Redefining Gender Equality in the Context of Religion Today

While globalization has brought some people and ideas closer together, the feminist movement has struggled to redefine itself in the modern age. After the success of western feminist movements, which liberated women from the confines of traditional gender roles in the 20th century, the globalized 21st century seemingly held promise for the spread of gender equality worldwide. Instead, feminist movements have faced surprising amounts of resistance worldwide, particularly from women. To overcome modern challenges, feminist movements must realize that western definitions and expectations of gender equality are incompatible with the beliefs and values of many people –  particularly those of faith – and that bridging this gap is key to truly improving the lives of women in today’s globalized world.

Feminism, faith, and religion are all terms that used and misused by members and nonmembers alike, and it is difficult define such complex value systems without oversimplification or misrepresentation. Although there are many variations and context-dependent challenges to feminism, for the purposes of this paper, the working definition of “feminist” that I will be using is activists and scholars whose goal is the “absolute and complete equality as far as is humanly possible in any given situation, at any given time.”[1] Feminism comes from all angles, as does Christianity, Hinduism, or any other type of religion, value system, or ideology, but like all labels, it is certain that there are those in a group who have opinions that differ from the consensus. For the purposes of this paper’s analysis, it is important to acknowledge such nuanced differences, but even more important to examine the fundamental beliefs of feminism and religion, broadly defined, and the implications for modern gender equality.

Feminism was originally about political equality at the ballot boxes, but challenges began when it moved, whether consciously or unconsciously, into cultural and religious spheres such as the workplace, home, church and temple. In the beginning, feminism fought for giving women the same political rights that men enjoyed – this was and is a value that everyone, whether a secular feminist, western Christian, or Indian Hindu, would affirm. However, as western feminism evolved and began to incorporate cultural norms such as equality in the workplace and home, the movement began to alienate those of faith. For someone with a western background, whether secular or religious, the concept and reality of female CEOs and breadwinners does not create cognitive dissonance since cultural norms and religious values are relatively distinct. For others, culture and religion are very much intertwined: familial and cultural roles may be linked with social and even religious values. Therefore, gender roles such as staying in the home might be perceived as gender inequality to the western feminist, but are actually a source of honor for women in other cultures, particularly those with deep ties to faith.

To the feminist, gender equality means equality in action – women should be able to do everything men do, and not be treated any differently. Equality to many feminists means sameness. To those of faith, gender equality means something quite different – it means equality in value. Consider feminism’s relationship with Christianity, a religion that shares a similar starting point in western culture and allows us to focus in on the disconnect between feminism and faith before its magnification by globalization and manifestations in other cultures. Some feminists say Christianity disrespects women, and some Christians say feminism disrespects religion. In effect, feminism and Christianity are working with two different definitions and expectations of gender equality. These different conceptualizations about what gender is and ought to be create a situation where the two are not on the same page and cannot have a meaningful conversation because they do not even acknowledge what the other is talking about. The Bible, as many Christians interpret it, indicates that God clearly intended man and woman to have different roles. Most mainline traditional Christians will affirm that gender roles are not a social construct and will point to specific passages from the Bible where men and women given different roles by God. However, as God equally values both genders, most Christians do not see this difference in action as a difference in value. Thus, gender roles and gender equality are not mutually exclusive ideas to the Christian, while, to the feminist, gender roles are the very definition of gender inequality. Where feminism sees a problem, Christianity does not see one. What feminism demands, Christianity cannot and does not want to give.

It is true that there is strong disagreement between feminism and Christianity as the two are traditionally and conservatively understood. The biggest problem, however, is not the disagreement itself but the lack of common language and mutual recognition.  Although feminists may disagree with Christians in their understanding of what gender equality is and ought to be, feminists seem to act in a way that indicates a claim of authority over gender equality and does not leave room for others’ values, thinking, and beliefs. Women ought to be as respected and valued as men are – on that all are in agreement – but we should agree to disagree on how that is practiced, as long as the basic principle of respect and value is being upheld.

