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We often ask whether religion is good for women but I think it’s just as interesting to ask “are women good for religion?” I am not sure they are at the moment.
Here’s what’s been happening: women have been wanting greater roles, more leadership, greater participation and at the same time that has actually been becoming harder for them to do –leaving us with a bit of a crisis.
Women have always been interested in religion and been extremely active in religion; in fact they’ve been central to all the world’s religions. Historically women have been able to play very significant roles in religion. Nuns, for example, in the Christian tradition had huge power at certain times in history, acting as very independent groups doing their own thing without a great deal of clerical control.
And women around the world have always been central in all religions. That’s partly because women have always had a huge stake in developing their relationship with the divine, in getting closer to God, to what they see as the most true, the most beautiful, the most powerful; but also because women deal with the real everyday important issues of life and survival –with birth, with life, with marriage, with issues around illness and well being and of course death.
Now women historically have been able to play big roles in faith communities, just getting on with those things without necessarily having to defer to male leadership. And of course in modern times, women have been becoming more highly educated, entering into the work force and into much greater public prominence. Many religions haven’t kept up. In fact, what we see is male leaders, clergy and learned men increasingly trying to expand their control over religion and over women –notably in fundamentalist movements but also elsewhere to hold onto power. And that is leading to intense debates around the world.
In Britain, in my own religion, the Church of England is the site of a horrible clash at the moment between women wanting to be in positions of equal leadership as bishops–as they can in the United States’ Episcopal Church–and a leadership unwilling to accept female authority. You can see it also in Buddhist countries, where female nuns are wanting to be ordained, wanting to have equal status to monks. In Islamic countries, increasingly educated women who are very skilled and interpreting the Koran are starting to challenge men for leadership positions. And in all these cases there is a bit of a struggle over power.
And that’s leading to this conflict. Some women are fighting for more control but some women are just leaving the churches or other religions – too much of a struggle, why waste their energies when they can be put elsewhere – and that’s a really serious situation for religion. It causes some of the religious decline we’re seeing in the west and there is no obvious solution for the moment. It means that religion can, at the moment, be bad for women and women, paradoxically, can be bad for religion.
Linda Woodhead MBE is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University. She researches religion on the ground, in the UK and elsewhere.