The term “religion” refers to a human spiritual approach which comprises of practices, beliefs, and symbols which have a supernatural quality or significance. This gives a follower of a given religion the meaning to the life experiences in reference to the truth. The question of whether there is gender bias in the religion has triggered many debates and discussions in the past and in the modern society. In order to determine whether there is gender bias in the religion, one requires knowing about the history of the major religions that exist and the state of women and men in the religions.
The claims that gender bias exist in the religion emanates from the opinion that women seems to be oppressed in the religion. However, some argue that gender bias has been promoted by application of religious beliefs in a negative way. Every religion has defined roles of both men and women and these differences have played an important role in promoting gender bias.
In all the religions, gender bias is linked to the dominant role that men play in the religion and in the society.
The religious perception of who men and women are and their role determines is an important factor in determining whether gender bias in the religion exists. In this paper, the question of whether religion bias exists in the religion will focus on some of the most popular religions in the world; Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Arguments on why each of these religions is considered to have gender bias will be presented.
In addition, the beliefs in the religions that speak against gender bias will be discussed Discussion
Gender bias in Christianity Christianity is a religion whereby the religious beliefs and practices are based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. Christians are expected to follow the teachings and the religious beliefs that were taught by Jesus. In Christianity, gender bias is linked to the dominant role of men in the religion and the society as compared to that of a woman. According to the Bible in Genesis1:26-28, both man and woman were created equal and in God’s image. Contemporary criticism of Christianity has been attributed to its gender bias.
According to the Bible, the origin of sin is considered to have come from the woman. Some people have used this religious teaching to consider women inferior to men. Another argument that is presented to justify gender bias in Christianity is that almost all the writers of the Holy Scriptures were men, with the exceptions of the book of Eshter. Only a few women participated in the writing of the scriptures. However, women have a strong presence in the Holy Scriptures. These women include, Eshter, Naomi, Deborah, Rachel, Mary Magdalene, and the Virgin Mary.
Christian beliefs and attitudes have varied based on the societies within which the Christians have lived. Because Christianity through its holy scriptures prescribe gender roles for both women and men, lack of involvement or minimal involvement of women in church leadership is considered to be gender bias in the religion. Women until the second half of the twentieth century were not allowed to take part in ecclesiastical and pastoral office duties. Only men were allowed to undertake religious duties in these offices.
This traditional stance of Christianity still remains influential in some Christian denominations (Gilbert, 2006). For instance, the Eastern Orthodoxy, the Roman Catholic and the Complementarian Protestants still have men dominating the church leadership. Although women may participate in church leadership, their role is minimal as compared to the men’s dominant role. For example, the top leadership positions such as those of bishops, archbishops, and priests are reserved for men while women play a minor role in top leadership.
The fact that women have a little role to play in the religions’ top hierarchy is considered to be gender bias in Christianity The role of women in the church is considered to have been overlooked, downplayed or denied throughout the Christian history. The minimal participation of women in religious duties contributed to the domination of men in the society and in government leadership. During the Patristic age, only men were allowed to take the religious teachings offices and sacramental ministry.
The Christian society for a long time has not considered it right to have women serve in the church top leadership However, in the early centuries, the Eastern church allowed women to participate in church leadership to a limited extent by ordaining women as deaconesses. The Western church reserved the position of deacon for men only. In the ancient churches such as the Roman Catholic, Coptic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, church leadership continued to be reserved for men only. Up to date, these churches have the position of the pope, bishop, archbishops, and priests strictly reserved for men.
Women serve the church as nuns. Another argument that is presented to support gender bias in Christianity is the selection of all Jesus’ apostles as men (The Good News Bible, Mark 3:13-35). Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God who suffered, died, and resurrected for their salvation. Jesus is considered to be the Christians’ model of a virtuous life, a physical incarnation of God, and a revealer of God’s message. The New Testament gospel is a written account of Jesus life. According to Christianity, Jesus had twelve disciples who were all men whom he appointed to be the leaders of the church.
This is viewed as the reason why church leadership is often reserved for men. Because priests represent Jesus, then having male priests is considered to be right. Women are not ordained as priests in Christian churches which still hold the traditional stance of having church leadership received for women. Gender bias in Christianity is attributed to lack of ordination of women as priests. Women can only work as nuns but cannot be elevated to the positions of priests, bishops or pope in religious hierarchy (Roman Catholic). In the ancient Christian societies, only men served as priests.
