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Women's Liberation

Discussion led by Melvin McLeod

All the major religions say that men and women have the same essential nature. Yet in practice these religions are dominated by men. Irshad Manji, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, and Patricia Wittberg discuss the struggles of women in three of the world's major religions.

Shambhala Sun: How would you characterize the views and experiences of women in your religious tradition today?

Irshad Manji: I hear mainly from two quite different groups of Muslim women, and I find them both in North America and elsewhere. One group is angry and one is fearful. The first group feels incredibly empowered and is quite angry that women like me are suggesting that there is oppression within Islam. A lot of the young women who feel this way wear the hijab on campuses, more as a political statement than as a spiritual statement. They insist that this is their choice, and I believe them. They are angry because they think that people like me are challenging their identity as Muslim women.

The second group is much less loud than the first group, much more fearful of persecution. They recognize that something is askew, that something is not quite right in the Islam that they have been told they must practice. They tell me they are sickened by the human rights violations—particularly against women—happening in the name of Allah. They are tired of sitting in the back, of being told that women cannot lead prayer, of being lectured to by the men in their lives about why they must wear the hijab.

They’re looking for a reason to love Islam, but in most cases they are not finding it. They also don’t believe they have a voice with which to express themselves. They will write to me: “Thank you for going public with what we’ve only allowed ourselves to think privately. You’re helping me find my voice.” But when I write them back to ask what they plan to do with that voice when they do find it, more often than not they are too afraid to even contemplate what that might mean for them and for their faith.

Karma Lekshe Tsomo: Although there are differences depending on what part of the world you are talking about, in my experience most Buddhist women are content, even though most are largely disempowered and disenfranchised.

Globally, 99 percent of Buddhist women are in Asia. There is a vast difference between the situations of Asian and Western Buddhist women, in terms of access to Buddhist education, full ordination, leadership, and so on. North American Buddhist women have seen much more improvement in these areas than have Asian women. Even here in North America, there are vast differences between the situations of Asian Buddhist women, Asian-American Buddhist women, and what we can call, for lack of a better term, “non-Asian-American Buddhist women.”

But regardless of which women we focus on, there’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure women’s equal participation in the Buddhist tradition. Even in Western dharma centers, we find both tacit and explicit sexism. There is still a lack of feminist awareness in those centers and some serious denial about the problems that exist. Surprisingly, many North American women still prefer male teachers and still prefer to support men rather than women, and monks rather than nuns. Women in many Buddhist centers are still working in support roles: cooking, cleaning, fundraising for men. There’s still plenty of gender discrimination in North American Buddhist centers, although on the surface women in North America have many opportunities.

Patricia Wittberg: I will speak largely about Catholic women in the North American context. Women who are sixty or older are the pillars of the parish. They get everything done, and they appear to be moderately content. But there is an undercurrent of discontent you see when a woman rolls her eyes when we’re talking about men: “Oh, there they go again.” But it never rises to a level that inhibits them from taking an extremely active role in their church.

Many women who are forty to sixty, roughly speaking, are “defecting in place,” and I find this very ominous for Catholicism. They go their own way. Many women younger than forty are simply leaving.

In a study of American Catholics of different generations that I worked on at Purdue, we found that the oldest women were more orthodox in their beliefs and more regular in their prayer and church attendance than men of their age group. By contrast, the younger women were both less orthodox in their beliefs—especially about the authority of the Pope and the clergy, about women’s roles, abortion, contraception, and so forth—and they were less regular in their spiritual practice. At the same time, there was a significant portion of the youngest Catholic men whose beliefs and practices were very orthodox.

These young women are not angry or fearful, as I heard Irshad saying about young Muslim women. They may come for church services sporadically, but they take Catholicism on their own terms. Nobody can tell them they’re not Catholic, but they define what Catholicism means for them. Having said that, if you had someone here representing an evangelical Protestant church, you would get a very different average woman. The picture might look a lot more like the fundamentalist Muslim women Irshad is talking about, embracing a tradition that, to an outsider, appears to subordinate them; or what Lekshe was talking about, a preference for male leadership.

