Is Religion Good for Women? A Symposium
I am from a very religious Muslim family in Somalia where everything was about men. As women, we were responsible for always following them, looking to them as gods and respecting them because they were made in the image of God. The camel has more rights than women, in the eyes of men. Being born into the body of a woman automatically meant that you were a defective human being in need of reconstruction—and that mutilation was the way for women to attain their place in society as honorable, noble, chaste girls and pleasurable commodities for men. When I was a girl, my mother was standing right there as strangers were inflicting pain upon me, removing my healthy organs and feeding them to street dogs. Six thousand girls are mutilated like this every day, and 140 million women, like me, walk this world as survivors. Those of us who stand up and speak for them are called shaytans, devils.
Female genital mutilation is a tradition in many societies that serves as a girl’s rite of passage into womanhood. It has never been an obligation of religion, but people still believe it is a religious act because it is the only way to make women faithful, obedient and chaste. It’s not only Muslims, but also Christians, Ethiopian Jews and non-religious people who practice this. I have studied all the religions, and I have never found any that views women as equals or gives them a voice. Every religion has a way of controlling women’s bodies, and it’s not just in Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Malaysia or India. Right now in the United States, men use policy, instead of religion, to control women’s rights and women’s bodily integrity, all because they think abortion is bad.
Soraya Mire is the author of The Girl With Three Legs: A Memoir, and director of the film Fire Eyes, which documents female genital mutilation.
Religion has been and continues to be good for men, women and children—all of humanity. All human beings want to know why they live, who they are, where they come from and where they are going. Only religion can speak to these existential questions. Being anchored in something transcendent—something larger than the self—will help anyone live a more whole, sane and fulfilled—and therefore, happier—life.
There are aspects of Judaism that can be understood as patriarchal. There are certainly aspects of the tradition that can be understood as matriarchal. For instance, a Jew is considered a Jew if his or her mother is Jewish. This is an overwhelming statement about the conduit of the soul being female, the mother being the steward of the child’s identity and the formative influence of the home and the entire nation. But irrespective of matriarchal or patriarchal strands, in the final analysis, the main focus of Judaism is the covenantal relationship. Judaism is about a person understanding that they are part of a millennia-long covenant with God, that their essential identity is connected to their people’s history and destiny and to the defining biblical and rabbinic dictums, and finally, that they are enjoined to be a light unto the nations. Ultimately, this consciousness informs the everyday of the engaged Jew—male and female alike—much more so than gender. As such, men and women might do well spending less time posturing and positioning themselves and worrying about public recognition and stature. The focus should instead be on reciprocity and cooperation in embracing and fulfilling their God given mission in life. When women and men each unleash their unique energies and utilize their distinctive gifts in sincere, humble and united service of God, religion is good for everyone.
Rivkah Slonim is education director at the Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at Binghamton University and editor of Bread and Fire: Jewish Women Find God in the Everyday.
Religion has been good for me, and I’m a woman. Faith keeps me grounded in values of community, how we care for each other and the common good—and that makes it good for all people. The struggle for women’s equality in the Catholic Church has very little to do with faith and a lot to do with Church politics. Within the Catholic Church right now, there’s a cultural struggle over Church structure. We live in a democratic culture, so our expectations as citizens of democracy is that we have an impact, that we can make change. The Church structure, however, comes out of the culture of European monarchy, which is all about the king being right. Where we are right now is not ideal, but I don’t know of any human structure that is ideal. The Gospel that was read at a recent mass was Jesus’ story about a person who needs food for a neighbor. He goes and knocks on a door, and the owner says, “Go away, go away, you’re bothering me.” But he keeps knocking, and finally, the owner comes out and gives some food so he can feed his neighbor. And I thought that maybe this is like women’s struggle. If we keep knocking on the door, eventually someone will answer.
Sister Simone Campbell is executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobbying group. She helped organize the 2012 “Nuns on a Bus” tour.
I’m afraid that my immediate reaction to your question is that religion has not been good for women in any tradition that I am familiar with, if you take as a definition of “good” being treated equally with men. It is remarkable how recently women have begun to be treated equally, allowed to become rabbis, priests and ministers, though not all groups even today do this. But that would make a very depressing comment from me. I am sure there are ways in which traditional religions have been good for women, but that is not a topic I have considered in depth.
Robert Bellah died on July 30, 2013. He was Elliott Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age.
Churches, synagogues and mosques are places where women can have social roles outside the home, take part in the community and have some power or leadership role. It’s also a place where some values that are important to women are respected: being faithful to your wife, being a good father. Nietzsche pointed out that Christianity was the religion of women and slaves, meaning that the “weak” enslaved the strong. While he thought of this as a bad thing, it’s true that the values of religion—kindness, mercy, generosity, nonviolence—appeal to people without a lot of social power. The flip side is that the doctrines of most religions, vis-à-vis women, are pretty appalling: Your sexuality should be controlled by men; you should be controlled by your husband; you should be silent or obedient; you should be more like the Virgin Mary or a good Jewish wife, a la A Price Above Rubies.
A couple hundred years ago, religions were a lot more frank about the inferiority of women—saying that women are less intelligent than men, that they can’t be independent human beings, or even that they’re evil. Today, the argument is that the sexes are equal but different. Of course, these differences are always in ways that leave men with all the power. Some religions have made huge amounts of progress in regards to women—increasingly if it were not for women’s enrollment in schools of theology, the schools would shut down. But these more progressive religions are precisely the ones people are less interested in. Most of the growth is instead taking place in the most conservative religions, which are using a lot of their energy against women’s liberation.
Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation and the author of Virginity or Death!: And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time.
Janice Shaw Crouse
Judeo-Christian values have formed a foundation that has allowed women to gain greater respect and dignity than any other force in human history. The Bible is very clear that women must be treated with respect and dignity, and we’re taught that Jesus said we are all created equal. Having strong faith and values has inoculated women from many of the evil forces in our culture today, such as abortion, free sex, the mainstreaming of homosexuality and the efforts of radical feminist groups to make quotas for women. All of these forces—which are not religious at all—are detrimental to a strong culture, a strong community, strong families and strong individuals. And because of them, we’re seeing unacceptable rates of teen pregnancy, the highest number of people on food stamps ever and astronomical rates of sexually transmitted diseases—all of which have been extremely harmful to women, young people and families.
Janice Shaw Crouse is a senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute of Concerned Women for America and was a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush.