Last month, blogger Sonam Ongmo started a very lively discussion on whether organized world religions are impediment to fulfilling Millennium Development Goals(MDGs). As women’s rights is a very important part of MDGs, it is important that we examine religion on its relationship with women too.
Sonam remarked that religion is one of the factor in influencing development activities in a country,
“We are just 5 years away from the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals, and yet many countries are far from reaching even half of these goals.
Aside from the many problems that prevent them from doing so – like bad governments, war, ethnic strife, corruption, lack of resources etc. -one of the biggest and most important reasons (less talked about/never highlighted) will be because of “RELIGION.” ”
She has correctly identified the role of religion and development as the one rarely discussed and often ignored. Various factors contribute to this-including the desire not to offend people’s sensibilities and also because of explosive religious atmosphere in today’s world.
When it comes to women’s rights and religion, there is even more stigma attached to the discussion because organized religions of the world-Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism view women as the keepers of morality codified in their particular belief system. For example, in Hinduism, is it a woman’s duty to keep herself pure and un-affected by lust after her husband’s death so that the departed may get into heaven; however a widower has not such responsibility. In Islam, women are called upon to be vigilantly guard their modesty and keep her family’s honor; a man on the other hand is free to socialize and is the arbitrator on matter of a woman’s life outside of the family’s home.
Calling on religions to show flexibility on women’s issues, is looked upon as questioning the entire system and also very un-welcome intrusion.
Abortion and right to choose is a major issue here in the United States and religious groups and the major force behind the movement to curb a woman’s right to choose. While there have been number of questions raised about the groups behind the anti-abortion movement, very limited discussion has taken place about the role of religion-in particular what is the role of Christian thought and the Church in the anti-abortion movement?
In Europe and in North America, the Islamic veil has been vilified as a sign of woman’s oppression-forcing her to hide her face and thus deny her presence; but the discussion is far from being about rights of Muslim women. It is merely focused on whipping up heated emotions against Islam and all Muslims.
Hinduism has been criticized for preferring male children and thus being a factor in growing phenomena of female infanticide in Hindu societies in India and Nepal, but the critics never really question the main teachings of the religion which plays double-sided card with women. On one hand they are hailed as goddesses and on the other hand they are treated as second class beings.
Cath Elliott at the Guardian sums up her frustration with religion-Christianity in particular and its treatment of women as,
“Christianity is and always has been antithetical to women’s freedom and equality, but it’s certainly not alone in this. Whether it’s one of the world’s major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression. It’s the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.
Since men first conceived of the notion of a single omnipotent creator, that divine being has taken the form of a man: no matter what name he answers to, be it Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, or just plain God, what’s not in doubt is that he’s a he.”
There is no doubt that millions of women from other religions-Islam, Hindusim, Judaism, Buddhism feel the same way about how the female form is distanced from the divine one. Questions thus remains on whether organized religion can fully accept women and respect their rights without pushing them too far into the corner of forced morality.
Previously published at Relijournal.