Religion vs. Gender Equality & Feminism

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.the_makeover.jpg

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
  • A 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.
  • A 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.hindus.jpg

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 health caus­es wide­spread athe­ism, not the oth­er way around.unholy_trinity3.jpg

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

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  • Your last lines are pret­ty hard hit­ting! I think what I get from it is that noth­ing can hap­pen by force. The women have to feel that some­thing is oppres­sive before they try to change it. Force can­not work. For exam­ple one woman might think that eat­ing after her hus­band is not oppres­sive but some­one else might think it is. To per­suade a woman to eat before her hus­band might seem sac­ri­lege to such a per­son! The supe­ri­or­i­ty of men is so well ingrained that think­ing of one­self as an equal is impos­si­ble. For exam­ple there are many women who feels that it is her body which is sin­ful and needs to be hid­den from men. The idea that men are respon­si­ble for their lack of con­trol is some­thing alien to them. Even men have no qualms is say­ing that they lack con­trol! I mean, I would be rather ashamed to admit that I lack con­trol on any­thing and in fact I am rather proud of my abil­i­ty to con­trol myself. I think I would be offend­ed if some­one said that women are so out of con­trol that men need to be cov­ered up from head to toe! 🙂

  • great post.
    did you know the founders of RSS were athe­ists 🙂

    it’s fun­ny, i was hav­ing this exact con­ver­sa­tion with a friend the oth­er day — and she was telling me that we (Hin­du women) always had rights in his­to­ry — till the com­ing in of the Moghuls .
    i remind­ed her of Sita — abduct­ed, made to go through an agni parik­sha and then ban­ished and asked to go through the same again !! And of Drau­pa­di who was gam­bled by her hus­band, and stripped by her broth­er-in-law in front of an assem­bly that stood mute 🙁

    read the Arthashas­tra — tho’ it is def­i­nite­ly more pro­gres­sive — it would tell you that a woman is not equal to a man 🙁 it has juicy lit­tle snip­pets like how to hit your wife or how to discard/divorce her !!
    We shan’t even talk about Manusm­ri­ti.

    i can only talk about the tra­di­tion that I was brought up in — and you are right — women believe that men — in their lives — are to be deferred to, no mat­ter what — because it is our ‘way’.

    on faith and reli­gion — the one thing that the sys­tem that i have been brought up in- allows me is to sep­a­rate the two. I have kept the for­mer, and dis­card­ed the sys­tems & pro­ce­dures of the lat­ter ! if Devi want­ed me to be sub­servient — she would her­self have been — but, she always kicked butt 🙂 .

    (i refer you here to the Devi Maha­pu­ran. the first lev­el of defence was Vish­nu, when he failed they went o Shi­va, and when he couldn’t han­dle the cri­sis he would pray to his spouse — the Devi — who would descend onto the bat­tle­field and destroy evil 🙂 ) mind blow­ing iconog­ra­phy and mythol­o­gy — do try and read it if you get a chance.

  • Dot­tie

    I have been read­ing Octavio Paz’s ‘In Light of India’ and he says reli­gions like Hin­duism and Islam are pet­ri­fied. We do have a renais­sance com­ing. and when it does final­ly come, it won’t be a day soon­er.

  • Inter­est­ing post mahen­dra — a bit heavy for me to say any­thing cogent. Cer­tain­ly, a lot of bad has come from reli­gion — but then same could be said about sci­ence too 😉 ! In fact, per­haps any­thing man made (i include reli­gion too), there is always bad and there is good — the extremes being more promi­nent when he gets pas­sion­ate about it. Life is not black and white. I some­times think reli­gious peo­ple paint non-reli­gious ideas in black and white (you dont fol­low this, you are moral­ly cor­rupt, you go to hell etc.), and in the same vein athe­ists have a ten­den­cy to paint reli­gion in black and white (reli­gion has giv­en us only bad). May be I am wrong.


