Earlier this month, the BBC broadcasted a conference titled “100 Women” covering, among other topics, feminism and whether or not it’s possible for a woman of faith to correctly label herself as a feminist. Considering that those who practice most faithfully to their chosen religions are in fact subscribing to a patriarchy of the most extreme variety, can they find their place in a movement that is specifically trying to put an end to those same values? Many women in those positions say, “yes.”
A panel consisting of six women ~ Balvinder Saund (a Sikh), Caroline Farrow (Roman Catholic), Mirina Paananen (Muslim), Rose Hudson-Wilkin (Christian), Laura Janner-Klausner (Jewish) and Kate Smurthwaite (Atheist) ~ gathered to discuss the question “are faith and feminism compatible,” the conversation was underway. As expected, from the six very different women of very different beliefs you get six very different definitions of what feminism is and what should be achieved by pursuing it. (see link here)
Ms Saund, although doesn’t claim the specific “feminist” title does claim the same desire for equality, even within her faith. What do we know of the Sikh faith? Well in theory it’s based on equality, with the woman and the man being set on an equal playing field. They are of equal souls and may hold equal positions within the faith. Direct harm to women is strictly forbidden, with harsh punishment for those who break this rule. From this view it seems they have achieved what other faiths only claim. However when we look deeper we see that it’s still not what should be acceptable for complete equality. (see link here)
Take, for one example, the rakhee which promotes the idea that women are incapable of fending for herself and is strictly dependent on a man (in this case her brother) for protection, and unable to actually maintain independence. How about Lohri, a day to celebrate the birth of male children. This alone has promoted infanticide against baby girls in an attempt to increase the value of the family. (see link here) Let’s not forget the fact that baby girls also mean that later the family will need to present a dowry to whomever she is to wed, another archaic system of betrothal. It seems that, although they may feel somewhat equal in that they have a set position and expectations of the two sexes is present, in practice things DO need to be adjusted to modern ideals if actual equality is to be gained.
Next we hear from Ms. Farrow, who does claim the “feminist” banner and seems to wave it proudly. She too states that things within the Roman Catholic church are balanced and she feels like her faith cares for women as much as men, although she sees a need for improvement (hence her claim to feminism). Women are allowed to be theologians, monarchs, missionaries and hold position in the church (not in any of the top positions, but certainly as instructors and “sisters” of faith). They are accepted as nurses and scientists and a great many have helped to establish schools, hospitals and nursing homes. But what about issues that are gender-specific?
The catholic church isn’t quite as liberal when it comes to things that affect women on a more personal level; contraception and abortion, for example, are forbidden which puts their own reproduction rights out of their hands. Although it’s said that the majority of positions held within the Catholic church are held by women (see link here) , none of the positions that bring any sort of power or influence can be women. Because of this, many Catholic women are grabbing on to feminism to help, but it’s a horse of a different colour in that they focus on issues that are biologically necessary, rather than of social importance. Women should still try to be the child-bearers and homemakers, rather than seeking positions that would otherwise be held by a man.
Ms. Paananen is an interesting case because she was not born to the Islamic faith, but converted to it and sees it as a faith of equality. Women are said to be held in equal respect to men, and because men see them as equal and treat them as such, women should want to make a comfortable home for their men, feeding and caring for them. This again comes off as not equal in the same sense that many feminists view it, and yet Mirina holds on to the title with one hand and her faith with the other.
A closer look at the Islamic faith shows that women have guidelines (read: rules) about just about every aspect in their lives. Some of the more well-known include restrictions on education, employment (although not prevented by the faith, she needs permission from her spouse to work outside the home), marriage (especially where it concerns child brides), property rights (whether a woman can inherit or maintain her own property after marriage), and important health issues like birth control and female circumcision (which is a problem world-wide, not just the Middle East). Organisations like UNICEF are helping to make strides for children, but especially young girls and women in countries under Islamic rule. (see link here)
Mrs. Hudson-Wilkin, being a Christian with the Church of the England is also a self-proclaimed feminist. There are a lot of similarities between the Catholic faith and other Christians so rehashing women’s place within the church isn’t really necessary. Although claiming equality, again it’s still mostly in antiquated gender roles. There is a group claiming feminism that are working toward getting more women ordained, reproductive rights and even helping Christians within the LGBT community. However, the a large number of Christians still see abortion for any reason to be murder, continue to restrict birth control, and insist that any relationship other than heterosexual marriage to be of sin.
