Last year around this time I attended a panel discussion at the University of Cape Town on religion and gender. It was hosted by the Current Affairs Student Society and the people on the panel were:
Charles. A white Christian man.
Sadia. An Indian Muslim woman.
Azila. A White Jewish woman.
All three debators are from the Religious Studies Department at UCT and Azila Talit Reisenberger is the first and only female Rabbi in South Africa.
Charles spoke about the authoritative condition of God talking to man and the cultural issue. God is depicted grammatically as male, with masculine pronouns such as “he.” Furthermore, the hierarchical issue comes into play with capitalising the initial letter in the pronouns, e.g. “His.” The Biblical texts all arise out of a highly patriarchal society, indicating to us that they are not necessarily divine revelation.
2 Timothy 2:9-15 I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the once deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
Timothy is in the New Testament, and a remarkable number of sexist sections are found throughout this testament. Charles says he refers primarily to the New Testament regarding the theme of gender since it is traditional for Christians to disregard the Old Testament, often nearly entirely.
Matthew 10:37; 8:21; 10:21; 10:34-36; 10:37; 12:47-49; 15:4-7 (Ex.21:15; Lev.20:9; Dt.21:18-21); 18:25; 19:10; 19:29; 23:9; 24:19; 25:1
Mark 3:31-34; 7:9-10; 10:29-30; 13:17
Luke 2:43-49; 5:11; 8:20-21; 9:59-62; 12:52-53; 14:26; 14:33; 18:29-30; 20:35; 21:16
John 3:16; 7:8-10
Acts 5:1-10; 16:30-31
1 Corinthians 7:5; 7:9; 7:27
Colossians 3:18; 3:20
1 Timothy 3:2; 5:9-15
James 2:21 (Rom.4:2-3)
1 Peter 3:1; 3:2-6; 3:7
2 Peter 2:8 (Gen.19:8; 19:30-38)
Matthew 5:32; 19:9; 12:47-49; 19:29; 24:19; 25:1
Mark 3:31-34; 10:29-30; 13:17
Luke 2:22; 2:23; 5:11; 8:20-21; 18:29-30
1 Corinthians 7:1-2; 7:27; 11:3; 11:5-6; 11:7-9; 11:10; 15:34-35
Ephesians 5:22-24; 5:33
1 Timothy 2:9; 2:11-12; 2:14-15; 3:2; 3:2; 5:5-6; 5:9-15
2 Timothy 3:6-7
Titus 1:6-7; 2:4-5
1 Peter 3:1; 3:2-6; 3:7
1 John 2:13-14
Revelation 2:20 (2 Kg.9:33-37); 2:22; 14:1-4; 15:8; 17:1-5; 17:6; 18:3; 19:2
Male hierarchy was often simply assumed and presupposed. There are, however, one or two counter-traditions to be found in the text which deserve being noted, according to Charles. Paul, one of the most important missionaries of early Christianity, writes about this hierarchy not being God’s will and that we are all equal in his eyes. This, among other things, indicates that these are patriarchal texts, reflective of the dominant culture of the day. The patron of Paul was Phebe. This was a reverse gender dependency role not often seen in the Bible. The Revised Standard Version calls Phoebe/Phebe a “deaconess”, which would make her a church leader. If the RSV translation is correct this verse contradicts the requirement that women not be permitted to teach and that they must be silent in Church (1 Cor.14:34-35, 1 Tim.2:11-12, Rom.16:1).
Romans 16:7 “Junia… of note among the apostles” Was there a woman apostle? There are many discrepancies in the text regarding the minimal role of strong women.
The sexism in the Biblical writings has resulted in a clean split in Christianity between those who read the text as historical literature and those who see them as divine revelation. The latter denominations have resulted in female indoctrination into patriarchy, with the strongest groups against women suffrage in the United States being Christian women.
Sadia then spoke about Islam. She said there are no monolithic men and women, and many Muslims have very different ancestral backgrounds. Race, class, education etc are all lenses through which Muslims view their religion and their culture. Within Islam there are secular feminists, Muslim feminists, and traditional Muslim women, existing on a continuum from more militant feminism to more conservative. Sadia notes that it is typical of secular feminists to disregard any affirming aspects of religion, such as its humanism, failing to separate its fundamental meaning from its misogynistic views and treating Islam and overarchingly oppressive. This is particular prevalent in media stereotypes of Islam women. Sadia states that it is important to approach Islam more holistically, considering both the positive and negative, or to otherwise face the possibility of reinforcing victimisation discourse by treating women as helpless.
She does acknowledge many topic gender issues, such as separate seating for men and women in Mosques, the issue of divorce in which men can declare divorce but not women, polygyny, coercive veiling and coercive unveiling (in France, for example). It is important to note, however, that these issues are not found throughout the Islam world but are rather limited to very specific sections of it where the Quran has been read as divine revelation and where people struggle to reconcile this with their modern cultures.
