By Nelia Beth Scovill


Table of Contents

Section 1: Introduction
Section 2: Judaism
Section 3: Christianity
Section 4: Islam
Section 5: Hinduism
Section 5: Buddhism
Section 6: For Further Reading
Section 7: Copyright


At its September 1994 Cairo conference, the United Nation's International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) fundamentally shifted its strategy to reduce world population. Studies indicated that increasing women's education, improving their access to health care and creating opportunities for them in the economic sphere lowered the birth rate. As a result, the ICPD shifted away from establishing target population rates for individual countries and committed itself to raise the health and socio-economic status of women.

Since historically the world s major religions have been instrumental in limiting women's roles in society, many people view religion as inherently hostile to these recent shifts in development and population policies. For some people, the affirmation of women's inherent inferiority is so integral to the dominant teachings of the world religions, that the religions themselves appear irreconcilable with all attempts to reach gender equity within society.

The religious sanctioning of women's systematic subjugation cannot be disregarded. Yet any understanding of religion s role in the lives of women is incomplete if religion is understood only as oppressive. Throughout history and the contemporary world, the religious belief that men and women are fully and equally human, has led men and women to dedicate their lives to transforming social and religious structures to be more egalitarian.

This pamphlet is an attempt to bring to the forefront what many women and men know to be true: that at its fundamental core, their own religious tradition is egalitarian because it affirms that women and men are fully and equally human. This egalitarian core is expressed differently within each of the world's religious traditions, though there are some similarities. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the egalitarian core is expressed in terms of their equal creation. Each of these traditions affirm that because both women and men are made in the image of God, they are equal and thus are to be treated in social relations with the same dignity afforded all human beings. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the egalitarian core affirms that both men and women are able to reach liberation from the cycle of rebirth. The significance of this egalitarian core cannot be underestimated. The egalitarian core is a far-reaching and fundamental critique of every social structure which denies women their human rights and systematically subordinates women's basic needs in order to reproduce the species or to fulfill the needs of men. If the world s religious traditions are to live up to their egalitarian core, they must advocate not only to redistribute social, political and economic power, but also to vest women with the power to make their own life decisions.

The egalitarian core is especially critical of religious institutions and authorities which perpetuate gender inequality. At best such institutions and authorities fail to live up to the true egalitarian core of their religious tradition; at worst they spread a fundamentally distorted understanding of their religious tradition. The distortion of the egalitarian core can be traced to an unholy merger between developing religious institutions and the values of the patriarchal cultures in which the institutions emerged. The egalitarian core fundamentally undermines the world s religions pattern of upholding the patriarchal family as divinely mandated. In the patriarchal family structure, the women of the family, both daughters and wives, and their sexuality are placed under the control of the male head of household. Religious endorsement of such social structures directly contradicts the egalitarian core which affirms women's full humanity. Religious traditions live up to their egalitarian core only when the family structures they promote foster the full humanity of all its members, and are characterized by mutuality.

Religious endorsement of patriarchal social institutions are thus not an inherent part of the tradition, but represent a later addition to and distortion of its fundamental core. Indeed closer examination of the religious traditions reveals that their egalitarian cores also provide resources to undermine patriarchal family structures.

A key task for religious proponents of gender equality involves freeing the egalitarian core of their religious tradition from its non-egalitarian cultural accretions. To do so requires using a number of different techniques. In some cases, basic knowledge and study of religious texts and traditions provide the necessary knowledge to hold religious leaders and adherents accountable to the egalitarian core of the tradition. In other cases more careful study of the tradition is necessary in order to recover past egalitarian traditions which have either been rejected or repressed by the mainstream religious tradition. In addition, careful examination of women-initiated rituals or traditions (often deemed secondary or heretical by opponents to egalitarianism) are also mined for sources to further empower women in the social sphere and affirm women's innate ability to connect with Ultimate Reality. Finally, it is often necessary to reconstruct and reformulate religious practices and traditions to bring them in line with the egalitarian vision at the center of the religious tradition.

Such efforts of reclamation, reconstruction and reformulation of the world's religions are underway around the world. Since today nearly two-thirds of the world s population identify themselves with one of these major religious traditions, it is important to know that religious voices do have something decisive to contribute to the efforts to develop equitable social structures. Moreover, since the empowerment of women in all spheres of life is necessary to address world population issues, religious voices also have something constructive to add the to discussions about these issues.

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Judaism is a monotheistic religion based on the special covenant between God and the ancient Hebrews and their descendants the Jews. Judaism teaches that God's guiding presence is evidenced in God's provision of the commandments as revealed in the Torah (or Law) and developed further in the Talmud and post-Talmudic Rabbinical teaching. Despite its ancient origins, God's covenant with the Jews is still in the process of being perfected. Rabbinic tradition emphasizes the role of the Jewish community as being God's partner in perfecting an imperfect world. Thus techniques of reinterpreting longstanding traditions in light of contemporary circumstances and challenges are an integral part of the practice of Judaism. The great majority of Jewish law applies equally to both men and women. Some exceptions, such as circumcision of men and menstrual regulations for women, can be linked to biological differences. The remaining differences in applicability, such as laws regarding inheritance, divorce, and legal proceedings, are linked to women's subordinate social status.

Much of our knowledge about the beginnings of Judaism centers around God's interactions with male leaders. Nevertheless women played pivotal roles in the historical development of the Jewish people. Indeed, biblical narratives often hinge on the courageous actions of faithful women acting independently from men and in opposition to male leaders. The matriarch Rebekah acts contrary to patriarchal customs, when she furthers the divine plan by pushing her youngest son, Jacob, forward to receive the birthright. Likewise, Moses, who would eventually bring the enslaved Hebrews out of Egypt, survives childhood only because of women who circumvent the Egyptian Pharaoh's plan to kill all Hebrew male infants. First, Shiphrah and Puah, defiant midwives, disobey Pharaoh s order to kill all the Hebrew male children whose birth they attend. After his birth Moses older sister, Miriam, arranges Moses adoption by the Pharaoh's daughter and for him to be nursed by his birth-mother. Miriam thus insures not only his survival but also his self-identification as a Hebrew. Women also played key roles in the religious development of Israel. In the book of Judges, Deborah, the only female of the twelve judges listed, is also the only one who follows Moses tradition of actually presiding over the people of Israel as a judge. The other judges appear to be local military heroes or leaders. In the sixth century B.C.E., it is a woman, the prophet Huldah, who is responsible for distinguishing between the authentic and unauthentic Law, and thus permits the Israelites to resume control and practice over the Jewish tradition. Rabbinic Judaism and the later development of the Talmud, refocused Jewish religious life on the study of the Torah and daily worship in the synagogue. When Rabbinic Judaism became the normative form of Judaism, women were gradually exempted from Torah study and daily worship. In practice, however such exemptions eventually became prohibitions and had the general effect of turning the synagogues and the academies over to men. Nevertheless, the Aggadic portions of the Talmud include a full series of stories in which women demonstrate their intimate and expertise knowledge of the Torah and Talmud.