Irshad Manji: It very much concerns me that the kind of fundamentalist women that Patricia was just talking about are becoming the mainstream within Islam. Younger women defecting or going their own way is not what is happening in Islam. I was at a social event at the University of Maryland recently and a number of hijab-clad, Muslim college women formed a circle around me and started yelling scripted speeches about why I was not a Muslim. They differed with each other only over the best strategy with which to denounce me. This lasted for about an hour. Afterwards, a number of individual Muslim women, some in hijab and some not, came up to me to say, “I just wanted to let you know, I really appreciated your coming to campus, what you said, and the fact that you withstood everything that was hurled against you.”

The separation of these two groups saddened me. They did not feel that they were in a position to engage in debate and dissent with their Muslim sisters, right there on the spot. At least the disaffected Catholic women are able to be open in their dissent.

Shambhala Sun: Given that you all say that women are excluded to greater or lesser extent from full participation in their spiritual communities, what does the doctrine itself have to say about women and spirituality?

Karma Lekshe Tsomo: The Buddhist traditions are proud to say that women have equal opportunities for enlightenment, if they should so choose. The purpose of all Buddhist practice—whether in the form of meditation, study, or ritual—is transformation of consciousness, and consciousness has no gender. In theory, at least, women have equal opportunities to reach the highest goals of the Buddhist tradition.

In fact, there were many great teachers at the time of the Buddha, thousands of women who attained liberation, who became arhats, and we can point to a number of women Buddhist teachers throughout history. But after the death of the Buddha, it seems that traditional preferences for men reasserted themselves. Of course, that was common in the India of that time. The Buddha made some remarkable changes for women by asserting that women have equal spiritual potential and allowing them into the sangha, the monastic community. He famously hesitated three times, though, before doing so, and the reasons for his hesitation are widely debated. Why did the Buddha hesitate? Was it simply because he was a product of a very male-dominated culture? In the end we can say that he made advances for women and clearly affirmed women’s equal spiritual potential, as he had for members of all castes.

In theory, then, Buddhism has at its foundation an egalitarian framework. In practice, however, most Buddhist women do not have equal opportunity. Of the estimated three hundred million Buddhist women internationally, 99 percent do not have equal opportunities for Buddhist education, meditation training, or ordination. Most are not encouraged to practice intensively or to develop as teachers of buddhadharma. In fact, many are struggling even to get adequate nutrition, education, and health care for themselves and their families. Many of them lack access to literacy and the basics of Buddhist education. This situation has been recognized by a number of people and many improvements are under way, but much remains to be done.

Patricia Wittberg: It could probably be said of our three religions equally that the founding figure was much more accommodating of women than the society and culture that has grown up around those religious traditions. Muslim women I know have said that Mohammed was much more accepting of women than the Muslim faith, and even the Koran itself. The same thing can be said of Christianity.

Christianity was unusual in the early centuries of its development in the relative equality accorded women. According to the writings of the time—some of which are now in the canonical Christian scriptures, others what we would simply call early writings—women served as teachers. They famously taught one of the early Christians, Apollus. Paul supposedly named some of them, including Priscilla, for example, as apostles—coworkers on an equal footing with him. But again, what happens, just as Lekshe said, is that as the centuries go on the tradition gets subsumed into larger social patterns that devalue women.

