From Unfair Leash to Freedom: An Exploration of Religions and Women’s Movements
Religion is a particular fundamental set of beliefs and practices commonly agreed upon by a number of persons or sects. It is not something that people are born with. People start believing in a certain religion after being influenced by the people who already believe in it, such as—family members or friends. They follow the fundamental sets of beliefs enforced by their religions in their everyday life. In some cases, these sets of beliefs restrict the followers’ lives, especially followers who are women. A lot of times women are restricted from making choices of their own for religion’s sake and sometimes it is the state. State is a defined territory with sovereignty and people abiding by the political power and authority of the elected public officials to represent the government ("Definition of State"). Restrictions resulting from religions become more rigid when religion influences the policy of a state. In some of the states, policies influenced by religion inhibit empowerment that increases the spiritual, political, social, educational, gender, or economic strength of women. Conditions of women get even worse when people use religion as an excuse for gendered violence which is violence targeted towards individuals or groups because of their gender. Sometimes, this suppression and violence inspires women to raise their voices and gain their freedom. In my paper, I will explore how much religion actually legitimizes activities and policies that inhibit women’s freedom and how these restrictions placed by state and certain interpretations of religion inspire social activism.
It is believed by some people that Islam allows abuse of women and husbands can punish their wives if they misbehave. It is completely a false idea because Islamic teachings clearly state that the best are those who treat their wives well (W., Jessica). Muslim extremist groups, like Taliban, bans women’s education, but hadith, which is reported speech of the messenger of Allah, says “Acquisition of knowledge is binding on all Muslims (both men and women without any discrimination)” ("Islam Emphasizes On”). Similarly, Saudi Arabia bans women from driving, whereas there is no such verdict in the Holy Quran that prevents women from driving car as cars did not exist 1400 years ago ("Men and Women Have”). This verdict is not actually from the Holy Quran, but from the patriarchal authorities to put up a restriction in the mobility of women. Another hadith says, “Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity” (Mernissi 1991:3). This hadith is, used as a weapon to prevent women from political leadership in the Arab world (Mernissi 1991:4) because the social construction of gender there considers politics as man’s affair. In this way, the misinterpreted the hadith too because it is not specifically saying that politics is men’s affair and it should not be entrusted to women. During the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971, approximately 450,000 Bengali women were raped and molested ("Collaborators and War Criminals"). According to the middle class and cultural elites of Bangladesh, one of the main reasons behind this prevailing rapes is Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan in those days were considered as ‘nominal Muslims’ by the Pakistani authorities and rape was like a way to them of filling Bangladesh with a new generation of ‘pure’ Muslims (Mookherjee 2008:39). In this way religion and religious sacred text have been misinterpreted and manipulated by the misogynist members of society and as Fatema Mernissi said, “…manipulation of them is a structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies” (1991:9).
Christian lessons are also misused; for example, verses from Ephesians used in wedding vows says, “Wives submit to your husband, as to the lord” (W., Jessica). Here the word “submit” has been interpreted by some as a written requirement for women to give in to all kind of violence, such as—verbal, physical, mental or sexual (W., Jessica). Distinctly, the passage does not mean it because another verse from the similar source says, “Husbands are to love their wives as they do their own bodies. No one hates his own body but lovingly cares for it” ("What Is the Christian Answer to Domestic Violence?").
A complete prohibition on artificial birth control methods was declared by the Roman Catholic Church that has a great influence on the reproductive health policy of Philippines. This declaration is considered as the main reason why Philippines does not have an inclusive reproductive health law. Apparently, women are the main victims of this rigid position of Roman Catholic Church. Resulting from unwanted pregnancies, 11 Filipino women die every 24 hours from complexities during pregnancy and child birth (Carlos O. Tulali 2009:8). On top of that, the prohibition inhibits women from taking a major decision of their life, which is motherhood. Bills have been passed to bring flexibility in the law, but they are still not implemented. This prohibition might be a result of the misinterpretation by some members of the society of God’s commandment to multiply and fulfill the earth (Slick). Here, according to Matt Slick, Christians are told to have children, but it does not prohibit avoiding having them. For example, Jesus Christ himself never got married and had children, but he is considered as someone who never sinned. Thus, Slick concluded that the commandment of having children is applicable for the overall humankind rather than each and every individual, which makes birth control sanctioned to some extent.
A study was done in Bangalore which interviewed women from different religion to find out violence against them during pregnancy. It found out that violence was more prevalent among the Hindu families rather than families following Islam, Christianity, or any other religion ("Study: Domestic Violence”). On the contrary, according to Manu, the writer of the most famous work on Hindu law Manusmriti, women must be honored by their father, brother, husband, and brother-in-law who want their own welfare because where women are not honored, there gods are not pleased and no sacred rite pays off (Rambachan). Similarly Buddhism also speaks of gender equality in terms of enlightenment which is the attainment of supreme knowledge or wisdom. According to the teachings of Lotus Sutra, men who deny the enlightenment of women deny their own possibility of achieving perfect enlightenment (Ikeda).