In early Christianity, the religious law makers or the Pharisees applied religious laws that discriminated women . According to the Good News Bible in John 8:1-6,the Pharisees brought an a woman to Jesus who they claimed had committed adultery. According to the Pharisees, the law of Moses required them to stone her to death. Jesus told them that the only one to stone the woman would be the one who had never committed a sin. None of the Pharisees stoned the woman. Jesus showed mercy to the woman due to the injustice that was being done to her since no punishment was being given to the woman’s sexual partner.
Apart from such treatment against women by the traditional Jewish societies, rules that were put in place portrayed women as inferior to men. For example, men were not supposed to speak to women publicly. Modern Christianity teaches against such treatment based on Jesus’ teachings against the discrimination of women. Christianity advocates for men as the head of the family (McGrath, 2006). A woman who was created from man is meant to be a companion and a helper to a man, a belief that has made man to be viewed as superior to a woman . The application of this belief has promoted gender bias in the church and in a Christian society.
The superiority of man over a woman which is supported by the scriptures has continued to influence the perception of women. The doctrine of Holy trinity in Christianity has been used to argue that men are the best suited in representing Jesus who is the son of God, who is also considered to be “Him” just like in Islam and Judaism. Although Christianity has been criticized for promoting gender bias, it has also spoken openly against ill treatment of women. In the story of creation, man and woman were created differently but they were supposed to work together as equals.
A man and a woman in a marriage are meant to love and respect each other (The Good News Bible, Ephesians 5:31-33). The early Christian society which discriminated women (the Pharisees) was criticized by Jesus. In addition, Jesus preached against injustice on women and showed compassion towards them. Christianity is said to acknowledge the important role of a woman because Jesus who is the Christians’ model of a virtuous life accepted women, including those who were seen to be sinners. In the early church, women were depicted to be teachers, leaders, and apostles (Rebecca, 1997).
The New Testament through the letter of Paul to Timothy preaches against discrimination. Apostle Paul asks Christians to treat each other well with respect, and the younger women with absolute purity. In Galatians 3:38 the Bible states that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” . These teachings oppose roles that promote gender bias. The church has continued to promote the important value of women through the Virgin Mary. However, the issue of gender bias in the church has led to the formation of women’s movements with the aim of changing the role of women in the church.
For example, the “Christian feminism” movement is trying to challenge some traditional Christian interpretations of the Holy Scriptures which define the role of women. The modern debate on gender has promoted Christian feminism and Christian egalitarianism arguments. Gender bias in Judaism Judaism is based on the Hebrew Bible which is also referred to as the Torah. The Hebrew Bible is the first section of Tanakh and it comprises of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deutronomy. Some Jewish laws are not written in the Torah. Those that have been derived from the textual hints are referred to as Oral Torah.
The religion just like in Christianity has defined roles for men and women (Elyse, 2008). Women are not allowed to become religious leaders in Judaism. In addition, priests are supposed to marry pure women (Leviticus 21:13-14). The Talmud passage in Reboot 61a-b indicate that priests should not marry a woman who is barren unless he has a wife and children. A barren woman is considered to be a “faithless wife”. Women do not participate in church leadership although various women such as Miriam (prophetess) and Rachel are recognized in the religion.
In the traditional Jewish societies, the women were allowed to play the roles of prophetesses and Nazirites despite their minimal role in the religious matters. Jewish women were expected to participate in religious rituals. Orthodox Judaism portrays gender bias when women were exempted from studying some advanced Jewish texts although the evolutions of the orthodox society has resulted changes in such practices. Traditional Orthodox rabbis in the contemporary society oppose the change of Judaism accepted norms of observance to promote gender equality.
These changes include the modern Orthodox Judaism support for more advanced education for Jewish women. Furthermore, the issue of whether women should study Talmud is still controversial in modern Orthodoxy. In traditional Orthodox Judaism, women are not allowed to serve as witnesses in a rabbinical court. The traditional exclusion of women testimony as advocated by Judaism is seen as discrimination against women. Jewish women are not ordained as rabbis, although rabbi – like positions for Orthodox women have now been created despite many followers opinion that ordaining women as rabbis goes against the Jewish law.