Irshad Manji: Patricia is absolutely right to point out that there are remarkable parallels in what the respective prophets, or messengers, of these religions affirmed about women. Mohammed’s first wife, Khadiga, proposed marriage to him; she was a wealthy self-made merchant for whom he worked for many years. Ayish, the Prophet’s last wife, whom he married after Khadiga died, is quietly regarded by many Muslims as the real successor to the Prophet, because she made many important decisions, not just behind the scenes but also on the battlefield. There was also Rabiah, a Sufi mystic, who was offered her choice of suitors. After interviewing the smartest among these potential suitors, she decided she didn’t need a husband to be fulfilled. She chose to remain single, which the Koran unequivocally gives Muslim women the right to do, even though they would be hard-pressed to find that out from their imams and mullahs. Unfortunately, so many Muslim women are illiterate that they would not be able to find out for themselves that such a right exists in the Koran. In his farewell sermon, the Prophet declared women to be the partners, rather than possessions, of men. Mohammed was, then, even by today’s standard, quite a feminist, but his feminism got lost in the welter of cultural assumptions that were made after he died.

Shambhala Sun: Should women assert their rights in their religion aggressively, or work more quietly, so as not to invite a harsh and damaging backlash?

Irshad Manji: Stirring things up can make things happen. Recently, in New York, a group of young Muslims known as the Progressive Muslim Union organized the first-ever mixed-gender Friday prayer in Islamic history, and it was led by a woman. She has been roundly condemned by the Muslim establishment around the world, but the debate has been joined. As Salman Rushdie pointed out to me, once you put out a thought, however vigorously, vehemently, and even violently it is disagreed with, it cannot be un-thought.

Stirring things up does generate unintended consequences, and some of those consequences really do hurt people. However, I take my inspiration from the feminist movement, which asked us to consider how any problem can get aired, let alone dealt with, unless we are willing to break deadly silences. Isn’t that, for example, the key to ending violence against women?

Keep in mind that when Martin Luther King, Jr., went to Birmingham, liberal clergymen chastised him for creating “needless tension.” After he was thrown in jail, he wrote the now famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he said to his angry fellow-clerics, “…I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

Karma Lekshe Tsomo: I agree that sometimes it is extremely important to speak out. I do think there are different ways of doing that, though, and different people, different women, will necessarily will find their own way of speaking their own truth. For example, even today, many Buddhist women see the problem but very few are speaking out. And those who speak out often experience a backlash. But if we had not spoken up, the Buddhist women’s movement, which started less than twenty years ago, would not even exist. Things might not have changed for another 2,500 years.

The Buddhist women’s movement has been criticized for bringing attention to inequality in the Buddhist tradition, because everyone likes to assume that women have equal opportunities in Buddhism. But we see with our own eyes that they don’t. We should not allow ourselves to be intimidated or silenced. The Buddhist concept of applying skillful means in order to effect change in a compassionate way is helpful in this regard, because there are occasions when applying certain methods can actually harm our cause. We had a case in the Buddhist tradition where a couple of people set the movement back by adamantly demanding too much too soon. Yet, I still respect people’s freedom to go about effecting change in their own way.

Patricia Wittberg: There’s a wonderful little book called Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, by Albert Hirschman. He asks, what are the defining differences between those who will leave an organization altogether and those who will stay, and those who will stay and complain? People are performing this kind of equation all the time with respect to issues that arise in their institutions, such as women and the priesthood in Catholicism. Those for whom this is paramount will leave, and those who feel less strongly about it will stay and choose judiciously when they are going to complain about it.

Irshad Manji: This takes us back to Lekshe’s point about methods: some are more effective than others at a given time. I would also say that different methods are appropriate for different people. Even impatient dissidents like me play an important role within our faith, because in breaking deadly silences we create a space in which more moderate, more patient voices that would otherwise be written off as too radical are seen as much more legitimate, and worthy of hearing out.

Patricia Wittberg: Hirschman points out that the powers-that-be in any group prefer that its most dissatisfied members exit, and get out of their hair, rather than stay and exercise their voice.

Irshad Manji: Exactly. That’s why I have made peace with the fact that someone like me is not going to be the leader of a reform movement within the mainstream faith. As a lesbian and a feminist, I will never be, in my lifetime, legitimate for most Muslims, and that’s fine. But as a result of the presence of someone like me and the fact that I’m not going to shut up, those who are regarded as more legitimate can lead the charge for liberal reform within Islam.

