The Sunday TimesPlus

21st April1996



The Holy holds


Has religion been one of the chief reasons why women have been discriminated against socially, economically and legally through the ages?

To what extent do religious teachings today remain pure to notions of equality and fairness preached by the first religious leaders, prophets and messiahs.

This week "Towards Change" attempts to examine some of these troubling issues.

What next?" asks traditionalists holding up their hands in horror.

"A woman playing the role of God? This is paganism, and should not be acceptable to Christians," they protest.

British religious conservatism is appalled at this latest heresy, where a sixty three year old woman who happens to be an antique store owner is cast to play God in a mystery play to be performed in York this year.

"God is a figure combining compassion, strength and the potential for great wrath," notes the director of this controversial play.

"The woman that we have chosen for this role has all those qualities and the fact that she is a woman is only incidental," he points out. Brave words indeed. Words moreover that directly refute the Bible." For in the image of God was man created," says Genesis 1.27 in a lofty ignoring of the question as to in whose image then, was woman created. Of course, in response to Adam's demands, God created Eve from Adam's rib and made her inferior and dependent. Moreover it is again Eve who is depicted as cajoling Adam into eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge thereby dooming mankind to live in a world of knowledge and fear.

In fact, the Bible could not be clearer about the position it accords to women in society. Apart from the Old Testament, we find the New Testament containing the letters of St. Paul, one of the most famous Christian teachers of his time. In his letter written to the Church of Corinth, St Paul states thus, "A man who keeps his head covered when he prays or prophesies brings shame on his head. A woman on the contrary brings shame on her head if she prays of prophesies bare headed.... a man has no need to cover his head because man has been created in the image of God and reflects his glory while woman reflects the glory of man. For man did not spring from woman but woman was made out of man and man was not created for woman's sake but woman for the sake of man". (1. Corinthians 15.)

Recently appointed Archdeacon of the Anglican diocese of Jaffna, Rev. Joseph Sarvananthan concedes the point that certain words and phrases in the Bible are "harshly worded" but points out that Jesus Christ whose life and teachings should be taken as the prime example challenged head on societal assumptions emphasizing the inferiority of women." Thus, though none of his twelve disciples were women, there were a considerable number of women among the hundred and twenty disciples who gathered in the Upper Room after the death of Jesus Christ," he explains.

Moreover, the manner in which Christ invited Mary Magdalene, a prostitute to anoint his feet among a select gathering of men, the way he upheld the actions of Mary who was more intent in listening to what Jesus said rather than doing the house work like her sister Martha, the asking for water from a Samaritan woman at a time when Christ a Jew could not talk to Samaritans let alone strange women are further examples of this. In this sense, is there a contradiction between the enlightened teachings of Christ and the rest of the Bible?

"The Old Testament was based on one hundred percent orthodox Jewish traditions which decreed that man was at all times head of family and society. On the other hand, St. Paul in the New Testament uses somewhat unfortunate language but he was only trying to correct a particular situation that had arisen in the Church to which he was writing," says Rev. Sarvananthan. Judeo Christian beliefs are, of course, not the only religious teachings that look askance at women. In Islam, formidable obstacles are faced by women in fighting for their rights. Traditional Muslim fundamentalists insist that the Quran orders women not to leave their homes and not to challenge accepted norms and practices. Noted educationist Jezima Ismail attributes this to a misunderstanding of Islamic beliefs.

"Many practices, customs and traditions taken from patriachal societies came to be looked upon as religious teachings," she says.

Islam gives prominence to the working woman. God chose a working woman Hazrat Bibi Khadija to be the first witness to Islam and Prophet Mohammed himself married a working woman who remained his only wife. Polygamy was permitted then because there was then, a preponderance of women over men. This was moreover, subject to the strict rule that all wives should be cared for equally.

She points out that the Quran specifically states that,"Oh men, you have rights over women. Oh women, you have right over men." However, many verses in the Quran have been used out of context by fundamentalists for their own benefit. A particularly fine example of this is the rule that Muslim women cannot pray in mosques.

"Muslim law does not forbid women to pray in mosques, though it is pointed out that because of their household responsibilities, it is easier for women to pray at home. We have fought for a change and now many mosques permit women to enter," she says.