    PS: Like the new look 🙂 !

  • mahen­dra:
    I read your post, and here’s my response:

    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.

    Most of us choose to be sub­servient in one con­text or anoth­er. For a salary, I wear a suit to work in swel­ter­ing weath­er. I choose here to be sub­servient to the com­pa­ny. That’s free trade — I am trad­ing my right to wear what I like to for a com­pen­sa­tion. I don’t think that’s what hap­pens when a woman finds her­self sub­servient to a man (or men).

    Call it my afflic­tion with the “knight-in-shin­ing-armor” syn­drome :), but I sus­pect the stock­holm syn­drome is active in most cas­es where you see a woman seem­ing­ly endors­ing sub­servience to men. Not for a moment that I believe that coer­cion, years of child abuse, depri­va­tion, and threats of being roast­ed in hell, have noth­ing to do with this “choice” — please read my post on Women in Hell and A Let­ter to My Sis­ter.

    So, what can be done? To begin with, I expect the sec­u­lar demo­c­ra­t­ic states to leg­is­late against forced mar­riage, mar­i­tal rape, forced full-term preg­nan­cy, forced female gen­i­tal muti­la­tion, forced female foeti­cide and infan­ti­cide, forced illit­er­a­cy, forced wid­ow­hood, forced what­ev­er. And then, speak up against oth­er social insti­tu­tions that deny any­one the nat­ur­al right to live their lives as they’d like. Let them know that we the peo­ple and the law are on their side.

    [dupli­cate com­ment in my post that you have gra­cious­ly referred to above. thanks.]

  • Hi Mahen­dra,
    Ah some­thing dif­fer­ent!

    I think its almost impos­si­ble to know from Hin­du scrip­tures since most, if not all, of them have been passed oral­ly. Remem­ber the game कान गोष्टी ? A mes­sage is whis­pered from one per­son to the next and what the last per­son hears is nowhere close to the orig­i­nal or intend­ed mes­sage.

    Also, in a pro­gres­sive state, it is quite pos­si­ble to go beyond reli­gious beliefs in order to set things right. Gay rights (by leg­is­la­tion) in a Chris­t­ian coun­try, is a good exam­ple. So who cares what reli­gion says, or what we think it says, we should be able to bring gen­der equal­i­ty any­way.

    - — -
    I like the new theme. I am, how­ev­er, biased in favor of 2 col­umn lay­outs. The new head­er looks more ‘unqui­et’ than before. The foot­er (which is absent here) is usu­al­ly a good space for mis­cel­la­neous stuff esp if its over­flow­ing the side­bars.


  • a great use­ful com­mon­sense post as usu­al. the resources are pre­cious, would check them all out one by one, usu this fea­ture of your blog is what I learned to val­ue.
    I just start­ed with read­ing about the oth­er theisms, as that ques­tion is/seemed impor­tant to me, after read­ing I feel maybe all the oth­er theisms are there too, esply the autothe­ism among eman­ci­pat­ed women ( 🙂 )

    as for the new theme, facts are: it takes longer to load, the font size/type is com­fort­able to my old eyes, like the way the com­ment box looks, like the head­er which is almost wafer like, and warm, but dis­like the side­bar: looks kind of unmatch­ing with the blog col­umn some­how and messy to me. love the Geor­gia font and the col­or a lot though.
    most impor­tant­ly, a big hug, and thanks for this post.

