We know it’s about power and for centuries, perhaps ever since we humans were hunter-gatherers, women have been confined to the home while men provided for the family and engaged in public life. This seems sensible when women were tending children but it has given birth to patriarchy and a belief that women are somehow inferior to men. What was it Aristotle said, “the relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled.” And that great Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, also accepted that women should be subject to men and saw man’s superiority as coming from the fact that he had been created first and directly from God while woman had been created from man and therefore not quite made in the image of God in the way that man was. This of course didn’t come from nowhere. Aquinas was influenced by Aristotle and was reflecting on texts in the Christian scriptures such as that of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he says “man was not created for the sake of woman but woman created for the sake of man”. And for centuries Christianity identified woman with Eve and responsible for bringing sin into the world.
It’s not surprising that religions have been so negative about women. Even those that are more recent and boast of equality betray patriarchy at some point. For example in the Bahai Faith women can be part of local and national Spiritual Assemblies but not of the central governing body, the Universal House of Justice. There always seems to be a point beyond which religions will not go with regards to women. Today all religions would claim equality between men and women even if they maintain they’ve different roles in society. But it’s impossible for religions not to be influenced by the patriarchal society into which they were born and grew up. There’s not one that I’ve come across that’s not influenced in some way by patriarchal assumptions and attitudes.
Sometimes believers will try to distinguish between religion and culture, suggesting that religion has an ideal that’s been negatively influenced by culture. I’m not too sure how it’s possible to do this but it’s certainly true that often religious scriptures betray a view of women that has been overlooked and overtaken by more negative views. In the Qur’an there are many surahs that show women in a positive light. Both men and women are created equal from a single soul and are equal in the sight of God, have the same duty to search for knowledge and will receive the same reward. But the ambivalence is also there. The Qur’an states that men are in charge of women because Allah has made one of them to excel the other, the woman’s role is to serve her husband. It even states ‘I have not left any disorder more damaging to man than woman’. It’s a bit like the Buddha who is reported as saying that his Sangha would not last as long once women were admitted. One of the difficulties within religion is that often these kinds of statements are taken at face value and given divine status.
So what do women do about this? It’s important to recognise the cultural context in which scriptures were written and not take such negative attitudes at their face value. It’s important to see how definitions of women and directives as to how they’ve to behave (like wearing hats in Church or serving their husbands no matter what) are likely to reflect the norms of a patriarchal society. What’s more likely to be true to the tradition are those aspects of the religion that challenge the prevailing norms of the time and give a new view of women and their place in society. These have survived in spite of the prevailing culture though over the years they’ve not been emphasised and even forgotten. It’s been the strong women in our faiths who have taught us to read between the lines, to recognise the liberating aspects of our faiths and to have the confidence to believe in ourselves and not allow anyone or any tradition to put us into a box, denying us the right to be responsible for our own development and faith journey.