Religion and Spirituality: Religion & Feminism: Happily Married or Strange Bedfellows?

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Masum Momaya, Curator
Masum Momaya, Curator
United States

Religion & Feminism: Happily Married or Strange Bedfellows?

No puns intended here, but I recently returned from a meeting of women's rights leaders in the Middle East and North Africa. During one of the session, there was a heated discussion about whether issues of sexuality and sexual rights should be "taken on" by women's movements in the region. Some said "absolutely" - that there were part and parcel to true democracy. Others argued for these issues to take a back seat, at least while more "basic" issues of political stability and economic welfare remain to be addressed. What do you think?

Masum Momaya, Curator
Masum Momaya, Curator
United States

Religion Implied...

I meant to say that this discussion was framed in the backdrop of most of these countries being theocratic states...

Wangui Banks
Wangui Banks
United States

I am a little confused by the fact that this was actually debated. Maybe I do not really grasp what you mean by sexual rights.
There are still sexual crimes being committed against women all around the world and I expect women's rights movements to be at the forefront of the fight against these crimes.
I assumed that it would be at the top of a Middle Eastern or North African women's rights movement's agenda.
What were the arguments of those who wanted it to take a back seat?

Masum Momaya, Curator
Masum Momaya, Curator
United States

Sexual Violence vs. Sexual Freedom

Thanks for asking for clarification!

My understanding of what was being debated was whether or not women's movements should push for sexual "freedoms" - an umbrella category which includes open affirmations (or at least lack of persecution) of lesbianism, sex education in schools, open conversation about pornography, etc.

Women's movements in MENA have been fighting against FGM, rape as a weapon of war, domestic violence and other forms of sexual violence, although, like everywhere else in the world, these issues get pushed to the backburner amidst war, ethnic disputes and economic downturns.

nina yankowitz
United States

ART can teach tolerance of different religions.
The true enemies of peace are extremists, fundamentalists, and religious fanatics, all who police strict adherence to respective beliefs placed above factual evidence. This project is designed to teach tolerance.

Viewer/participants are invited to enter a web site and enter a virtual Multi-Faith glass cathedral abstracted from architectural styles housing diverse religions practiced around the globe. Religious text projections, culled from Jewish theology, Christianity, Buddhist/Tao scriptures, and the Quran, blanket walls of this virtual space illustrating thematic parallel or disparate content. Using a combination of computer generated 3D models and VR technology, the participant will be given the opportunity to visit interiors of these virtual cathedrals and "cut and paste" text deemed having similar or dissimilar content regarding a particular theme. Quotes will display as a group when a web site participant decides to “broadcast” their tablet of quotes at a public site, linking/exporting to a computer at a specific location somewhere in the world. Locations can be Cathedrals/Temples, public spaces, gallery or museum spaces. Selected themes and texts, for example, based upon the theme WOMEN may remind people that they may not always remember that the Judea-Christian concepts regarding women have sprung from the belief in the sinful nature of Eve who ate the apple. However, the Quran expresses the Islamic view of women as radically different from the Judea-Christian one, never mentioning that the woman is the devil's gateway or that she is a deceiver by nature. This theme could possibly elicit the following expressed content:

Prayer found in many Jewish prayer books:
"Praised be God that he has not created me a gentile. Praised be God that he has not created me a woman. Praised be God that he has not created me an ignoramus."

St. Paul In The New Testament States:
"A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I don't permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner" (I Timothy 2:11-14.

The Quran states:
"Whoever works evil will not be requited but by the like thereof, and whoever works a righteous deed - whether man or woman- and is a believer- such will enter the Garden of bliss" (Quran 40:40)

Thasneem Hoey
United States

I am happy that you were actually in the middle east for a meeting on women's rights. I wonder how this was discussed in a place where sexuality is a taboo topic. What I see is women are struggling for basic rights in these countries like food, education, maternal care and a social status. Women are treated as slaves. Who considers them human especially in middle eastern countrie. Do you think she is going to have sexual rights with a taliban like man? Let us first think of basic education, because that will set a women free from stonage thinking.

