By Abby Pittman
April 13, 2015
A sexist society has resulted in a limiting and suppressive role for women in Islamic tradition, despite the teachings encouraging equality and a positive relationship between men and women. This can also be seen in Christian groups, if the Bible is interpreted literally. Though within the gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John when Jesus himself is speaking, there is equality among men and women. However, in the Old Testament as well as in later chapters, the writers fall victim to their gendered and traditional societies. The spiritual message behind Islam and Christianity has become warped in the ongoing process of interpretation of the sacred texts, due to the patriarchal societies that surround both the writings and the interpretations of them.
The treatment of women in the Christian tradition varies greatly over time and relies on interpretation of the Bible. For example, one of Christianity’s most influential leaders Paul encourages spiritual equality among men and women, as well as along social class and race, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothes yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” (Fisher, 196). However, he is unable to escape from his society “he was not advocating a social revolution in which existing social distinctions would be completely set aside. As the Christian Church became institutionalized, cultural norms triumphed,” (Fisher, 196). Later in his first letter to Corinthians, he has several passages “that over time became the basis for women’s subordination within the family and the institutional Church,” (Fisher, 196). He mentions how women should act, and their roles within a marriage and a community. Though Paul had briefly grasped at the equality, his cultural traditions pushed through and he, like so many others conformed to the social order of his society. Similarly, in Islamic tradition, women are to be treated with respect and reverence. Yet somehow, that has been forgotten within the tradition, because it is not present in the culture. Though Muhammad’s writings tended to be concerned with the safety and well being of women in this war ridden time:
“The Prophet seems to have been concerned about reserving the safety of women. In addition, the Prophet’s wives and daughters and female believers were advised, ‘that they should not display their adornment except what appears thereof. When they went out, there were ‘to let down upon themselves their over-garments. And let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms’ (Sura 24: 31). This is more proper, so that they may be known, and not given any trouble’ (Sure 33: 59).” (Fisher, 243)
Muhammad’s writings were concerned with the safety and well-being of women, which later was interpreted and readjusted, and what was once protection turned into repression.
This is not uncommon in either religion; parts of the Bible or the Qur’an are blown up and out of proportion such as the passage of homosexuality in Leviticus. Yet rarely are passages that show mercy and equality remembered; “In contrast to the misogyny that has crept into popular Muslin beliefs, the Qur’an clearly safeguards women’s rights to respect and security,” (246). Similarly, “Old Testament heroines, as well as female disciples of Jesus, are cited to show that women have been key players in salvation history, culminating in the betrayal of Jesus by his male disciples, while his female disciples remained faithful at the cross and were the first witnesses of the resurrection. Women leaders in the Pauline epistles are also noted to show that God used women as well as men to spread the gospel in the early church,” (Ruether, 217). And yet, women are still not allowed to be priests in Catholicism; “the Vatican insists that women cannot be priests because Jesus chose only men as his disciples (although as we have seen, he had many important women followers and supporters, and there were female post-Crucifixion missionary teachers),” (Fisher, 215). In Islam the issue is a little rougher. Women are not allowed to hold positions of spiritual author, nor are many even allowed to pray in the mosques; “In many cultures, women are frequent attendants at saint’ shrines, begging for spiritual intervention to solve their family’s problems,” (Fisher, 258). Unfortunately in some areas, women do not even have that right and are not allowed to approach the shrines.
Despite a holy text that embraces spiritual equality, both of these religions have made restrictions on women based on sexism, and have created an unfortunately patriarchal society. Though there is sexism present in the Bible, the reason for that is the authors behind the chapters resided in a sexist society. The same goes for the Qur’an, but in this case, Muhammad placed ‘restrictions’ on women in order to keep them safer. Though these texts are not perfect, nor are the many interpretations, it is not the spiritual message itself that is sexist; it is the society that surrounds the text.
Fisher, Pat. “Women in Christianity.” In Women in Religions, 188-233. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc, 2007.
Fisher, Pat. “Women in Islam.” In Women in Religions, 234-269. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc, 2007.
Ruether, Rosemary Radford. “Feminism in World Christianity.” In Feminism and World Religions, 214-247. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1999.