How do religions treat women? How do emancipated women treat religion? A sequence of events recently has made my mind unquiet over this subject. Nita asked if Hinduism was coming of age, with people performing the sacred ‘thread ceremony’ on their daughters. The BJP found itself trapped in the maze of confusion surrounding Hindutva. And Sarkozy said that women wearing burqas were not welcome in France, as it was more a sign of women’s subservience rather than religion. The Rational Fool hailed Sarkozy’s statement, while I and Etlamatey pondered about individual women’s rights in the comments.
Like I always do, I responded to my unquiet mind by thinking, scouring the net, and thinking some more. Here is a sampling of what I found:
- An American convert to Islam urges Muslims to fight against brutality of woman to preserve Islam’s image in the eyes of others
- A Hindu woman converted to Islam says Islam is not oppressive, unlike Hinduism
- A Hindu perspective explains how Abortion is Bad Karma
- Genocide of Women in Hinduism by Sita Agarwal
- Did the burqa bring about the ghunghat or the other way around? Read this.
- Did women have ‘fewer’ rights than men or ‘different’ in the context of Hinduism’s history? A heated debate ensued after Hindus started a campaign to change the content of sixth-grade school history textbooks in California.
- A Globe and Mail opinion piece discusses the reduction in church attendance among Canadian women and whether oppression of women by religious institutions is the main cause, while Tina disagrees in her blog post.
- How does Canadian society achieve gender equality rights enshrined in their Charter, which also protects the right to freedom of religion? The Star looks at the conflict of interests.
- Muslim-dominated Indonesia is a religious country where atheism is banned by law. Alarmed at the extent of oppression of women in their country, a group of Islamic and Christian leaders have released new manuscripts in an effort to use religion to achieve gender equality.
- BBC had an open debate on air on whether religion is an obstacle to gender equality. The extensive comments represent myriad opinions and differing perspectives on this issue. One example of a response to this debate is by Sally, who says that faith is an integral part of her, and suggests women work within their faiths for change.
In the above list, I have not listed any pro-atheist source, and strived to include Hinduism related articles. Referencing articles on Hinduism and gender equality or feminism is difficult for three reasons. One, the global discussion has centered on Islam, and the English-speaking Internet population is largely Christian.
Two, Hinduism is unique in its flexible and diverse interpretations. While all religions are intentionally scripted so as to offer multiple contradictory interpretations, Hinduism wins this ambiguity race by claiming to be ‘all-inclusive’. Devout religious folks from other religions do argue (as seen in the above examples) that the oppression of women is a misinterpretation and misuse of their ‘true’ religion. But Hindus can’t be surpassed in this respect: not only are there multiple contradictory interpretations of Hinduism, even these contradictions can be claimed to be embraced by it. I think it would be a safe bet to say that for every principle supposedly propounded by Hinduism, a contradictory principle can be found within Hinduism. People would not call me a mathematician if I did not follow mathematics, but they will call me a Hindu even if I did not follow it.
Third, for a religion that has existed for centuries, and is said to be flexible and evolving, it is impossible to differentiate religious practices from social customs and traditions. Do Hindu women wear the mangalsutra or bangles because of religion or tradition? Widow burning or sati is widely described in the world as a Hindu practice, but naturally, there are arguments and differing opinions about it.
For atheists like me, the issue is very simple. Religion has been used as an instrument of gender inequality, specifically, in the oppression of women. Removing religion from the picture removes religious and theological justifications for patriarchy, as Austin argues. Sally says that in the absence of religion, men will find other ways to oppress women, hence religion as such is not an obstacle. Indeed, many factors contribute to gender inequality, one of them being economic prosperity, as this chart shows.
However, there still exists a strong correlation between the extent of ‘organic atheism’ (as opposed to ‘coerced atheism’ like in communist countries) in a country and its overall gender equation. Both the 2004 and 2006 rankings of the Gender Empowerment Measure, which is part of the the UNDP’s Human Development Report, show that the top ten nations with the highest gender equality are all strongly organic atheistic nations, while the bottom ten are all highly religious countries with insignificant number of atheists. But, as Phil Zuckerman points out in the The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, the causal relationship is in reverse: overall societal health causes widespread atheism, not the other way around.
It is impossible to argue against faith and belief, so I do not venture much into such debates. I prefer not challenging other people’s beliefs as long as they do not interfere with my life. What I find perplexing is how even emancipated women prefer to remain within their religious faiths and struggle against oppression, rather than choosing to discard religion? If faith and belief are important, and hence atheism and agnosticism are rejected, why are other forms of theism not popular?
In the end, I think I differ from Sarkozy: if women choose to be subservient, let them be. It is their right. Men should not trample over that right, though they can trample over such women, if they wish.
Update 30th June: A few significant articles I found since writing this post:
- Few public figures have taken this topic head on. Cherie Booth, wife of ex-PM Tony Blair, gave a speech almost two years ago: Religion no excuse for gender inequality. Like many other ‘feminists’ I mentioned, she however suggests using religion as a weapon in the fight for women’s rights.
- God is merciful, but only if you’re a man. An excellent piece in The Observer that asks the exact same questions I did, and offers the exact same answer Rational Fool did in the comments – Stockholm Syndrome.
- Wherever religion and its patriarchs rule, women’s lives are in danger, an Opinion piece.
- Why Women Need Freedom From Religion, from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
(All cartoons are from www.atheistcartoons.com)