Most religious traditions have subjugated womankind1. They have been barred from any leadership, prevented from religious learning or even secular education, and forbidden to hold power, or sometimes even to speak. As we will see, even central Buddhism has had difficulties with accepting any equality of womankind. In Elizabeth Cady Stanton's "The Woman's Bible" (1898) she bemoans that "all the religions on the face of the earth degrade her, and so long as woman accepts the position that they assign her, her emancipation is impossible"2. The much more neutral scholar of comparative religion, Moojan Momen, summarizes the situation in an uncharacteristically critical manner:
“Religion has been an important source of laws and administrative structures that kept women in an inferior position in society. In Hindu law, Rabbinic law, Christian canon law and the Islamic Shari'a, the testimony of a woman is either worthless or given less weight that that of a man. Indeed, in many societies, women have been relegated to a position of virtual slavery. They have no rights or freedoms by custom or in law. Throughout their lives they are completely dependent on males. A quotation from the Hindu book, the Laws of Manu, sums up the reality of the situation for most women in almost every society: 'In childhood, a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead, to her sons; a woman must never be independent.'
While of course, religion is not the sole factor responsible for the suppression of women, it is nevertheless true that this social subjugation is underpinned by the authority of religion. Since religion is the source for the values and morality of a traditional society, religion's doctrinal and moral attitude to women fashions the social milieu that justifies their subjugation. In addition, whether we consider suttee in India, clitoridectomy in Muslim North Africa or the witch-hunts of Europe and North America, it has been religious traditions that have sanctioned and given moral authority to violence towards women. [...]
Women have been excluded from religious learning. Women are forbidden to read and study the Vedas in classical Hinduism and the Talmud in Orthodox Judaism. In the United States, women were excluded from Christian theological faculties and seminaries until the middle of the nineteenth century. The religious hierarchy in most religions is male-dominated. Whether Hindu Brahmin priests, Buddhist monks, Zoroastrian mobeds, Jewish rabbis, Christian priests or Muslim ulema are considered, all are exclusively or predominantly male preserves. Even in Buddhism, where Buddha himself gave permission for the setting up of an order of nuns, the Buddhist scriptures represent him as having been very reluctant to do so [...three times] saying, 'If women go forth under the rule of the Dharma, this Dharma will not be long-enduring.' He said that it would be like a blight descending upon a field of sugar cane. Eventually he relented, however, and allowed an order of nuns. However, the nuns were to remain subordinate to the monks in all ways.”
In general, the traditional patriarchal religions are more misogynistic and although in developed countries these religions have somewhat weakened, this isn't just a historical battle. The dominance of traditional religions and their cultural heritage seriously hinders the emancipation of women across the globe4. Immigrant communities in the West continue practices endorsed by their home religions - "some estimates suggest that 90 percent of European Muslim wives are physically abused"5. Sexism and women's rights are regularly reported on by secular human rights bodies such as Amnesty International, which finds itself criticizing religious institutions. Amnesty International's 2009 compendium of horrors, "The State of the World's Human Rights", devotes some space to women's rights, including tales of torture and oppression, and compared (as always) the statistics to previous years. "In Iran and many other countries, Amnesty detected a retreat in women's rights, often in the name of religion. [... But] it is not just Muslim theocracies that Amnesty blame for maltreating women" as their stance on equality and women's rights has also brought them into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church6. In his study on fundamentalists, Ruthven (2007) finds that all kinds "are often obsessed with human sexuality, and in particular, controlling expression of female sexuality":
“It appears that nearly all fundamentalist groups or churches studies by scholars reject legal steps to ensure equality between the sexes and typically exclude women from the senior ranks of religious leadership. All or almost all express concern about control of female sexuality.”
“... judging from the fact that the condition of women is most degraded in those countries where Church and State are in closest affiliation, as in Spain, in Italy, in Russia and in Ireland, and most advanced in nations where the power of ecclesiasticism is markedly on the wane, the inference is obvious that the Bible and the religion based upon it have retarded rather than promoted the progress of woman.”
