Rev Dr Catherine Shelley
Anglican Chaplain to the University of Birmingham.
One way and another issues concerning women of faith and perceptions of women and faith seem to be a source of controversial headlines, whether about clothing such as head coverings or facial veils, ‘honour’ crimes or women bishops. There is no getting away from the fact that in many cases religious structures and their guiding scriptures can be fairly conservative and their interpretation somewhat patriarchal. Yet many women find significant value, support and meaning in their faith. There are respected interpretations that argue that the scriptures themselves, whether the Bible, the Qu’ran or the Gita or are not overwhelmingly sexist; it is their interpretation, often in earlier times or more patriarchal societies, that have caused the challenges for women today.
A closer inspection however, suggests that many religious scriptures and traditions had what were progressive attitudes towards women for their times. The first wife of the prophet Mohammed, Khadijah, was a successful businesswoman from whom he learnt a great deal. His second wife, Aisha, was intelligent and significant in developing and spreading the Islamic faith. In the Christian faith Jesus was unusual in speaking to women, such as Mary Magdalene, without a chaperone and he included her amongst his followers. In addition, the early church included women such as Phoebe and Lydia in leadership roles. Hebrew Scriptures also feature women who were crucial in Israeli history such as the judge, Deborah, Queen Esther who saved the Jews and Ruth whose loyalty to her mother-in-law was praised. Within Hinduism there are many scriptures that assert the equality of men and women and both can be religious leaders.
Whilst patriarchal pressures in both society at large and within faith communities have tended to limit women’s role, in some ways women from faith communities have challenged such restrictions. An example is the female religious orders which provided much early education for both women and boys. Today there are many women living out their faith in leadership positions in a variety of professions and creative disciplines. In some cases there are also women exercising leadership, as lawyers, counsellors, priests or teachers, within their religious communities and traditions. These women are not oppressed by their faith but have often achieved the roles in which they serve because of their faith and the support their beliefs and faith community give them. Recognising talents as being gifts of God leads to the responsibility to use them as fully as possible, in intellectual and public life as well as domestic spheres. Religious communities can also provide places of solidarity, education and support for women who may otherwise feel isolated within their career.
It is also worth remembering that the context within which women and faith are considered is not one of significant equality even in the secular sphere. Statistics indicate that despite forty years of legislation for equality in pay the average earnings for women are a long way behind those of men. The challenges of juggling work and family, of meeting someone to marry, differential dress codes and seeking senior positions are all there within purely secular contexts as well as religious communities.