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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 12 Feb 2019, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Narratives of the Major Religions Regarding Gender Equality

By Shagufta Gul

February 12, 2019

Gender equality is simply defined as equality in access to opportunity, political, social and economic spheres for all genders. For instance the Constitution of Pakistan in its article 8 to 29 ensures equality, however, if gender equality in a society is to be measured it is measured by the representation of men and women in certain roles, other than the traditional gender roles assigned by the society. Furthermore, the indicators set by SDG5 can also be looked into to assess the standards of gender equality as per indicators for SDG5, for example, end of all discrimination against women and girls, elimination of all kinds of violence against women and girls both in public and private spheres, elimination of all harmful practices such as child early and forced marriages, ensure full and effective participation for leadership and decision making and many more.

It’s still a dilemma, still a goal to be achieved though, SDG5 has set a target with clear aforementioned indicators for the member countries. Globally Pakistan is 148th out of 149 countries as per World Economic Forum’s report 2018, ranking at the second lowest level as far as gender equality is concerned. We, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan believe that everything, every law and every rule should be in accordance with the religious directives and as a result, there are multiple barriers both cultural and religious, on part of the state and on part of society making inclusion of women a challenge. Let’s see what the major religions narratives are regarding this idea and how cultural norms and values have dominated religious directives.

Every religion is considered a code of conduct by its believers and it is believed that each religion was sent to cure humanity. Whenever a religion emerged, it was to rectify the deteriorated social fabric along with the status of women. It is interesting to see that though religion has its impact on human life, however, at times culture and environment have proved to be the strongest to overshadow actual religious directives. If we look at the idea of gender equality in different religions briefly, almost all the major religions come up with the idea of man and woman being equal spiritually and humanly, despite biological differences.

Islam, our own religion, if studied with the authentic sources, we may come across examples of gender equality and equal participation of women at different points; we see Hazrat Khadija as a successful businesswoman, councilor and support. We see Hazrat Aisha as very active and supportive in decision making and at times leading armed forces as a commander; she was a brilliant orator with excellent speaking skills.

Looking at Hinduism though it is considered a male-dominated religion in general male and female are considered one entity, one completing the other. There is a balance between powers and responsibilities like at certain points man seems dominant and at a certain place, a woman enjoys more power and responsibility. The Baha’i concept of gender equality is clearer where man and woman are considered as two wings of a bird and each dependent on the other for a balanced flight.

In Sikhism, it also believes in equality of man and woman, a belief that an individual entering the Gurdwara man and woman have the same souls with equal chances of cultivating spirituality and achieving salvation. A woman entering a Gurdwara is just taken as a Sikh believer irrespective of her gender. She can lead religious congregations and participate in all sorts of political social and religious activities. Buddhism also agrees to the quality of spirits and considers both man and woman equal as the emphasis is more towards spirituality. In Judaism too, women are for the most part seen as separate but equal. Women’s obligations and responsibilities are different from men’s but no less important (in fact, in some ways, women’s responsibilities are considered more important, as we shall see).

Pakistan is a diverse society culturally and religiously and the impact of culture is far stronger than religious directives. The attitude towards women is again highly influenced by the culture and the misinterpretation of religion. Multiple factors have contributed to this mindset, for example, some writers of our textbooks associate these attitudes to the pre-independence era when Muslim were influenced by the notion Muslim cultures. Fine, lets see the post-independence scenario.

What went wrong where? The local indigenous cultures have prevailed in all the provinces no matter what faith communities follow. For example, the Sikh community in KP the women observe Parda, minimum interaction with unknown men, and they hardly get a chance to go to school and colleges. Migration and development also have impact on the norms and values related to gender equality. A few years back while moving in Peshawar the simplest attire of woman would be a big Chader in the urban areas and the Burqa in rural areas. Now even if one moves around in university premises Abaya and a veil is the commonly observed attire for girls.

Media and communication can play a role to change the cultural norms about gender equality both negatively and positively. The recent trends in the portrayal of women on media are quite stereotypical and instead of promoting positive images objectification seems to be the topmost agenda. Though certain topics related to women which would hardly be portrayed on tv are now being played.

We often listen to many suggestions when it comes to the promotion of gender equality and gender justice; I believe that a multi pronged approach is needed involving religious leaders, educational institutions and most importantly parental support to go about things.

Shagufta Gul has experience in the field of education and is currently working as a resource person in the development sector