Women as Fully and Equally Human

The egalitarian core of Judaism affirms not only that women are fully human and created equal to men, but also that God's covenant is with the whole of the Jewish people and not just with its male members. Neither the affirmation of women's full humanity nor her full inclusion in the covenantal community is readily apparent in much of the classical traditions. Yet the contrast between the classical teaching about such matters often stands in stark contrast to the lived history of the Jewish people.

At first it appears that from the very beginning women were excluded from the covenant process. The covenantal ceremony of circumcision is limited to male Jews and even when the covenant with the Jewish people is made at Mount Sinai, Moses addresses only the men of the community. Rather than instructing the men and women of the community to avoid contact with each other, Moses instructs the men not to go near any women (Exodus 19:15).

However, rabbinic Judaism affirms that women were present at the first covenant ceremony. Indeed the Jewish people seem to have understood through out their history that women were included, even crucial, to God's covenant with them. The covenant was made not only with Abraham, but also with Sarah: it was only Abraham's child with Sarah who was the rightful heir in God's eyes. The terms of the covenant that God reveled through Moses included specific duties which women were expected to fulfill, as well as specific obligations others in the community owed them. But perhaps most important is the long history of Jewish women's acceptance of and participation in the keeping of the covenant. It was Huldah, a female prophet, who authenticated the law. In a similar vein, Jewish women through out their history have affirmed their full participation in the covenant community by their close observance of Torah and their intimate knowledge of the dietary (kosher) regulations. Despite restrictions on women's studying the Torah, women were viewed by the rabbis as being authorities on kosher, as records indicate they regularly deferred such questions to their wives.

Affirming that women are fully human and created equal to men, however, is more difficult. This is mainly due to the later commentary on the two creation stories contained in the Torah. In the first story (Genesis1:1- 2:4) God creates human beings as the culminating act of creation. Man and woman, who are not given names in this story, are created simultaneously, and both are made in the image of God and given dominion over the earth. In the second story (Genesis 2:4- 3:24) Adam, the male, is created first, followed by the creation of the animals. Eve, the woman, is created last from the rib of Adam, because no suitable helper for Adam could be found among the animals.

In the first story, it is clear that both men and women are fully human and equal since they are both made in God's image and were created simultaneously. In the second story, however, woman appears to derive her existence from man, and to have been created for him and to be dependent upon him.

Rabbinic attempts to explain the differences in these two accounts resulted in the creation of the myth of Lilith. According to this tradition, God did in fact make two women for Adam: Lilith and Eve. As recorded in the first account, God creates Adam s first wife, Lilith, as Adam's equal. But for some unknown reason Lilith leaves Adam. Despite God's threats, Lilith refuses to return to Adam and thus Adam is left without a companion. God then creates a second woman for Adam, as recorded in the second creation account. This time, however, she is inferior to him, because she is created from him and for him.

Such interpretation works against any understanding of women and men as being created equal. Yet, those who maintain the egalitarian core of Judaism insist that careful examination of the second creation story reveals that the story actually affirms the full humanity of women and their equality with men.

The placement of woman's creation as the final act of creation, does not mean that she is secondary or subordinate to man. In fact, such placement indicates equivalence since it is typical Hebrew poetic structure to place similar and equivalent elements at the beginning and at the end. Thus the narrative structure tells of the creation of one element (man), followed by the creation of additional unequal elements unfit to be man's partner (the animals), and concludes with the creation of an equivalent second element (woman) who is fit to be a companion.

Similarly, that woman is made from the man's rib does not indicate that she has no existence apart from him. Instead the man himself, in declaring that woman is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh (Gen. 2:23), indicates that they are both made of the same substance and thus are in their essence the same. Thus in this story the order in which they are created affirms woman's equal status with man, and woman's creation from man's rib affirms that they are both fully human.

Beyond the Patriarchal Family

Judaism offers a number of resources for dismantling patriarchal family structures in which women family members are owned or controlled by their fathers, and a wife's primary function is to satisfy her husband's sexual needs and bear him male children. The resources exist in Judaism because of a constellation of factors.

The first factor is that while Judaism has never endorsed a family structure free of all gender stratification, neither has it ever endorsed a fully patriarchal family structure. Even in ancient Israel, mothers and fathers were given equal status in the family. A crucial component of keeping covenant with God required children to honor not only their father, but also their mother (Exodus 20:12; Deut. 5:16). The Torah includes numerous regulations about widows and the fatherless (translated as orphans in many translations) indicating that women and children are to be valued in their own right whether or not they have a male to protect them. While Talmudic marriage procedures are admittedly similar to ancient Near Eastern customs of buying a bride, to understand Jewish marriage only as a transfer of property from one male (the father) to another male (the husband) is inaccurate. Indeed, unlike property a woman cannot be transferred at the sole discretion of her owner . Instead under Jewish law, a woman's consent is necessary for betrothal and fathers are expected to wait until their daughters are old enough to point out to their fathers who they wish to marry.

Mutuality between husband and wife is also held up as an ideal. In language reminiscent of the Torah injunction to love one s Israelite neighbor as oneself, Talmudic rabbis expected a man to love his wife as much as himself, and respect her even more than himself. Because of such expectations, a husband is never allowed to beat his wife. The second factor within Judaism which permits transformation of patriarchal family structures is the long history of adapting and even circumventing marriage and family laws to ensure women's well-being. For example, under biblical law women could not initiate divorce proceedings.

