Bangladeshi poet Taslima Nasreen said: “Religion is against women’s rights and women’s freedom. In all societies women are oppressed by all religions”. This essay will briefly examine this statement by firstly drawing a distinction between sex and gender. Once a clear distinction has been established, a definition of religion will be required to set the parameters of what might correctly be called ‘religion’. Finally, this essay will discuss a few of the ways in which Christianity and Islam oppress women.
The Sex/Gender Distinction
Notwithstanding the fact that sex and gender are discursively used interchangeably, they are separate things. The distinction between sex and gender is loosely akin to the distinction between the brain and the mind. Gender, as with the mind, is purely conceptual in nature, whereas the brain is a corporeal organ. Put simply, gender is a social and psychological construct, whilst ‘sex’ is grounded in biology. Aside from variations in neuroanatomy, chromosomes, hormones, as well as other biological variants such as genitalia, sex is primarily determined by the size and mobility of gametes, which in men are small and mobile, called sperm, and in women are large and immobile, called ova.
When discussing gender as a social construct, ‘gender roles’ are the significant subject of discourse. Gender roles relate to societal norms and expectations which determine behaviours a given society or culture prescribes for a particular gender. The most common dichotomy in this regard describes a masculine/feminine binary. To offer an archaic yet not entirely extinct example from a western context, it is masculine to be the primary bread-winner and feminine to play a primary role in the private/domestic sphere. Generally speaking, in traditional cultures where patriarchal religion continues to play a primary role in determining the politics, ethics and values of a society, gender roles tend to be more rigidly defined and controlled by men, than are gender roles in more secular societies. As a result, women in Saudi Arabia, for example, have far less control over shaping and redefining gender roles than women in Australia, or England. Patriarchal religion is not, however, the sole and exclusive variable. In Japan, for example, a country in which religion plays a very minor and superficial role in actively governing and maintaining the values and ethics of the society, gender roles pertaining to the dichotomy between the public and private spheres are still relatively rigid, although change is slowly taking place in this regard. This cross-cultural comparison highlights the social nature of gender roles, which are far more fluid and diverse across cultures than the inherent biological factors underpinning sex.
Discussing gender as a psychological construct involves an examination of how individuals internalize existing gender identities, which are transmitted and develop through the socialization process. Millett argues: ‘Implicit in all the gender identity development which takes place through childhood is the sum total of the parents’, the peers’, and the culture’s notions of what is appropriate to each gender by way of temperament, character, interests, status, worth, gesture and expression’. Thus, gender is a social-psychological phenomenon and sex is a biological one. Further evidence of the distinction between sex and gender can be found in situations where males identify as female in gender and females identify as male in gender, although in some cases this testifies simply to the somewhat fluid nature of the variations that exist between the biological sexes, which are not always perfectly dimorphic.
Religion, as a social and psychological phenomenon, as an institution of human society, is notoriously difficult to define with any measure of exhaustive and precise clarity. The insufficiencies with regards to the definitions of religion to date falter upon a problematic dichotomy between inclusivity and exclusivity. That is to say, the definitions available are either too inclusive, like that of Dewey’s, which defines religion in a manner that may include politics, art, and just about any passionate human endeavour  – or else definitions have been far too exclusive, as in Martineau’s definition, which holds: “Religion is the belief in an ever-living God, that is, in a Divine Mind and Will ruling the Universe and holding moral relations with mankind”. Martineau’s definition makes monotheism the only true expression of religion, thereby excluding polytheistic religions such as the ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Greek religions, and even modern Hinduism, not to mention essentially non-theistic religions such as Jainism. So then, how would one begin to construct a definition that is neither too inclusive nor overly exclusive? Once this question is answered, another problem presents itself. Along what lines do we define religion? Do we emphasize aesthetics and define religion by aspects of its expression phenomena that can be witnessed in art, scripture, rituals, and practices? If so, then doesn’t the definition fall into Dewey’s trap and include too much? Should emphasis be placed upon affective qualities (feelings and emotions) when defining religion, as was the case with theologians Schleiermacher and Otto’s definitions? Yet once again, such emphasis opens the definition so wide as to include football hooligans, Star Trek fans and even avid and elated Trump supporters. Emanuel Kant preferred to view religion in terms of moral duties, writing: “Religion is the recognition of all our duties as divine commands”. Kant’s approach, however, suffers for its ethnocentricity and its presumption that all religions include divinity, and for these reasons it is overly exclusivist in nature.