Christianity and Islam stand out because of powerful religious fundamentalists within the religious hierachies that resist change.

When one considers Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions, here too one can see a pattern emerging where pure religious teachings which emphasize equality of all human beings are superceded by alien cultural traditions. The Hindu diety is perhaps unique in that the many manifestations of the Almighty are seen in the purely feminine form as well as in the purely masculine form. Indeed, God is seen to be manifested as half feminine and half masculine. In ancient Hindu society therefore, women acquired education in an atmosphere of equality participating in Vedic ceremonies and traditions. Hinduism decrees that only a married man can be a priest. If he becomes widowed, the priesthood passes to the next married priest in the hierarchy.

Hindu women therefore enjoyed self reliance and independence which, however, became diluted with the invasion of alien thought and repression, notes Sivanandini Duraiswamy, President of the Hindu Women's Society and Coordinating Secretary on Hindu Cultural Affairs to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.

Meanwhile Buddhist religious teachings have been frequently proclaimed as upholding the equality of women. Buddhism allowed the free intermingling of men and women, with the monks being celibate but not isolated from society. The Buddha himself had long discussions with his female disciples; and the order of Buddhist nuns in Sri Lanka was established shortly after the male monastic order.

"In Buddhist countries, women had a remarkably good position. Burma, Ceylon and Tibet exhibit the same picture," asserted Sir Charles Bell, British, Political Representative to Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim in 1928.

However, it is also pointed out that though the status of women was comparatively better in Buddhist societies, males dominated the political and economic spheres.

"The economic status of women was low when compared with men. Women occupied the lower rungs of the professional ladder..... the consideration often showed to widowed and "unprotected women" by rulers and even bhikkus showed that they were the providers in society. Motherhood was idealized and wife beating was not unknown," says Professor Sirima Kiribamune, History scholar at the University of Peradeniya (Women at the Crossroads - 1990).

The problem with religious teachings that have become subverted through various other forces is that their influence extends far beyond the church, the temple and the mosque. One of the strongest defences put forward by traditionalists as to why laws that discriminate women should not be changed is that this would offend their personal religious and cultural traditions. The Judeo Christian traditions in the West provided the foundations for laws governing marriage, divorce, contraception, abortion and sexuality that rights activists argue, have oppressed women through the ages. Thus it is that that the Roman Catholic Church is steadfastly opposed to abortion and in fact all forms of contraception. Moreover, these traditions in turn displaced fairer indigenous laws in countries that came under Western influence through colonization. In Sri Lanka for example, under the local laws, a woman could own property and dispose of it without any hindrance from her husband. She did not change her name after marriage and could initiate divorce actions. A form of marriage known as "binna" where the husband takes residence in the wife's home was recognized and her children inherited her name and property. However, British colonial rule changed all that and we are still struggling to remedy hopelessly out of date 18th century laws that discriminate against women. Equitable divorce laws are still in the making and recently proposed amendments to the Penal Code that permitted abortion in strictly regulated circumstances was dropped by the government shortly before presentation to Parliament due to strong opposition from powerful Muslim and Catholic lobby groups.

Meanwhile, Islamic socio religious traditions have led to the Muslim traditionalists in Sri Lanka attempting to carve out a separate legal niche for themselves. In 1986, a committee on personal laws was appointed by the Government to work towards achieving uniformity in the Sri Lankan legal system. However, the committee did not proceed very far after Muslim fundamentalists protested that the recommendations of the committee would interfere with their personal laws. At present, one of the most obvious legal contradictions apparent is the fact that Muslim law permits child marriages. This was in fact particularly commented upon by the Human Right Committee when Sri Lanka presented its human rights report before it in June 1995. The committee pointed out that child marriages violated the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by which Sri Lanka is bound internationally and suggested that appropriate changes be made in the local laws without delay. The Muslim laws that permit polygamous marriages have also been subjected to vigorous criticism on the basis that they are abused by men of other faiths who enter into otherwise illegal marriages.

Our constitution guarantees both the right of gender equality and the right of freedom of conscience, religious and cultural rights. What is needed is an awareness that a strong and effective compromise is needed between these two rights that sometimes conflict with each other. Legislators, policy makers, the judiciary and rights activists should work towards forging this common sense of awareness.

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