A Woman’s Role?
Faith can be a force which empowers women, it can inspire them, sustain them and has influenced the work of amazing influential women in history. In all faith traditions we can find texts which support the important role women have to play in society. However, we need to also recognise that throughout history, all the major religions have limited women's progress in some ways. We want to discuss and learn why this is, and how we, as people of faith, can make a difference in the lives of women across the world.
All 7 women we interviewed said that faith had inspired them in many ways. However they all agreed that religion often can be used as an authority to enforce patriarchal structures and enforce boundaries that hinder women.
It is very easy to brandish all religion with the brush of misogyny. Many would see religious structures as patriarchal by their very nature. Throughout history women have not been allowed to be leaders, to vote, or to even have the same education as men. Religion is tied irrevocably to culture and society. Sexism and misogyny is often wrapped in religious tradition. However is this because religion or faith is irrevocably patriarchal, or because tradition is? Every religion is build upon tradition, which its believers love, feed on and rely upon. Likewise tradition is ultimately shaped by the culture that it is developed in. When religion is patriarchal it is not because that faith promotes inequality, but because tradition which is integral to a religions composition.
Here are a few examples of what the holy texts of three faiths say about women:
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "It is the duty of every man and woman to seek knowledge."
Yet women make up 64% of the world's illiterate.
"Where woman are honoured, there the gods are pleased. Where they are not honoured, no sacred rite yields rewards." Manu Smriti 3.56
Yet women perform 66% of the world's work and earn only 10% of the world's income.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3.28
Yet 70% of the world's poor are women.
Obviously this is not exhaustive evidence of how faith views women. However, all the quotes promote equality and contrast to the way in which women are currently being treated in the world. Furthermore, all the women of faith we interviewed, who are amazing achievers in their respective fields, also said that faith has inspired them.
No one is denying that faiths can be involved in the disempowering of women, but the fact is that faith can also be a powerful force to empower women. These women said that they would not be where they are today without their faith. Faith sustains them, it gives substance to their belief in themselves, and drives them to stand up and fight for justice.
Part of the way in which faith can play a positive role is when women of faith stand up and have a voice. Throughout history they have had a variety of roles: mothers, wives, cooks, teachers, revolutionaries and freedom fighters. Today women have an important role – to raise the consciousnesses of other women and men, about the plight of women around the world.
All faiths teach us to recognise justice and promote action which serves others. Women face a variety of challenges here in UK society, which are only more magnified in the developing world. The gender pay gap, domestic violence, and the stereotypes that women have to fight every day. Together women of faith can stand together and make a difference to women around the world. Gender equality has been described by Kofi Annan as more than a goal in itself, “it is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.”
If you inspire and help one woman to earn more and help herself, you not only boost her life chances, but her families life chances and also their communities economy.
In the book of Isaiah there is the image of beating swords and shields into ploughshares. It is pictured outside the UN headquarters in New York. Implements of war and destruction are beaten and changed into tools of growth. Religion can be used as a destructive force, disempowering women. As people of faith, we need to make sure that instead, faith is used as a positive force to inspire and give women the tools they need to have a pivotal role in society.
Please watch our video: “A Woman’s role?” which gives snippets of our interviews.
Christina Rees— Writer and Broadcaster, Chairperson for WATCH (Women and the Church)
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner— Movement Rabbi for the Jewish Reform Movement
Nasreen Nurmohamed—WIN Executive Committee member
Parm Sandhu— Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police Service.
Pinky Lilani OBE—Chef and Founder and Chairperson at Global Empowerment Award.
Ruth Turner—CEO of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation
Dr Suzanne Franks— Lecturer at University of Kent in Politics, International Relations and Journalism.