It has often been argued that religion is a repressive force in women’s lives, and religious texts advise on and justify the inferiority and subordination of women in societies across the globe. Foundations for freedom from religion as well as some feminists and women’s activists all hold the view that organised religion is the greatest enemy of women and women’s rights. In all religious texts and traditions, they argue, one finds the foundation for laws governing women’s individual and social behaviour in both the private and public spheres, including houses of worship.
In this respect, religious doctrine is seen to provide the basis, not only for women’s exclusion from the public sphere, but also for those laws governing matters of sexuality and reproductive rights (including contraception) marriage, family life, divorce and inheritance as it does women’s behaviour and position in religious institutions such as the Church in the case of the Christian religion, the focus of our discussion. Such laws, rules, attitudes and practices are seen to be based on Scriptural references which, if adhered to, restrict the advancement of women, deny them their rights as human beings and as women, and hold them inferior and in subjection to men in both Church and society which are governed, inter alia by the ideology of the religious patriarch.
At the same time, however, it has been recognised that religion has, at particular historical moments, formed the core of ideas for movements of social change in, for example, the Caribbean and Latin America, our region of concern. A contextualised reinterpretation of religion and religious doctrine indicates that while religion is understood, by some, as a conservative and repressive force for all women, it is embraced by others as a source of liberation and social justice. This dual ideological manifestation of religion indicates its contradictory nature which opens such doctrine to interpretation.
With this understanding in mind, we argue that women do not need freedom from religion. It is our view that the repression of women is not divinely ordained. It is socially and ideologically constructed from a patriarchal interpretation of religious doctrine. Religion and religious doctrine by themselves can do neither good nor harm. They can neither be oppressive nor liberating. But their interpretation and application have done, at the same time, little good for women and have provided them with a positive context to step out of the paradigm of oppression and build a new and just society and Church. Therefore, what women need, in our view, is freedom from the organised institutions of religion with their laws, rules, practices and policies the leadership of these institutions have skilfully crafted to keep women “in their place”. They need freedom from the priests, the pastors and other Church officials from whom they take guidance, leadership and ideological indoctrination that man, by divine right, is the master of all and all things and that any challenge to maleness and men’s dominance in the social or religious sphere by the second sex will displease God. We believe that these institutions which are the most powerful agents of socialisation have used religion instrumentally to marginalise women and to discriminate against them.
We feel that while religion has been interpreted by the religious patriarchy as a source of repression of and domination over women, we also feel that because of the liberating aspects of religion, women need to read religious texts through their own eyes and see themselves as subjects of history and agents of change and not merely as objects of oppression and vessels of procreation.
In this essay, we address the issue of women’s freedom from religion, looking specifically at the Christian religion and the Christian Church as an institution.
There is little doubt that the bible can encourage a patriarchal interpretation of the relations between women and men. Written in the context of a Hebrew patriarchal culture, the bible, in some instances, demean women and relegate them to second-class citizenship, espousing both male priority and superiority in national as well as in the religious community.
Beginning in the book of Genesis, women are understood as being unequal to men and having an inferior status, having being created ‘second’ and from Adam’s rib. Further to this, the issue of “deception” has led to an understanding that women are also “cursed” because of Eve’s sin, the Edenic fall, and as having no identity and no rights.
In addition to women’s “curse”, marriage is seen as bondage and motherhood a sin. In Genesis 3: 16, we read that the Lord God indicated to the first woman that He would increase her trouble in pregnancy and her pain at childbirth, but nonetheless, she would still have desire for her husband to whom she will always be subjected. In this same tradition, then, women were seen as the property of men on whom they were totally dependent. In Numbers 30, we find a narrative which indicates the total subordination and dependency of a wife or daughter on the husbands and fathers. This Genesis narrative, then, is basic to the views men hold of women as to their sexual conduct, and their participation in social and religious life. In relation to this, the sexual abuse of women finds justification in biblical narrative of the books of Genesis 19 and Deuteronomy 21 and 22, for example.
There are other texts found in the books of the Old and New Testaments which provide the basis for a patriarchal interpretation of the Christian doctrine. For example, 1 Corinthians 3: 3-4, based on the creation story, and indicating that women must keep their heads covered in worship, instructs that Christ is supreme over every man, the husband is supreme over his wife and God is supreme over Christ. By extension, in religious terms, this means that a man has no need to cover his head, because he reflects the image and glory of God while a woman reflects, not the glory of God but that of man for whom she was created.
It is, therefore, difficult to escape the conclusion that the subordination of woman, based on the narrative of creation, prevailed over the equality of man and woman. It is no wonder than that woven throughout the Old and New Testaments is the advice that women should submit completely to their husbands, because a husband has authority over his wife, just as Christ has authority over the church, and that the husband is so identified with God that his words are to be seen as the words of God as indicated in Leviticus. One can therefore understand the roots of Deuteronomic law which prescribes the rules of marriage, divorce, family life and other rules which govern issues of inheritance and women’s social behaviour and mode of dress and their translation into contemporary life.
Essentially, then, biblical interpretation was and has been used by Christian leaders as the ideological foundation of the patriarchal mentality on which all sexism and male chauvinism within the Church and society is based. It is primarily the story of Eve that has been used by the Church to justify atrocities committed against women throughout the ages from the burning of witches to the physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse and discrimination they face in contemporary times. This is despite the divine word, found in the same Genesis narrative, that both women and men were created in the image of God, and Leviticus’ best known advice found in Chapter 19: 18, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself”. This, in our view, symbolises equality of the sexes in all spheres of human life and indicates that there is no lesser or greater human being as we shall discuss below.