The religion text contains knowledge that has been passed on and moulded by specific human subjectivities, through elite men, and has not been passed to us directly from on high. The text was subject to male interpreters who, although possibly pious men, were not outside the patriarchal culture of the time. It is unfair and unthinking to expect 10th and 11th Century people to understand our views of gender equality. The Quran is therefore not pure authoritative knowledge, and it is problematic to see it as such. It is possible for all believer in the text to engage the whole. The religion was not handed over to us as a closed, complete, set canon of literature. It is even historically inaccurate to believe it is.
It is important to remember the human ethics and spiritual refinement which transcend the text. Embracing Islam is a fourfold process: 1 – the reader must engage in a critical dialogue with the androcentric elements and note for themselves how they have been contextually shaped. 2 – note the historical nature of the text, including marginal but set transversive gender traditions in the form of authoritative female voices. 3 – dialogue broader spiritual aspects of Islam in existential, universal terms, paying attention to the whole, and 4 – actively interrogate the subjective context of the text.
Regarding Judaism, Azila first lays out the timeline of the three religions being discussed. Judaism is 4000 years old, Christianity is 2000 years old, and Islam is 1500 years old. She challenges us to write down what we said to our parents when we opened our Christmas presents last year and to think back quickly to what birthday presents we got two years ago from different people. When the seminar room was silent she mentioned that the Gospels were written 50 years after Jesus died, and there are other parts of the Bible which were written 500 years after the events they describe. This raises the problem of contradictory revelation. The Bible is a text reflecting the culture of a particular time, and are simply “nice stories.” The original text clearly shows the impact of man on the revelations. Azila uses the example of Mount Sinai when God speaks to Moses and tells Moses to tell his followers to sanctify themselves and not touch the mountain while Moses prepares to receive the Ten Commandments. Moses then tells his followers to sanctify themselves, not touch the mountain, and not sleep with their wives or any other women. At this stage Azila threw her hands in the air, “What did the women have to do with it!? God never says anything to Moses about that!”
She goes on to say that you can find something for and against everything in the Bible, but that is is not right to be selective when analysing Bible verses because you become part of a chain of people who corrupt revelation. It is important to consider the social milieu of the time and how the authors reflected the views and traditions of their own time. These texts were passed from culture to culture, from language to language, from country to country, from gender to gender, and from century to century.
Kosta is the Greek word for “side” but was incorrectly translated as “rib,” for example, which has a very different meaning for the equality of women when one considers that God made Eve either out of Adam’s rib or his side.
The Bible was canonised 200 years before Jesus and had to be updated because things had changed. In the Bible a woman’s voice is likened to her private parts which should not be shown in public places. This text quite possible only reflects 50% of what actually happened, only reflecting what men wanted to reflect. We must try to recover stories of female leadership. It is incumbent upon us to recover missing texts, part of a sort of liberation theology for religious gender roles. She refers to both Judaism and Islam as religions of doing in the sense that they both have very active traditions and deeply rooted cultures. Customs are important, but it is also important for us to reinvent religion, make new rules, new celebrations, and new things to study by finding new sources.
The three speakers key points all boiled down to the same things essentially, a point they all acknowledged. The religious texts on which their religions are based are human productions and are not divine revelation. They clearly stated that to read these texts as divine revelation is not only inaccurate and problematic for academia, but also dangerous for society. I found these conclusions remarkably intriguing since all three of the panelists agreed wholeheartedly with this conclusion, all three are highly religious in their own rights, and all are trained professors in the field of scripture and the background to their respective religions.
Question & Answer Session
Q: To Sadia about Islam. You are a progressive Muslim woman. Have you ever experienced any problems with this in your culture?
A: When Sadia was about 11 or 12 she attended religious studies and the male teacher told the boys that when they died and went to heaven they would be fed grapes by 72 virgins. So Sadia apparently asked if she gets 72 virgin males, which she only now knows was not a very politically correct thing to be asking. The answer she received, however, was that she would be one of the girls feeding the men. It was at that stage that she realised there was a clash between her feminism beliefs and Islam. Where her Indian culture intersects with Islam there is a conservative space for women’s roles embedded in many sexist assumptions about both the culture and the religions by other cultures and religions.
Q: To Charles about Christianity. If the Bible is meant to be taken metaphorically and we aren’t supposed to read it as divine law because of the culture perspective, why did God give it to man at the time he did?
A: The principle of religion is that you must be adherent, resulting in women having to give up their jobs, get married etc (although this is not a traditional female belief shared only by religious women) simply because God says it. Don’t trust anything in the Bible. Spirituality is striving to look for God and seek out your own revelations. The Bible is a human production in human language and must not be read literally.
Sadia: We must always consider assimilation and integration between religion and culture, and especially plural, global cultures, beyond the automatic assumption of female oppression. She refers in this instance to Islamophobia where many are still convinced that all Muslim women are oppressed, miserable, or all Muslim men are terrorists, and where all of these stereotypes are perpetuated in the media.
At this point the boy who asked the last question got up and walked out.