Shambhala Sun: Dr. Wittberg, you mentioned women and the priesthood as an issue that has divided people within the Church. Where does that issue stand today?

Patricia Wittberg: Pope John-Paul II came out with an absolute dictum that there would not be women priests and that no one was to talk about it. Although I am not privy to the inner workings of the Vatican, I heard that there was at least one faction that wanted to publish this as an infallible teaching. So, while the issue was openly discussed for some time, there has been a squelching of such discussion.

There are also profound geographical differences on this issue, and not only within Catholicism. The Seventh Day Adventists, who have had female ministers since the founding of their denomination, are seeing their ability to ordain women reined in, as representatives from Latin America and Africa outvote them on this issue. Women Christians in North America feel it’s a horrible thing when women cannot be ordained, whereas many women Christians in Latin America and Africa are aghast at the thought of ordaining women.

In the last few decades, Rome has made the cold and objective calculation that they would lose more Catholics by ordaining women than not, because in the parts of the world where Catholicism is growing, it is of a more conservative variety. And in the United States, the church would lose prime donors, who are often extremely conservative Catholics who would be incensed at the thought of ordaining women. During this period, those who could not abide this policy have left for denominations that were not too far removed doctrinally. Others stayed to wait for a more propitious time for the issue to resurface.

Shambhala Sun: Given women’s difficulties within your religions, what draws you to the religion and why do you stay?

Karma Lekshe Tsomo: I became a Buddhist as a child, because the Buddhist teachings rang true for me. I find that the teachings and practices have helped me become a happier person, a more well-balanced person, and to cope with the difficulties of life. They provide an ethical framework that helps me to keep my life simple and peaceful. I find that trying to live in accordance with the Buddhist teachings helps prevent a lot of problems, and helps to resolve problems when they arise. I find meditation and the teachings on wisdom and compassion extremely helpful.

At the same time, the Buddhist tradition gives me the freedom to make my own ethical decisions. The Buddhist path is a path of inquiry. There is no dogma we have to accept; there are merely guidelines that we are asked to verify through our own experience. In Buddhism, you can more or less take what is useful. You don’t have to buy the whole package.

Irshad Manji: Many young, struggling Muslim women are asking themselves what there is to love about this faith, not just what there is to follow, absorb, or identify with. In my own interpretation of the Koran, there is nothing in it that violates the ideals of a freethinking human being. And key among those ideals is pluralism of thought. The Koran permits freedom of exploration for everyone, because anything less undermines God’s jurisdiction as supreme judge and jury. Such logic is entirely compatible with the ideal of diversity.

But surely you can celebrate diversity without identifying with a particular religious tradition, so I’ve had to ask myself, “Why hang on to religion at all?” Never mind just Islam; why religion at all? Had I grown up in a Muslim country, chances are I would be an atheist in my heart, because having religion shoved down my throat would have made me recoil. But for me, growing up in a materialistic and secular society like North America, religion is vital. It offers alternative values, such as discipline, love, and empathy with the poor. I choose religion because it provides a counterweight to orthodox materialism, and it is in that tension that I find the incentive to keep thinking, and to keep growing. Within a secular society, religion can be a prime motivator of growth. Whereas, ironically, in a society ruled by religion, religion might just be the incubator of death.

Patricia Wittberg: If you leave Islam, they will have won.

Irshad Manji: I can only stay if I’m sincere. I can’t stay merely for strategic reasons.

Patricia Wittberg: I pray that you stay sincere.

Irshad Manji: Right now I’m sincere, but the day it becomes purely a strategic move, that’s when I will have to reconsider.