But in later generations rabbis, seeing the negative impact on women's well-being, found ways to circumvent the laws, by devising a way for the Jewish courts to compel a man to voluntarily divorce his wife. Such concern for women's well-being also played a role in attempts to circumvent the laws dealing with the anchored woman who was prevented from remarrying because her first husband had either abandoned her, or who though presumed dead had not had his death verified. To be sure such responses did not fully equalize women's status within the marriage, and still reflected male-dominated views of women. Nevertheless, they do indicated a trend toward equalizing the marriage relationship and the fact that such changes were not only possible but also realized within Judaism speaks of a degree of fluidity in family structures. The third factor which works against patriarchal understanding of marriage, is the secondary status Jewish tradition gives to procreation. Under Jewish law the first purpose of marriage is for companionship, not reproduction. Even the primary purpose of sexual relations is not to procreate, but to maintain the happiness of the marriage and ensure the couple s mutual physical pleasure.

Procreation nevertheless plays a very important role in Jewish married life. And yet, despite the Torah injunction in the first creation account that men and women are to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28), Jewish understanding makes procreation a duty of the man alone. As a result of this exemption from the duty to procreate, women are permitted to use contraception. In making such decisions, women are expected to consider the well-being of themselves, the family, and the born children. Indeed,some interpretations permit the use of contraception by any woman who has compelling reasons for wanting to avoid bearing more children. Judaism, as one of the oldest of the five major world religions discussed in this pamphlet, has had much time to allow male-dominated culture to influence it. Nevertheless, it holds a treasure of resources which have the potential to liberate women.

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Christianity centers on the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew who lived in first century c.e. Palestine. Christians believe Jesus is the Christ, or the one promised by God in the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. Through his life, death and resurrection, he is believed to have freed human beings from their sinful state and made them recipients of God's saving grace. During Jesus lifetime and in the generation after his death, Christianity was marked by egalitarianism in both its teachings and its institutional structures. Transcending the established norms of his own culture, Jesus openly and frequently affirmed women's worthiness and included them in his community of disciples. After his death women were prominent in the leading the emerging church as apostles, deacons and prophets. Since baptism, rather than circumcision, became the primary rite of initiation, women became full members of the community and were given the same rights and duties as men.

Such egalitarianism, however, was gradually replaced with patriarchal institutional structures after Christianity spread through the Mediterranean world in the 2nd century c.e. and when, two centuries later, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Such changes in structure were accompanied by a theology which identified the patriarchal social order with the divine created order and thus insisted that the proper relationship between men and women was one in which men ruled and women were obedient.

While such structures were to dominate most of Christianity for the rest of its history, egalitarian structures and theologies would re-emerge time after time in minority renewal movements. Even in the patristic and medieval Church, proponents of the egalitarian core did not vanish. The egalitarian vision and institutional structures survived in modified forms in monastic movements, especially in women's monasticism. While the most powerful traditions in the Protestant Reformation continued the theology of subordination, sectors of the radical reformation sought to restore the New Testament church and its vision of equality between men and women.

Women as Fully and Equally Human

Those Christians who contend that Christianity has an egalitarian core insist that their position is most authoritative because it represents the earliest tradition within Christianity. Thus while the theology of subordination remained dominant through out most of history, those pointing to Christianity s egalitarian core insist that such a theology is in direct contradiction to Jesus own proclamation and the writings which can be authentically traced to the apostle Paul. The understanding of women's subordination to men, they claim emerges only in texts which, while attributed to Paul, were actually written after his death.

Three main texts form the core of the egalitarian tradition within Christianity: Galatians 3:28; Genesis 1:1-2:4, and Acts 2:1-18. Galatians 3:28 is actually an early baptismal formula quoted by Paul in his letter to the churches of Galatia. Often called the Magna Carta of Christian liberty, Galatians deals primarily with the question of whether Gentiles must become Jews (through circumcision and obedience to the Law) before they can become Christians.

In answering no, Paul provides insight into early Christian views of women's status in Christianity. By using the baptismal formula, There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female Paul affirms that not only Gentiles, but also slaves and women become full and equal members of the community through baptism, the primary rite of initiation.

Genesis 1:1-2:4, the first of two accounts of human creation found in the Bible, demonstrates that women and men were originally created equal. In this creation story, since men and women are made in the image of God and share the same human nature, they are equal. Some opponents of egalitarianism appeal to the doctrine of the fall to insist that while Adam and Eve may have been created equal, they became unequal after their fall from God's grace. Proponents of the egalitarian core, respond in two ways to such objections. Some concede that after the fall, women did indeed become subject to men. Nevertheless, because in Christ s resurrection the vision of the original creation is restored, men and women are once again equal partners in the world.

Others, however, insist that the announcement of Eve's subjugation to Adam after their departure from the garden, was not a punishment for their sin, but God's prediction of what life outside of God's order would be like.

Put another way, women's subordination to men is the inevitable consequence, not God's punishment, of human sinfulness and rebellion against God's original plan for humanity. Thus the emergence of male domination is not a prescription by which humanity is to live, but rather a description of the inevitable consequences of a life lived in disharmony with God's will.

The story of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21), in which Jesus followers receive the Holy Spirit, demonstrates that both men and women received the gift of prophecy in the early church. Prophecy was possible only when a believer was filled by God's Holy Spirit, and became the primary means by which the risen Christ communicated with the early Christians. At Pentecost, God pours the Holy Spirit on all of humankind, the young and the old, the sons and the daughters, and both male and female slaves. Later in Acts, Luke also specifically mentions the four daughters of Philip as renowned Christian prophets (Acts 21:9). While Paul does admonish women to exercise their gifts of prophecy and their liturgical gifts properly, he nevertheless assumes that women engage in such activities. The inclusion of women in prophecy is no small matter since Paul himself lists prophets after apostles in the hierarchy of spiritual gifts.

Lastly, proponents of the egalitarian core look to Jesus own actions and words to bolster their claim that the egalitarian tradition is the earliest and most authoritative. The lack of any Gospel texts which justify women's subordination to men indicates that Jesus did not endorse women's subordination. Indeed, in contrast to cultural expectations, Jesus actions appear to affirm that he saw women as his equals. In addition to affirming women's right to study alongside his male disciples (Luke 10:38-42), in the Gospel of John, Jesus reveals his identity as the Messiah to both women and men alike.

Beyond the Patriarchal Family

Unlike Judaism, Christianity in its dominant form has openly promulgated the patriarchal structures of families. Indeed the dominant form of Christianity insisted that families in which men as husbands and fathers ruled over their wives and children were part of the divinely created and mandated order for human society. As a result, efforts to give autonomy or equal rights were considered to constitute a rebellion against God.

The detrimental impact such doctrines have had on women's lives cannot be downplayed even by those who believe such a vision is contrary to the Christian faith. It cannot be forgotten that as a result of such views, women were expected to prayerfully endure the abuse of male power in the church, society and in the home. In the case of domestic abuse, especially, wives were expected to demonstrate their obedience to God through silent and prayerful suffering, attempting to change their husbands only by example. And yet it is important to note that the egalitarian core of Christianity undermines patriarchal structures not only in the ecclesiastical community, but also in family life. The early baptismal formula quoted by Paul in Galatians had far reaching impact not only on women's roles in the church community, but also on the family structures of the early Christians. Commentators often note the implications of the baptismal formula for the Greeks, slaves, and women of the Christian community. But they usually fail to identity the baptismal formulations implications for the Jews, masters, and husbands in the Christian community. Members of these groups were used to exercising their privileges in terms of their ethnicity, gender and status as free persons. For them to acknowledge in their initiation into the Christian community, that they were equal with all others in the Christian community required they give up long standing social, political and economic privileges.

The egalitarian core also struck at the heart of the patriarchal family structure by freeing women from their traditional roles of cooking and serving so they could study alongside men in the community. In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus insists that Mary is justified in leaving women's traditional role of serving and cooking, in order to learn with the male disciples. Likewise the emphasis on the egalitarian nature of Christian marriages in which both the husbands and the wives were expected to study, may account for the number of (apparently) married couples engaged in joint ministry which Paul mentions in his letters.

Early forms of Christianity also struck against patriarchal family relations in their insistence that there was one set of virtues for all Christians. Key to maintaining a patriarchal family structure is an understanding that subordinated persons have different moral duties (obedience) and virtues (patience, long-suffering etc.) from those charged with ruling. Pauline Christianity, however insists that the Christian virtues, identified as the fruits of the Spirit, are the same for all: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-3).

Recovery of the core egalitarian tradition of Christianity and a rediscovery of the ethics of Jesus is a powerful means for Christian women,and others, to promote the empowerment of women.

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Islam arose in the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century c.e. after the Prophet Muhammad received a series of revelations calling all people to commit themselves to Allah, the one and only God. Muslims consider Muhammad to be the last of God's messengers in an ancient line, which included Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus. Because the revelations he experienced are believed to be recorded in the Qur'an without change or error, the Qur'an is considered to be the authoritative revelation from God.

Additional authoritative texts include the Sunnah, collections of Muhammad's practical traditions, and the Hadith, compilations of sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Since not all the sources are consistent with each other, and Islamic tradition has long considered some sayings in the Hadith to be later additions inconsistent with the teachings of Muhammad, the Qur'an is considered to be the final authoritative source in Islam.

The central religious obligations of Islam are imposed on men and women alike and are encapsulated in the Five Pillars of Islam. They consist of: 1) witnessing to God's oneness and acknowledging Muhammad as his messenger; 2) prayer five times daily, 3) giving of alms to the poor; 4) daily fasting during the month of Ramadan, and 5) pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during one s lifetime if financially and physically capable. The Qur'an provides the legal foundations for the community (umma) ruled in accordance with God's will. The community ordered by Qur'anic law was a marked improvement for women over against the customs and the laws in the surrounding Arabic culture. While under Arabic law, women were reduced to the status of chattel, Qur'anic law explicitly prohibited female infanticide, protected women in matters of marriage, gave them the right to inherit, and gave them equal responsibilities in religious life.

In the first centuries of Islam, the religious practices of women and men were basically identical. Both received religious education, participated in daily prayer at the Mosques, and led in worship. Following the prophet s death, however, women's status in both religious institutions and the broader Islamic culture declined dramatically. The decline is attributed to the consolidation of religious power into male hands which was supposedly necessitated by Islam's spread to areas which were more rigidly patriarchal than the Arabian peninsula.

As Islam grew in numbers and encompassed greater geographic areas, Qur'anic regulations requiring women to maintain their modesty in public were gradually expanded. This eventually led to women's complete domestic seclusion, first in their father's home and then their husband's home. As a result of such seclusion, women have not only been marginalized from practicing and shaping Islam's basic traditions, they have also been shut out of education about their basic religious obligations, including their duty to fulfill the Five Pillars of their faith.

Women as Fully and Equally Human

Despite the fact that in the recent centuries few Muslim women have had any opportunity to shape or even gain first hand knowledge of their tradition, the egalitarian core of Islam remains quite explicit within the Qur'an. So, in spite of the male-dominated accretions into the practice of Islam itself, Islam's primary sacred text remains relatively uncorrupted.

Indeed, much justification for women's subordination to men within Muslim culture is derived from the lesser authoritative Islamic religious sources. Thus while the Qur'an is theoretically the most authoritative Islamic text, in actual practice the Qur'an is read through the lenses of existing cultural assumptions about appropriate social relations and portions of less authoritative sacred texts which are more in line with patriarchal values. As a result, the view that women are inherently inferior to men is deeply imbedded in Islamic culture.

The Qur'an, however, consistently describes the creation of humanity by God in egalitarian terms. There is no indication that man is created prior to woman, or that woman is created from man's substance. Indeed, implicit in many of these Qur'anic passages is that God's original creation is sexually undifferentiated. Sexual differentiation into male and female takes place at a later time, thus downplaying the significance of the differences. In fact, Islamic interpretations of human creation appears to be shaped more by Christian teachings and the creation accounts in Genesis than the Qur'an. Even though the Qur'an does not mention the name of the Arabic counterpart of Eve, in Islamic interpretation she is nevertheless blamed for the transgression and the subsequent fall of humankind. However, in the Qur'an, the act of disobedience is portrayed as a collective act committed simultaneously by both the man and the woman. Furthermore, responsibility for the transgression is given neither to one of them alone, but is shared by both. Similarly, envisioning life outside of the Garden as a punishment, is actually inconsistent with the Qur'anic account. For it insists that human being s presence outside of paradise was originally intended by God since from the beginning God intended for Adam to be a vice-regent on earth.