The Torah in the book of Exodus 21:10 support polygamy which is considered to be gender bias against women (Rabinowitz and Harvey, 2007). Despite the gender bias in Judaism, several women are recognized as role models in the scriptures. Modern Judaism has now allowed active participation of women in reading the Torah, serving as a cantor, and being part of the Minyan. Gender bias in Conservative Judaism has triggered changes that aim at including mixed seating and promoting synagogue corporate leadership. Reform Judaism now promotes equality of women and men, encouraging women to participate in religious rituals earlier reserved for men.
Gender bias in Islam Islamic teachings are based on the teaching of Prophet Muhammad, where the Muslims are required to observe the five pillars of Islam. Theologically, Islam promotes equality of men and women. The Muslim society however is seen to establish a distinction between men and women. According to the Islam teachings in Al-Baqarah, 2:228 “and women shall have rights, similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable”, women are equal to men. However, the different status and responsibilities for men and women in Islam depends on the religious interpretations.
According to the Quran 49:13, Islam promotes equal treatment for both men and women (Stowasser, 1996). Gender bias in Islam is attributed to the Sharia law due to its promotion of practices that are to the disadvantage of the women. The Sharia law prevents the mixture of both men and women at the places of worship and the traditional interpretations of Islam are considered to allow polygamy for men. This is seen by some as against the equality of both men and women. Muslim women are not allowed to take religious leadership positions in Islam and a suggestion for women to become imams is criticized and disputed by many.
Medieval Muslim women had problems accessing religious education as compared to the men. Women cannot be allowed to lead mixed prayers in the mosque since worshipping at the mosque is done with women and men in separate places. The women’s’ freedom of movement and travel is limited by the Sharia law, and women should only travel together with a male relative (Mumisa, 2002). For instance, the prohibition of women to drive in some Muslim societies is considered as the Sharia law discrimination against women. Although this was a move to promote a woman’s safety, Muslim women are sometimes prohibited from driving.
Some Muslim women have been discriminated against due to extremist Islam beliefs. For example, in Afghanistan women have in the past been denied access to education and job opportunities. Islamic law has also undermined the involvement of women in leadership and it promotes gender –biased inheritance rules which are considered to oppress women . When giving evidence in a court according to Sharia law, a women’s evidence is counted as half that of a man’s evidence. Islam support polygamy and Shiite Islam is criticized for allowing mota or Sigheh where men can exercise a temporary marriage, and women are expected to submit to such practices.
Muslim men are allowed by the Sharia law to marry non – Muslim women, while the same does not apply for Muslim women. Muslim women under Sharia law should not interact with men who are not their relatives unless in presence of a male relative. This is viewed as discouraging social interaction of women with other members of the society (Safi, 2003). Despite the ill treatment of women in Muslim societies that promote Sharia law, Islam promotes equal rights and dignity for both men and women. It has been argued that gender bias is linked to Islam not because the religion is biased but due to the practices that exist in Muslim societies.
Islam provides women with an equal status to that of men in theory and in practice. The women are assured of financial security through inheritance whether it’s during marriage or in case of divorce and widowhood. Islam recognizes a woman’s’ role as a wife and as a mother, and it does not prohibit her from seeking employment. Islamic teaching defines men and women as recipient of” divine breath” due to their creation with the same human-spiritual nature and both men and women are acknowledged by Allah as His trustees on earth (Yvonne et al, 2006). Gender bias in Buddhism
Buddhism is a religion whose teachings are based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. Buddhism comprises of two branches, Mahayana and Theravada. Buddhists uphold the four noble truths (Eliot, 2003). Women Buddhists can easily integrate with other members of the society and are given an honorable place in the society. Buddhist women even in the ancient times were able to access religious knowledge and participate in religious ceremonies. However, womens’ religious roles differ from those of men. For example, religious women are not able to perform religious duties similar to those of the monks.
Buddhism teaches that a marriage is a contract between equals. Gender bias is portrayed in the doctrine of Karma and rebirth in Buddhism which supports inherent male superiority. Furthermore, gender bias in Buddhism can be seen in the domination of men in religious leadership. Though Buddhist nuns can hold important religious positions, they are categorized as a group than can occupy a niche in the religious realm and secular world. Buddhism considers women as religiously insufficient hence they have to depend on men to make merit.