Pernille Arenfeldt
Pernille Arenfeldt
United Arab Emirates

Feminism or Feminisms

It may be slightly misleading for the readers who are not familiar with the Middle East/North Africa to state that most of these countries are "theocracies". There are very great differences between the different states and different cultures within the MENA. Kindly recognize that this region encompasses about 20 countries with vastly differing cultures and political systems.

This said, religion does play an important role in the Middle East (in theocratic as well as in secular states). As a result, religion also conditions views about sexuality and sexual rights. However, rather than explaining the importance of religion with reference to the nature of the political systems, one has to consider the role it plays in the lives of individual women (and men) and that religious beliefs take different forms in different people's lives. If one fails to recognize this and does not examine the different religious pro-/prescriptions about sexual behavior, no conversation can take place - or one ends up having a conversation with a very, very small minority. Some of the sexual rights you bring attention (e.g. lesbian (and gay) rights and pre-marital sex) sanctions behaviors that are defined as 'sins' by both Islam and Christianity and their status as 'sins' are much more important than their classification as legally defined 'crimes' in some MENA states. Even if one disagrees with this, one MUST respect the views of the individual woman - including her religious convictions. And if one views this as antithetical to "feminism", one fails to recognize that the latter (feminism) always is context specific. As numerous scholars have stressed in their work on the history of women's movements and movements across the world, there is not ONE correct version of feminism, but an infinite range of feminisms that arise and transform in response to the particulars of the societies they operate within.

If one argues that feminism and religion cannot be united, one also fails to recognize what Amina Wadud stressed, that in its core, feminism is 'simply', "the radical notion that women are human beings".

Most women's/feminist organization in the MENA region recognize this and develop their programs accordingly. The priorities of these organizations must be allowed to reflect the priorities of the women who live within the particular region/country. Otherwise feminism is turned into something very un-democratic and will ultimately fail to make any positive changes.

This does not imply that sexual rights cannot be addressed (and they are being addressed - e.g. the recent demonstrations against the law that sanctions marital rape in Afghanistan AND the discussion you witnessed), but that they are addressed from the perspective of women in the different parts of this region.

And with female illiteracy rates up to 80% in some parts of the Middle East, there is an urgent need for these organizations.

Pernille Arenfeldt
Pernille Arenfeldt
United Arab Emirates

Additional thoughts

Two additional points that may be worth considering:

1. Why should lesbian and gay rights and the right to pre-marital sexual be particularly closely linked to feminism(s)? Both involve rights of men as well as women.

2. Many forms of feminism developed in the context of religious movements (e.g. Quakers, Utilitarians, Free Protestants etc.).

It seems to be a very time-/place-specific form of feminism that considers religion and feminism incompatible.

In the name of marriage

I thought to contribute this line "In the name of marriage" for this conversation

I have a strong backbone
To stand on my own
I am not an invertebrate
My spinal is strong
I hold my head high
I am naturally high

I am herbivorous
He is omnivorous
He smokes
He drinks
I sing
I dance
I am naturally high

He kisses me
Alcoholic lips
No delicate words
No cuddling
No hugging
He blames me
He curses me
“So called activist
Passive in bed”
He accuses me

I am very positive
He talks negative of me
for being naturally high
for being an activist
I am like a Proton
I am positive
He is like a Neutron
He speaks negative
But we still attract each other
In the name of children
In the name of marriage

IMW 2009 May 06

United States

Globally, we women have to fear for our safety on the way to work, we have to defend our sexuality at work, and we are marginalized and penalized for being pretty women, homely women, black women, old women, or lesbian women. Because of this constant struggle and because of our constant awareness of and vigilance about our gender/sexual identity versus our achievements, we are not equal with men economically or socially. Therefore I don't think it is possible to tackle one without awareness of the other. The issues of sexuality and politics/economics have to be dealt with simultaneously.

Lalita Raman
Lalita Raman
Hong Kong

Basic Rights, Human Rights be it Woman or Man

Don't you think education is the basic requirement to address some of these issues.

Ms. Pernille Arenfeldt has pointed out above that Religion plays an important role in the Middle East and that does condition the views re: sexuality and sexual rights.

Could it be possible that in some of these cases Religion is being misinterpreted by some and used in a way to deny basic human rights.
Surely God has made a Man and Woman different in some ways but that does not mean basic human rights be denied to any woman or man.

