By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam
June 5, 2013
Any movement aimed at establishing, improving, or defending social, political, economic and religious position of women can be aptly termed as “feminist movement”. Feminism is basically a theory that focuses on women's rights, issues and interests and seeks equality of gender between men and women eliminating every kind of discrimination against the latter. Although Religion and woman have been closely interrelated since the very outset, the religious feminist theories had emerged in the early 1970s. Many practicing feminists today have strong roots in religion and spirituality.
If we look back into the traditions, practices, scriptures and theological outpourings of all major religions, we will conclude that almost all of them emerged during an era when women were degraded, degenerated and considered inferior to men. Religions played a role of civilizing influence to minimise bias and discrimination against women in some or the other form. During an era when women were considered not more than sexual objects to be possessed rather than human beings with mind, body and soul, it was religion that came to their rescue and established and emphasised their status equal to men. They bestowed them with rich tributes and generous grants in many forms. It was religion that gave and glorified the role of women as mother, wife, sister and daughter.
But with the passage of time, as people started distorting and misinterpreting their religious scriptures for their petty gains, the lofty status of women enshrined in almost all religions was among the worst hit. The patriarchal interpretation of religion gave rise to a male-dominated theology ignoring and disregarding women’s prime role in constructing religious identities. As a result, a common perception was held that religions look at women through the prism of stereotyped roles and consider them merely subservient to man.
In the backdrop of this distortion of religious perspective on women, theological feminist movements emerged in almost all major religions of the world -- Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism, to reconsider the traditions, practices, scriptures, and theologies of those religions from a feminist perspective.
The prime concern of Theological Feminism in every religion is to strive for the elimination of bias and discrimination against women that may exist in any form, with comprehensive study of, and progressive insight into religious scriptures that are supportive of feminism in general, and gender based equality in particular. One of the key objectives of theological feminism is elevating the position of women among clergy and religious authorities recognising their active role in interpretation and dissemination of the religion’s sacred texts and teachings. It involves the study of individual women, throughout the history, who influenced their religions or whose religious achievements and activities brought about revolutionary changes impacting the whole fabric of society and culture.
Theological feminism was developed in steps. First, it criticised the ways women have been oppressed since long. Then, it sought alternative biblical and extra biblical traditions in favour of the ideals feminists want to flourish; and finally feminist theologians developed their own method of theology. It has roots in almost all major religions of the world in one way or the other.
Christian feminism deals with understanding and analyzing the gender equality on moral, social, spiritual and political grounds from a Christian viewpoint. It argues that for a thorough and complete understanding of Christianity, we need women’s contributions in this direction. According to Christian feminists, God does not discriminate between men and women on the basis of biologically determined characteristics. Christian feminism mainly discusses ordination of women, recognition of their equal spiritual and moral abilities, male dominance in Christian marriage, reproductive rights, and the search for a feminine or gender-transcendent divine. While the Christian feminist theology basically relies on biblical traditions, it draws on the teachings of other religions and ideologies as well.
Traditionally, Judaism counts only men. But in 1972, the so-called mothers of Jewish feminism¬¬ (ten well-educated young women from Manhattan) embarked on a mission to open up new opportunities for religious experience and leadership for Jewish women. Their aim was to improve the spiritual, religious, legal, and social status of women within Judaism. These progressive young ladies asked the Conservative Jewish synagogues to consider ordaining female rabbis and investing female cantors. Their dream was to reform and reconstruct Judaism while not abandoning tradition. The most tremendous impact of this movement was seen when the Rabbis ordained the first woman. As a result of their herculean efforts, today feminist movements are found within all major branches of Judaism, with different methods and varying approaches.
Today, Jewish feminists have a significant role to play throughout most of Judaism. While still not recognized by the Orthodox, women routinely hold the positions of rabbis in many Conservative synagogues. They have got tremendous influence and power in the matters of religion.
In Ancient Hinduism, women were held in high regard. Vedas, the most sacred Hindu religious texts, accorded great honour and high esteem for pious women. In the Vedic period, women were free to enter into Brahmacharya just like men, and attain salvation. Many Rishis were women and some of them even authored a number of shlokas in the Vedas. In the Rig Veda, there is a list of women Rishis. Some of them are: Ghosha, Godha, Gargi, Vishwawra, Apala, Upanishad, Brahmjaya, Aditi, Indrani, Sarma, Romsha, Maitreyi, Kathyayini, Urvashi, Lopamudra, Yami, Shashwati, Sri, Laksha and many others.
Women were granted places of honour In Monotheistic era of Hinduism. They were considered epitome of virtue and wisdom. But it was Brahman supremacists and their stringent religious laws that eventually ousted women from their high-ranking positions. They deprived women of their right to study the scared scriptures of Hinduism like the Vedas and Upanishads. Subsequently, a number of Hindu reformers raised voices against this gender-based religious discrimination and thus started feminism movement in Hinduism.
