What's it like being a woman of faith?
"The traditional space now, it's too masculine. The people who have been in before and used the robes are men and I really feel that. Having to try to hold onto my identity as a women makes me realise that I've stepped into a masculine space."
In collaboration with Near Neighbours, we recently spoke to 30 or so women in Birmingham to ask them about their experiences of being a woman in a religious space. You can find out more about who we spoke to and how in the full report, which is available here.
In this series of posts, we’re exploring women’s responses in relation to four key questions. The first question was: are religions inherently sexist?
The second question, and subject of this post, is: what’s it like being a woman in a faith space?
Most participants agreed that traditional faith spaces (such as churches and mosques) are masculine spaces. This masculinity is manifested in a number of small, almost trivial ways. For example, some participants talked about the gendered language that is still common in a lot of worship:
We were singing a song that explicitly said, “I am your Son” and I just couldn't sing it… I explained that I couldn't sing it but the men just didn't get it at all
Similarly, women talked about how it is assumed they will perform certain tasks, such as cleaning or helping those with mobility issues: 'We have a podium on a platform, and you need to go up these stairs and some women need help going up and down, and the men just sit there and it's always the women who help. The men shouldn't be told to help. It's not a woman or man job, it's about sharing'.
The idea that there are roles for particular genders even seeps into acts of worship:
Worship teams in Pentecostal churches are female dominated. And when I've spoken to men and said why don't you want to be on the worship team, they say they see it as 'a woman role'. Even my five-year old boy who can sing says he's not going to sing because only girls sing. These are some of the things that are picked up in our churches.
In addition to these visible manifestations of sexist and gender biased attitudes, participants also discussed how faith spaces are places where women are generally silenced. In one or two extreme cases, this silencing is literal:
I have read the Quran out loud I've been told maybe you shouldn't have done that. So if I'm not even allowed to speak an Arabic verse which is the word of God what does that say about my own voice and my own ideas, and being able to voice those in the community?
But as this speaker also implies, many times the silencing of women is also more subtle. On some occasions, it simply amounts to ignoring their ideas; on others it amounts to dismissing their concerns and ambitions. For example, one participant talked about how she wanted to engage and support prisoners, but was continually fobbed off by others in her church who didn't take the time to understand her unique and innovative approach: 'I wanted to do prison ministry and people said, “speak to so and so: they're already doing that”, but I wanted to do different things to them. So I realised that my ministry is outside the walls of the church'.
The way gender issues are ignored by bishops, pastors, vicars, and imams was also highlighted as an example of how women are silenced and ignored. For example, an Anglican participant talked about the fact that 'there are strong female characters in the Bible' but due to 'the way things are spoken about, we don't hear about them'. Other participants also mentioned scriptural verses, parables, and hadith which support female empowerment but which rarely, if ever, make it into sermons.
In fact, this historical/theological erasing of women is one of the subtlest and most powerful ways in which faith spaces establish their masculinity. Participants talked about how they were aware that their institution was historically one in which women were marginalised and men empowered:
The traditional space now, it's too masculine… the way space is set up… The people who have been in before and used the robes are men and I really feel that. Having to try to hold onto my identity as a women makes me realise that I've stepped into a masculine space.
This idea of being able to maintain a sense of identity whilst being in a faith space was a common concern, particularly for Anglicans. As one participant put it: 'I only ever noticed that actually I am uncomfortable about my sexuality and identity as a woman when I entered the church and became a Christian'. But of course, gender identity is multifaceted. Just as many women struggle to forge an identity within their faith space, many others claimed the way their faith community differentiated between sexes expressed their own views of womanhood. For example, this Muslim participant recognised that men and women are treated differently when worshipping, but justified this based on her conception of what it is 'appropriate' for a woman to do:
The only place I see a distinction is in who can lead the prayers. [And segregation in worship?] Yes, but that's useful. It is more comfortable to be in your own gender space. And I can see why it's more important for a man to lead the prayer than a woman. Because the way the prayers are you held, you have to prostrate, bow down, so it's more appropriate for a man to do it than a woman – that's how I feel.
You can download the full report here.