Women's full and equal humanity is attested to not only in creation, but also on the final judgement day. The Qur'an makes it clear that both men and women are called upon by God to uphold God's commandments, and that both men and women are accountable to God for their righteousness (Surah 3:Al-Imran:195: Surah 4:An-Nisa':124: Surah 9:At-Taubah:71-72).

Indeed the Qur'an goes beyond insisting that individual women and men are to be treated identically. Instead it insists that men and women recognize their interconnectedness and interdependence. The Qur'an affirms that men and women in the umma are members and protectors of each other (Surah 3:Al- Imran:195; Surah 9:At-Tawbah: 71). TheQur'an's vision of the relationship between men and women within society is therefore neither hierarchical nor adversarial but one of equality and mutuality.

Beyond the Patriarchal Family

The equalization of women's status under the Qur'anic law was a clear challenge to the patriarchal tribe structure which dominated the Arabian peninsula during the 7th century. Perhaps the most defiant blow against the patriarchal family life is the explicit condemnation of female infanticide. To begin with the condemnation undercuts the patriarchal assertion that their wives and children belong to them and can be disposed of (literally and figuratively) at their discretion.

But what is more important is how the condemnation is phrased: The female (in fact) buried alive, is questioned for what crime she was killed (Surah 81 -- At-Takwir 8-9). Such a phrasing indicates men will be held accountable to the female s explanation of the event and that God will count her testimony trustworthy. Yes, men will have to answer to God for their heinous crimes, but they will be convicted by the words of a female.

Relations between men and women in the umma are to be characterized by mutuality, and so are the relations between husband and wife. In Surah 2: Al-Baqarah: 137 the Qur'an describes the relationship of the husband and wife in more intimate, and yet still equivalent terms: your wives are your garments, and ye are their still equivalent terms: your wives are your garments, and ye are their garments.

Affirming every person's right to work and insisting that the fruits of the labor belong to the one who has worked for them also undermines the patriarchal family structure. Under a patriarchal economy, the fruits of the labor of all family members rightfully belonged to the male head of household. Insisting that women who work are due their earnings not only undercuts the husband's control of his wife's possessions, but also provides women with economic independence.

In many ways uncovering the egalitarian core of Islam is a less laborious task than in the case of Judaism or Christianity. Nevertheless, what becomes clear in the case of Islam is that the empowerment of Islamic women and non-Islamic women in Islamic countries requires not only reclaiming the egalitarian core of the tradition but also holding religious leaders accountable to their own tradition.

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Hinduism emerged in India around 1500 b.c.e. when Aryan invaders of India intermixed their Vedic religion with the practices and beliefs of the indigenous peoples. To this day, Hinduism, remains both an eclectic and tolerant tradition that draws from a wide range of sacred literature and includes a vast variety of practices. Nevertheless, what remains common to the various forms of Hinduism is the belief in one divine principle, most commonly called Brahman, and the cycle of birth and rebirth experienced by material reality. Through knowledge, devotion, or action, however, humans have the opportunity to break through the cycle and be reunified with Brahman, thus attaining moksha or final liberation. The various deities worshiped by Hindus, both at home and in temple rituals, are thus not competing deities, but instead are different manifestations of the one reality, Brahman.

Like other religious traditions, present knowledge about women's roles in Hinduism indicates that their position was highest during its earliest periods. During the Aryan invasion and prior to the full development of the Vedic literature, worship took place primarily in the home and required the presence of both the husband and the wife. The Vedic literature also indicates that women were not merely a silent partner in the rituals, but played a crucial role in them.

Eventually the temple displaced the home as the primary place of worship and Brahmin priests--rather than the married couple--began presiding over the rituals. With the specialization of the priests, the rituals became more complex, requiring extensive education in the Vedic sacred texts. While the caste system would not be formalized until the laws of Manu in the 1st century b.c.e., the rise of the Brahmin class in regards to worship rituals, marginalized not only women from attaining moksha, but also males of the other castes. Women's marginalization in the Brahmin class from the religious rituals was further reinforced by the social shift to prepare female children for marriage at an early age and thus limiting their education to domestic duties. The rise between 800-400 b.c.e. of the Upanishadic insistence on the oneness of all reality, replaced the Brahmin ritualistic emphasis with an emphasis on asceticism as the means of attaining moksha. The ideal life for men consisted of four stages (student, householder, hermit, and renunciant) which in the final stage provided the possibility of moksha. Women's ideal life was divided into three stages (maidenhood, marriage, and either widowhood or sati self-immolation on her husband's funeral pyre), each defined in terms of her sexuality and relationship to men. While a woman could accompany her husband into his life as hermit, she could do so only with his permission. Furthermore, because of women's supposed intellectual deficiencies, they were considered incapable of attaining moksha. Women instead hoped for rebirth later as an upper caste male, at which time they could then strive for moksha.

During the fifth century b.c.e. various alternatives arose to the Upanishadic traditions, providing alternatives not only for women but also for men in the lower castes. In the devotional movements female gods emerged as central characters and provided alternative role models for women. The status of women was raised particularly in the tantric traditions that insisted on the reversal of many social taboos. In addition, they insisted that male devotees of a deity model their behavior after a wife's devotion to her husband.

Women as Fully And Equally Human

That women are viewed as being less than fully human in the dominant practices of Hinduism is most vividly illustrated in the different responses to the births of male and female children. The birth of a son is a time of rejoicing since a son insures the future security of his family. The birth of a daughter, however, is frequently announced by stating, Nothing was born.