Consider Taylor’s theory of cultural modernity, to which our current case of feminism and gender equality is quite similar.[2] As modernity arrives in different cultures, it looks different because the cultures it emerges in come from different starting points. Modernity in Europe does not look the same as modernity in Asia, and to expect the two modernities to look similar is almost laughable. As Taylor writes, “The belief that modernity comes from a single, universally applicable operation imposes a falsely uniform pattern on the multiple encounters of non-Western cultures with the exigencies of science, technology, and industrialization.”[3] The same argument can be made of feminism and gender equality. What feminists in the west identify as gender equality will and should produce different results in non-western contexts that reflect the different starting points of cultures. Gender equality should look different, and to expect the same kind of feminism in America and in Saudi Arabia is an unrealistic thought at best. Substituting Taylor’s modernities with our discussion of gender equality, we come to the conclusion: “The point of the alternative modernities thesis is that these adaptations don’t have to and generally won’t be identical across civilizations.”[4]

This is the core of the issue feminism faces in today’s globalized world. Feminists expect that others will have the same definition and expectation of gender equality, and that gender equality will look similarly across different cultures. Even before globalization made things more pluralistic and complicated, however, feminism never addressed the issue of different understandings of gender equality even with Christianity. Even given shared western culture and societal norms, feminism and Christianity are in unresolved conflict. In a place like India, where religious, cultural, societal norms and values are all different from that of the average western secular feminist, there is even more conflict and it is all the more important to understand what and where the core issue is.

Feminists have yet to recognize and address the issue of different understandings of gender equality. As Usha Menon describes in her piece examining feminism and women’s rights in India, the feminist approach there has been particularly unsuccessful and has alienated Indian female activists who believe that this brand of feminism is a perspective exclusive to the western historical and sociocultural context. The western secular feminist sees gender equality as sameness in opportunity and action in all spheres, and is advocating for this on the Indian woman’s behalf, but has the feminist stopped to consider what the Indian woman deems as gender equality and what she wants for herself? Indeed, “when feminists challenge family structures and work to dismantle them, the women of the temple town see such efforts as directly threatening their sense of identity and personhood. They do not see their conjugal families as oppressive kinship structures but rather as fluid, organic entities that are continually transformed and reconstituted by the essences and qualities of in-marrying women.”[5] To a western feminist, gender equality is sameness in the workplace and home, but to an Indian Hindu woman, this is not necessarily the case. The western concept of gender equality is so wedded to the values and beliefs of western culture that Indian female activists now say they do not want gender equality, but female empowerment.[6] From this, it is clear that if feminists cannot agree to disagree with socioculturally similar religions such as Christianity, much less religions such as Hinduism, they will only drive away the very people they want to help.

By first understanding the conflict that exists and recognizing the need for reconsideration and redefinition of what feminism and gender equality mean in the globalized contexts of today’s world, we can approach the fundamental object of conflict between feminism and religion from a new perspective. This discussion and clarification of what gender equality means is not merely an issue of semantics but rather, a real, practical step that can be the start to transforming and improving the current conversation, and extend it to the different contexts that globalization presents. Redefining gender equality is not meant to divert attention away from injustice against females, but to do exactly the opposite – by redefining the issue, we are re-orienting attention to the true injustices suffered by females around the world. Gender inequality, both in action and in value, is a real issue that we need to understand and address, precisely why a clear and nuanced conversation is needed.

Even if feminism and religion do not agree on what gender equality should be, acknowledging  differences and agreeing to disagree creates the opportunity for a new conversation. The goal is not necessarily to see things the same way, but to come to the table with a basic of understanding so that neither feminism nor religion sees the other as an adversary, but as a partner in promoting women’s issues. From this point, we can re-orient the conversation around female empowerment, a universal value that should be upheld by feminists, Christians, Hindus and all people alike. For women’s issues to move forward, this conversation is critical. A mutual understanding of terms such as feminism, gender equality, and female empowerment and an acceptance of differing views will translate into more nuanced and respectful relationship between religious groups and feminists. This understanding will allow for fruitful discussion of and solutions to the challenges women face in today’s globalized world.

[1] Vasudha Narayanan, “Women of Power in the Hindu Tradition,” in Arvind Sharma and Katherine K. Young, eds., Feminism and World Religions (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 26, quoted in Usha Menon, “Does Feminism Have Universal Relevance? The Challenges Posed by Oriya Hindu Family Practices,” R. Shweder, M. Minow, and H. Markus, eds., The Free Exercise of Culture (Russell Sage Foundation, Forthcoming), 97.

[2] Taylor, “Two Theories of Modernity.”

[3] Taylor, “Two Theories of Modernity,”180.

[4] Taylor, “Two Theories of Modernity,”184.

[5] Menon, “Does Feminism Have Universal Relevance?” 96.

[6] Menon, “Does Feminism Have Universal Relevance?” 97.

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