Mrs. Janner-Klausner is a rabbi and also claims to be feminist. She is of the more traditional Jewish faith, not Orthodox so the rules aren’t as restrictive. As a matter of fact, the role of women in Judaism is a little more liberal than those in other faiths. They are allowed to hold position of [relative] power within the “church”, more women are being allowed to read from the Torah publicly (although there is a group seeking the right to read at the “Western Wall” in Jerusalem, a right only allowed to men currently), and more celebratory ceremonies are being created for women to balance the male celebrations (like the Bat Mitzvah in relation to the Bar Mitzva, for example).
That being said, there is still work to be done in awarding divorce to women, protection and prosecution against domestic abuse, limited access to education and various forms of subjugation (not to limit what needs work, just to show example). Obviously the more Orthodox sects would have other issues, some that would mirror the sort of restrictions that the Islamic faith has, like how to dress and a woman’s position in the married relationship. However, it certainly appears that of all of the faiths represented for this discussion Judaism is certainly the closest to what those who don’t live under the dogmatic umbrella of religion that women of other faiths have to live with.
Ms. Smurthwaite, as an atheist seems [to me] to have the easiest to explain and closest (most accurate?) definition to feminism from the panel. This probably sounds jaded or biased coming from an feminist atheist, but some of the very reasons that we are feminists are held tightly within the roots of the aforementioned systems of belief. I understand [somewhat] that these women feel that with certain changes made they will appear more equal. Everyone should have the right to go to school and learn whatever they want, to drive an automobile, and hold any position in whatever church they choose to belong to. Every person has the right to be free from persecution, free to choose whether or not to have their body modified whether it’s decorative or (in the case of circumcision) because of some crude religious practice, and free to have control of their own bodies (birth control, for example).
Because feminist atheists don’t believe in or follow the doctrines of any religion, we don’t have specific guidelines set for us. What the atheist sees as equality differs from those of faith. Since we aren’t limited to specific male/female roles we aren’t expected to stay at home, squeeze out a few kids, and make sure that the man has dinner on the table when he gets home. We can do that, but it’s no longer expected of us or assumed. Now, this is not to say that there are no women of faith working outside the home, quite the contrary. However, and this is an extremely generalizing statement, the majority of those are still expected to return home from work and continue working within the home by then cooking, cleaning and caring for her family. Being a woman is a full time job, which doesn’t end when she finally lays her head on the pillow. She will remain on-call throughout the night, just in case one of the kids falls ill or has a nightmare.
Now, this in no way detracts from what is expected of men in this “specific role” paradigm. However, it remains that there are families that exist that fall into the description that I have just given. Is it possible to seek equality but ignore the most basic qualities of that equality? Is seeking things like birth control and the right to abort a fetus when your own life is at stake possible when you still hold on to antiquated roles in the home left over from the 1950’s? When it comes down to it, can someone who lives under the rules of a doctrine call herself a feminist?
*Author’s note: despite the fact that I believe that gender is not binary, for the sake of brevity and because all faiths claim the man and woman are the two accepted genders I have limited my report to only those two. This is limited to what the religions believe, not inclusive of my own beliefs. Also, this is not an attack on men nor a “call to arms” for women. This is merely a focus on whether women of faith can be feminist.
Sikh Women, Empowered ~ “We are an advocate organization comprising of men and women who believe in social change by harnessing the principles of Sikhism.”
Islamic Feminism ~ “Islamic feminism is a belief to provide the equality between male and female within the Islamic framework.”
Jewish Feminist Theology ~ “From theologies that address the male-ness of God to ones that address the femininity of males.”
UNICEF ~ I cannot begin to explain how important this organisation is and just how many people (in more than 190 countries) are helped by what they accomplish.