No Girls Allowed? Are The World′s Religions Inevitably Sexist?

Thursday, February 11th, 2010, 03:54 WIB
No religion labels itself "patriarchal" or "sexist." Instead, religions generally teach their members that in "our" religion, women are treated properly, indeed, in the only possible manner. However, the same religion may criticize the treatment of women in other religions. This kind of critique reveals an interesting value judgment. All religions agree that women should be treated properly, not abused or mistreated. Some religions, in fact, argue that their current norms represent an improvement in the treatment of women over what their predecessors did. Mistreatment of women is only found in other traditions.

Therefore, most people grow up believing that women are well-treated in their religion, if they think about the status of women at all. Even when a religion teaches that women are inferior to men or that women must submit themselves to men, women are especially encouraged to regard these teachings as valuable and useful, rather than problematic. Many religious organizations actively promote the view that feminism is an anti-religious movement and a great danger to the faithful.

Nevertheless, no scholar or theologian who uses feminist definitions of humanity would pronounce a clean bill of health on any of the world's major religious traditions. Applying standard definitions of patriarchy or sexism to any of the great world religions quickly reveals sexist teachings and institutions. In many cases, men are thought to be spiritually superior to women, more likely to meet the tradition's definition of the ideal believer or practitioner. The birth of males is often preferred to the birth of females; women who give birth to males are rewarded, while those who do not suffer. In most cases, men hold most or all of the roles of authority and prestige in religious organizations.

From these positions, they control and dictate the norms of the tradition for all women. Women are often not invited or allowed to participate in the interpretation or construction of tradition. Often women's ability to participate in key rituals is severely limited and they are almost never allowed to be the leaders of such rituals. In the private sphere, men are given authority over females in their households, and women are taught to submit to that authority. Some religious teachings blame women for the limitations and painfulness of human existence. Images of ultimate reality or the divine are frequently male in gender, while female images are forbidden and called idolatry. By feminist standards of evaluation, all these extremely common religious practices and judgments are patriarchal and sexist, hence degrading to women and inappropriate.

Basic Issues in Feminist Theology
In my view, the most difficult question facing a feminist who discovers her traditional religion to be patriarchal and sexist is what to do next. Some of the bitterest disagreements within feminist theology concern this question. Will one continue to identify in some way with one of the major religions, despite its sexism? Or will one abandon that tradition as unworkable, but, still wanting a spiritual practice, take up a new, post-patriarchal religion? This question has divided feminists almost from the beginning.

Very early in the feminist theology movement, Carol Christ proposed names for these two points of view. In a 1977 article, she suggested that those feminists who sought to transform religion from within could be called "reformists," while those who sought to develop a new, nontraditional feminist form of religion could be called "revolutionaries." This distinction is also central to the 1979 collection Womanspirit Rising. In their introduction to the book, Christ and co-editor Judith Plaskow wrote:
"While feminists agree on the general outlines of the critique of Jewish and Christian theology,...they very much disagree on the reformability of the tradition. For some, the vision of transcendence within the tradition is seem as an authentic core of revelation, pointing toward freedom from oppression, a freedom they believe is articulated more clearly and consistently within tradition than without. Others believe that the prebiblical past or modern experience provide more authentic sources for feminist vision."

Almost immediately, many rejected these labels as hierarchical."Revolutionaries," the word seemed to imply, are more radical and, therefore, "better than reformists," though Christ and Plaskow repeatedly insisted that no ranking of the positions was intended or implied. In my view, their terminology may or may not be unwise, but the distinction named by that terminology is real and basic, and the critical difference between the two positions is disagreement over how feminist vision is best served.
The degree to which feminists retain personal links and loyalties with traditional religions, rather than how "radical" they are, is the dividing factor. In fact, some "reformists" are exceedingly radical in the changes they want to make in their traditions, but they maintain dialogue with their tradition and recognize kinship with it. "Revolutionaries," though they sever links with the conventional religions, can be quite conservative in the way in which they identify with ancient traditions they are attempting to revive.

In choosing between these alternatives, two question are uppermost. Each religious feminist must decide where her efforts at feminist transformation of religion will be most effective. Most "reformists’ believe that a feminist transformation of a patriarchal religion has more hope of widespread acceptance than replacing current major religions with new religions created by women. But each feminist must also decide what she needs for her own spiritual survival. Most "revolutionaries" find that the frustration of trying to transform a patriarchal religion into a post-patriarchal religion is simply too agonizing to bear.

Before recounting the achievement of religious feminists who hold these two positions, it is important to highlight their common ground. Most importantly, both positions seek a common goal: feminist transformation of religion beyond patriarchy. Both schools also consider the experience of women to be the starting point of all feminist theology. Feminist theologians affirm that women's experience is a religious authority of utmost importance, never to be overlooked or denied, never to be sacrificed in order to conform to external or traditional sources of authority, such as scripture, theology, or religious institutions. In valuing women's experience as the primary religious authority, feminist theology makes three central claims.