Women, so the sociologists and psychologists tell us, are generally
more loyal than men to the religions of their birth. They make
up more than half of the world’s devotees, they fill the pews,
maintain purity and piety in the Jewish home, perform the rites
of Hajj, are taught that they enjoy equality within Sikhism, Baha’ism
and so on, and at points in the histories of all the world’s faiths
they have figured as exemplars, leaders and mystics. Girls account
for more Religious Studies exam candidates than boys. Yet to judge
from the syllabuses and school textbooks women are of no significance;
indeed they are invisible.
A Stirring of Consciousness
I became conscious of this when I was a secondary school teacher
of Religious Studies. There was Deborah, prophetess and stirring
leader in the Bible and her contemporary Jael whose violent expolits
with a tent peg would bring groans from classes. But such colourful
female characters were rare. More often women served as pointers
to aspects of human perversity, like Eve, or the wife of Hosea.
And where would teachers find a Deborah or Jael in Islam or in
Hinduism? The source books scarcely acknowledged that women existed
and participated in the common rites, let alone that they enjoy
may also have been teachers and thinkers and martyrs had had been
revered or reviled for it! There were the worthy Elizabeth Frys
and Mother Teresas, of course (and where were their Jewish or
Sikh counterparts?), but nowhere was it said that women sometimes
served best when defying religious and social stereotypes, or
that (just as was the case with men) they might be revolutionary
religious figures, challenging prophets and branded as heretics.
Their histories were buried, though women are the pillars of the
world’s religions. Their tales seemed to be known only in some
circles in the religions which nurtured them. And no one was at
all concerned that children were being offered male role models
in religions where already patriarchalisation was a reality and
where metaphors for God and for Good seemed to be derived mostly
from male experience.
I knew that in Sikhism there were songs about famous women. I
knew from living among and teaching Muslims that tales of Fatima
and Khadija were common. I read accounts of Christian sectarianism
in which Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and Jehovah’s Witnesses figured
large and wondered whatever happened to Mary Baker Eddy or Mother
Ann Lee. This was the 1970s and Religious Studies was still contenting
itself with itemising beliefs and practices and in some of these
women had no part (though often that wasn’t said). It was satisfied
with discussing a history which was men’s religious history in
religions dominated by men. Which was the more depressing, the
realisation that even the Bible, which I valued, left women un-addressed
(thou shalt not covet they neighbour’s wife) or that no one noticed,
least of all the children?
Perceptions are Changing
Perceptions are changing. From many sources, and from men and
women alike there has been a surge of discussion and literature
examining such things as women’s social and religious status,
their contributions to the histories of religions, the prevalence
of masculine religious language and patriarchalisation. There
is reappraisal of the Scriptures, liturgies and myths. And above
all there is now acknowledgement that the insights, experiences
and religious needs of half of humankind have been undervalued
or ignored. Slowly the religious history of women is being reclaimed.
Inevitable tales of injustice emerge with it, but stirring tales
too, of women as catalysts at times of change, as the means of
support without which religions would not have grown or flourished,
as carers and sharers and self-effacing devotees certainly - but
not as those things alone.
All over the world women now declare the distinctiveness and
the value of their own spirituality. Some are reclaiming it or
finding it for the first time and a few are worshipping experimentally
in all-women groups. Within some religious traditions such worship
will not be new, of course. But for Jewish women and Christian
women, for example, this recognition that they want to move beyond
some of the language and liturgy and the teaching of their mother
faiths has come with uncertainty and painfully.
In Britain the debate about women’s ordination has obscured these
wider concerns. The wider debate is about things fundamental to
religions. It is about justice and liberation. It has been about
the ways in which, throughout history, the powerful have used
and abused scripture and tradition, myth and doctrine. It has
challenged us to ask whether the original content and intent of
teachings have in fact been distorted in the day-to-day practices
of religions. It is about how best to express cherished religions
and cultures when these affect women. In all of this, from the
simplest level upwards, there is plenty for pupils and teachers
to imbibe. The topic is the sanctity of the individual and there
is not greater religious issue.
The unfortunate teacher of Religious Studies has special problems,
of course. Many of the world’s assumptions about the nature and
given roles of women stem from the influences of those religions
we teach about. There is need for sensitivity and honesty, as
well as information and balance. And sadly the books available
for use in schools have their own shortcomings. Not least they
feature the invisible women! There has been something of an improvement
in very recent years but still Meccan pilgrimage is often described
as though only men perform it. Buddhist monaStics are never women
and a turban is the mark of the Sikh. Moreover, illustrations
support such presentations.
Images of Women?
When women are pictured it is usually as passive onlookers at
picturesque male rites. For every photograph of women with Sabbath
candles there are a score of men initiating rituals. And when
the female of the believer species is more eye-catching than the
male (the swathed, veiled Muslim woman, for example) she is sure
to be a stereotype, telling us nothing of the social and geographical
diversity which exists within religions. A useful exercise for
teachers is to discover just what children assume about some significant
aspects of religions. Do Muslim women fast, go to Mecca and attend
the mosque? What is the gender of Christian priests and ministers?
Who receives Amrit? The books we use may be at best ambiguous
and if children are not told that practices are gender-related
or open to all it may be that they are drawing quite the wrong
conclusions. In discussion of religious art, craft, music and
dance, too, there are opportunities to look at the contributions
of, or portrayal of, women. And the myths of different groups
provide examples of negative and positive views of the female.
There must be care to avoid misleading selectivity, of course.
While it is useful to acknowledge the constraints upon women imposed
by religions, it is inadequate to write of the problems of the
Muslim woman (as some books do) while failing to discuss the teaching
about and practice concerning women in other faiths, not least
in 2,000 years of Christianity!
I am more optimistic now than I was when I wrote in the British
Journal of Religious Education in 1983. This is not because writers
of textbooks or compilers of syllabuses have become markedly more
sensitive. Religious Studies has been slower than many subjects
to respond in print to the challenge of sex-role stereotyping
in its teaching and its school books. I am more optimistic because
reference books are now available, and these will be of value
to teachers who are familiar with having to fill the gaps in the
books they use. It is teachers who will begin to redress imbalances
and promote honest discussion. It is they who will acknowledge
the silence about women too and consider the reasons for it. And
they have to do it while recognising that many regard the silence
as good and the relative powerlessness of women as right and God~ordaifled.
At all levels teachers can look at their source material with
more critical eyes, on the lookout for gender bias as well as
other shortcomings. And their language, not least God-language,
can be inclusive.
In addition to Ursula King’s bibliography, for the interested
teacher there are works like:
- Not in God’s Image: Women in History by J. O’Faolin and L.
Martinez (Virago 1979) which refers to many sources, some religious.
- T. Foster Carroll’s Women, Religion and Development in the
Third World (Praeger 1983) which contains much useful material.
- Women in the World’s Religions in the McGill Studies in the
History of Religions Series (State Univ. of New York Press)
edited by Arvind Sharma.
- R. R. Ruether, E. McLaughlin (eds) Women of Spirit: female
leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (Simon and
The teacher will still have to seek hard for suitable ready-made
material, though there are stories such as those (for the primary
age group) of Khadija and Noor Jahan by Begum Naz (Ferozsons,
Lahore) and the women in Jamil Ahmad’s Hundred Great Muslims (Ferozson’S).
The Shap Working Party’s Source Books, under the headings of individual
religions, sometimes include material on women.