Women and Religion

It is suggested that in the earliest times female deities were significant because of the need for agricultural fertility. They were also important because of the small scale isolated nature of human existence. With this was an important status for women. Obviously it is difficult to generalise but such societies were likely to be matrifocal (focussed on women; matriarchal societies would be female led hierarchies). The women with their children were the centre of local society in groups around whom the men would move. In such a society there are fewer predicaments which face members over territory and property. It is more a co-operative structure throughout but of individuals and about improving the position of everyone though the seasons of every year. Problems were solved by reference to individuals and the welfare of the group.

So the earliest magical societies were mutual and co-operative with few ties around an imposed social status. This was to change with a rise in the population and changes in patterns of agriculture where people who identified themselves as a unit were brought into greater contact with other people.

Nomadic herding brought forward the place of male deities because, as they as a people moved around and across territories, there was fighting. In other words, competition and power became important, with decisions made against some people and for others. There were divisions ans schisms and winners and losers. With such larger and fractious interaction and proximity and tighter knit base groups, women became more identified within and limited to their reproductive role. They also became more attached as a requirement to their husbands. Societies became patriarchal. This change was up to 300 BCE.

The Sambhava Parva, 122, in the Mahabharata, remembers a time when women went about freely without adhering to their husbands but the Rishi called Uddalaka decided that it was sinful for women not to adhere to their husbands. To stray was as sinful as killing an embryo. When the husband commanded her to have children she had to, otherwise this was sinful too. This was written up to 400 BCE.

In patriarchal societies the priestcraft grew even over magic. As men acquired power, so did the priests, who became ordered and essential for carrying out magical and religious rituals. Even into the traditional religions period, women's magic and religion, often suppressed, has been spontaneous and recognised by what they did. In contrast men's religious specialities have been processed through official channels. Only into modernity and further questioning have women's rights been recognised, at first through reluctant inclusion into male structures, and then through changes to those structures themselves.

Athens is an interesting example of patriarchy around 500 BCE and after. Here the concern was a pure people of Athens because two parents had to be Athenian to produce a full citizen male with democratic rights. As a result, women had to have guardians of either their fathers or husbands. Girls on reaching puberty were married off by religious ceremony and shut away under fear that they would otherwise fornicate and produce children from other areas. The men, meanwhile, who made decisions, did enjoy their bodies beautiful, often in the company and intimate company of other men.

Religious faiths have suppressed women through structures and language. Also scriptures and other normative books have favoured men in social and hierarchical codes. Religion has used its influence, and been used, to then suppress women within wider society.

At the core of this has been the one God. Female deities of great power declined as male dieties rose, and eventually the most power acquiring deity was one on his own. That God may have had female helpers or taken on some female characteristics, but he was a male God. Clearly this is most relevant to the near-Eastern religions, with their historical timelines, and singular tradition to rationalising tendencies, and theology, but male power is not exclusive to them. Buddhist and Hindu texts, and hierarchies, are male first.

But it goes further than this. It goes into creation stories, or the duality of spirit and flesh where the spirit is often pure and male where the body is corrupted. There is also the male attitude to menstruation involved here. Sex, instead of being natural, creative and regenerative, becomes corrupted and to be avoided except from necessity, from which the man can walk away. In fact it is better not to be involved at all in such a messy business, and the celibate man becomes highest of all. The priest is thus pure, which in modern terms became a form of vocation of self-denial (when sex was seen more positively again - after all far from all Roman catholic priests in chaste times were ever virgins!).

The corollary of this was that women became impure, and thus most sinful, and also leading men into sin with their charms. Muslim women, for example, covered up all outside sensual appeal, rather like Christian nuns. Thus women to serve God ought to be virgins, or enter marriage with virginity, and be chaste in marriage (never mind faithful). Because of women's greater sin, they really could not be excused infidelities, unlike men who strayed. Also laws and restrictions were developed over women's reproductive and contraceptive activities, so that no part of a woman's existence was beyond the patriarchal laws and customs. Menstruation seemed to be a time for invisibility.

When it came to rites of sacrifice, a central way to please God, it was women who were called upon to be the most sacrificial. However, nothing could get more sacrificial than the wife who burnt herself to death (called Sati) when her husband had died in India. It was to demonstrate absolutely that she had no further life to live once he was dead.

Buddhist texts and aspects of monastic Buddhism became anti women and anti sex in their quest for purity and so did later Hindu writings and wandering traditions. The early Christian Church refused women having authority over men and Tertullian was a noted mysoginist. The Koran says men are superior over women and women can be forced to sleep alone and beaten should their faithfulness be called into question. In more recent times the Bahai faith does not allow women to sit in the Universal House of Justice, its supreme law making body, and intended parliament for the whole world.

Sarasvati, a deity in Hinduism that promotes female educationStill, faiths have recognised women's achievements, perhaps mainly on their restricted terms, but there is some inconsistency too within faiths, so that Paul said that in Christ there is (the potential of) equality, or the Bahais claim equality of men and women (except for supreme decisions!). Buddhism and Hinduism are diverse enough to hold a variety of positions. Still, none of these faiths are as friendly to women as has been (Western) Paganism, whether old or remade, in varied forms.

At a time when the plural and secularised world is at last giving women comparable status, the effect has been to put increasing tensions on religions which continue their ancient traditions. Christianity in parts of Protestant and Catholic expressions ordains women to priests and in some cases bishops. Liberal groups, like Unitarians, were equalitarian from the late nineteenth century. Liberal and Reform Judaism broke away though not particularly for theological or feminist reasons, though the effect has been greater equality. The Bahai Faith has tension within about why women are excluded from its supreme body, and a number have left precisely because of the contradictions and strained debate within (it needs a change similar to 1957-1963). Islam, with Islamic states, has become the most resistant to high modernity, in a religion once (in the so called Dark Ages) the most progressive of faiths, yet seems to feel it more as it resists more. Even discriminatory elements not sanctioned in the Koran as such are maintained as the West is seen as a materialist threat. Western Buddhism has become equalitarian by taking advantage of no central body and by defining a split between essentials and culture (thought the FWBO still removes sexual tensions by splitting the sexes). Hinduism retains its diverse mixture with the more rational being the more progressive.

The outcome of these tensions in the end comes down to that male exhibition of power. Islamic states may resist, but for how long when Iran struggles for modernity and democracy. India sees a rise in Hinduism but remains a secular state, and in other plural countries (or where the state religion has privileges but few sanctions) religion as a whole declines in social impact in the face of the demand for inequality of all sexual and gender definitions. No longer can a religion impose upon the rest of us - it can only argue its case and the case can be rejected, as has happened in Italy and Poland. Gender rights give religions with their deepest crises yet. They will simply regulate their own domains with declining influence beyond, which of course is deadly for their effective continuation if their outreach is forever compromised. The religions, instead of having power over people, find that people choose them for as long as they provide spiritual goods and social contact. Whilst religions in the developing world, or resisting world, have been a strong part of development, in societies where stable secular power defines rights and responsibilities religions have to find ways to adjust. If they do not adjust, they become sectarian, while women assert their rights, and work out their spirituality freely. The rise of the New Age and in small fluid groups suggests that people are again choosing their faiths, rather as women had a more fluid and flexible attitude to the spiritual before patriarchy.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful