Religion vs. Gender Equality & Feminism

JUNE 24, 2009

How do reli­gions treat women? How do eman­ci­pated women treat reli­gion? A sequence of events recently has made my mind unquiet over this sub­ject. Nita asked if Hin­duism was com­ing of age, with peo­ple per­form­ing the sacred ‘thread cer­e­mony’ on their daugh­ters. The BJP found itself trapped in the maze of con­fu­sion sur­round­ing Hin­dutva. And Sarkozy said that women wear­ing burqas were not wel­come in France, as it was more a sign of women’s sub­servience rather than reli­gion. The Ratio­nal Fool hailed Sarkozy’s state­ment, while I and Etla­matey pon­dered about indi­vid­ual women’s rights in the comments.


Like I always do, I responded to my unquiet mind by think­ing, scour­ing the net, and think­ing some more. Here is a sam­pling of what I found:

  • An Amer­i­can con­vert to Islam urges Mus­lims to fight against bru­tal­ity of woman to pre­serve Islam’s image in the eyes of others
  • A Hindu woman con­verted to Islam says Islam is not oppres­sive, unlike Hinduism
  • Hindu per­spec­tive explains how Abor­tion is Bad Karma
  • Geno­cide of Women in Hin­duism by Sita Agarwal
  • Did the burqa bring about the ghung­hat or the other way around? Read this.
  • Did women have ‘fewer’ rights than men or ‘dif­fer­ent’ in the con­text of Hinduism’s his­tory? A heated debate ensued after Hin­dus started a cam­paign to change the con­tent of sixth-grade school his­tory text­books in California.
  • Globe and Mail opin­ion piece dis­cusses the reduc­tion in church atten­dance among Cana­dian women and whether oppres­sion of women by reli­gious insti­tu­tions is the main cause, while Tina dis­agrees in her blog post.
  • How does Cana­dian soci­ety achieve gen­der equal­ity rights enshrined in their Char­ter, which also pro­tects the right to free­dom of reli­gion? The Star looks at the con­flict of interests.
  • Muslim-dominated Indone­sia is a reli­gious coun­try where athe­ism is banned by law. Alarmed at the extent of oppres­sion of women in their coun­try, a group of Islamic and Chris­t­ian lead­ers have released new man­u­scripts in an effort to use reli­gion to achieve gen­der equality.
  • BBC had an open debate on air on whether reli­gion is an obsta­cle to gen­der equal­ity. The exten­sive com­ments rep­re­sent myr­iad opin­ions and dif­fer­ing per­spec­tives on this issue. One exam­ple of a response to this debate is by Sally, who says that faith is an inte­gral part of her, and sug­gests women work within their faiths for change.

In the above list, I have not listed any pro-atheist source, and strived to include Hin­duism related arti­cles. Ref­er­enc­ing arti­cles on Hin­duism and gen­der equal­ity or fem­i­nism is dif­fi­cult for three rea­sons. One, the global dis­cus­sion has cen­tered on Islam, and the English-speaking Inter­net pop­u­la­tion is largely Christian.


Two, Hin­duism is unique in its flex­i­ble and diverse inter­pre­ta­tions. While all reli­gions are inten­tion­ally scripted so as to offer mul­ti­ple con­tra­dic­tory inter­pre­ta­tions, Hin­duism wins this ambi­gu­ity race by claim­ing to be ‘all-inclusive’. Devout reli­gious folks from other reli­gions do argue (as seen in the above exam­ples) that the oppres­sion of women is a mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion and mis­use of their ‘true’ reli­gion. But Hin­dus can’t be sur­passed in this respect: not only are there mul­ti­ple con­tra­dic­tory inter­pre­ta­tions of Hin­duism, even these con­tra­dic­tions can be claimed to be embraced by it. I think it would be a safe bet to say that for every prin­ci­ple sup­pos­edly pro­pounded by Hin­duism, a con­tra­dic­tory prin­ci­ple can be found within Hin­duism. Peo­ple would not call me a math­e­mati­cian if I did not fol­low math­e­mat­ics, but they will call me a Hindu even if I did not fol­low it.

Third, for a reli­gion that has existed for cen­turies, and is said to be flex­i­ble and evolv­ing, it is impos­si­ble to dif­fer­en­ti­ate reli­gious prac­tices from social cus­toms and tra­di­tions. Do Hindu women wear the man­gal­su­tra or ban­gles because of reli­gion or tra­di­tion? Widow burn­ing or sati is widely described in the world as a Hindu prac­tice, but nat­u­rally, there are argu­ments and dif­fer­ing opin­ions about it.

For athe­ists like me, the issue is very sim­ple. Reli­gion has been used as an instru­ment of gen­der inequal­ity, specif­i­cally, in the oppres­sion of women. Remov­ing reli­gion from the pic­ture removes reli­gious and the­o­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for patri­archy, as Austin argues. Sally says that in the absence of reli­gion, men will find other ways to oppress women, hence reli­gion as such is not an obsta­cle. Indeed, many fac­tors con­tribute to gen­der inequal­ity, one of them being eco­nomic pros­per­ity, as this chart shows.

How­ever, there still exists a strong cor­re­la­tion between the extent of ‘organic athe­ism’ (as opposed to ‘coerced athe­ism’ like in com­mu­nist coun­tries) in a coun­try and its over­all gen­der equa­tion. Both the 2004 and 2006 rank­ings of the Gen­der Empow­er­ment Mea­sure, which is part of the the UNDP’s Human Devel­op­ment Report, show that the top ten nations with the high­est gen­der equal­ity are all strongly organic athe­is­tic nations, while the bot­tom ten are all highly reli­gious coun­tries with insignif­i­cant num­ber of athe­ists. But, as Phil Zuck­er­man points out in the The Cam­bridge Com­pan­ion to Athe­ism, the causal rela­tion­ship is in reverse: over­all soci­etal healthcauses wide­spread athe­ism, not the other way around.


It is impos­si­ble to argue against faith and belief, so I do not ven­ture much into such debates. I pre­fer not chal­leng­ing other people’s beliefs as long as they do not inter­fere with my life. What I find per­plex­ing is how even eman­ci­pated women pre­fer to remain within their reli­gious faiths and strug­gle against oppres­sion, rather than choos­ing to dis­card reli­gion? If faith and belief are impor­tant, and hence athe­ism and agnos­ti­cism are rejected, why are other forms of the­ism not popular?

In the end, I think I dif­fer from Sarkozy: if women choose to be sub­servient, let them be. It is their right. Men should not tram­ple over that right, though they can tram­ple over such women, if they wish.

Update 30th June: A few sig­nif­i­cant arti­cles I found since writ­ing this post:


(All car­toons are from


About avegonzales

Is currently studying at Visayas State University. A 4th year college student taking up Bachelor of Science in Development Communication. She is very serious on pursuing her ambition and still on the process of making the world a better place.

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