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Have you heard this one? A priest and a Rabbi walk into a bar- during a feminist outing- and everybody has a wonderful, respectful time because everybody loves equal rights and just generally gets on. Not really funny? Probably because it’s a normal occurrence in real life. Plus I am not as good at making up ridiculous accusations and forming generalisations out of thin air to the point of being genuinely funny at times. Is religion, in essence, opposed to progress in terms of gender equality? Short answer: no. Why should it be?
As a feminist, and a Christian, I can always look forward to providing a defence of religion, in a world in which the Westboro Baptist Church pickets soldier’s funerals due to the acceptance of gay soldiers in the military, giving their youngest members signs claiming ‘God hates fags’, in which being a member of the LGBT communities in Russia can mean the end of your job and your safety and in which being raped can mean being imprisoned for adultery. As far back as records of organised religion go, there are records of oppression, regression and religious wars over the smallest of differences. Those opposing religion regurgitate these facts again and again in order to convince us in the religious community that what we believe is not only wrong, despite the fact that it is called ‘faith’ for a reason, but also dangerous. I’ve been accused of pushing religion down people’s throats from giving a simple explanation to those who themselves bring up the issue of religion that no, not all Christians believe every word of the Bible. No, I don’t believe ‘an eye for an eye’ in fact there was this guy whose name slips my mind who said something about forgiveness, his name will come to me later, and that no, I don’t even believe in Hell, let alone believe that all of my atheist friends are going there.
At Femsoc’s event for International Women’s Week, ‘Empower Each Other’, I had the privilege of listening to not only a Christian but two Muslim women about their faith, their personal challenges and their belief in women’s rights. Considering the fact that there is so much negative media representation of Islam, it was a refreshing change to actually hear it straight from their mouths, that their faith, as much as people interpret it as oppressive, is also interpreted by many in a way in which fuels their passion for women’s rights and progress. The issue of religious institutions was brought up, inevitably, and it was established that religion, law, culture and religious institutions need to be separated. As a secularist, I couldn’t agree more, religion causes harm when in conjunction with the law, in the hands of the power hungry, who will distort it to their will, and when tied with practices such as FGM whose roots lie more in tradition. Religion is a part of almost every culture and progresses as society does. What is written in religious scriptures was a reflection of the tradition and culture of the time, rather revolutionary for the time in which it was written and does not have to be followed word for word. Why not write a new text? Because our challenge here is to learn to adapt our beliefs, to live in peace and to use these ancient texts to negotiate our place in an ever-changing world.
To generalise religion and to say ‘religion does this, religion does that’ makes a person no better than those who claim that all feminists are man-hating extremists, or modelling their knowledge of feminism on groups such as the confused FEMEN, who want to stop anybody but themselves telling women what to, and what not, to wear, to do or to believe. Being religious can mean being loudly criticised by a whole rainbow of critics, from some (but not all of course) atheists who don’t want to be discriminated against for having no faith in a God but who want to tell you how stupid and naïve you are, to the feminist who would ban the Burka in ignorance of a woman’s personal choice to wear it, to those who would assume that you are in alliance with Putin and the Westboro Baptist Church. Moreover, it ignores all of those who use their faith in order to fuel their fight for equal rights, in the belief that we were created (through a process of evolution of course) equal and with the same rights. We all come to the same conclusion in different ways and at different paces, but we get there and if we allow progress to happen naturally, rather than trying to make religious people feel in some way criminal for sharing one thing in common, belief, with those who would twist religious scripture to their advantage, then we are far off the path of creating an inclusive, enlightened feminism.
Finally, religion and the patriarchy do not exist hand in hand, but those who have the power to do so will use religion as a weapon to suit their patriarchal needs. If organised religions do not fit their ideology, then pseudo-religion or just all-out oppression of religion have come in extra handy for them. The world does not have a religious problem, it has a patriarchal problem and as long as we keep tying the two together it can only help to serve the patriarchal need to use religion, which is deeply embedded in a great many cultures, to serve its own purposes, to divide those who believe with those who don’t and to convince us that we have to choose, our faith or equal rights, when we can have both.