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.