Open thread: Is religion good for women?

"A modestly-dressed woman is like a pearl in its shell" says the wall outside the tomb of Daniel in Shush, Iran.

This week, The Guardian is running a series of articles on whether or not religion is good for women. I suppose if whether you speak from first-hand experience or from news stories and statistics, you will find that religion with its roots firmly planted in patriarchy is never going to be good for women. Savitri Hensman wrote about the conflicting nature of religion while Cath Elliot has a strong case on misogyny in the Catholic church – both are very good reads by the way. Though so far since Monday there hasn’t yet been a piece on women’s position in Islam yet, but when it does come out I will try to be the first one to read it!

On a more personal level, the Islam that I grew up with in Malaysia wasn’t always so kind to me. Let’s just say for simplicity’s sake that I had a religious upbringing with too much dogma but too little heart: more don’ts than do’s, more fear than love. Consequently, I chose the non-commital middle path for some time, avoiding both blind conservatism and areligious belief. But later I felt that I lacked the capacity to speak sincerely and intellectually about my faith, which wasn’t good – for a rather wise man had once said, “those who stand in the middle of the road will only get run down”.

All that changed when I found feminism and all its different strands. Islamic feminism, I learned, strives for a gender-equal re-interpretation of the Quran providing textual evidence of a more woman-friendly Islam. Quranic re-interpretation offers Muslim women a chance to validate unclaimed rights and in effect dramatically improve their legal and social status. Still, with all the potential to creating a fair society for everybody; cis and trans men, women and children alike, gender equality remains a contentious issue systematically dismissed by those in the seat of religio-political power.

Yet patriarchal religions claim to empower women. Such claims are always supported by the view that the separate roles men and women play are of equal value albeit as different as night and day. And so it’s easy to employ these claims to justify women’s roles as helpers rather than leaders, complete as wives and mothers rather than as individuals.

The fear in the hearts of many religious anti-feminists lies in the prospect of what I call ‘uncontrolled’ equality and the claim to every right under the sun, from easy access to contraceptives and abortion, becoming a female imam of a mixed-congregation, to marrying a non-Muslim man or even a person from the same sex, among other things. Though often these rights are conflated with the so-called rights to offend and abuse. Take for example the ridiculous idea that ‘excessive’ societal equality will lead to institutionalised paedophilia and granting humans the right to ‘marry’ animals.

So now I want to hear from you; your thoughts on the place of women in religion. Though I’d like to remind readers that this a safe space for discussion and not a place to judge other commentors or myself, and so I will not allow offensive comments along the lines of sexism, racism, trans and homophobia, or religion-bashing of any form.

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.


  1. From what little I’ve read of religion and women in history, it seems more that women have been good for religion, not so much the other way around. Women are usually at the forefront of spreading religions such as Islam and Christianity, since these two start off preaching equality. However, as men get on board with the idea, eventually women fade into the background, and we’re back at square one.

    Religion could be good for everybody, but patriarchies are set up so religion ends up being another tool to oppress and hurt women.

    I grew up with the Chinese form of paganism (ridiculously called Taoism or Buddhism), and studied some Theravadan Buddhism for a while. It unsettled me, although I was active in the Buddhist Association at school, and it was only years later that I could express why – women’s roles in these stories are usually to make a moral point about why sensuality is bad, and that physical beauty (yes, you know, the one trait that women have as their only leverage most of the time) is pointless.

    I’ve always wondered what would have happened if women had been put in charge of religion. Surely, as mothers who oh-so-naturally tend to their children, they’d understand better the responsibilities of tending to the faithful than men? >_>

  2. Jha,

    Thanks for that insightful comment. I think the reason why the question if whether religion is good for women or not is a difficult one is because there are so many conflicting answers. Which explains why this open thread is such a failure.

    Arguably, religion is better for women and men alike on a more personal level which is why privacy to what and how one worships is so important. But when it extends to formal and immutable ways of how society should function it can become a problem. Islam as a way of life can only be defined in personal terms and should be not imposed on by anyone else, especially not by those with official authority.

    I do like the idea of women as the traditional leaders of religion, but what if women became oppressive as men can be too, but in another way? I’m sure we’ll be seeing more Men’s Rights group forming as a result. Paraphrasing Foucault, the end of one oppression can reproduce itself again but in another form.

  3. In my experience, religion is good for women, but many so-called religious people can be terrible for women. Of course I mean some men, but there are also women in each tradition who try to make life difficult for other women, and who try to tell women that they don’t have a choice in the matter and must obey men at all times. To be honest, I avoided religious people for awhile. I’ve since come to a balance where I realize that many, if not most, religious people are not like this but since I was hurt by some of them it took me awhile to trust others again.

  4. Just noticed the caption on the picture. That’s always rubbed me the wrong way too. A pearl is something that is bought and sold as property, and worn as a trophy! Of course, with no voice and no say in the matter of who buys and wears it. Ok, I’ll get off the soapbox!

  5. musicalchef,

    Women are generally considered to be the guardians of culture and religion in many traditional societies – I can speak for Muslim communities where honour of such communities can be defined by how the women behave/dress. Indirectly as a result, many women take it upon themselves to police other women in behaving/dressing a certain way.

