Spirit of equality often permeates sacred texts
REVIEWED By SALLY CUNNEEN
Since the early 1970s we have heard the voices of women detailing the gender inequities long prevalent in the world’s religions. In this book, they are at last joined by a formidable collection of male scholars who know their traditions intimately. Reflecting on these traditions -- ranging from Hinduism, Buddhism, Orthodox Judaism, Taoism, Islam, African and Native American religions to Protestantism and Catholicism -- each man finds useful resources for gender equality. A few go further and provide insightful critiques of the contemporary economic and social reality that makes the need to work for social justice for women essential for the survival of religion itself.
The editors have done something rare in compiling such an anthology: They brought the authors together several times to share their work and to hear from four distinguished feminist scholars before finishing their pieces. The result is an unusually coherent collection offering insights into religions about which most Westerners know little. Admittedly the authors are from the progressive wings of their own religions: Muslim Asghar Ali Engineer, for example, lives under constant threat of death because of his arguments that the rights of Muslim women are based upon the Quran itself. Such personal information about the contributors, included in the introduction, helps the reader interpret their very individual answers to the broad question: What do men owe women?
The answers vary greatly in style and content, though all acknowledge that the main problem is to inform the social reality of long-entrenched domination of women with the spirit of equality that often permeates sacred texts. In “A Hindu Perspective,” Anantanand Rambachan provides an informative introduction to the split between Hindu religious sources and entrenched social conditions within Hindu culture that have long treated women unjustly. Women are not valued for themselves but are accorded significance and status only in relation to men. The result is that they are routinely abused through the dowry system, in marriage, widowhood and in the overwhelming preference for sons. Yet the classical religious texts spell out a spiritual ideal that speaks of the sameness of the divine in women as well as men. “Justice requires that this imbalance be redressed and that mutual obligations be emphasized,” Rambachan writes.
Mutumbo Nkulu-S’engha opens the window on the often ambivalent attitudes within African traditional religions that hurt women, manipulating the will of the ancestors to preserve male power and privileges. A recent Nigerian survey, for example, that asked, “If you could be born again, would you choose to be a man or a woman?” revealed that 48 percent of the girls wanted to be born as boys, while only 6 percent of the boys wanted to be born as girls.
Mutumbo points out that this situation exists not only within traditional religion, but even more within the world economic order that surrounds and affects it today. He finds in Bumuntu a key concept of personhood that cuts across all African differences, a possible source of elevating women to full human dignity. Bumuntu stresses the divine origin of personhood and the intrinsic equality of men and women. Mutumbo concludes that the struggle against sexism is not a charity but a duty, indeed a matter of justice and common sense. As wisdom of the traditional Yoruban religion of West Africa puts it: Iwa lesin (Good character is the essence of religion). Such is the African formulation of the “Golden Rule,” and the main spirit of African tradition. Sexism is a good test for the humanity of any man and the credibility of his faith and obedience to the will of the ancestors.
Buddhist Tavivat Puntarigvivat is equally damning in his description of how global capitalism is increasing the heartbreaking trade in girls and women in Asia, dooming them to slave labor and prostitution. His recommendation of restoring an ancient order of nuns in order to rehabilitate women’s dignity in the face of such oppression seems only a small step, but the author has certainly informed us of problems we too often forget.
The volume is rich and diverse. Rabbi Ze’ev W. Falk finds prospects for a change in gender equality in the Torah. Gerard Sloyan’s overview of the history of Catholic treatment of women is realistic, balanced and optimistic about the inevitability of change. He concludes that women’s demand “for a rightful place in the church is needed and appropriate. But even more pressing is the demand of this church, over a billion strong, for the rightful place of women in the world.”
The most radical perspective is that of Native North American Christopher Ronwanien:te Jocks, a religious scholar of Mohawk descent. The “Original Instructions” given to his people make thanksgiving for all things in this world their first obligation. It is the women, through the clan system, who in many ways maintain and care for “the very heart of the community’s culture -- in the radical sense of the fertile ground, made up of the living and the dead, from which shared community grows.”
Jocks believes that technological and economic influences have done far more to subvert traditional Mohawk life than Christian missionaries or soldiers. It is here that we face a common enemy: We are all being colonized by the marketplace. Unless we can stop exploiting the earth, he asks, how can we begin to relate more equitably to women? He is not overly optimistic, offering only a few historical precedents and ideas, but his analysis is accurate and moving, a clear challenge to his readers.
What Men Owe to Women should be both a resource and a springboard for further discussion. Women as well as men need to know what it says, then add their own experience and views to a subject critical to contemporary life as well as religion.
Sally Cunneen’s doctorate is in Who_are_we. She is the author of In Search of Mary and is teaching a course on Mary at Fairfield University. Her e-mail address is SCunn24219@aol.com
National Catholic Reporter, April 27, 2001