Pagan and Earth-centered religions not only to treat women equally, but sometimes are dominated by women. When Christianity was still mostly the same as paganism, it treated women equally. Brutal Pauline Tertullian Christianity eradicated this tolerance10 and also gave us modern Christianity. Partially as a backlash against immorality and oppression, Protestantism was a partial return to the more liberal, pagan, ways of Christianity's past. The feminist movement was "pathetically weak" even as late as the First World War, and it only flourished in Protestant environments9.
The struggle for emancipation in areas historically dominated by patriarchal religions is not just a matter of political correctness or liberalism. The prevalence of rape is, for example, directly correlated with the strict religiosity. In a summary of research on rape Hollin (1989) lists the three main social factors in 'rape cultures': "the sexes are clearly separated; there is a general subscription to male dominance; male violence is sanctioned for solving personal problems"11 and notes that symptoms are men taking priority in work, family and sex. Although Hollin does not mention religion, most of these symptoms are clearly associated with traditional religions, and not just Abrahamic ones: Buddhist monasteries are nearly always separated along lines of gender, with the male communities in charge of the female ones and Buddhism from the outset encoded misogyny. Aside from rape, amongst Christians "the probability of wife abuse increases with the rigidity of a church's teachings pertaining to gender roles and hierarchy"12. The approach of traditional religions to womankind in general causes much social malaise.
Although there has been much progress in the elimination of gender bias Bryan Wilson comments that even in developed Western countries Christian churches have remained behind secular society13, which has thankfully now come to accept the equality of women both formally and on the ground. Victor Stenger writes in "God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist" that monotheism's attitude towards women is an indicator that believing in God does not increase one's morality14.
Secular society has made massive progress and in most developed countries, there are few areas where women are routinely discriminated against. Where it exists, discrimination in workplaces is largely indirect and accidental. This is because the masses have largely grown beyond any systematic subjugation of women: any prejudice that remains is widely recognized as prejudice. In a recent talk at the Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom & Equality event, the invited speaker Naomi Phillips spoke on women's reproductive rights and said that although secularism doesn't guarantee fair rights for women, it is still a necessary prerequisite simply because of the limiting harm that religion has so far done; the biggest threat to such rights still come from strict religion-based lobby groups.15
New religions are unlike traditional religions which have tended to be horribly misogynistic. The Bahai Faith (1844CE+) is a liberal Abrahamic NRM that suggests greater equality for women16. Modern Pagan and Wiccan religions are actively pro-women17. They were founded (in the twentieth century) on a conscious policy of inclusion and fairness17. The same century saw the rise of Satanism. You might assume it to be no place to look for good examples but although in the 1960s Anton LaVey, its founder, sounded misogynistic in his more personal writings, The Satanic Witch (1970) was a highly progressive and liberal volume for its time. Since then, the Church of Satan has thoroughly shed any gender bias, and a female high priestess followed on from LaVey.
This section is the conclusion from "Islam and Women" by Vexen Crabtree (2011). Its full contents is:
Much of the negative doctrine about women comes from the Qur'an and the canonical hadiths which record Muhammad's sayings. Suras 24:30-31 and 33:59, and hadiths 4092 and 4092 of Abu-Dawud, instruct that women must dress modestly, completely covered, with only hands and face showing. Sura 4:34 states clearly that men have authority over women, and can beat disobedient women. Recorded hadiths confirm that men can beat their women, and that the women who complain about it are reprehensible (Abu-Dawud 2141,2142); rates of wifebeating are very high in Muslim countries, according to Pakistan's own medical institute the rate there is 90%. The hadiths have Muhammad preach that women are inferior intellectually and religiously (Sahih al-Bukhari 6:301, Sahih Muslim 1:142). Sahih al-Bukhari 59:709 states that a nation ruled by a woman will not be successful. Muhammad's most beloved wife Aisha says that men have such rights over women, that if women understood, they would happily wipe the dust from their husband's feet with their faces. Women's testimony is worth less than a man's, and women inherit less. The Qur'an is addressed to males and the text assumes that males are reading it, males are enforcing the rules, and women are subordinate (i.e. Sura 4:15-6). Wives are given permission to do things by their men; never the other way round. Hadiths 3367 and 3368 in Sahih Muslim record that God is only happy with a woman if her husband is happy with her, and, if he calls her to bed for sex, she should comply. The language in the Qur'an is objectifying and talks of women in terms of ownership. Sura 2:225 says that "women are fields: go, then, into your fields whence you please". The influence of the Qur'an and the Hadiths, and the entire religion of Islam and all of the countries where it is dominant, have in total formed a system of thorough male dominance and the systematic abuse of womankind. It is rooted in the core of the religion. Like the Christians, Muslims must learn to ignore and overlook the misogynistic verses in their holy text. Until they do that, Islam will remain an enemy of women.