Patricia Wittberg: I was born Catholic, but I guess one always chooses—or at least ought to choose—one’s religion as an adult as well, even if you’re born into it. Otherwise, it remains a child’s religion, and I think that many people go through their whole life with a child’s religion.

I stay in the church for two reasons. The first one is theological and philosophic. Max Weber indicated that all religions need to deal with the fundamental question of why bad things happen to good people, and religions seem to provide two main answers. One is that you did something bad in this life or previously. The other is that a human being could not possibly judge questions of what is ultimately good or bad, which can only be known by an all-knowing God. Weber went on to say that Christianity was unique in offering a third answer: we may not know why bad things happen to people, but we know that God, through Jesus—the expression of God in our world—took our sufferings and suffered them too, in solidarity with us. When I first read that, it was a religious experience for me. I said to myself, “That’s why I’m a Catholic, that’s why I’m a Christian, that’s why I stay there.”

My second reason is human rather than theological. As a member of a Catholic religious order, I am continually in the presence of other sisters. I entered the Sisters of Charity because of other Sisters of Charity. I liked the way they turned out and I wanted to turn out like that. And that’s why I stay. Sometimes it doesn’t have much to do with the official, hierarchical church. In fact, I’ve heard some nuns say if they could, they’d much rather be a Sister of Charity without being a Catholic. The Catholic part they’re not too keen on, but the religious order part they are strongly attracted to.

Shambhala Sun: We’ve talked about differences between North America and the rest of the world with respect to the role of women in religion. Which of the changes you see taking place in North America would you like to see applied globally?

Karma Lekshe Tsomo: I work with Sakyadhita, an international Buddhist organization that raises issues about women’s roles and opportunities in Buddhism. It began in 1987 and it has helped to forge new opportunities for women, especially in Buddhist education, that have been very empowering for women in Asia and had a major impact on the tradition. The increase in education and ordination of women in places like Sri Lanka is creating a new understanding of what women can do, both within their spiritual traditions and in society at large.

Internationally, Buddhist teachers and Buddhist leaders are almost entirely male. Many international Buddhist conferences are almost entirely male, but this is beginning to change. Simply by asking questions—like, Where are the women lamas? Why are there no women teachers here? Why are there no fully ordained nuns in this tradition?—over and over again, Western Buddhist women have gotten people in the Asian establishment starting to think.

But at the same time there are still thousands of Buddhist women being sold into sexual slavery, and very little is being done about it. In many Buddhist societies, women don’t have opportunities for education and training. Many Buddhist traditions still do not have full ordination for women. We still have a lot of work to do to make sure that Buddhist women emerge as teachers and leaders, equal to the number of men. Only then can we say that Buddhism is truly egalitarian.

Sakyadhita has been a way of linking up women around the world and helping begin a conversation on how we can learn from each other. For one thing, we in the West can learn to practice dharma with integrity despite the consumeristic, mainstream values in American culture. If we encourage solidarity and community among Buddhist women internationally, it will bring benefits all around.

Patricia Wittberg: Christianity, of course, has had a missionary complex, going into Asia, Africa, Latin America, with the idea of “civilizing people,” teaching them the right way to do things, including how to treat women. That legacy is obviously very mixed. Because of that colonial history, I feel nervous about spreading my prescription for what women should do or be across the world.

I do consider myself a feminist and believe it is important for women to be freed from the tremendous oppression that they have suffered worldwide. To the extent that some countries oppress women more than others, then the particular way they oppress them should be addressed and challenged. That means everywhere. So while we might look at oppression of women in South Asia and say, “Look at the terrible way you are treated,” South Asian women look at the women in the United States and say, “You’re oppressed by look-ism. You become, basically, a piece of meat for men to look at and rate.” Women are oppressed in all sorts of different ways in different countries, and all of these forms of oppression, gross and subtle, should be challenged.