To surmount the limitations in defining religion, philosophers have attempted to make use of the linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s structuralist “family resemblance” model. Wittgenstein’s model, which he applied to language, is based upon the premise that family members do not share every single feature. Family members may share eye colour, build, hair colour, etc., yet despite the differences which exist between them, they share certain characteristics and are a definable group – a family. This approach, however, lends itself to a kind of hyper-inclusionism in which non-religions like atheism and even certain branches of science may be defined as religions. To date, no one has proffered a precise definition of religion, but religion might cautiously and imperfectly defined as:
A human institution and/or social-psychological phenomenon with identifiable rites, rituals and practices that transmits a belief-system and core set of ethics through non-evidentiary forms of instruction, the goal of which is generally the transcendence of the individual and/or group beyond the observable and/or measurable material human condition toward some unknowable, but generally believed, metaphysical end – and which, frequently but not always, focuses on and/or worships some divine or non-divine figure or focal point in order to compel the individual and/or group to aspire to achieve the aforementioned transcendence.
Religion & Gender Roles
Any institution, philosophy or phenomenon that informs the key norms, ethics, expectations, and values of a society is relevant to gender roles, because gender roles are prescribed and reinforced by society. According to many scholars, religion is a universal phenomenon. Every society has had, and in many cases continues to have, its norms, ethics, expectations, and values prescribed and reinforced by religion. It is also true that some societies are less religious than others. For example, France is less religious than Saudi Arabia. Consequently, religion plays a greater role in maintaining and reinforcing gender role attitudes in Saudi Arabia than it does in France. It can also be shown that societies, such as France, which move away from traditional religious values and adopt modern human rights-focused values, tend to enjoy greater gender equality, which highlights the detrimental impact that religion, being today a predominantly patriarchal institution, has on gender equality, which in turn exposes the role religion plays in determining (oppressive) gender role attitudes.
Writing in the late nineteenth century, Elizabeth Cady Stanton remarked: “History shows that the moral degradation of woman is due more to theological superstitions than to all other influences together.”The moral degradation to which Cady specifically referred can clearly be observed in both the pages of Christian history and within the manmade manifesto that forms the foundation of the religion which informed the values of western culture. Western Christian gender roles were thus dictated along lines that degraded and oppressed women in accordance with the dictates of the Bible. In an Abrahamic religious context, gender roles were constructed upon etiological and charter myths that made women “naturally” inferior to men. In the Book of Genesis, Eve was an afterthought. She was created from the rib of a man, and only to serve him, and only after animals failed to meet his needs (Gen. 2:20-23). She single-handedly brought down the entire human race by tempting her morally superior male partner to disobey God’s instructions (Gen. 3:1-19), with whom he shared the same superlative gender. As well as excruciating pain in childbirth, Eve/woman was sentenced to be ruled over by man (Gen.3:16). This justified and explained the woman’s primary role as the submissive servant of man. Women, according to the Bible and the Qur’an, are inherently inferior to men, which meant, and continues to mean, that their role in society should necessarily be limited by deterministic considerations.
In support of the notion that (Abrahamic) religion negatively impacts upon gender role attitudes and gender equality, Inglehart and Norris argue: ‘…a process of secularization has gradually accompanied societal modernization, weakening the strength of religious values in postindustrial societies, particularly among the younger generation, and fuelling the rising tide of gender equality.’ Inglehart and Norris also observe that: ‘…attitudes toward women vary among adherents of different religious sects and denominations; in particular, an Islamic religious heritage is one of the most powerful barriers to the rising tide of gender equality.’ Further, by using data collected from surveys in Germany which compare gender role attitudes of Turkish migrants with native Germans, Diehl et al. discovered that ‘individuals with strong religious commitments are less likely than secular individuals to hold egalitarian gender role attitudes.’
The Qur’an, as is the case with the Bible, distinctly places women beneath men. A woman’s primary role per the Qur’an is to be an obedient wife. Surah 4:34 holds: ‘Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand’. Further, Surah 2:223 states: ‘Your wives are a place of sowing of seed for you, so come to your place of cultivation however you wish…’
Naturally, societies that orient gender roles along such religious lines prevent women from determining their own goals and roles, and this causes such societies to suffer from acute gender inequality. This was recently reflected in the ‘2016 Global Gender Gap Report’. In this report, Islamic nations were overrepresented toward the bottom of the list of countries graded on gender equality, although, as mentioned above, religion is not the only factor impacting upon gender inequality.
Gender roles within every single religious framework, from Buddhism to Islam, are inextricably bound to sex, which makes them rigid due to the belief that they are divinely determined and ascribed by an infallible artificer, or force. This means that women and homosexuals tend to suffer the greatest oppression and persecution in societies which continue to employ religion as an institution that governs the key norms, ethics, expectations, and values. Women will never truly be free and equal until we as a species emancipate ourselves from the bondage of religion. Until we rid ourselves of this archaic phenomenon, women will continue to suffer and toil beneath the oppressive yoke of an infantile institution that has absolutely no desire to unchain its “inferior” beasts of burden. Thus, Taslima Nasreen was completely correct to exhort: “Religion is against women’s rights and women’s freedom. In all societies women are oppressed by all religions”.
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