    Take for example female genital cutting – it is the women who perform the deadly deed and by large the ones who vociferously maintain its existence. The reasons are perhaps quite understandable: FGC ensures marriageability and dispels the stigma of ‘impurity’. Because marriage is so important, FGC is equally important.

    Haha! about the pearl. Many women would still love to be that pearl – it’s beautiful and valuable and deserves to be protected.

    Speaking about beauty, I find that female friends who pushed me into wearing the hijab said that it will make me more beautiful, which I find paradoxical. If the actual ‘function’ of the hijab is not to fuel the desires of (weak) men, then it’s probably to make me more attractive for marriage to a good Muslim man. Okay, I’m babbling away, but again, it’s a bout marriage!

  6. cycads: I think that religion as a personal way of life being a good thing for men and women alike is utterly valid, and that formal institutionalization of religion is what makes it so problematic, leading to dogma.

    As for women being oppressive as religious leaders, I highly doubt that would happen, since we’re always cognizant of how much physically stronger men are. If they were in any way oppressive, it would probably be to protect themselves, not for profit, status or power.

    I read When God Was A Woman, and from the research found, in southern lands where food was plentiful and the weather wasn’t harsh, goddess-worship tended to thrive, alongside men and women behaving like equals (although priestesses had more status than priests). This changed when invaders came from the northern areas, pretty much decimating the cultures they conquered, both physically destroying the shrines and re-writing the mythology. They married the governing priestesses in order to have a say in state affairs and from there re-wrote the laws (again! back to using women as the face of a campaign in order to take control, and shunting them away once they no longer had a use). Now, we can assume the northern invaders had evolved into that kind of brutal culture due to the climate up north – cold, harsh, and demanding, and selfishness would be the rule in order to survive.

    Seeing as how myths are used to create the narratives of everyday life, it makes sense to me how monotheistic patriarchy has maintained itself – physically destroy anything pagan (and related to the old feminine religions), assimilate their religions (Easter and Christmas being prime examples), co-opt their myths, control any women who might have any influence.

    The latter women, therefore, become colluders of the patriarchy, working with the oppressors in order to maintain any status they have. And that’s where we get women policing other women.

    (I know this is late but I just got back to this thread…)

  7. I stumbled upon this gem of a blog while looking up for reviews of the late Yasmin Ahmad films, and felt like I got super lucky because religion and its significance in my life have been the central personal question recently.

    I am born in a Muslim family which is more enforced by being categorised as Malay on my ID card and unlike most non-Malays in Malaysia, they have their religion section on the ID card blank even though like most Malaysians my generations, have a rich mix of ethnic, religious and cultural background. So sometimes when someone I just met asks if I am Chinese or Malay (or some other ethnic group they assume I was, as if it is the most important thing to know), I said yes to both because they are half true. I’m carried away away now, moving along to the main topic and question…

    I think religion (at least Islam) has not been good to me as a woman. My conflict drew even stronger from worries of not wanting to force convert my non-muslim partner, if ever one day my parents pressure us into conforming to society/family pressures of marriage…aside from other issues that comes with it, for example, position of Muslim woman who had pre-marital sex, use of contraceptives, etc. Growing up, I have been asking rather naive questions, like, why can’t I not wear headscarf without being viewed as showing ‘aurat’, abortion laws, etc, as you said too much dogma, but too little heart, and I might add, little evidence and good answers too. I am now never satisfied with answers that ends with “because God/Koran says so”. I am starting to suspect it is written by men because how much women-controlling versus in there.

    I don’t like contradictions in the religion too. I applaud the cause of Islamic feminists to do reintrepretations of the Koran and hadiths from women’s perspectives because it is a step towards change but I hope one day it will manage to gain more support compared to the old, direct translated version, like in this one hadith Sahih Bukhari 4:464:

    “The Prophet said, “I looked at Paradise and found poor people forming the majority of its inhibitants; and I looked at Hell and saw that the majority of its inhibitants were women.”

    P/S: I still have so much posts from this blog to catch up, so I am not sure if you have posted or discussed something about this question on later topics than this. I am going to do the catching up now (4 years worth 😀 Now this can kill my boredom). Sorry for my long rant too.

  8. Hi distant flower,

    Thanks for reading. Yes, your life experiences are definitely relateable to many other Malay women who struggle to find a balance between the ‘good’ asexual woman in the tudung and the ‘wild’ promiscuous free-hair woman. Or least that had been one of the things I’ve been struggling with when I was a little younger than I am now.

    I don’t struggle with those issues anymore now because I am quite comfortable with my sexuality, my body, and how I choose to express both. It involved taking the plunge, stepping outside one’s comfort zone, being fearless, having experience, and *then* decide whether I can finally come to terms with all that. Thankfully, I could and have.

    Luckily, I was not born into a religious family. But it was a socially conservative family that restricted a single woman’s love and sex life out of pure irrational prudery.

    Yes, feel free to read as many of the stuff I’ve written in the past year as possible 🙂 I should really write more.

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