Nevertheless, many Hindu women and men insist that at its core Hinduism affirms the equal and full humanity of both men and women. To begin with not all forms of Hinduism deny women's and men's equality in the religious sphere. While the devotional bhakti movements that emerged in the sixth and seventh centuries c.e. did not significantly improve women's social status, they did foster greater religious participation. More often than not, these movements were open to all people, regardless of caste and sex and required only an intense personal relationship with a deity. In these traditions, moksha is attained not by asceticism or by correctly fulfilling ritual obligations, but by losing oneself in love for the chosen deity.

But even the surviving ritualistic and ascetic forms of Hinduism which trace their history to the very beginnings of Hinduism, have a history of including women in religious rituals. As indicated before, the earliest Vedic scriptures, the Rig Veda, indicate that both men and women needed to participate in the rituals in order for them to be effective. Moreover, the Rig Veda states that the rite of initiation into the study of the Vedic texts is open to both men and women.

Women were also involved in the beginnings of the ascetic tradition. The prohibitions against their entering the ascetic life, which required previous study in the Vedic texts, increased as women's actual access to education declined. Thus the prohibitions do not reflect an inherent bias against women but rather reflect the social reality that with few women receiving the necessary prerequisite education, few women were actually qualified to enter the ascetic life. For even in the Upanishads, the last of the Vedas, two women engage in a dialogue about the nature of the true self. Later texts, make reference to women teachers and ascetics.

Proponents of the egalitarian core, however, point out that women's subordination is not just a later cultural addition. Instead, their subordination requires a direct denial of a fundamental belief shared by all contemporary forms of Hinduism: the oneness and unity of all reality. Hindu understanding of reality is one of a paradoxical complementarity; it understands that what humans perceive to be as opposite (such as destruction and creation) are in fact manifestations of the same reality. The complementarity and paradoxical dualism of male and female, is in fact, the basis of the creation of the universe. The one Brahman first manifests as a duality, Shiva (male principle) and Shakti (female principle) who together in a complementary process are involved in creation. Such an understanding of reality insists that biological differences between men and women, rather than being grounds for justifying women's subordination are in fact evidence of her equality with men. This helps to explain the earliest traditions which insisted on both the husband and wife being present at both home and temple rituals. Such rituals became effective means of conjuring the divine only when the human reality mirrored the divine reality. Since divinity consisted of both male and female principles, the gods would become present only when both the male and the female were present.

Furthermore, attempts to bar women, either in theory or in practice, from attaining moksha are in fact contrary to basic Hindu belief. Moksha in its simplest formula is attained when persons understand that their true nature is Brahman. To deny women access to achieving moksha is in fact another way of denying that Brahman is both male and female, or beyond gender, and thus is to deny the unity of Ultimate Reality.

Beyond the Patriarchal Family

Hinduism s endorsement of the patriarchal family was codified in the laws of Manu during the 1st century b.c.e. These laws required women to be controlled by their fathers during maidenhood, their husbands during marriage, and their sons during as a widow. However, throughout their life their sexuality is controlled by their husbands. As a maiden they are to guard their virginity in anticipation of their husband; in marriage they are to be sexually productive only with their husbands in order to produce male children; and in their widowhood they are to remain chaste and single to prove their singular devotion to their husband. The ideal wife according to Manu's codes is obedient, self-sacrificing and fully devoted to her husband. In actual practice the patriarchal ideals of wife and mother are reinforced in Hindu sacred literature. Popular retellings and interpretations of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana epics focus attention on the wifely devotion, penchant for self-sacrifice, and complete sexual fidelity of the female heroes. For example, the story of Sita reinforces the sexual fidelity of wives despite all trials and the story of Savitri reinforces the continued devotedness of wives to their husbands even after his death. Sita, the wife of Prince Rama, remains faithful and devoted to him even after he publicly denounces her twice because his subjects do not believe she has remained faithful to him. Savitri willingly marries a man whom she knows will die within the year, but because she remains faithful to her husband and attempts to fulfill her duty to become a mother, she is able to bring her husband back to life.

But further examination of the stories reveals alternatives to the patriarchal ideal of the obedient and subservient wife. For example, at the end of the myth Sita does not return to Rama when he attempts reconciliation once more in order to reclaim his twin sons. Instead, Sita seeks refuge in and disappears in Mother Earth. Thus while Sita is portrayed as being faithful, she is ultimately portrayed as a woman who determines her own life course and affirms her deeper self.

In the epic about Savitri, the main emphasis is indeed on her fidelity and devotion to her husband. However, the legend actually does not speak of women's subservience to men but of the mutuality between men and women. Savitri s role in bringing back her husband from death, criticizes the view that men can escape the cycle of rebirth without women. The epic illustrates the powerlessness of the male to overcome death and reach immortality without a female counterpart and portrays Savitri as both intellectually gifted and active during her widowhood. Savitri brings her husband back to life not through passivity but by using her intellectual abilities and cleverness to persuade, Yama, the Lord of Death, to return her husband to her.

While images of the female deities do lift up the importance of women's role as wife and mother, their actions and characteristics when taken in full force actually undermine patriarchal conceptions of these roles of women. Patriarchal understandings of women's role as wife and mother tend to limit how women can appropriately fulfill these roles, effectively limiting a woman's ability to make decisions for herself. For example, when women's role is limited to sacrificing herself for the welfare of her husband or children, women's ability to shape their lives is carefully circumscribed. The many myths about Shakti, the eternal feminine principle, however envisions her as equal with the male principle, Shiva, and provides a full range of qualities for women to embrace. Shakti, the corresponding female principle of the diety Shiva, is often spoken of as being his Shakti, or power as if Shakti belongs to him. But in the myths she is clearly his equal, and rarely showed as a passive or subservient force. Indeed, Shakti is a being of fierce splendor and power. Like Shiva, she is called by many names manifesting herself in a variety of ways which further testifies to the full unity of reality.

In her many manifestations, Shakti represent the eternal feminine but at times her qualities seem contradictory. For example, Shakti is both faithful wife and mistress. Perhaps more important, however, Shakti is portrayed as having control both over life and death. As Annapuran she is both creator and sustainer of life, not only the Great Mother but also responsible for bountiful harvests.

