Contemporary women are faced with oppressive traditions that restrict their roles in world religions, but notable women are taking steps to promote a more egalitarian future.
Historically, women have held prominent and influential roles in several religions, but women have been deprived of these roles as the majority of religions have become increasingly institutionalized. In this analysis, I will review women’s roles in Indigenous Religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to highlight how androcentric cultures have led to women’s diminished religious influence. I contend that women have been ostracized from religious hierarchies based on ancient cultural beliefs. Therefore, I will show that many misogynistic religious traditions have arisen primarily out of fear of female biology and subsequent attempts to control what was not understood. I believe that our collective human knowledge has advanced far beyond these early superstitions, but many religions still obstinately cling to these primitive traditions because they clearly benefit the ruling male hierarchies. First, I will give brief overview of each religion, and then I will discuss some of the notable women that are challenging these archaic traditions in order to attain equality in these religions.
In order to understand the affect that culture has had on several of these “Great Religions” it is necessary to first examine the roles of women in non-institutionalized religions. These religions are often referred to as “Indigenous Religions,” however there are many other terms used to describe this vast group of disparate religious beliefs, practices, and oral traditions (Eller). Therefore, “indigenous religions” is merely “a catch-all term encompassing all remaining cultures, generally tribal, in which local religious practices and beliefs are still alive, usually in close relationship to the land upon which the people live” (M.P. Fisher 35). In these cultures, “[r]eligion and everyday life are often so intertwined that the people may have no word for ‘religion’ as a thing apart that occurs only sometimes in temples” (M.P. Fisher 35). Women in these cultures have traditionally held socially powerful roles and “[m]any Native American groups were apparently matrilineal” (M.P. Fisher 37). Furthermore, women in these cultures have often held considerable political power as well (M.P. Fisher 37). I believe that women in indigenous religions generally have more influence and power since most of these religions do not have religious texts. Instead, these religions are typically passed on orally and these cultures tend to rely on simple subsistence methods of survival. As such, these small tribal cultures must depend heavily on the equal cooperation of every member of its group for survival and I believe this has resulted in more egalitarian traditions. Paula Gunn Allen, a Native womanist believes that: ‘gynocracies’ by which she means ‘woman-centered tribal societies,’ in which matrilocality [the tradition by which the husband lives with the wife’s community], matrifocality [households consisting only of the mother and her children], matrilinearity [kinship traced through the mother’s side], maternal control of household goods and resources, and female deities of the magnitude of the Christian God were and are present and active features of traditional tribal life. . . Some distinguishing features of a woman-centered social system include free and easy sexuality and wide latitude in personal style. This latitude means that a diversity of people, including gay males and lesbians, are not denied and are in fact likely to be accorded honor. Also prominent in such systems are nurturing, pacifist, and passive males (as defined by western minds) and self-defining, assertive, decisive women. . . (M.P. Fisher 38). Therefore, based upon many of the traditions of various indigenous religions, there is...