June 17th, 2011

Untold stories about women of faith

Gender equality featured prominently in the early stages of many religions. This needs to be more widely known.

There are too many important stories about women of faith that we do not know well enough, or do not know at all. These stories may well change our expectations for gender equality in the realm of religion.

This was the common theme that emerged during May’s Roundtable Discussion about the relationship between faith and gender roles.

Academic Lai Ah Eng, who chaired the discussion, remarked on how gender equality originally formed the basis of many faiths.

“Equality is written about, sanctioned and practised. But great deviations and things happened along the way,” she said. “The story now is that we want it back. We want what is good back.”

The event, which was attended by more than 30 people, was jointly organised by AWARE and the South East Community Development Council.

The speakers were: Angie Monksfield, former president of the Buddhist Fellowship; Sister Julia Ong, secretary of Ecclesia Of Women In Asia; Amy Daniel, a theology specialist; K. Kathirasan, a teacher of Hinduism; Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, a social activist and post-graduate student at the National University of Singapore’s Malay Studies department; and Jamshed K. Fozdar, the former honorary secretary of the Inter-Religious Organisation Of Singapore.

Mr Fodzar, who spoke on his own Baha’i faith as well as other religions, highlighted the seemingly irreconcilable relationship between gender equality and religion that remains in many societies. Mr Fodzar is the son of Shirin Fozdar, one of Singapore’s most important feminists.

“There have been women who have championed women’s rights, and they have reached great heights in Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc,” he said. “But they have had to do so by leaving their religious background behind, because the religious community has not found this acceptable.”

Within the institutional hierarchies of religious life, women also continue to find their roles limited. For instance, while Buddhism is fundamentally egalitarian when it comes to the path to enlightenment for both genders, cultural constraints exist for formal participation in religious life.

Ms Monksfield touched on this when she related the story of Buddha’s mother, whom Buddha reluctantly ordained as a nun. “She attained enlightenment. There is no discrimination as to who can attain enlightenment,” said Ms Monksfield, who suggested that Buddha’s hesitation about the ordination of women was due to his doubt about the degree of support nuns would receive from their community.

Similar limitations exist in the Catholic Church.

The limited role of women in the official hierarchy of the Church is at odds with the important role women play in the Bible.

“Mary Magdalene was recorded as the first person Jesus appeared to after his resurrection. How did the one who had the title of “Apostles of Apostles” become known simply as a prostitute?” asked Sister Julia.

Ms Daniels also pointed out that although women in his time were defined according to their relationship with men, “Jesus treated women with respect. He allowed women to become his disciples. We take this for granted, but it was counter-cultural at the time. In the gospels, these women are actually named, but these passages were later removed”.

Equality was also evident in the early days of Hinduism. Mr Kathisaran highlighted India’s Vedic Age (3000 BC to 500 BC), during which the Vedas – the oldest Hindu scriptures – were composed.

“During this period, women were able to choose whether they wanted to study the Vedas or pursue domestic life,” he said. “During this period, women were educated. At this particular stage, the idea of equality was present.”

The education of women is also an important tenet of the Baha’i faith, which stresses gender equality. It views the education of women as a crucial means of achieving this equality in everyday life, and the education of daughters in fact takes precedence over that of sons when a family cannot afford to educate all its children, not least because the faith views the education of mothers as essential to the proper upbringing of children.

Gender equality is also evident in the Koran. Said Mr Mohd Imran: “There are many verses that allude to gender equality. The Prophet made education compulsory for men and women at a time when women were not being educated. He also abolished the practice of selling women as chattel.” Islam does not lack strong female figures, he pointed out. For example, Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, was an accomplished jurist who taught both men and women in a mosque.

A more patriarchal society took root after the Prophet’s death, in which women were no longer allowed to be the co-interpreters of religious texts. From the mid-20th century onwards, said Mr Mohd Imran, “reformists, including those who tried to advocate for the rights of Muslim women, were also often seen as stooges of the West. This contestation is still going on. The role of women in Islam is one of the most urgent issues facing the Muslim world”.

These ancient stories about the significant roles that women played in the practice of their faiths need to be told more often, and more widely – they are a fundamental part of the grand narratives that form the basis of so many religions.

And women are the ones who have to become the storytellers, suggested Ms Monksfield. “We have to bear in mind that most of the authors of these books and histories are men. It’s not as if they are going to write these stories in women’s favour. So now it’s time for us to take up our pen and start writing. This is something positive that we can do.”

Find out more about AWARE’s monthly Roundtable Discussion events here.

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