  • in the end reli­gion is a human con­struct, cre­at­ed to keep stuff togeth­er, exer­cise con­trol, repress ques­tion­ing, pre­serve order by the pow­er­ful, pre­vent upris­ing.
    those that thought they knew it all in Jesus’ day, mur­dered him. what we cre­ate, why can’t we sim­ply rewrite/edit/cleanse/delete/change for God’s sake?
    because the point of reli­gion was nev­er to aid the hoi poloi but to secure it for the cho­sen few 😉

  • Meenakshi

    While Reli­gion may be man made, and par­tial towards men, Per­haps the secu­ri­ty it pro­vides women com­pen­sates for the inequal­i­ty it cages them in, and before long the bird in its cage can­not sur­vive beyond its con­fines. Just to bring a dif­fer­ent angle the argu­ment, I won­der if the fam­i­ly bond­ing that tra­di­tion­al reli­gion pro­vides has more fem­i­nine over tones to it than mas­cu­line. Per­haps it has left some women between the dev­il or the deep sea, but most of them remain unaf­fect­ed because they are ready to put up with some inequal­i­ty, for secu­ri­ty. When I look at law­less­ness in some parts of Africa, I real­ize that unless women are in groups, there is not much of secu­ri­ty in their lives or for their chil­dren.( this is ani­mal behav­ior at its finest) Here the social moral­i­ty that reli­gion offers will prob­a­bly be more than wel­come. One could say that reli­gion was the cause of law­less­ness in some parts of Africa, but I still won­der if it goes beyond that.

  • I some­how don’t under­stand the con­cept of hold­ing on to some­thing for the heck of it with­out under­stand­ing the rea­sons.
    A few days back I was telling a Brit col­league about the con­cept of “no meat eat­ing” pol­i­cy of some Hin­dus on Tues­days and Thurs­days because the Gods might get angry.
    He was amused and asked — Is it the same set of Gods who get angry on dif­fer­ent days or is it two dif­fer­ent Gods for the two days?
    I laughed quite hard that day.
    I think Reli­gion was cre­at­ed as a mean to sup­press peo­ple and keep them under con­trol. The only dif­fer­ence between now and cen­turies ago is that now we are quite open about it.

  • //Did women have ‘few­er’ rights than men or ‘dif­fer­ent’ in the con­text of Hinduism’s history?//
    Hin­du women didn’t inher­it prop­er­ty from their par­ents, most of them still don’t. Polygamy was prac­ticed by most Hin­du Gods. Swayam­vara was the right giv­en to the girl to choose a hus­band of her choice but the terms and con­di­tions were set by the father.
    Sav­it­ri won her hus­band back from Yama by her intel­li­gence and wit but we are made to believe that it was the pow­er of her satit­va that defeat­ed Yama. Sita com­mit­ted sui­cide but it was glo­ri­fied. Ahilya was cursed to turn into a stone because Indra the King of dev­tas cheat­ed her. Indra lived hap­pi­ly while the poor woman had to wait for cen­turies so that Rama could come and bring her back to life. Lax­man had no prob­lems in leav­ing his wife Urmi­la alone for 14 years because he had to serve his broth­er. Nobody both­ered about her. Mahab­harat is full of sto­ries which prove that women had few­er rights than men in those times.

  • Mahen­dra: I want to make a flip­pant com­ment. Can you please please go back to the old theme? I see this and I want to eat choco­late cream wafers.

  • Dev

    Mahen­dra, con­grat­u­la­tions for writ­ing such a painstak­ing­ly researched post on this com­plex and also rel­e­vant top­ic. I more or less agree with your ideas and wont say any­thing fur­ther at this point. 😉

  • what is sad is, it didn’t even rec­ah where it might have made a dif­fer­ence. when I come here look­ing for the female respons­es to the idea I go away deject­ed. but my mum says peo­ple do not for­get what they read or hvae respond­ed to, it stays some­where in the depth of their minds affect­ing thoughts, ideas and respons­es at some stage lat­er bring­ing on “O-ho, yes”
    so she hopes, I despair, but still this was such a won­der­ful jour­ney drft­ing through al these minds you drew here with your pow­er of words and being, Mahen­dra. you are such an asset. do come and talk to our chil­dren some­time or pitch in in our design think­ing chal­lenge for Give India con­test where chil­dren will design a unique Giv­ing Idea that would affect the lives of mil­lions. Do con­tin­ue to be who you are, give us the ben­e­fit of all the crit­i­cal thought you brng in to any endeav­our you under­take: our chil­dren need con­tact with minds such as yours that would nour­ish their audac­i­ty, allay their fear of falling and fail­ing. thanks for doing this post from the bot­tom of my heart (mind?)

