Gender Equality: Rethinking the role of religion

The terms sex and gender often get misused. Have you ever heard yourself or another person ask a pregnant woman if she knows the gender of the baby? Not that you should go around correcting people, but this would be impossible. The only thing that can be determined at that point is the sex of the baby.
Current research on sex and gender tells us that the term sex refers specifically to the biological sex organs we are born with, while gender is a concept that serves to represent the internal sense of who we are in terms of masculinity and femininity. A person’s sex at birth can align with their gender identity, in which case a person would be considered cisgender; whereas a person whose sex does not align with their gender identity would be considered transgender.  It is possible, thus, for a person of the male sex to feel and identify as female, and vice versa.

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Now that we are clear on the difference between sex and gender, let’s get onto the main topic: gender and religion.

The most popular religions in North America include Christianity (including Catholicism), Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Christianity being the most wide-spread. Withinthese religious groups there exist certain traditional understandings related to gender, many of which are still recognized today as legitimate.  The problem with many old traditions related to gender, however, is that they often place females and femininity lower than males and masculinity in the social hierarchy, keeping women down even in today’s world.

Examples:

The Bible and the Quran, for example, which are regularly read and worshiped by millions of people across the globe, spread explicit messages of sexism and disparagement toward the female community.

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”

(1 Timothy 2:12)

“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.”

(Ephesians 5:22)

“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more [strength] than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them [first], [next] refuse to share their beds, [and last] beat them [lightly]; but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means [of annoyance]: For Allah is Most High, great [above you all].”

(Sura 4: 35)

Although not completely to blame, traditional religious beliefs do indeed play a significant role in maintaining the dominance of men over women in today’s modern world; however in Nicolas Kristof’s article Religion and Women, the author shares the view that religion, being as powerful and influential as it is, has the potential to be a significant driver of change for the better.  Kristof specifically mentions areas where this is already happening, citing that:

“[P]aradoxically, the churches in Africa that have done the most to empower women have been conservative ones led by evangelicals and especially Pentecostals. In particular, Pentecostals encourage women to take leadership roles, and for many women this is the first time they have been trusted with authority and found their opinions respected. In rural Africa, Pentecostal churches are becoming a significant force to emancipate women.”

In a second example, Kristof describes another excellent precedent set by the church – the abolition of slavery.

“Each of the Abrahamic faiths accepted slavery. Muhammad owned slaves, and St. Paul seems to have condoned slavery. Yet the pioneers of the abolitionist movement were Quakers and evangelicals like William Wilberforce. People of faith ultimately worked ferociously to overthrow an oppressive institution that churches had previously condoned.”

Moral of the story: if we use our power and influence for good, we can contribute in a largely significant way to the move toward a more inclusive, respectful world.