Im not sure one could choose a more divisive and controversial topic than religion- and then to add feminist musings on top that is going to make this a real treat. But you know, I was getting bored with the usual topics and thought it was time to embark on a new fun challenge.
A little public service announcement- this article will not cover debates around God and whether or not she exists.
These musings were ignited from the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Women and girls have been seen to comprise the largest group of victims from this transition to an Islamic state as their freedoms and autonomy have been dramatically curtailed. And whilst the Taliban has stated it will behave differently from their rule 20 years ago, current evidence suggests otherwise. There are many scholars who interpret the Qur’an in ways that are in line with women’s equality and empowerment(Yamani and Allen 1996). As such, what we are talking about is not theology nor semantics, what we are talking about is this intricate dance between religion, power and patriarchy.
Islam is not alone in this, Christianity a few hundred years ago had some troublesime times when power, politics and patriachy decided to tango. Although christianity today is a far cry from those crusading misgivings, I would argue that it still has its own cultures which have the potential to breed and entrench inequalities.
My own experiences of being a part of evangelical/pentecostal churches for over 10 years in Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK have been an incredible moment of formation in my life that I will forever be grateful for. It taught me critical engagement with complex historical texts, caring for non-familial others, engagement with themes of social justice, and communication skills with people from different socio-economic classes, cultures and age groups. Church also taught me things - whether consciously or subconsciously - that I struggled to accept, from the ‘sins’ of the LBGT+ community, to my own worth, role and ability as a woman in church.
The individual responsibilization of one's own relationship with God is a trademark selling point of pentecostalism- along with its fancy pop music and high ratio of fedora hats. The neoliberal progressiveness of this Christianity translates into having power in one's own spiritual journey, a feat that is accessible to all, equally.
However, these ideas ran contradictory to the conservative cherry picking of gender scriptures- which left me confused so much of the time. Whilst I was living in a country where women were able and expected to do so much more, the church reminded me that my greatest achievement was to be married and raise children, and that my purity REALLY mattered (probably more than it should have looking back, as no one seems to care that much now that it’s "gone"). My first date was with my youth pastor who focused his questions on how many children I wanted, what I expected from a husband and marriage, and what my 5/10year plan and overall purpose for my life was. I was 17, so asking those kinds of questions to me was as impractical as the support bra I was also wearing at the time to keep those non-existent double-A titties up. My biggest choices as a teenager was contemplating post-high-school plans and which shameful 2000’s style to adopt. Thus to insinuate that the main plan for my life should involve children and serving a man was quite the statement from someone who had been an authority figure until that point.
In the world I revolved in, women were leaders- but only of women, and never pastors - only pastors’ wives. For a lippy little christian like me, it was baffling that I was working hard to be an upstanding christian and serve the church, whilst my male counterparts were in leadership on considerable double standards. Whilst I laboured away, making sure that my femaleness equated to acceptable versions of womanhood and femininity instead of sexy-ness (lest I cause any man to stumble). The men lived their most free lives of constant romantic attention, parties, alcohol etc. - things which I realise now through my own research, are obviously way, way more fun - the guys did have a point.
This experience comes from ingrained theological ideas of the submissiveness of women, i.e. women submit to the man(husband) - the man to God. The text and subtext of distinct gender roles in the church is obviously not a super thumbs up from a feminist perspective. However, what matters more than the theological correctness of these interpretations is once again how these dances between religion, power and patriarchy play out in real life. In Australia and the US for example, gender-based violence perpetrated by men towards women are seen in higher numbers in groups affiliated to religion(Perales and Bouma 2019). Research around Evangelical and Pentecostal groups demonstrates that women were more likely to stay for longer in abusive relationships(Fraser 2003; Baird and Gleeson 2017; Perales and Bouma 2019). Studies have also shown that men in evangelical and pentecostal churches have higher degrees of patriarchal views than other subgroups (here questions were asked covering women's place in the home, to views on women's opinions and leadership aptitude)(Hernandez 2021)
Moving out of the great monotheistic institutions, even religions further removed from traditional values, like Hinduism and Buddhism have their awkward moments. For example, Gandhi is known to have espoused blatantly misogynistic and sexist views- not to mention his explicit racism. Buddhism is still clearly seen to be directed in largely patriarchal tones when it comes to appointing clergy. The point here is not to say that religion and women’s equality are antithetical, although I'm sure some scholars probably have some interesting points in support of that statement. But that religion has the potential to be a breeding ground of institutionalism that brings profound and powerful tools of moralism to keep women in place. It was only when I was confronted with the contradictions between the traditionally gendered culture of my christian faith, themes of individualisation, equality and social justice, and the glimpses of feminist voices in popular culture that I began to question the double standards, boundaries and subordination associated with sexual difference.
Whether one has faith or not, I think a thing we can all agree on is that equality is an important and valid goal we should all strive towards. Any institutional/conservative construct that stands in the way of this equality is perhaps not an ideology or belief system worthy of its moral weight. At the end of the day we all want to be proud of the lives of justice and mercy we tried to live. And considering that none of us have met God, it would be incredibly awkward if after all this time of religious devotion and worship that we had been getting her pronouns all wrong.
Hernandez, Armando. 2021. “THE PERCEPTION OF WOMEN FROM EVANGELICAL MEN.” The Threefold Advocate: John Brown’s University. May 3, 2021. http://advocate.jbu.edu/2021/03/05/the-perception-of-women-from-evangelical-men/.