It has been acknowledged that religion shapes the society and the society also has certain impact on development of religious beliefs. Berger (1967) notes that both society and religion are the product of the human. These two social creations have affected the way gender roles are distributed. Religion is also one of the pillars of this or that culture and society that helps maintain a specific order. Power, government and punishment have been seen as “channels by which divine forces are made to impinge upon the lives of men” (Berger, 1967, p. 34). Religions have often created or legitimated a stratified society where some groups exercised power while others had to be submissive. Women have often pertained to the latter group. It is possible to identify the way religions have had an effect on development of the role of women in the society by considering such major religions as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.
First, it is important to define religion. As has been mentioned above, it is a product of human activities and a social creation. Geertz (1993, p. 90) defines religion as “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence”. To consider the role of women in the society and the way religions affect distribution of social roles, it is necessary to apply Weber’s approach of social strata. This sociological approach focuses on distribution of power among different members of the society (Kurtz, 2011). It will be most effective when tracing the influence of religion on the role of women in the society.
The Role of Women in the Society
It is possible to identify a number of roles women have in the society. One of the major roles of women in all three religions is still the role of the wife (and mother). Women are expected to create the necessary comfort for a man. In all three religions, a virtuous woman is the one who is submissive, supportive, chaste, intelligent, kind and so on. The woman is also seen as somewhat inferior to the man in a family. Of course, husbands respect their wives and especially mothers and provide for them. However, women do not enjoy meaningful power to make decisions concerning property or other important issues.
The role women play in the society is rather complex and three religions hold quite similar view on females place in the society (with certain differences). Hinduism is the most democratic religion in this respect. It is noteworthy that the attitude towards women in Hinduism is quite complex and varies from text to text. It is believed that in earlier periods women enjoyed many rights and genders were rather equal (Kurtz, 2011). However, later they lost their rights and found themselves in a dependent position. In modern times, females are winning back some of their rights. Now, women become politicians, social activists, business leaders and so on. At this point, it is necessary to add that not all women can acquire a significant role in the Indian society as only wealthier women can perform certain roles in the society.
When it comes to Christianity, women now enjoy quite many rights and can perform numerous roles in the society. There were times when females had to remain at home and had to focus on their households (Lusted, 2010). Nonetheless, modern women are involved in the political, business, social and other aspects of the society. Of course, there is still prejudice and women have to face significant opposition, as men are unwilling to lose their control over major spheres of the human life.
One of the most closed religions in this respect is Islam as women are still dependent on men. This is apparent in all spheres of life. Some women can enter a political or business world. However, these women are very few and they are ‘allowed’ to take control over certain aspects (for instance, human resources, education and so on).
The Role of Women in Religious Institutions
Interestingly, religious institutions remain the most closed institutions for women. It is necessary to point out that all the three religions keep promulgating equality in all respects. Nonetheless, this equality is quite limited. At this point, it is important to add that there are two dimensions when it comes to religious institutions. On the one hand, there are sages/saints and other objects of worship. On the other hand, there are priests/imams who exercise particular power in the society. When it comes to the first group, females are represented in significant numbers. For instance, in Christianity, there are quite many female saints. Of course, it is necessary to remember about the worship of the Blessed Virgin Mary who has a very special place in Christianity. As for Hinduism, there is a strong worship of such female deities as Radha and Durga. There are also female saint sages. In Islam, there are female saints as well. They are not objects of worship but they are respected and remembered.
However, when it comes to a role within the very institution, females do not have a wide access to high posts. Hinduism is quite open to women who can become priests. More so, in some cases women should devote their lives to religion (for example, widows) (Kurtz, 2011). Women can also be guru. In Christianity, women are rarely ordained (especially in Catholicism and Orthodox Church) (Lusted, 2010). It is necessary to note that there are nuns and female monasteries. However, these cannot be seen as high ranks within the religious institution. The Catholic Church “believes that only a man can receive a call from God to become a priest” (Lusted, 2010, p. 53). Protestants are more open to such innovations and there are female priests. In Islam, women are rarely allowed to become imams. There are certain cases when women can be imams (but they can be leaders of only particular female groups). Female imams cannot run mixed prayers.
An Explanation of Gender Roles Distribution
Researchers tie such distribution of gender roles with the two concepts, power and sexuality. McGuire (2008, p. 138) notes that female sexuality is seen by men “as dangerous and impure because it symbolically represents females’ power to counteract the dominance of men”. In other words, males have been afraid of the female power and have always tried to restrict it. This desire can explain such religious and cultural norms as females’ wearing clothes that are not seductive. The extreme case is Muslim women who, in many Muslim countries and in many cases have to wear hijabs or even burkas. Hijab is a scarf that covers a woman’s hair and neck while burka covers entire body of the woman with only eyes visible (Lusted, 2010). It is expected that a woman is completely hidden and her seductive power is totally neutralized. McGuire (2008, p. 138) stresses that “fear of female sexuality” is a characteristic feature of societies where “male dominance over females is a primary feature of social organization”. The three religions in question are established in such societies.
Therefore, it is clear that males have been trying to preserve their leading positions and religious institutions are still a tool in their hands. The three religions in question have significant authority among people practicing them. Values developed centuries ago are still promulgated. Young generations are taught to accept the distribution of gender roles as a norm. Young girls are taught to be chaste, kind, supportive and submissive. Young boys are taught to be strong breadwinners and respect their wives. At the same time, numerous conventions and values suggest that women are still seen as somewhat inferior to men. However, in the modern world, the situation is slowly changing. Women prove that they can perform numerous roles in the society and be successful. Women have proved they can contribute greatly to development of the society. It is clear that men are unwilling to share power with women and females have to face numerous challenges. Nonetheless, it is also obvious that the change is still occurring and even religions are shaped slightly to meet the requirements of the new time.
On balance, it is possible to note that women still have to complete only certain roles in the society. Religions have contributed greatly to such gender role distribution. Religious values are rather complex and controversial. On the one hand, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism promulgate equality among all people and the two genders. On the other hand, the three religions restrict women’s rights. It is especially seen in religious institutions where women are rarely ordained. The three religions also teach that girls should be wives and mothers, in the first place, and should support, comfort and care about their husbands. At the same time, women are acquiring more rights and are achieving more and more goals. Women start occupying high posts and they are even ordained. Thus, the new trends in the society force religions to change as well. The society is becoming more open even though these are only first steps as women still face numerous challenges associated with religious and cultural conventions.
Berger, P. (1967). The sacred canopy: Elements of a sociological theory of religion. New York, NY: Anchor.
Geertz, C. (1993). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essay. London, UK: Fontana Press.
Kurtz, L.R. (2011). Gods in the global village: The world’s religions in sociological perspective. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Lusted, M.A. (2010). Women’s roles in religion. North Mankato, MN: ABDO.
McGuire, M.B. (2008). Religion: The social context. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.