I have observed that while Catholicism is often seen in North America as a very retrograde religious tradition—one that does not ordain women and permanently confines them to less powerful positions—it is not necessarily viewed that way in other countries. In the United States, very few women are entering Catholic religious orders. There are about 150 new and very conservative religious orders being founded and they are overwhelmingly male. In previous ages, across the centuries and around the world, there have been two or three times as many women entering religious orders as men. The fact that we are now seeing the reverse in North America is a strong statement of just how little appeal the Catholic religious orders have for women in North America at this time.

That is distinctly not the case in South Asia, in Korea, and in many other parts of the world. In those places, they can’t build facilities fast enough to keep up with women who want to enter religious orders. In some of these countries, if the only other option for women is marriage and child-rearing—and a relatively unequal marriage at that—Catholicism is seen as offering an empowering role for women.

Since our record in spreading our faith is marred by colonialism, I would be reluctant to export North America to other parts of the world. But I’m all for women in other countries appropriating Catholicism, appropriating Christianity, within the vernacular of their culture. I think it does offer some tremendous opportunities for women’s growth, enlightenment, and empowerment.

Irshad Manji: As Muslims, we have inherited a legacy that tells us that unity requires uniformity, that debate is division, and division is a crime. A new generation of Muslims in North America is challenging that, if only because here we have the freedom to think, express, challenge, and be challenged, without fear of state reprisal for doing so. Most people in the Muslim world cannot yet claim that as a right.

I say this not because I think that we have to teach them how to do this. There was a clamor from interested young people in Muslim countries for my book to be published in Arabic and posted on the Web. A lot of these kids want North American Muslims to lead the way because, by whatever we say in North America, we are helping our Muslim brothers and sisters in other parts of the world create a climate to say even half of what we have the freedoms here to express.

I’m also seeing many Muslim women in North America beginning to distinguish between religion and culture. Here in Canada, there is a proposal in front of the Ontario government to introduce Sharia courts for Muslim families. The number-one source of opposition to these courts is Muslim women themselves. But when they protest Sharia courts, they’re not demonstrating against Islam, or even the Koran. They’re demonstrating against the way the Koran will be interpreted in these courts through the notion of so-called honor. Honor in the Arab cultural tradition requires women to give up their individuality in order to maintain the reputation and prospects of the men in their lives. This turns women into communal property, so that their lives don’t actually belong to them but to their families, their tribes, and sometimes even their nations.

We’re seeing these kinds of distinctions between religion and culture being made in many parts of the Muslim world now, most especially in Morocco, where just recently the king, after listening to many women’s advocates, overhauled Sharia law so that today, at least on paper, Moroccan women have equal access to child custody, alimony, and divorce. Polygamy is all but abolished.

One other thing I would like to see exported is small business. I would like to encourage governments around the world to take a sliver of their defense budgets and pool those monies into a coherent program of micro-business loans for poor women in Muslim countries. When Muslim women get these loans, they can start community businesses, earn their own assets, and use them as they see fit, which they are expressly permitted to do in the Islamic faith. With those funds, they can become literate. In Afghanistan, you see signs on some schools that say, “Educate a boy, and you educate only that boy. But educate a girl and you educate her entire family.” This is something that women of all faiths can work together on. It is more concrete than interfaith dialogue, but nonetheless achieves something that interfaith dialogue is also meant to achieve. We help people find dignity and we learn about each other as human beings.


Irshad Manji is the best-selling author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, which has been published internationally in a number of languages, including Arabic and Urdu.

Karma Lekshe Tsomo teaches at the University of San Diego and is the editor of a number of books on Buddhist women and monasticism. She is president of Sakyadhita: The International Association of Buddhist Women and director of the Jamyang Foundation, an initiative to provide educational opportunities for women in the Indian Himalayas.

Patricia Wittberg has been a member of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati since 1966. She teaches sociology of religion and religious organizations at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. She is the author of God’s Work, God’s Workers, from Rowman and Littlefield.

Originally published in the July 2005 Shambhala Sun magazine.

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