As long as each of these activists and organizations and each of us in our day to day life recognize that basic human rights not be denied to a human being and education is spread in MENA, India, China and such other countries, I believe it is possible to get somewhere. Illiteracy rates are very high in some of these countries especially among the women.

Social, Human, Environmental and Sexual rights affects all of us.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight this article for which I have attached the link

United States

A Woman's Intelligence

I enjoyed reading all of the entries relative to Religion & Feminism: Happily Married or Strange Bedfellows?

I took a moment to create new art this morning before coming back to this discussion. My work is profiled under in exhibiting you. I am beginning to work on my first series of lobby sculptures. I am enjoying the global circle of women thoughtfully considering change by using their intellect. I believe marriage and religion have their place together. A woman's commitment to her ability to direct decision making and peacemaking is what an intelligent woman is, and always will be. In each time frame in history and in future generations, woman must use their intelligence in the world. This is change. Peace to you all, Kellyann

Rashi D
United Arab Emirates

I feel the key to understanding sexual rights (or any women's rights) in a region is to understand the socio-cultural context in that region. As Dr. Pernille quotes, feminism is culture-specific, and it seems wrong to me to project values that may seem 'universal' or 'basic' in some parts of the world onto a region such as the Middle East. This is leading to a much worse evaluation of the status of women's rights in the region than it actually is.
We must think of women's rights in the socio-cultural context of women in this region. While awareness of worldwide human rights issues and benchmarks like CEDAW increases our knowledge, to take away the right of women anywhere to judge themselves is a human rights violation in itself! CEDAW also recognises culture as a major influence on aligning women's rights as human rights.
Religion is a large part of feminism in the Middle East. Being a student of Dr. Pernille and having spent a little time (not much though!)examining the rights Islam advocates for women, I can disagree with the argument that religion and feminism are incompatible. One of the problems, I have learnt, is that religious arguments are used by both sides - feminists and 'conservatives'. But this word in itself is subjective - what may seem 'conservative' to many is acceptable and comfortable to the females in this region, and I feel it is their right to decide what freedoms they want and what consists of rights violations. To have men decide for them is also wrong - when the people who are affected make their own decisions, that seems to me a universal freedom.

Rashi D
United Arab Emirates

1. Maybe a reason why lesbian/gay rights can be linked to women's rights is that both can be viewed as an uprooting of the 'natural order' in religious interpretation (though perhaps not in religion itself, which may advocate equality). When the fight for women's rights is put in a 'radical' category, it may be easier to link other 'radical' or liberal rights fights with feminism. As for pre-marital sexual freedom, is it linked with feminism over the world? Because in the Middle East, the emphasis and protection of the patriline that is part of tradition may explain why pre-marital sexual is different for men and women.


Marriage, religion and private property

And this is where we should be able to understand that marriage, in the dominant religions of today's world, was created as a form in the male generated religious/moral/social model to include women as property. With this, the carriers of children, and therefore the number of mouths to feed as well as the expense or the possible expansion of private property were limited to one's own.

This explains, as religions evolved, the almost crime worth importance of that developmental remanent, the hymen that has marked women's history. It became the perfect proof of our so called purity, allowing for the construction of myths and horror stories for the creators religions to feed on scaring women about their behavior, strength and sexuality, pushing them to believe that the only life to live could be with and for a man and his children.

And why is it then that so many of us, the strongest, the ones more qualified, more artistic, more creative, more intelligent are not necessarily following that pattern? Having tried it or not. Alone, with or without children, women are able to stand strong on their own, with or without power, with or without dating games.

Women's rights need to be linked to religion because religion has always been the cause of women's unequal rights.

women should come out of the veil of religion for their development

Gender equality is the only issue which might be holding the master-key of all the
problems. Discrimination starts right from nascent age( more precisely from the womb..). Parent will give lesser attention for the nutrition and education of female child. This discrimination haunts them, in one way or another, whole life.
Religion becomes a potent tool in the hands of few manipulative people. They may be found every religion, in every community.
Women sould leave the yoke of superstitions and come out to celebrate a new dawn of faminity...

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