  • wish­to­beanon

    Hi Mahen­dra, thanks for the great post and like the cliche goes — may your tribe increase!

  • Am com­ing in a bit late here, apolo­gies. Inter­est­ing post, as I com­ment­ed to you on twit­ter, when you first wrote it (I had promised to read it in detail at leisure, if you recall).

    The main theme seems to be (and I say this because you seem to be zero­ing in on it in your respons­es to com­ments) that reli­gion is an obsta­cle to progress, in gen­er­al terms, and in spe­cif­ic terms, it inhibits the evo­lu­tion of an egal­i­tar­i­an soci­ety in terms of gen­der equal­i­ty. Fur­ther, that women in key posi­tions should ini­ti­ate reforms aimed at break­ing away from the par­a­digm of reli­gion, which keeps them sub­ju­gat­ed and pro­mote a sec­u­lar, if not athe­is­tic, mind­set in which the idea of equal­i­ty can bear fruit and man­i­fest itself in day-to-day liv­ing.

    If my under­stand­ing / inter­pre­ta­tion of your core theme is broad­ly cor­rect, then I’d like to say that I’m more or less in agree­ment. I’d just like to add that along with reli­gion, there’s this whole bunch of socio-cul­tur­al beliefs, cus­toms, tra­di­tions, prac­tices, rit­u­als, super­sti­tions etc., a lot of which form the ‘tools of oppres­sion’ if you like (most of them designed by chau­vin­ists for that very pur­pose) and there­fore need to be phased out.

    We live in a new world — a world in which there is already a crit­i­cal mass of empow­ered women to ini­ti­ate and lead reforms in the soci­eties where they are nec­es­sary, and also a crit­i­cal mass of men who would express sol­i­dar­i­ty and sup­port such moves. This is very dif­fer­ent from the old world, where such reforms nec­es­sar­i­ly had to be brought about by enlight­ened men like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Jyoti­ba Phule et al. and there were very few, if any, women who were in a posi­tion to lead such reform ini­tia­tives. So in that sense I agree with your sec­ond point as well, that women need to take the lead in bring about these reforms.

  • That came from a quote by Thore­au — “There are a thou­sand hack­ing at the branch­es of evil to one who is strik­ing at the root.” … good advice to aspir­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies!

    I don’t think ‘Green’ was an issue as such (either pro- or anti-) with any of the world reli­gions, but if you look at the crux of the phi­los­o­phy under­ly­ing ‘Green’ think­ing, it is a fun­da­men­tal shift from the (in some cas­es implic­it) premise which most reli­gions are based on: that Man is a spe­cial crea­ture in a class by him­self — more equal than all oth­er forms of life, and hence has the pow­er to do pret­ty much as he pleas­es. ‘Green’ puts Man on par with all oth­er forms of life in terms of moral rights to resources. But more on that in anoth­er post / thread, as you said.

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  • > 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?

    The answer, I believe, is in your blog itself: the line between reli­gious and social tra­di­tions is very thin, and you can­not real­ly cross one, with­out cross­ing the oth­er, many a times.


  • Ratio­nal Thinker

    What about forced male gen­i­tal muti­la­tion?

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  • Mel­lisa

    Yeah reli­gion is very con­tra­dic­to­ry and pro­vides a lot of oppor­tu­ni­ty for dis­crim­i­na­tion but it doesn’t mean you should stay athe­ist. There are plen­ty of oth­er reli­gions out there that don’t dis­crim­i­nate such as pagan­ism, bud­dhism etc. And reli­gion is shaped by humans and not God, just because humans have mis­in­ter­pret­ed it doesn’t mean you should stop believ­ing in a high­er pow­er.