The place of women in monotheistic religions

On the 15th of August 2011, France 5 based its show « It’s in the air » on the theme « Religions: Where are the women? » (Watch the video here), an analysis on the role of women in the three great monotheistic religions.


A very limited place in most religion

Overall, the picture is clear: it is the men who monopolise the most important places in the religious hierarchy, whether in terms of revered characters (God is never a woman …) or religious authorities. Women generally do not have the right to spread the word of God because priesthood is exclusively male (with the notable exception of Protestantism, which much more liberal in this sense). Women cannot even marry priests: it was allowed until the 12th century, but the Vatican imposed celibacy to avoid the risk that the sons of priests inherit church property. Today, according to some theology experts interviewed, it is material considerations that prevent authorization for priests to get married; the Church would have to provide for their families, which would be an unbearable financial burden during the current financial climate.

Of course there have always been notable female figures in religious history: there are female versions of Buddha, extremely important female roles in the Old Testament (Esther, Sarah, Judith …). But the faithful do not address their prayers to them, because, apart from Mary Magdalene, they are not considered capable of harnessing a bridge between God and man.

– Some Jewish texts could be described as misogynistic, yet many exalt the image of the mother – to the point that religion is spread through her; a child is born Jewish only if his mother is. Women also play an important role in the sacred texts: it is women who first received the Torah and women who were allowed to return to Israel before men (punished for their lack of courage against giants).

– For Muslims, texts advocate gender equality in status but not in behaviour: the husband has a certain influence over his wife.

– Finally, among Catholics, women need to be the adjuvant of men as modelled by the sister of St. Benedict who encouraged him to pursue his spiritual quest; he would have abandoned it without her support and encouragement. As summarized by priests questioned on the program, in the Catholic religion, women support and advise, but stick mainly to this secondary role: « a woman is more inclined to listen and the man to step in and act.’

However it is women who represent the majority of believers

As emphasized by Jacqueline Kelen, author of « Letter of love to the Pope » interviewed during this program, this disregard of women is all the more incomprehensible as in the texts women play a role as important as that of men. She takes the example of the Catholic religion at the time of preaching, Jesus walked along the paths with both men and women, and his resurrection was first announced by Mary Magdalene; the apostles, all male, did not believe it until she announced the good news.

The majority of the faithful are women. The Catholic religion has twice as many religious women than men and parishioners are often female. It is these parishioners who are most devoted to their church and do not hesitate to give themselves and their time to assist the priest – but always behind the scenes. It is often they who prepare church before Mass or take care of the catechism, but they are confined to the menial tasks. However, as the imam pointed out humorously during his interview on the show, « My religion is a religion in the South; it is a bit of a macho society really. But women are everywhere: They’re at home, they’re faithful, they’re protective … without women, we’re screwed! There would be no religion!

A paradox due to the weight of traditions and original texts

What is the cause of this non-recognition of women as spiritual authorities, despite their historic role in religions? According to Frédéric Lenoir, it is related to the weight of tradition and the past, which explains how changes in society are much faster than those of religion. « Jesus could not be a woman at the time, the patriarchal society was so that his word would not have been heard … « The time of writing the sacred books has inevitably influenced their sociological content, yet they are the basis of the current teaching of religion, which explains how the old views of (male superiority) still dominate in the religious organizations.”There has always been a sense of jealously of men vis-à-vis women: indeed, men think they have an infinite capacity for enjoyment which brings them closer to the hand of god, when they themselves have a finite capacity for enjoyment. ‘

A relative feminization of religion

Today, however, there is a resurgence of feminine values in religion, and more specifically maternal values. The craze over Marie-Madeleine is ever growing because she is the symbol of the mother who protects, reassures and intercedes with the Father. Lourdes, a place of pilgrimage since Bernadette Soubirous witnessed an apparition of the ‘Immaculate Conception’ in 1858, hosts more than 5 million visitors annually. Mary Magdalene became so popular that Robert Hossein dedicated a show to her in August 2011 entitled « A woman named Mary », it was played only once, in Lourdes, to more than 25,000 people.

This resurgence of maternal values also applies to God: in these times when religions are declining, in funding as well as the proportion of believers, priests insist on God’s ability to guide men to the right choice, forgive and show the example of the spiritual ideal to achieve. Far from the omniscient authority holder, who punishes, God becomes a reassuring figure, in short, a gentle father, more understanding towards his followers. A bit like a mother, one may say…

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