The role of women in organized religion has been an issue of discussion and debate for many years. It gained significant attention as the "women's rights" movement gathered momentum, and it has been fueled further by recent global events. After the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, interest in religious practices in Afghanistan gathered a lot of attention. That is because the recently deposed Taliban government had extremely harsh restrictions on virtually every aspects of an Afghan woman's life.
While most people realized that the Taliban held an extremely distorted view of what the life of a Moslem woman should be, many people didn't know what a more reasonable interpretation of women's role would be within Islam. In addition, little mention was given in the media to the role of women in other major religions.
This paper will look at how women are viewed within three major schools of religious thought: Judaic, Islamic, and Christian.
There are three main forms of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, with subdivisions within all three. All three types give careful consideration to women. The sacred text for Judaism, the Talmud, gives very specific laws, 613 in all, ? For virtually every aspect of life. The Orthodox branch interprets Jewish law most stringently and narrowly.
Although Orthodox Jews make up only 7% of the Jewish population in the United States, ? It is more prevalent in some other countries, and is the basis for all Jewish beliefs. Until 200 years ago, Orthodox was the only form of Judaism, but as in all religions, some groups interpreted rules differently or more stringently than another might.
The Conservative movement believes that these laws and traditions can change to suit the times, and the Reform movements emphasize individual choice about which traditions to follow."? Reform Jews make up 38% of the United States population, ? And this branch has virtually no rules that govern women more strictly than men.
While one author stated that "... The differences between Jewish movements are not nearly as great as the differences between Christian denominations,"? many Christians might disagree with that view. There is no recognized denomination within the Christian faith that lays down strict laws about what a woman may or may not do, how she must dress, etc. This indicates a difference between the two religions to be mentioned again later: Judaic law covers virtually every aspect of every day life.
Until fairly recently, Jewish law protected women better than most governmental laws. Women have separate responsibilities, but their role within the family holds great importance. However, many modern women would chafe under the views expressed by some experts on the topic. Rabbi Shraga Simmons quotes an author on Jewish women as saying, "In the Bible, women act behind the scenes, quietly and subtly, to bring the world to the state that God envisioned it should attain." (Rabbi Shraga Simmons )?
Within the Orthodox branch, the amount of attention given to details regarding how to follow the 613 laws is remarkable when compared to Christian belief. The Jewish religion has a long Talmudic tradition. Many scholars and Rabbis over the centuries who have examined the Holy Scriptures and analyzed how the rules of Judaism apply to every day life. Some examples of how Orthodox Rabbis apply these writings to every day life for women follow:
"There are no laws prohibiting a Jewish woman from cutting her hair in the Hebrew Bible. However, there is an assumption that woman should keep their hair covered as a sign of modesty ... exposed uncovered hair was considered lascivious and provocative for a woman ..." (Rabbi Daniel Kohn)
"...on the four public fast days ... one may wash and anoint oneself with oils etc., although one is encouraged to be a little stricter with oneself ... As long as the spirit of the fast day is not compromised, makeup should be permitted. The same rule holds true with regard to showering. If it is necessary and not indulged in for pleasure, it may be permitted." (Rabbi Leibie Sternberg)"?
The final example answers a question about whether women can wear garments traditionally worn by men to show their devotion to God. The amount of detail given to this one question regarding women's dress was 976 words:
"The suggestion that women should practice those mitzvos that have traditionally not been practiced by women in the past is an idea that is ... A manifestation of how the social hurricane known as Women's Liberation has affected Judaism. In your case in particular, such a suggestion from a reform woman should be doubly suspect. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with a woman performing mitzvos that she is technically exempt from, except for those that are specifically restricted to men, such as Talis and Tefillin. Donning a Talis, even without a brocho, is considered arrogant for a woman, because there is no commandment obligating one to go out and purchase a 4-cornered garment, in order to affix Tzitzis to them. To do so where the Torah specifically exempts her is inappropriate. Saying Tachanun is OK, even though it is a purely voluntary prayer which (like Maariv) was not adopted by women as a custom. A woman should not wear Tefillin because of purity considerations ... " (Rabbi Leibie Sternberg)?
Given the image of Islam in regard to women seen in the press today, it is somewhat Ironic that Muhammad had an enlightened view of women for his time. One author even described him, relatively speaking, as a feminist. The Q'uran (Koran) gave women rights within the Islamic religion they did not enjoy from civil law. For instance, traditionally, local people disposed of unwanted female babies by burying them alive after birth. Muhammad forbade this practice. He described educating females "a sacred duty." Women were allowed to inherit, and to own property in their own name. The Q'uran even "even decreed that sexual satisfaction was a woman's entitlement."
However, by today's standards, the Moslem religion treats women as second-class citizens. While all (including Moslems) recognize the Taliban's tyranny of women as a gross distortion of what Muhammad intended, virtually all countries where Islam is the official religion restrict women's rights to a marked degree. This includes Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
Muhammed's teachings have proven to be a double-edged sword for its female followers. While he clearly improved things for the women of the day, the Q'uran quantified their inferiority when compared to men. As one writer says,
"The Koran [Q'uran] allots daughters half the inheritance of sons. It decrees that a woman's testimony in court, at least in financial matters, is worth half that of a man's. Under Shari'a, or Muslim law, compensation for the murder of a woman is half the going rate for men. In many Muslim countries, these directives are incorporated into contemporary law. For a woman to prove rape in Pakistan, for example, four adult males of "impeccable" character must witness the penetration, in accordance with Shari'a.
Another way the influence of Islam works against women is in marital laws. In ran, a girl can be married at age nine, a fact used by some pedophiles. They marry poor young girls only to abandon them later. Under Islamic law it is harder, both by law and by the result, for women to divorce an unsatisfactory husband. Husbands can divorce a wife simply by saying "I divorce you" three times. Women must use the law to divorce, and are far less likely to get custody of their children than is typical in Western society. So although Islamic law allows divorce, it is a difficult proposition for a woman.
Further, one section of the Q'uran clearly puts men in a position superior to women. Sura 4:34 says that men are the overseers of women. It gives chilling advice to a husband who is dissatisfied with his wife's deportment: He " ... should first admonish her, then leave her to sleep alone and finally beat her." Wife beating is ... prevalent ... "? The author goes on to state that wife-beating is so common in some Moslem countries that social workers first have to convince the women that their husbands should not be beating them.
In the "Book of Women" of the Q'uran, section 4.24 says:
"Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband's) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance)... "?
Also included is the following passage, which empowered the Taliban to many of their extremely harsh interpretations of how women should…