In the early nineteenth century, Hindu social reformers like Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar highlighted women’s rights and issues. Roy condemned sati, kulin’s polygamy and spoke in favour of women’s property rights, while Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar mainly focused on his campaign for widow remarriage. Following them, improving the condition of women became one of the key objectives of the Hindu social reform movements in India. They worked on Hindu Women’s inferior status, enforced seclusion and early marriage, condition of widows and lack of education.
Buddhism emerged as a revolt against Brahmanism that was known for its discriminating caste system in which women were doubly discriminated and degraded. With the advent of Buddhism, women along with all downtrodden sections of society gained renewed hope, equal rights and free will. Gautama Buddha included liberty and equality of women specifically in his teachings of equality for the entire humanity. The Buddhist Sasna does not discriminate between male and female and includes both monks and nuns altogether. It seems that Buddhism provides huge space for feminism to flourish. However, there are many Buddhist theologians who hold the view that demands of modern feminism are too one-sided to be truly Buddhist. Such extreme feminism that encourages “Man-hating” cannot be accepted by those Buddhists. Still, Buddhism shows wide embrace and acceptance for feminism because of its core pro-equality and egalitarian teachings. Buddhism is one of the religions that are more accepting of feminism, perhaps because of its proven track record of pro-equality, anti-establishment teachings.
Islam, since its inception, has been a feminist religion in its nature. It was the first religion that formally granted women a noble status never known before. The Holy Quran contains hundreds of teachings, which apply both to men and women alike. The equal social, moral, spiritual and economic rights of men and women as enshrined in Islam are unquestionable.
At a time when women were considered nothing more than chattels and objects of sexual pleasure possessing no rights or status in the Arab society, Prophet Mohammed’s teachings brought revolutionary change in common perception about women. Before the advent of Islam, Arab tribes used to bury their female children alive and women were often treated worse than animals. The Prophet emerged as harbinger of love and compassion for them and tried hard to put an end to all such inhuman practices and cruelties. He preached kindness towards women and admonished his followers about fulfilling their women’s rights. He said: “Fear Allah in respect of women… The best of you are those who behave best to their wives… A Muslim must not hate his wife, and if he be displeased with one bad quality in her, let him be pleased with one that is good... The more civil and kind a Muslim is to his wife, the more perfect in faith he is.”
The Prophet introduced women rights in Arab for the first time. He stressed that a woman is a completely independent personality. She can make any contract or bequest in her own name. She is entitled to inherit in her position as mother, as wife, as sister and as daughter. She has perfect liberty to choose her husband. The society of pre-Islamic Arabia had an irrational prejudice against their female children whom they used to bury alive, but the Prophet strongly condemned this unjust practice and assured them that supporting their female children would act as a shield for them against the hellfire.
Woman as mother commands great respect in Islam. The Quran speaks of the rights of the mother in a number of verses. It enjoins on Muslims to revere their mothers and serve them well even if they do not follow their religion. The Prophet states emphatically that the rights of the mother are paramount. Abu Hurayrah narrated that a man came to the messenger of Allah and asked: “O messenger of Allah, who is the person who has the greatest right on me with regards to kindness and attention?” He replied, “Your mother.” “Then who?” asked the man. The Prophet replied, “Your mother.” “Then who?” asked the man. The Prophet replied the same. “Then who?” asked the man. The Prophet replied, “Your father.”
Similarly, the Prophet granted lofty status and noble rights to woman as wife. Once Mu’awiyah, one of the Prophet’s companions, asked him, “What are the rights that a wife has over her husband?” The Prophet replied, “Feed her when you take your food, give her clothes to wear when you wear clothes, refrain from abusing her, and do not separate from your wife, except within the house.”
Modern Islamic feminism is highly concerned with the above Prophetic teachings to reclaim the true Islamic role of women in Muslim societies. It advocates women's rights, gender equality, and social justice on the solid grounds of egalitarian values enunciated in the Quranic and Prophetic instructions. Moreover, Islamic feminists, based on Islamic criterion, have also incorporated secular, European and non-Muslim feminist ideas that form the basis of an integrated global feminist movement. Depending on the Quran, Hadith (Prophetic sayings) and Qiyas (analogy) they also encourage a questioning of the patriarchal interpretation of Islamic texts related to women’s rights and issues. In fact, Islamic feminists have great potential to challenge the hegemony of patriarchal interpretation of Islam and Sharia by claimants of puritan Islam. If they resort to essential Islamic resources as their legitimate evidences, they will realise that Islam has much to provide as stimulus for feminism to exist and flourish. Therefore, it is a pressing need to foster feminism in Islam within Quranic framework. Today, the plight of women in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq can only be removed when the patriarchal notions of family and gender are debated and redressed within an Islamic framework.