But as Durga she kills demons and carries a great sword. The portrayal of Shakti as Kali, however, is probably the strongest blow to patriarchal imagery of women. As Kali, Shakti s destructive capabilities are especially magnified, though they remain in constant tension with Kali s ability to create and nurture life. In fact, all that comes into being not only comes into being by Kali s actions, but also all that is ultimately destroyed is destroyed by Kali.

Portrayals of Shakti as Kali also undermine the patriarchal portrayal of Shakti as being the subservient consort of Shiva. When pictured with Kali, Shiva is passively lying underneath Kali as she dances on top of him. Such portrayals insist that any understanding of Shakti belonging to Shiva cannot be understood in the sense that she is owned or controlled by him.Instead this " belonging to" refers back to their common origins and that, in the deepest sense, Shakti and Shiva are one. As a result, they belong to each other because they can never be fully separated from each other. Just as Shakti cannot exist without Shiva, so Shiva cannot exist without Shakti.

Despite Hinduism s endorsement of patriarchal social structure, the roots of Hinduism strongly argue for egalitarian and mutual relationships between the sexes. For if everything is Brahman, then ultimately there is no meaningful distinction between male and female. Such recovery of Hinduism s roots can provide fertile ground for improving women's lives.

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Buddhism was founded in the 5th century b.c.e. in India by Siddhartha Guatama, called the Buddha ("Enlightened One"). Like Hinduism, Buddhism affirms the cycle of rebirth but insists that it is through enlightenment, a fundamental change in one s conscious perception of the world, that one attains liberation from this cycle.

After his own enlightenment, the Buddha gave others a way to reach enlightenment by apprehending the Four Noble Truths, a summary of what led to his own enlightenment, and following the Eight Fold Path. The Eight Fold Path represented a middle way between indulgence in sensuality and extreme asceticism and led to a life characterized by wisdom, morality and meditation. While he shared this path to guide his followers into enlightenment, seeking enlightenment was not to be undertaken in isolation but within the monastic community.

Throughout its history Buddhism has rejected any distinctions between men and women in regards to whether or how they attain enlightenment. Central to Buddhism is the insistence that all humans--regardless of gender or social status--are capable of attaining enlightenment. While in its teachings Buddhism has often advocated women's inherent equality, early in its history the women's monastic orders were institutionally subordinated to the men's orders. According to tradition, the subordination of the nun's orders to the monk's orders was established by the Buddha himself. Initially he refused to admit women to the already established order but later relented and established a separate order for women. However, their establishment was contingent on acceptance by the nuns of eight rules which placed their orders under the control of the monks, and required even the most senior nun to defer to the most junior monk.

This institutional subordination resulted eventually in the devaluation of the women's orders, and later contributed to their institutional decline. The decline of women's monasteries has had its greatest impact on women within the Theravada tradition. Theravada Buddhism maintains that enlightenment is possible only for those who dedicate their full lives to the monastic life. Thus the decline in women's monasteries in these areas severely limits women's hopes of attaining enlightenment. Lay women are nevertheless important in the male monasteries since they are often strong financial supporters of the monk's monasteries.

The decline in women's monasteries did not have such a negative impact on women's status within Mahayana Buddhism. Rather than limiting enlightenment to the monastic elite, Mahayana Buddhism insists that any life path, whether in the monastery or in the home, can be a means to enlightenment. Mahayana texts include stories of married men and women who are highly advanced in their attempts to reach enlightenment, as well as stories of female bodhisattva, the Mahayana term for one who has reached enlightenment.

Women as Fully and Equally Human

It is not necessary to look very hard or to dig very deep for the egalitarian core of Buddhism. As in Hinduism, affirming women's full and equal humanity in Buddhism hinges on whether women are capable of attaining liberation from the cycle of rebirths. The Buddha not only agreed women could attain enlightenment, he also rejected different paths for men and women. Furthermore, none of the major branches of Buddhism has repudiated women's ability to attain enlightenment. In fact, one of the vows some monks make is not to disparage women in any possible way, including their spiritual merit or ability to attain enlightenment. Despite such an unqualified affirmation of men and women's full and equal humanity, historically Buddhism has not been a force to equalize women's status within the social sphere. Indeed patriarchal social structures and views that women are inferior to men are still prevalent in Buddhist countries. Some while affirming that Buddhism affirms women's spiritual equality, questions whether it upholds their social equality. When examined in its historical context, however, it becomes clear that Buddhism s egalitarian core does extend to the social level. Thus Buddhism s affirmation of women's full and equal spiritual humanity represents not only a break with the dominant cultural view of women's spiritual status, but also their social role.

Buddhism s origins are best understood as a reaction against the Upanishadic Hindu vision which dominated India during the Buddha s lifetime. In this form of Hinduism, reaching moksha was limited to those men in the highest castes who had the prerequisite understanding of the Vedic texts prior to undertaking the ascetic life. Women of all castes and male members of the lower castes attained moksha by obediently fulfilling their caste duties in this lifetime, in hopes of being reborn as an upper caste male in a subsequent lifetime.

Buddhism, in contrast, explicitly opened the monastic life to all, regardless of caste and gender, and offered a means of attaining liberation in this lifetime. In its earliest forms, however, attaining enlightenment required not only breaking with the existing social order by joining a monastery, but also required rejecting their particular caste duties. Thus Buddhism, in its insistence that all can seek enlightenment, undermined both the religious and social superiority of men in the higher castes. In particular Buddhism affirmed women and men's social equality since it directly repudiated the Hindu understanding of women and men having different life paths. Whether a maiden awaiting to be married, a wife raising her children, or a widow, Buddhism encouraged women to abandon their rightful role in Hindu society to seek enlightenment. As a result, Buddhism represented not only an alternative means of attaining liberation, it also represented a means of liberating women from their subservient social roles.

Beyond the Patriarchal Family

In affirming women's full humanity in the social as well as the spiritual realm, Buddhism contains numerous resources for undermining the patriarchal family structure. Nevertheless, like its impact on women's actual status in the social sphere, Buddhism s actual impact on the patriarchal family has not lived up to its potential.