Apparently, religion does not itself inhibit women from freedom. It is the people upholding the social construction of gender, who misinterpret and manipulate religious verses and use them against women that refrains them from getting their freedom and rights. Therefore, most of the violence and inhibitions that women go through for the sake of religion are actually pointless. Still, women, being in a male-dominated society, endure all the repression silently when the environmental factor surrounding them is adverse and threatening to their lives. When women cannot tolerate the repression any longer, they become social activists and fight for their freedom. Feminist activities that we see around the world are eventually the result of the excessive repression and violence women go through.
Sampat Pal Devi was a typical rural housewife with five children from Uttar Pradesh, India. One day she witnessed a man beating his wife ruthlessly and could not resist stopping him. While doing that the man abused her too (“History”). Next day, the simple Sampat pal Devi was not simple anymore; being a witness and also a victim to gendered violence had brought out the activist inside her. Now she is the leader of an extraordinary women’s movement called “Gulabi Gang” with ten thousands of women members. To resist violence and defend themselves, Sampat and her gang members carry a bamboo stick which is considered by the authorities of her society as a violation to the non-violence lesson of Mahatma Gandhi. Unfortunately, those who are concerned about this violation do not talk about the non-violence lesson when violence happens against women. Women facing violence now seek help of Gulabi Gang as the law enforcement system of the state fails to get them justice (The Gulabi Gang).
During 1960-70, there had been a women’s liberation movement in the west which aimed at legal reforms, maintenance of livelihood, and guarantee safety from violence (Ganguly-Scrase 2000: 86). In solidarity with this movement, in India, there had been Indian women’s movement too which aimed at violence against rural women from different castes. For ages, caste system, which is imposed by religion, has been used as a way to repress women from lower caste. Usually men from higher castes wielded control over lower castes’ women just to put down lower castes’ men. But actually women from higher castes were not safe at their home too. Upper castes’ women were submitted to control and violence within the family and absence of such control made lower castes’ women vulnerable to sexual harassment, rape, and public violence. For this movement, thousands of women from different castes participated in activities considerably empowering them both individually and collectively to implement changes (Ganguly-Scrase 2000:90).
Not only religion, but also the state policy of different countries set up divisions among its citizens in terms of majority of a certain religion and belonging to a certain ethnicity. This division often makes women vulnerable to violence, who do not belong to the religion or ethnicity that the majority of the people belong to. For example, in Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, there are different groups of people who are neither Muslim nor Bengali. Their identity makes them minority both in terms of religion and ethnicity (Chakraborty 2004:4) . When interviewed, one of the women from the minority group named Minoti Chakma said,
We are always enemies. In the British period we were aasovyo (uncivilized), borbor (barbarian), in Pakistan period we were pro-Indian, pro-Bengali, and now in Bangladesh again we are either pro-Indian (because of Shanti Bahini) or pro-Pakistani when it comes to the question of our role in the Independence struggle. (Chakraborty 2004:4)
To get access in the political arena, often they engage in movements that would give them their rights. These movements, being opposed by the state, brought them under the scrutiny of military who were responsible to resist such movements. This resistance often end up being transformed into violence against the minority groups, especially the women. Often women were harassed by the military personnel which had restricted their mobility and also affected their education (Chakraborty 2004:9). These violence and repression gave birth to “The Chittagong Hill Tracts Women’s Association” (Parbotya Chattogram Mahila Shamiti). This association is like a platform to those oppressed women of the minority group for their struggle of identity and rights (Chakraborty 2004:1). It gave them a voice in the political arena and also made the government pay attention to them and become concerned about their existence and rights.
Bengalis, who are considered majority now, had also been into this minority state before the liberation war of 1971 even if they were majority in terms of ethnicity in their own territory. Condition of the Bengali women were even more vulnerable than the women from the Chittagong Hill Tract because they were harassed and victimized to sexual violence by the Pakistani authority even if they were not engaged in any movement against the state. This vulnerable position made them join in the liberation war along with their male counterpart even if there was no specific agenda for women (Mookherjee 2008:44). Women took up arms and joined the underground resistance in 1971 and few of them also engaged in actual combat. Women who did not participated in the war directly, showed their resistance with their bodily practices. With clothing, beautification, actions that were apparently adversative to Pakistani culture and distinctive of Bangladeshi culture they showed denial visibly and provokingly. (Mookherjee 2008:44).
Religion itself does not put restrictions on women’s freedom. It is just the social construction of gender that assumes an inferior and subordinate position for women by misinterpreting and to some extent manipulating the religious verses. Even if women acknowledge this, they cannot always raise their voice against the inhibition. One of the main reasons behind this is the lack of assistance or inspiration around them. When they are surrounded by women who are suffering or had suffered from the same situation like them, they become unable to have the courage to fight. Sometimes, the social construction of gender makes them think that they are supposed to stay under the unfair inhibition as they saw their mothers and grandmothers doing the same. Still, there are also women, like Sampat Pal Devi, who discover the power inside themselves that can change the social construction and even the state policy.
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