The religion allows multiple spouses for a man and only one for a woman Both men and women in Buddhism are able to realize nirvana equally, although the paths of realizing it vary. Gender equality is promoted in Mahayana Buddhism since it allows the ordination of women to serve in religious duties as Bhikkhunis. Bhikkhunis are also referred to as Buddhist nuns. Buddhism promotes spiritual equality for both men and women a belief that prevents supremacy of males in the religion. This had Buddha acknowledge the spiritual potential of both women and men.
For instance, the order of Bhikkhunis or nuns represents the important role of a woman in Buddhism. The Sasana is comprised of Bhikkus (Monks), Bhikkhunis (Nuns), laymen, and laywomen. This ensures that women are not segregated from religious activities. Unlike in Hinduism, funeral rites in Buddhism can be conducted by a widow or a daughter hence the birth of daughters only is not considered as a misfortune. However, male offsprings are preferred in Buddhist societies due to the ideology of male superiority. Gender bias in Hinduism The most authoritative text of Hinduism is the Vedas.
The position that is given to both men and women depend on the specific text and context of the Vedas. For example, positive reference to women is given in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, while restriction on the role of women is given by the Manu smriti (Michaels, 2004). Gender bias in Hinduism is seen in the religious practices. For example, the birth of daughters with no sons becomes lamentation due to the importance of a male offspring in funeral rites. When a father dies in a Hindu community, only male offspring are allowed to assure a family of its happiness by carrying out funeral rites.
A wife without a son is therefore superseded by a second or third wife. Male children in this case are highly regarded unlike the female children. The religious practice of Sati is criticized for discriminating and giving harsh treatment to women. The sati in Hinduism encourages the immolation of women after their husband’s death. Although women willingly take part in sati, many cases result from societal inducement or compulsion. Examples of women who are mentioned in Hindu Holy Scriptures to participate in Sati Vasudeva’s wives (M Bh. Mausalaparvan 7.
18) and Madri (M Bh. Adiparvan 95)). The Hindu religious practices promote discrimination of females due to the culture of payment of dowry, which makes female children to be viewed as a burden to the family. The religious customs of having the bride’s family pay dowry to the groom’s family has had many female children looked down upon with cases of female infanticide being witnessed . In Manu VIII 416-417,the ownership of property by women is restricted and alienation of Hindu widows from the society has also been attributed to female infanticide.
Marriage of females at a very early age and denial of women to marry again after the death of a husband are gender bias religious practices that are still witnessed in some Hindu societies. Apart from the above arguments that support gender bias against women in Hinduism, the religion supports the participation of women in religious rituals. In addition, both men and women can learn about the sacred texts of the religion and women have been appreciated due to the representation of some deities in the religion as females (Williams, 2005). Conclusion
Whether there is gender bias in the religion is an issue that has triggered heated debates from the people all over the world, especially the religious leaders. In various societies, gender bias has been witnessed. While some gender bias has been attributed to the religious beliefs and practices of the society members, some bias has been attributed to the culture of the people and not the religion. Various arguments have been presented to prove whether there is gender bias in the religions that exist. Some arguments support the notion that there is gender bias in the religion.
In all religions, the beliefs, traditions and values that are advocated for greatly influence the way of life of the followers. Therefore,the role that different genders play in the society and in fulfilling religious duties are linked to the religious beliefs and traditions upheld by the members of a given society. This is why gender bias that exists in the society is related to the religion. References Eliot, C. 2003. Hinduism and Buddhism: A Historical Sketch, vol. I (Reprint ed. ), Munshiram Manoharlal Elyse G. 2008. The Women’s Torah Commentary: New Insights from Women Rabbis on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions.
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Good News for Women: A Biblical picture of gender equality, Baker books Safi, O. 2003. Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. Oneworld Publications. Stowasser, F. 1996. Women in the Qur’an, Traditions, and Interpretation, Oxford University Press The Good News Bible. 1976. American Bible Society, Harper Collins Publishers Williams, P. 2005. Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, Routledge, London & New York Yvonne, H. , Kathleen, M. , and Jane, S. 2006. Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today. Oxford University Press
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