Is it really “inconceivable”? Reimagining the role of religion in promoting gender equality

e6dybGender and feminism seem to be gaining attention again in the broader global public sphere. Religion – as a concept and as representative of broad traditions of belief and theology – has frequently had a problematic relationship with both of these concepts and frameworks. But they are not the natural enemies that they are often painted as, writes Erin Wilson.

So #feministprincessbride has become a thing. Time Magazine recently fuelled the ire of feminists the world over by including “feminist” in its annual poll of words that should be banned for 2015. Canadian author Anne Theriault vented her frustration on Twitter:

Having @time include feminist on their words to ban list makes me want to say it even more, like a petulant child. Feminist, FEMINIST. Like in the Princess Bride when Miracle Max’s wife chases him around yelling, “Humperdink, Humperdink, Humperdiiiiiiiink.

Her exasperation struck a chord with many in the Twittersphere (if you haven’t seen the hashtag, do yourself a favour and check it out. And if you haven’t seen the film, you must. Now. Stop reading and go watch it). Indeed, there seems to be renewed efforts to reclaim feminism against the age-old attempts to cast it as anti-men, aiming for female superiority over men, attempting to overthrow patriarchy and replace it with matriarchy. Such understandings of feminism (often reinforced by, among others, conservative religious leaders, who view feminism as the enemy of traditional family structures and gender roles) are superficial and arguably deliberately obtuse, engaging only with the most extreme caricatures of feminism and ignoring its multiple variants and nuances. Feminism is not about superiority but equality, across gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, amongst many other things, and it is not only focused on women but on issues of gender more generally. So feminists are equally concerned with restrictive stereotypes that privilege certain forms of masculinity over others, that marginalize and exclude LGBTQ, as well as structures that justify gender-based violence and maintain women’s subordination and inequality to men.

Sadly, however, the assumption that feminism and gender equality are primarily about women has become widespread. This is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the perceived need for the HeForShe Campaign, launched by Emma Watson at the UN General Assembly in New York in September, where she invited men to become participants in efforts to address gender inequality. Yet Watson’s speech, the HeForShe Campaign and the UN itself reinforce the idea that gender equality is actually about women. The UN body that deals specifically with issues of gender equality is called “UNWomen”, not UNGender. The HeForShe Campaign explicitly focuses on violence and discrimination faced by women and girls.

During some recent travels for fieldwork in Kenya and Tanzania, a colleague and I encountered this attitude whilst interviewing men and women in different communities about gender equality and the role of religion. There was a widespread perception, especially amongst men, that “gender” was actually about women, that it was a women’s issue, very little to do with men, even in some cases that development itself was mainly about women. There were in general two responses from men to this perception. One response was primarily disinterest – because men perceived gender to be about women, anything to do with gender equality was not relevant for them. Consequently, they were not interested and did not participate in meetings, workshops or activities that were focused on gender. The other response was frustration and anger – angry that the issues men faced, including assault, rape and other forms of gender-based violence, ridicule for attempts to address gender inequality through changing their own behaviours and taking on a more equal share of household chores, or the burden of societal expectations regarding “fulfilling their role as a man”, received so little attention or were frequently dismissed as unimportant.

I have definitely been guilty of focusing mainly on women’s issues and women’s subordination when it comes to gender equality. Arguments that “men face discrimination too” often frustrate me, sometimes coming across as an attempt to deflect attention and responsibility away from addressing the deeply embedded discrimination that women face every day. But many men do face discrimination too, though in different ways and arguably not to the same extent as women. Many men struggle against societal expectations that try to force them to behave according to certain norms and rules about what “masculinity” is and what it means to be a “real man” (also often reinforced by some religious leaders and particular theologies). But if feminism and gender equality carry the implicit connotation and assumption that they are actually about women and not relevant for men, whether this is true or not, it suggests that there is a problem in using only these approaches to try to address issues of gender inequality. Please hear that I’m not saying that feminism and/or gender equality should be abandoned, far from it. Rather, what I am suggesting is a need to look for additional approaches that can compliment and potentially reframe the discussion. And I want to suggest that religion may offer one way to do this.

I know, I know. Religion? Really? Isn’t religion actually complicit in maintaining the structures of patriarchy that confine men and women, girls and boys, to particular roles and modes of behavior, regardless of individual identity, sexual orientation, personal emotional temperament, etc? In many cases yes. Religion is often a major obstacle to the achievement of gender equality, to education on sexual and reproductive health rights and to reducing stigma and marginalization of members of the LGBTQ community. But just as often religion is positioned as or assumed to be an obstacle, when there is evidence to suggest that religion can actually assist in addressing issues of gender inequality.