The basic law of justice and equality is found in all religious texts. In the case of the bible, this law of justice is to found in Matthew 7: 12: which states that one should do unto others as they would have them do to them. In this we find God’s call for justice and equality for all people as an expression of Christian love, suggesting mutual respect, equal rights and the equal value of all human beings. This is particularly so since God created both women and men in His/ Her own image and since Galatians which speaks against the attitude and practice of discrimination tells us that all people are one in Christ Jesus.
According to the Galatians text there is no difference between Greeks and Jews, slaves and free people, and men and women, because all people are one in Christ and the same in the sight of God. In fact, Galatians 5:13 commands that all people should serve each other on the basis of mutual love.
Specifically relating to women, Christian doctrine, then, offers them a positive context for understanding their own repression/oppression and holds before them the tools with which they can assist themselves to shed paradigms of oppression and to clothe themselves in the garb of new social relations. It is with this understanding that feminist theologians, womanist thinkers and some women activists have rejected the patriarchal, and for some, “misogynist” traditions found in biblical doctrine. They see Christianity as the theological and philosophical basis for advocating women’s rights and women’s liberation from all forms of oppression in society, religious interpretation and the Church.
Women’s theological activity is, therefore, anchored by a contextualized reinterpretation and critique of biblical doctrine, and centred on a critical acceptance of the Church as an institution. This body of doctrinal rejection is oriented towards refashioning women’s history in biblical texts and in those women who are recognised as symbols of wisdom, struggle, resistance, faith, authority, power, leadership, justice and peace in solidarity with each other. In the case of the Church, these theologians, in Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, are not willing to compromise their criticisms of any patriarchal structure that continues to be male dominated in a male-defined hierarchical structure. These women are intent on disrobing women of their clothing which have been designed, cut, stitched and embroidered by an oppressive patriarchy.
This radical and even revolutionary new way of doing theology is both important and necessary for women because theological discourse in the Christian tradition has been historically monopolised by men. Little wonder, then, that the Church is solidly masculine, perpetuating negative attitudes towards women and using religion instrumentally to justify and legitimate women’s inferiority, dependent status and their marginalisation in Church, society and the home. This also means that the roles of women have been ignored or not recognised by male prejudices and male-oriented approaches which, in our view, violate the rights of all women. This is so because, as stated above, the laws, rules, policies, attitudes and practices of the church are based on a patriarchal interpretation of biblical doctrine, an interpretation which is common to both the liberal and fundamentalist Church orders. It is an interpretation which disregards God’s call for righteousness, for equality of all human beings and for justice. If the Church claims to be of Jesus Christ, and to respect rights and freedoms, then the questions are: why does it deny more than half the world’s population their humanity, their responsibility and their dignity? Why does the Church not follow in the footsteps of Jesus whose attitude towards women was one of radical departure from societal norms?
If the Church holds to a patriarchal interpretation of religious doctrine, then, in our view, it cannot claim to be a witness to the Kingdom of God because it denies liberation to a particular group of human beings and denies them dignity, freedom responsibility, equality and justice. No wonder then that there is reluctance, and in some cases, outright rejection of the ordination of women as priests in some denominations. Even where women are thus ordained, they are few in number. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the Church has chosen to give meaning and expression to the ideology and practice that holds one sex inferior and the other superior, ignoring God’s call for righteousness/justice and freedom from sin,’ liberation for the captives and healing of the broken-hearted’.
We, therefore, should not find it surprising that the Church in the Caribbean and Latin American societies uncritically presides over those unjust societies in which women are constantly being raped, sexually abused, murdered (also by their partners) abused, trafficked and forced into prostitution: societies in which poverty among women abounds and where human rights and fundamental freedoms are not the birthright of all people, where women’s rights are not seen as human rights.
It is not a secret that the Church and its leaders dominate thought and thinking and see themselves as authorities on matters of religious, moral, social and spiritual import. Hence, they do not encourage critical thinking or questioning of church rules, laws, and practices. Therefore, women, like other socially disadvantaged groups, are not encouraged to think from their own point of view and to interrogate social and religious practices which exclude and discriminate against them.
For example, even within the framework of Latin American liberation theology, which was seeking justice for the poor and the marginalised, that theology was not concerned, for the most part, with the situation of women, the poorest of the poor and marginalised in Latin America. As a body of thought and action, it did not take into account women’s situation, status, condition and circumstances in the existing social reality. Nor did it consider the feminine perspective and the importance of women’s active participation in decision making in the life of the Church, even though women were actively engaged in constructing this new corpus of religious ideas.
At the end of day, women were not written into the theology of liberation of humanity and the human spirit. If, then, the work of Christ is presented by liberation theologians as liberation from sin and all its consequences: despoliation, hatred and injustice, according to Gustavo Gutierrez, then, what of the situation of women?
Since we argue that religion in and of itself is neither repressive nor liberating, but its interpretation can be, at the same time, repressive and liberating, women, therefore, need to liberate themselves from the Church and its patriarchal interpretation of the Word which they have interpreted and applied to keep women in subjection and to maintain their position of power and authority over them. They need to tear out the structures of the Church which they have allowed to keep them in subordination in both Church and society for too long. Women need to debunk the Church’s construction of them and their relations with religious and secular authority figures and take back their power from these men who have not always been in positions of dominance. Women need to see themselves as victors and not as victims. If we continue to see ourselves as victims, we will be in a permanent state of disadvantage. The process of liberation and justice begins with us, for to denigrate women and to violate their rights is an act of injustice which is out of keeping with the liberating and moral aspects of Christian life.
Judith Soares PhD, is Senior Lecturer and Head, Women and Development Unit, The University of the West Indies
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