Reinterpreting religion without reference to gender
A Woman's Place: Religious Women as Public Actors
Edited by Azza Karam
World Conference on Religion and Peace
There is a famous Chinese saying that women hold up half of the sky. But such has not always been acknowledged by the leadership of most religions, which have traditionally been dominated by men.
A new book published by the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) seeks to in some ways to address this imbalance, by showcasing the contributions of women of faith in the public arena.
A Woman's Place: Religious Women as Public Actors is a compilation of 11 essays by women representing a wide variety of religious traditions, specifically: African traditional spirituality, the Bahá'í Faith, Buddhism, Chinese traditional religion, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.
Edited by Azza Karam, director of WRCP's Women's Program, the essays seek to document the achievements of ordinary women within their respective religious communities and also to demonstrate that religious women are "capable, articulate, active, aware, and totally committed."
The book succeeds in achieving these goals - and more. The essays vary greatly in their styles and approaches. Some put forward a largely historic overview of the role of women in their religious communities while others draw heavily on scripture, offering a reinterpretation that upholds a wider role for women. Taken all together, however, the compilation goes far to show that the underlying message in virtually all of the world's major religions can be understood without reference to gender.
In her essay on "Buddhist Attitudes Toward Women," Rita Gross observes first that "the core teachings of this 2,500-year-old tradition are gender-free and gender-neutral", but "this has not meant that women and men have been accorded the same status or expected to accomplish the same things throughout most of Buddhist history."
Ms. Gross says that Buddhism's emergence in a male-dominated culture led to religious practice that was often patriarchal if not outright misogynistic. Nevertheless, she writes, it is today possible to reinterpret Buddhism so that its practice is no longer driven by a "subtle or obvious preference for men and their interests."
This has been made possible, she writes, partly by the emergence of large groups of Buddhist lay people who define themselves as serious practitioners but who also participate in ordinary domestic and economic activities. Those lay activities, Ms. Gross writes, are more traditionally in the "women's sphere" - and have led to the development of a "large and strong core of women teachers who are well educated, well practiced, articulate and not male-identified."
Writing about Protestant Christianity, Nelia Beth Scovill argues that fundamentalist Christian doctrines that marginalize women are likewise based on a largely patriarchal interpretation of scripture - and are not necessarily directly supported by the Bible itself.
"While the theological tradition supporting women's subordination has dominated the history of Christian theology, it has not been the only tradition," writes the Rev. Scovill, a minister in the Disciples of Christ church. "Throughout Christian history, both male and female Christians have argued that God's design for creation is egalitarian rather than hierarchical."
She quotes St. Paul in Galatians 3:28: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
In an essay on Islam, Souad Ibrahim Saleh likewise argues that although the treatment of women in Islam has been less than equal, it is possible to reinterpret the Quran and the traditional sayings of Muhammad to show that Muslim women must be treated at least as moral equals with Muslim men.
"Islam gives the duty of reforming the society on all believers, males and females alike," writes Ms. Saleh, a professor at the Women's College, Al-Azhar University, in Cairo. "Both of them are responsible and none is exempted because this duty is not based on gender, but rather on the fact that they are both part of humanity... In other words, Muslim women and men have an equal role to play in society."
The book's final essay, "Women, Social Action, and the Common Good" by Janet Khan, provides a Bahá'í viewpoint on women's role in public life. In many ways it stands in sharp contrast to the other essays inasmuch as there is little sense of apology or justification. That is because the Bahá'í Faith not only explicitly upholds the spiritual equality of women and men in its sacred scriptures but also unequivocally states that this equality must today be "expressed in both individual and social practice," as Dr. Khan puts it.
"Indeed, the promulgation and implementation of the principle of the equality of the sexes throughout the world is one of the primary aims of the Bahá'í Faith," writes Dr. Khan, who works in the Research Department at the Bahá'í World Centre.
The worldwide Bahá'í community has largely lived up to this principle in its practice, Dr. Khan writes, noting that women form a high percentage of the elected leadership of Bahá'í governing councils at the local and national levels, relative to society at large. "In 1997, it was found that 32 percent of the members of the 172 Bahá'í National Assemblies were women," she writes. Worldwide, in national civil legislatures, the figure is 13 percent for women, she notes.
Dr. Khan further points out that the Bahá'í scriptures indicate that women have an essential role to play in the establishment of world peace. "In the Bahá'í view, the expression of the equality of men and women is a vital and indispensable component in the spiritual and social evolution of humanity," she writes.
Taken as a whole, A Woman's Place offers a powerful counterweight to those who might say that the historic oppression of women by male religious leaders cannot be reversed. Bahá'ís believe, of course, that humanity has entered a new era, one in which the equality of women and men has been fully revealed as a spiritual principle and in which its social practice will ultimately be fully realized. The essays in this book show how those religions that were revealed before humanity's entry into this new age can be reinterpreted so as to become congruent with the new reality.