Sometimes constructed as a conflict between “values-based” (read: religious) approaches and “evidence-based” (read: secular) approaches, the mainstream argument on gender equality and religion is that religion is a conservative influence that contributes to maintaining gender stereotypes that confine men and women to particular roles and particular modes of behavior, preventing expressions of identity that go beyond predominantly traditional, heterosexual edicts. And it cannot be denied that religion frequently has been an obstacle to women’s equality, to the free expression of non-heterosexual gender and sexual identity and behavior and has contributed to the maintenance of harmful and discriminatory practices. Yet, as with any area where religion is involved, this does not tell the full story. Certainly religion has often had a problematic relationship with issues of gender, but relationships are never static and unchanging, they are dynamic, complex and nuanced, and religion’s relationship with gender and sexuality is no different. Indeed, there may even be ways in which religious actors, frameworks and worldviews can assist in promoting greater sensitivity to and engagement with gender and sexuality, in development contexts and beyond. What is perhaps even more significant is that religion has powerful social influence in many contexts. Especially in communities in development contexts, religious leaders are held in high esteem, invited to speak at important community events. Their words and actions have the potential to influence and shape the attitudes and behaviours of others in their communities.

We encountered an example of this during our fieldwork. Part of the reason we were in Kenya and Tanzania was to evaluate a program, Channels of Hope for Gender (CoHG), run by World Vision International. The program explicitly engages with religious leaders using the Bible and theology to promote attitudinal and behavioural change around gender equality. One of the key frameworks that World Vision uses in this program to promote the idea of gender equality is harmony in relationships. They take participants in the workshop back to the creation of humanity before the fall and emphasize that God’s original intention was that men and women were created equal, would live together as equals and support one another to become all that they had been created to be. The program looks at questions of language, problems of translating words from the original Greek and Hebrew into English or Swahili or Luo or any of the other languages in the region and the problems this has created for understanding and interpreting what the Bible says regarding gender relationships. The workshop also considers the passage in Ephesians 5, frequently used by conservative church leaders as a justification for subordinating women to men, and emphasizes that this passage actually preaches mutual respect and submission between husbands and wives, parents and children, and employers and employees (or masters and slaves, in the original cultural context).

This emphasis on harmony in relationships, in all relationships, rather than the overt focus on women has proven to be initially successful in garnering support and altering behaviours in relation to gender equality. As a result of their participation in this program, we encountered faith leaders throughout Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa committed to bringing about change in gender relationships in their families, in their churches and in their communities. Granted the theology that is being used in CoHG is highly contested within Christianity and there are numerous other perspectives that would strongly denounce this interpretation. That, however, is an argument internal to the Christian tradition. The broader point here is that religion and gender equality are not necessarily the natural enemies that both feminists and religious leaders have frequently painted them as. Sometimes it can add new layers and nuances to the conversation, occasionally even contribute to emancipation.

This is a complex issue and in a blog post one can’t hope to do justice to all the complexity, nuances and angles from which these things need to be considered. All I hope to do for now is say that, in thinking creatively about how to involve everyone – men, women, girls, boys, across all ages, genders, sexual orientations, professions, belief systems, cultures and ethnicities – let’s not ignore the possibilities that may exist in religion and maintain the now increasingly tired antagonism between religion, feminism and gender equality.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen


2 Replies to “Is it really “inconceivable”? Reimagining the role of religion in promoting gender equality”

  1. Thanks for combining three of my favorite things (feminism, religion, and the Princess Bride) in one blog post!

    This reminds me of an article I saw recently about the “surprising” role that churches had in pushing for gay marriage in North Carolina. To anyone who’d been paying attention to the growing number of churches that accept same-sex marriage and the importance of religious organizing in the South, it wasn’t surprising at all, but they were working under the assumption that religion always meant anti-gay.

  2. Great article, Erin. You make an interesting point regarding the UNWomen as opposed to UNGender.
    As someone who is deeply concerned by subordination of women and gender equality, I generally focus my attention on how women are disadvantaged by social, political and economic barriers. It is a very good reminder that men, too, face pressures and barriers to equality. My experience in Australia, however, is that discussions I’ve had with some men regarding gender equality are framed around a sense of defensiveness and feeling threatened by misunderstandings – or particular interpretations of radical feminism.

    It’s great to read about your experience in the field, where the ramifications of gender & development discourse are not simple – for men or women, and thus require reflexive approaches the issues of gender equality.


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