Honour killings are when the male members of a family murder a female, typically at a young age, for what they perceive to be misconduct. However, this includes things like not following the religion of the parents, not dressing as is their cultural norm, refusing an arranged marriage, dating someone not approved of by the parents, blasphemy against the family religion or for being raped. Although that last one sounds especially horrible, the Qur'an stipulates that if rape cannot be proven then the victim is as bad as having committed infidelity (the punishment for which can be death), and that a requirement for proof is four male witnesses. Women are sometimes at such a disadvantage that little can be done and unfortunately, these types of judgements are often brought into otherwise modern countries by immigrants from places where misogynistic patriarchalism is unquestioned. Honour killings stem from countries which observe strict monotheistic religions, or, from cultures that are still under the sway of such religions. Even if those religions do not actually endorse it, they often endorse male dominance in such a way that allows the practice of honour killing to continue.
“'Honour killings' for alleged sexual misconduct by women are far from being limited to mountainous, tribal regions [such as Afghanistan]: they occur in many other parts of the world, and though Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq furnish numerous examples, honour killings are far from being confined to Muslim societies. The culture of 'honour and shame', in which masculine honour and identity are predicated on female virtue, was until recently just as prevalent in Catholic Spain and Sicily, and the Orthodox Balkans, as it [is] in Muslim lands.”
Even in "While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within" by Bruce Bawer (2006), which is a book that actively reports on problems with Islam, the author has to admit that honour killings are not just a problem with that particular religion; in modern times "the first one uncovered in Sweden was by a Palestinian Christian who murdered his daughter in 1994 for spurning an arranged marriage"19. He provides multiple examples, which can serve as examples of what type of thing we mean when we say 'honour killing':
The religious hierarchy in Buddhism is typically male-dominated, as it is in most traditional religions. Moojan Momen writes: "Even in Buddhism, where Buddha himself gave permission for the setting up of an order of nuns, the Buddhist scriptures represent him as having been very reluctant to do so [...three times] saying, 'If women go forth under the rule of the Dharma, this Dharma will not be long-enduring.' He said that it would be like a blight descending upon a field of sugar cane. Eventually he relented, however, and allowed an order of nuns. However, the nuns were to remain subordinate to the monks in all ways"3.
Nuns in Tibetan lineages of Buddhism can never be more than 'novices' because there is no ordination process for them; and female Therevada Buddhists cannot become ordained either because the lineage required died out and has not been revived due to opposition from male-dominated Buddhist authorities21.
Lama Choedak Rinpoche explains a little of the current situation in an article celebrating his organising of an ordination event for female Buddhists in Australia:
“The controversy surrounding female ordination is not a problem restricted only to Christianity. Even though ordination of women in Buddhism occurred during the life of the Buddha, his initial reluctance to ordain women seems to have been misinterpreted by many people. This misinterpretation has left a legacy of doubt and indecision among the orthodox Buddhist leaders. Some Buddhist countries did not even introduce the Bhikhuni ordination while others who did could not sustain the lineage for long. The Bhikhuni ordination was never introduced to Tibet even though there are hundreds of nunneries there. Theravadin tradition lost the lineage that they once had and initiatives to revive the tradition in Thailand have faced stiff opposition from the mainstream Buddhist leadership.
Tibetan Buddhists proudly claim that theirs is the complete form of Buddhism, but it would be hard to maintain this if Bhikhuni ordination is not established. It is said that in order to say that there is Dharma in a land there should be Sangha consisting of four members, including fully ordained Bhikhunis. Whatever are the reasons, there are miserably few female teachers in Tibetan Buddhism and a few seem to be in that position because of the merit of there being sisters or daughters of well known male teachers. Nunneries do not have qualified female teachers and even countries, which have a Bhikhuni ordination system, are reluctant to have female Buddhist teachers.”
