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.
We asked a range of questions. In this post, we want to focus on responses which answer one specific question: are religions inherently sexist?
Participants in our focus groups were unanimous in saying that their faiths were not inherently sexist. To explain the sexism and misogyny they had faced, some participants made a distinction between their religious texts and traditional interpretations and translations of them:
I'm not sure there are 'unhelpful' verses about women in the Quran, but there are 'unhelpful' translations. For example, there's a verse that says ''one has authority over the other' and 'the one' has come to be understood as man. Obviously, feminist readings of the Quran would suggest a gender-neutral translation.
Gender bias within faith is still an unfamiliar issue for a lot of people, and it's taking some time for custom and practice to change. Usually with issues like this, participants said, the inspiration and desire for change would come from a variety of sources: people will reread scripture, discover new ideas, debate fresh interpretations, and engage in a discussion within and beyond the congregation.
But all this requires argument, and gender bias continues in faith, some participants claimed, because people are unwilling to discuss sexism. This is partly because it's an uncomfortable discussion to have and partly because many people simply aren't interested in exploring the topic more. In either case, the normal process of a faith being reshaped is falling a bit flat in relation to gender equality. 'Normally, if we have a big issue to consider we turn to the scriptures,' one participant explained, 'but, by not talking about [equality] we get stuck in tradition'.
But this doesn't mean people aren't fighting for change. Many women are refreshing and reconsidering many religious concepts – including historically entrenched ideas about God's gender. As one participant put it: 'God is a He in our readings and teachings but I never refer to him as a He.' But there is a flip side to this: constantly challenging gendered language and norms is wearing. Constantly having arguments with faith leaders and co-religionists is exhausting:
I'm in a church that tries to divert the traditional message, and put for instance, Mother of God in there…but doing this can sometimes seem like an effort all of the time, I always hope that we could just put our energy into other things.
You always have to be subversive which can be fun, but you just want to be normal sometimes and not have people say 'oh, that's you and your feminism again', it's really tiring.
Related to this point, many women make a distinction between their religions and the particular church or mosque they worship at. This quote from a Christian typifies this attitude: ‘I have something on my mirror, which my friend bought me. It says “Jesus is not the church, and the church is not Jesus. Thank God”’. In making this distinction, participants often wanted to emphasize that faith institutions are experienced as (unnecessarily) male spaces, which is the result of the specific historical context in which they developed (we’ll talk about this more in a future blog post).
Other women – particularly those from Asian backgrounds – made a distinction between faith and cultural practices. The way many religions are practised in Birmingham, it was claimed, are the result of patterns of migration into the city. For example:
A lot of what we think is religion is cultural and because of the way immigration has happened, our view of Islam has been formed by the way it is practised in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Some participants claimed that as second- and third-generation migrants become more integrated, many 'religious' practices – such as those suggesting women have a responsibility to serve their husbands or do the lion's share of the cooking and cleaning – will come increasingly under attack:
I remember once my brother came in and said, 'mum, you do realise that Islamically you don't have to do the cooking and the cleaning?' Mum fought back and said that Islamically, that was the role of a woman! But when we got married, we made sure that our partners knew...whatever I earn is my money; you have no right over it. And if I'm going to cook and clean, you're going to help me.
So that's it for that question. What do you think? Does it resonate with your experiences? Let us know here.
Keep your eyes open for some further posts on this issue. You can download the full report here.