Being a young woman in the 21st century, I’ve not felt the same discrimination that many women, less than a decade older than me, will have experienced when growing up.
Although many texts hold passages that appear to condone discrimination, it must be remembered that these texts were written by people and were influenced by culture and then used for other goals than strictly religious ones
I’ve always been given the impression that any job is available to me, provided I have the ability to fulfil the role. Royal Marine, male model and sperm donor seem to be off the cards, but for purely biological reasons I don’t have any qualms with this. Maybe I’m lucky but I’ve never been made to feel inadequate purely because of my gender.
Why is it then, in a society where ‘equal opportunities’ is a concept highly stressed by companies and the government alike, are religious institutions still able to treat people differently based on gender alone?
Women are still prevented from becoming bishops in the Church of England, priests in the Roman Catholic church and Imam’s or Rabbi’s in some Islamic and Jewish cultures. No doubt women, in varying occupations are still met with male colleagues doubting their ability based on gender, but it appears to be the religious sector where this is most prevalent.
Rev Catherine Shelley is an ex Roman Catholic nun, now turned Church of England priest. While at University Rev Shelly kept feeling a sense of vocation to priesthood, but when discussing this with male colleagues she was continually met with “you can’t, you’re a woman”. Of course, the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church are such that a woman can’t even become a priest, more of that later.
But the old ideas hang heavy even in the more progressive Church of England.
Rev Hayley Matthews, Chaplin of MediaCityUK says, within the Church of England: “It depends where you are. In my previous ministry I did experience a lot of hostility based on my gender. I worked for 19 years in IT, I worked and managed men with no problem, so was shocked when I went to theological college and met young men whose sexism, arrogance and rudeness was outrageous.”
Of course it’s not with religion itself but with the way it’s been interpreted and used to the advantage of males. There is a common misconception that religions condone, or at least promote a bigoted outlook. It is not religion that does this, or God, it is people, men and in many cases women too.
Religions, often, conversely, hold women in high regard. Jesus’ new covenant with Paul suggests you cannot be male or female ‘for all are one and the same in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3.28). Roman Catholicism venerates the Virgin Mary and has beatified many women.
Talmudic texts suggest that women have greater powers of discernment and greater faith. Talat Zeira, spokesperson for Jamia Mosque, Cheetham Hill says, “Women’s role in Islam is high in status. Islam encourages women to learn”. He thinks that the problem may lie not in religion but in cultures with an archaic point of view when it comes to women. Cultures that socialise their members in such a way that women are unable to break out of set roles and move forward in religion.
We have seen it in the media recently with the insight into the lives of gypsy women. Women encouraged to stay at home, cook, clean, have babies because it’s the done thing.
Of course the idea of a permanent religious code can be used to reinforce a cultural norm.
Jo Richler, a member of the Manchester Jewish community and leader of a woman’s group, which has fought for years to be allowed to meet at the synagogue, feels women often feel pressured to stay at home and leave the religious studying to the men.
She also feels it is “a cultural more than religious constraint in many communities. The framework used may be theological but the application is cultural”.
Talat Zeria explains how Islamic cultures are similar to this believing that “women are already a wife, a daughter, a mother, some cultures do not want women to go out and work or learn as they do not want to put even more pressure on them. Islam is contrary to that.”
‘Pressure on them?’ Strange notion. Obviously, if a woman is brought up to think that the only option available to her in life is to have children and stay at home, and her mother, grandmother, and all generations before have done the same, she is likely to pass this view on to her daughter and the cycle continues.
These women fail to question the norm that has preceded them. The few that do try to break the mould are met with religious texts taken out of context in an attempt to legitimise inequality. And raw male aggression.
We often hear reports of honour killings and persecution of women in Islamic States – and occasionally in the UK. The reports state that Sharia law is to blame for this but as Talat Zeria points out it is a culturally biased law. “The law is such because it was written 14 hundred years ago, our culture has changed since then, others have not, but the law has remained the same” - it is the ability to apply certain laws that have kept patriarchal cultures afloat.
In secular society these debates have gone on for years, should women stay at home and be wives, should they use their femininity to get them better jobs, should they act like men to get further in a man’s world?
We are all products of our socialisation and genetic makeup. Men and women may be better suited to different roles, we all have different abilities and strengths. Roles can be reversed, however, and nothing should be off limits based on genetics. Women are assumed to have better listening skills and be more empathetic - traits that a good priest should possess. Yet many still believe it to be a role reserved for men.
What is interesting within the Church of England is that it is not women ‘acting like men’ that has made them better priests. Rev Matthews has resisted any pressures to adopt a masculine demeanour, explaining “from my experience, women I know in higher positions within the Church are not any more masculine but are assertive and confident in the woman they are”.
Anne Widecombe disagrees, she left the Church of England in favour of the Roman Catholic church in 1993 when the first ordination of women as priests took place. It’s hard to believe that a woman who has been so successful in a traditional ‘man’s role’ would condemn other women for doing something similar.
Widecombe’s views are shared by many in both Roman Catholicism and the Church of England. But in a religion that is based upon a lady hearing a calling from God to risk social exclusion in order to bear his Child, one might struggle to understand how they can deny a lady’s calling to priesthood.
The Rt Rev Martyn Jarratt Bishop of Beverley, explains the position: “Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, the priest is an icon of Christ the bridegroom - he needs to be male for the imagery to work”.
Aside from the seeming flimsiness of the ‘imagery argument’ it appears that we have another cultural problem here. Perhaps Jesus (as created by God) was chosen to be a man because in his culture he would not have had such an impact or following if he were female.
Our culture has moved forward to a point where woman are, mostly, on an equal pegging with men - why do religious cultures find it so difficult to do the same? Is it just because religious traditions take much longer to progress and will always be a step behind the secular world? Will religious cultures eventually catch up?
“It may be that the Church of God may eventually decide that the ordination of women is a development of its tradition, I don’t see it that way,” says Rt Rev Jarrat.
Rev Shelley says that whilst she was a Roman Catholic nun “there was a hope that if the ordination of women came in the Anglican church, maybe it will come in the Roman Catholic church a bit later, instead there was a backlash.”
But she also says that this anti-women view of the Vatican may not be so strong on lower levels of Roman Catholicism: “On the ground level there are parishes that are pro-women priests and actually aren’t very happy with anti-female vicar Anglicans moving across.”
Surely it can’t be divinely chosen by any religious deity that women should not study and minister religion?
What kind of God would create a creature and then put limits on it? We have free will, and it is this free will that has allowed humans to discriminate against others. It is a cultural restriction enforced by human means, usurping religion to justify their laws. Although many texts hold passages that appear to condone discrimination, it must be remembered that these texts were written by people and were influenced by culture and then used for other goals than strictly religious ones.
So until people and cultures change to accept that we are all equal, it appears that a stained glass ceiling will remain for women in religious institutions.
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