In the first place, the importance on the monastic community as an alternative to family life undermines the significance of the family in society. Under patriarchy, the male head of household and his family represent the most important segment of society. But in Buddhism, with its emphasis on attaining enlightenment through affiliation with the monastic community, the prominence of the family is undermined. This is most evident within Theravada Buddhism, in which the path to enlightenment requires a life-long renunciation of family life and commitment to the monastic community. Unlike Hinduism, in Theravada Buddhism the monastic life is not viewed only as a possibility after one s children becomes adult, but also as a complete alternative to marriage. The family is given secondary status even in the Mahayana form of Buddhism, which teaches that enlightenment can be reached while remaining in the family. Enlightenment in such situations is possible, but it is also more difficult. Since it is less likely, it is the monastic life which is valued above family life.

In giving the family secondary status, however, Buddhism does not undermine patriarchal family life in particular, but family life in general. Once again it is Buddhism s insistence that women are capable of attaining enlightenment as women that undermines the patriarchal family. To begin with, such an affirmation undercuts male control of women in the family. The insistence that women can attain enlightenment, implies not only that women are individually capable of making a commitment to reach enlightenment, but that it is socially legitimate for women to make those commitments for themselves. Indeed, while children must gain the permission of both their parents to enter the monastery, wives do not need the permission of their husbands.

Historically, Buddhism's willingness to open the religious life to Indian women provided some women the means of circumventing patriarchal family structures. In the first place, women are given an alternative to marriage. Such an alternative impacted not only those women who decide to forego married life, but also those who decide to become married. For just the presence of an alternative eventually provided women with greater voice both in the initial agreement to marry, and in their married life. Within marriage, Buddhism offered an alternative to the understanding that wives were to be controlled by their husbands. Buddhism espouses equality between the spouses, and spells out not only the duties wives have to their husbands but also the duties husbands have to their wives. Since mothers, as well as fathers, had to give permission for children to enter the monastery it appears clear that children are not viewed as belonging to the father alone, but to both the mother and the father. Moreover, married women are given some financial independence in that they are free to inherit property and manage it themselves.

Buddhist views of marriage, undermine the understanding that even as a widow, a woman's sexuality is controlled by her husband. In Buddhism a woman severs her marital duties to her husband upon his death. She is not expected to demonstrate her fidelity by remaining unmarried, but is instead given the option of entering the religious community, remaining single, or remarrying.

Despite the latent potential for undermining social hierarchies and the patriarchal family structure, Buddhism has typically focused its attention on human psychological conditions and thus has rarely attempted to de- legitimize social structures which subordinate women. In general, Buddhism has accommodated itself to its surrounding culture, even when the culture is male-dominated and fosters strong gender roles. Nevertheless, the egalitarian social implications of Buddhism do remain resources for equalizing women's status in society.

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For Further Reading

General Works

Cooey, Paula M., William R. Eakin, and Jay B. McDaniel, ed. After
Patriarchy: Feminist Transformations of the World Religions. Faith
Meets Faith Series. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1991.
Holm, Jean and John Bowker, ed. Women in Religion. London: Pinter
Publishers, 1994.
Sharma, Arvind, ed. Women in World Religions. McGill Studies in the
History of Religions. New York: State University of New York Press,
Young, Serenity, ed. An Anthology of Sacred Texts by and About
Women. New York: Crossroad, 1993.


Barnes, Nancy Schuster. "Buddhism." Women in World Religions. Ed.
Arvind Sharma. Albany, New York: State University of New York
Press, 1987. 105-34.
Gross, Rita M. "Buddhism." Women in Religion. Eds. Jean Holm, and
John Bowker. London: Pinter Publishers, 1994. 1-29.
Gross, Rita M. "Buddhism After Patriarchy?" After Patriarchy:
Feminist Transformations of the World Religions. Eds. Paula M.
Cooey, William R. Eakin, and Jay B. McDaniel. Maryknoll, New
York: Orbis Books, 1991. 65-86.
Gross, Rita M. Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History,
Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism. Albany, New York: State
University of New York Press, 1993.


Bird, Phyllis. "Images of Women in the Old Testament." Religion and
Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions.
Ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether. New York: Simon and Schuster,
1974. 41-88.
Drury, Clare. "Christianity." Women in Religion. Eds. Jean Holm, and
John Bowker. London: Pinter Publishers, 1994. 30-58.
Fiorenza, Elisabeth. "Women in the Early Christian Movement."
Womanspirit Rising. Eds. Carol P. Christ, and Judith Plaskow. San
Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1979. 84-92.
Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler. In Memory of Her: A Feminist
Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York:
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Ruether, Rosemary Radford. "Christianity." Women in World
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of New York Press, 1987. 207-34.
Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist
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Trible, Phyllis. "Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread." Womanspirit
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Gupta, Lina. "Kali, the Savior." After Patriarchy: Feminist
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Arvind Sharma. Albany, New York: State University of New York
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Badavi, Leila. "Islam." Women in Religion. Eds. Jean Holm, and John
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Hassan, Riffat. "Muslim Women and Post-Patriarchal Islam." After
Patriarchy: Feminist Transformations of the World Religions. Eds.
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Bird, Phyllis. "Images of Women in the Old Testament." Religion and
Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions.
Ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether. New York: Simon and Schuster,
1974. 41-88.
Carmody, Denise L. "Judaism." Women in World Religions. Ed.
Arvind Sharma. Albany, New York: State University of New York
Press, 1987. 183-206.
Hauptman, Judith. "Images of Women in the Talmud." Religion and
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Ed. Rosemary Radford Rueether. New York: Simon and Schuster,
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Heschel, Susannah, ed. On Being A Jewish Feminist: A Reader. Ed.
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Plaskow, Judith. Standing Again At Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist
Perspective. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publshers, 1990.
Trible, Phyllis. "Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread." Womanspirit
Rising. Eds. Carol P. Christ, and Judith Plaskow. San Francisco:
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About the Author

Nelia Beth Scovill is currently teaching religious studies classes at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin. She is a member of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics.

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Phone: 414/ 962-3166 Fax: 414/ 962-9248

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You may also want to visit these pages of The Religious Consultation:


On Being a Muslim Woman (Amar)

Human Rights in China (Ching)

Jewish Perspective On Family Planning (Zoloth)

Preface to Sacred Choices (Maguire)

Women's Reproductive Rights after 9-11 (Maguire)


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