"The First Bhikhuni Ordination in Australia" (2007)22
Some authors such as Rita Gross, are positive about the relationship between Buddhism and women. She says that "a reconstructed authentic core of Buddhism reflects and supports feminist values, in so far as it is 'without gender bias, ..., and that sexist practices are in actual contradiction with the essential core teachings of the tradition'"23. Given the actual historical relationship, how can she hold to this view? Well, she adds two caveats. Firstly, presumably when she says "core teachings" she defines it in a way that removes social teachings, and secondly the caveat in the middle of her statement (replaced by an ellipsis, above) adds: "whatever the practical record may reveal". Unfortunately, even if Buddhist philosophy was gender-neutral, it is only the practical side that has any meaning! There is no difference between being denied equality and standing by someone who backs it up with a proper understanding of their own religion, and, being subjugated by someone who backs it up with an improper understanding of their own religion. Either way, the religion's teachings ought to state gender equality, especially as no text has been written in times when misogyny and patriarchy have not been infamous. Nonetheless Rita Gross's position is further undermined "when she starts generalizing that all religions were originally non-patriarchal until they were subverted by men" (Hawthorn 2011), and other historians have criticized her approach as "unhistorical".
Traditional religion has been terrible for women's freedom and gender equality. The restrictions and taboos on womankind have ranged from the openly oppressive and inhumane, to subtle subjugation. Women have been barred from leadership positions, prevented from attaining education in general and religious education in particular, given inferior status as citizens, and in law as witnesses. Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all follow the same path, although the monotheistic religions have been worse. Although some of this stems from ancient cultural source before it happened to be codified in world religions24, it is surely organized religion that has clung on to patriarchalism long after society has liberalized.
It seems that there is little that can be done to remove matriphobic commentary from the texts of the traditional world religions; societies must come to either ignore the texts (as most Christians do) or abandon religion (as many Westerners have done). New religions have tended to practice and enshrine gender equality, such as Paganism, Satanism and Wicca. Feminist groups have frequently been anti-religion simply because it is religion that has presented itself as one of the biggest oppressors of womankind. The most readily accepted cure for both intolerance, religion and superstition is widely shown to be education. The position of women improves as traditional religions lose their grip on society in the modern world.
Pages on "Human Sexuality" by Vexen Crabtree
The Koran. Translation by N. J. Dawood. Penguin Classics edition published by Penguin Group Ltd, London, UK. First published 1956, quotes taken from 1999 edition.
Anderson, M S
The Ascendancy of Europe 1815-1914 (1985). Second edition. Published by Pearson Education Limited, Essex, UK. Anderson is Professor Emeritus of International History in the University of London and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
A Short History of Myth: Volume 1-4 (2005). Kindle edition 2008. First published in Great Britain in 2005 by Canongate Books Ltd.
While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within (2006). Published by Broadway Books.
Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion (2011). Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. First published 2009.
"Sexuality in Satanism: 3. Anton LaVey and Women" (2002). Accessed 2013 Apr 05.
Lost Christianities (2003). Hardback. Oxford University Press, New York, USA.
The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987, Ed.). 16 volumes. Eliade is editor-in-chief. Published by Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, USA.
Hawthorne, Sîan. Hawthorn is Lecturer in Critical Theory and the Study of Religions and Chair of the Centre of Gender and Religions Research at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK.
Religion and Gender (2011). This essay is chapter 7 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011).
Religion and Social Transformations (2001). Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, UK, in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. This was a course book for the OU module "Religion Today: Traditional, Modernity and Change" which ran until 2011.
Hollin, Clive R.
Psychology and Crime (1989). An introduction to criminological psychology. 2006 reprint. Published by Routledge.
The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (1999). 2001 paperback edition published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
What it meant and what is means: feminism, religion and interpretation (2001), chapter 3 of "Religion and Social Transformations" by D. Herbert (2001).
Fundamentalism (2007). First edition 2005. New edition now published as part of the “Very Short Introduction” series. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
Cults: Secret Sects and Radical Religions (2007). Hardback. Published by Carlton Books.
Stanton, Elizabeth C.. (1815-1902)
The Woman's Bible (1898). Amazon's Kindle digital edition. Produced by Carrie Lorenz and John B. Hare. Public Domain.
Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (2007). Published by Prometheus Books. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.
Religion in Secular Society (1966). Penguin Books softback first edition.