Why Religion Is The Hardest Barrier Women Must Overcome For Gender Equality

by Ankita Singh

In most cultures and religions, protocols regarding faith are applied more strictly to women than men, especially when it comes to places of worship or of religious importance. Women are segregated in mosques, some temples prohibit women from entering the sanctum sanctorum and other temples women prohibit women from entering at all. These decrees — which are almost always in some way about regulating women — are issued by religious bodies that are male hegemonies.

Lately, though, women have been pushing harder for gender equality all over the globe, especially in cases of religious freedom. Denmark now has women-only mosque, as does the United States. Another one is on the cards for United Kingdom.

An all-female mosque could be seen as a step toward perpetuating gender equality in religious matters, or a solution to the many issues. However, it remains a fact that women aren't just going to be docile and simply grumble about a lack of equality over cups of tea.

In India, women are now pushing those boundaries by demanding religious rights and equality, and they are taking the fight to male-dominated religious boards that govern shrines in the country. Menstruating women are often kept out of home kitchens and temples, as they are considered "impure" for that duration.

Important Muslim and Hindu places of devotion, such as the shrine of Haji Ali in Mumbai, Trimbakeshwar Temple and Shani Shinganapur in Maharashtra, don't allow women into the sanctum for varying reasons. Sabarimala  Temple in Kerala (a state that incidentally scores high on the women welfare index) does not allow entry to women belonging to the menstruating demography.

In another part of the country, in the state of Assam, there is an entire temple dedicated to the menstruating goddess, but women on their periods are denied entry. In a country where the constitution does not segregate on the basis of gender and all are equal before the law, but where politics and religion are also intertwined, the issue is triangulated between the personal, political and constitutional.

The past few months in India have seen protests organized by women's rights groups seeking to reverse such prohibitions, and cases have been filed in court towards achieving the same end. But, it's no longer just overturning religious discriminatory practices that they are looking to put an end to. Women now want to have a place at the table and to be a part of the decision-making machinery.

To that end, the desert state of Rajasthan just got its first women qazis. However, the women, Afroz Begum and Jahan Ara, are facing stiff resistance from their male counterparts. One of these resisters even said,

As per Quran, a woman can never be a man's hakim (ruler/judge). Hence, a woman can never be a qazi. In Islamic history, there is no evidence whatsoever to say that a woman can be a qazi. And if anyone deserved to be a qazi, it was Prophet Muhammad's daughter Fatima, who is considered a role model, but even she was not a qazi.

In the largely Presbyterian state of Meghalaya, the status quo is being questioned. Meghalaya is one of the rare cases where a matrilineal system exists with wealth, property and the family name being passed down from mother to daughter. But, it doesn't extend to the church, which is still very much a male bastion.

An article in a local newspaper states,

The plight of women theology scholars in the state is distressing to say the least. A theology degree, whether graduate, post-graduate or doctoral, does not have the same value for men and women in this context; while the road to pastorage is smoothly paved for men, it is completely non-existent for women.

Surprisingly, the change is coming is from the rural areas of the state, where women are now being accepted as members of congregation committees, and in some instances, they are taking to the pulpit, too.

The Catholic Church is also dodging the same issue. Although he is credited with breaking down quite a few barriers, Pope Francis is not exactly rushing to break down this particular one.

According to a report in the Religion News Service,

The pontiff has repeatedly called for women to have a greater role in the church, but he has also reiterated the ban against ordaining women as priests and has warned against 'clericalizing' women by trying to make them cardinals or to focus on promoting them to higher church offices.

It would appear that while women may be able to overcome all stereotypes and hurdles and shatter ceilings in fields of science, medicine, engineering, armed forces, politics and board rooms, religion is proving to be the hardest nut to crack.