominant figure in religion. With the advent of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, monotheistic religion (which believe in one God rather than many) largely replaced polytheistic religions (which believed in many gods and goddesses.) In all these cases God was portrayed as male.

These examples suggest that religion does not have to be patriarchal and that patriarchal religions are a product of the wider patriarchal society in which they are found.

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Gender Inequality in Major Religions

Jean Holm (1994) argues that in the public sphere of religion, where important positions are held and public pronouncements are made, men almost always dominate. However, in the private sphere, for example the socialization of children into a religion within families, women are dominant and do most of the religious work. Holm has identified inequalities between men and women in all major world religions:

Christianity/Roman Catholicism: God is portrayed as male and as a father figure. Jesus and all his disciples were male and the Bible was entirely written by men. Only men can become priests and the Pope is therefore male. In the Bible, Eve is portrayed as being created out of Adam's spare rib.

Islam: The Prophet Muhammad was male. Men make all the legal judgements and are the religious leaders.

Hundism: Only men can become Brahmin priests. Women cannot approach family shrines when pregnant or menstruating.

Chinese Folk Religions: Women are associated with yin and men with yang spirits, but yang spirits are more important and powerful.

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Gender Inequality in Major Religions Continued

Orthodox Judaism: Only men can play a full part in religious ceremonies and become rabbis.

Sikhism: The most equal of the major religions, since all positions are equally open to men and women. However, in prctice, most senior positions are still held by men.

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Key Study: The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir (1949) pioneered a feminist view of religion, portraying religion as an instrument of male domination. She argued tha men usually control religious organisations and claim that thier authority come from God; for example kings used to rule by 'Divine Right'. Some religions may portray women as being closer to God, but only if they are passive and do not question male authority. Religion then gives women a false belief that thier suffering will be rewarded in heaven. Religion therefore gives women a form of false consciousness, which keeps them in their place. It decieves women into thinking they are equal to men, while in reality they are disadvantaged as the 'second sex'.

De Beauvoir is usually considered to be a radical feminist. Her views have similarities with Marxism.

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Nawal El Saadawi: The Hidden Face of Eve

Saadawi (1980) is an Egyptian feminist concerned mostly with the oppression of women in the Islamic Arab world. She argues that women are sometimes seriously oppressed in Islamic states. For example, she herself experienced female circumcision, in which part of her c******s was amputated. Saadawi argues, however, that practices such as female circumcision are not the result of Islam itself but of male misinterpretations of the Qur'an, which distort the true beliefs and are used to justify the exploitation of women.

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Evaluation of Religion as Patriarchal

Some feminist and other sociologists have argued that religion cannot always be seen as patriarchal. For example, Quakerism is one religion that has always had equality between men and women, and inequality within Sikhism is minimal. Furthermore, some religions are becoming less patriarchal. For example:

  • Reform Judaism has allowed women to become rabbis since 1972.
  • The Church of England now allows the ordination of women, and women can also become bishops.

Helen Watson (1994) believes that some religions can be misinterpreted as being patriarchal. For example, she argues that the veiling of women in Islam is not a sign of opppression but a way of protecting women against the male gaze in patriarchal societies,where women can be the victims of sexual harrassment.

Some religions may actually promote feminist values. Linda Woodhead (2002) sees aspects of Pentecostalism in Latin America as being feminist in nature. The religion emphasizes the Spirit of God as gentle and loving and, as such, challenges macho, patriarchal beliefs and values.

Similarly, some new religious movements, such as pagansim, celebrate feminist beliefs and female power. The Earth Goddess Gaia is widely seen as the most important God in Paganism.

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Examiners' Notes

  • Holm achknowledges that the position of women has improved in sime religions. This demonstrates a liberal feminist perspective - it is important to mention different types of feminism to get into the top band for essay questions.
  • The examples of ways in which women can be discriminated against in religion could be useful in many of the questions in this exam.
  • Look out for 10 mark questions on feminism and religion which may, for example, ask you to explain two ways in which religion might be patriarchal.
  • These points can provide some evaluation and balance for 20 mark questions. ou can also use other perspectives, which disagree with feminism.
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