Spirituality, as we all know, is an integral part of human development. It influences our outlook in life and how we live it. It may even provide some explanation as to why, despite feminist movements, women have always played second fiddle to men. Also, it can provide some insights as to why extreme ideals are alive and acceptable to some people today. In this paper, I will be comparing and contrasting the treatment and role of women in three main religions, namely Islam, Judaism and Catholicism.
In modern Islam, zealots have dominated the once proud religion, with women having been neutralized and are given few or no rights. Women are not expected to hold any positions save for the title of First Wife, Second Wife and the likes. They are also discouraged to take tasks that are unfeminine such as driving a car and initiating divorce. They are in no way allowed to surpass men and must always be second to them. The Afghani Taliban administered violence on women just because they went out with their faces covered (Boteach 139). Other examples of women oppression include the events with the Islamic Nigerian court who gave a death sentence to a woman for bearing a child with a man that was not her husband. The most radical one, perhaps, involved the mutaween or the Islamic Purity Police in Saudi wherein fifteen innocent teenagers died when a fire broke out in their high school. Since their faces were not covered and were dressed “indecently”, the mutaween pushed them back and locked the gates. In Islam, a woman must stay pure and chaste for her husband or her husband to be; in order to do so she must avoid tempting the virtuous men around her and cover her face. It is believed that a woman has the natural power to cause a man to sin; in the case of adultery, it is usually the woman who has a heavier sentence. Islamic law also allows men to have four wives and to divorce and marry with minimum restrictions (Bremmer 109). The practical reason for this is to increase the probability of a son being born. This practice might be offensive to liberalists everywhere but it has existed in Islam for quite a while.
Aside from being pure, another role of a woman was as a mother: she is to nurture her sons and be ready to give them in the case of a holy war. A mother who is able to send four children to fight to the death is then given the title Hanas, a title for women that is sacred in Islam. Taking into consideration the marginalized status of these women, most of them dream of taking the Hanas title to better their lives. Sadly, most mothers have taken this goal and twisted it into something that appalls all human rights activists since most of them gleefully send their children to war. Only male martyrs are believed to attain heaven in death, because they believe that the prize for their sacrifice is seventy two virgins. Thus, families would rather have sons rather than daughters. So basically, women in Islam are expected to be feminine, chaste, pure, give birth to sons and raise them right.
In Judaism, the line between the male and the female are delineated from the moment they are born. Families gather in a waiting room while they await the baby being born: if a male is delivered, there is cause for celebration. (Hawthorne 15) If it is a female, they leave quietly. In terms of religious training, there is a greater emphasis on boys while girls do not take part at all. In most orthodox Jewish homes, fathers take their sons to synagogues while their daughters stay at home. (Boteach 280). In Orthodox Jewish education, sexes are segregated and one cannot have friends or acquaintances of the opposite sex until they reach the proper age to be able to date and marry. Boys are taught to revere the feminine and admire women in their rabbinical training. (44) In a religious Jewish home, a wife is a supposed blessing to her husband since it is them who domesticates and ennobles a man.
Girls are then taught to be modest and feminine, prohibiting them from showing too much skin. Jewish law also contains a concept, which is kol isha or the “voice of the woman”. In lieu with women supposedly being modest, they are discouraged from taking the center stage in musical performances. In tradition, female singers in Orthodox Judaism perform in front of all-female crowds to preserve the allure of their voices exclusively for their husbands and families since a woman’s voice is believed to be a powerful, feminine instrument. (109). The Jewish religion, according to Boteach, argues that every woman is a princess, a daughter of the King of Kings and thus every parent raises her as such. As wives, husbands are taught to listen to them since Abraham, when he disagrees with his wife, was commanded by God to follow her instruction.
All in all, in the Jewish tradition, although there are rigid rules regarding women’s behavior, they way they dress and are not allowed to participate in religious ceremonies, they are still held at a high esteem since it is believed that they are created by God to balance man. And although the Jews hold women in high esteem, their traditions are patriarchal in nature and renders women powerless.
Unlike the first two religions, the Roman Catholic religion has empowered women through the sanctity of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God. Catholicism also described Jesus as a feminine man, nurturing male and claims that he has empowered women in a way that the Jews failed to do so. He is nurturing, devoid of violence and a pacifist. Adding to the feminist ideals of the Messiah, devotees established a cult-like devotion for the Virgin Mary to balance him being male, inspiring men to be chivalrous to women. The devotion to the Virgin was also pushed by Pope John Paul II since he adamantly believes that the Virgin intervened and saved him from an attempted assassination attempt. (44) The emphasis on the Virgin Mary pushed men to see women as a sacred treasure and have respect for women’s purity. In the wedding at Cana, Mary’s power as a mother over the Messiah was shown when Jesus acquiesced to her request to use his powers to perform a miracle. Due to this, women are treated with respect, given freedom and enough room to express them selves. Women are more than child bearers: they are equal to man since they were created in the image of God just as how man was. Despite of this empowerment, women cannot become priests in the church since in ancient Catholic tradition, the apostle Peter was supposedly the 1st Pope of the Roman Catholic Church; Jesus was also a male thus there is an unspoken tradition of a long line of male successors to the Holy Empire.
Although women cannot become priests, they can become nuns and can hold a respective amount of power as compared to women from Judaism and Islam. Yet apart from the people participating in holy orders, there is no existing dress code for Roman Catholics, save for Sunday services. Women play a more active role and can dabble in religious matters although the priest, or the Pope, has the final say.
Comparison and Contrast
Seeing Islam, Judaism and Catholicism side by side, it is clear that compared to the other two religions, Islam’s treatment of women leave much to be desired. Islam’s dress codes for women borders on the extreme since death is preferred rather than stain their purity and the Shariah law, at all times, must be kept. (Bremmer 108)Dating is rare and most husbands do not see their wives’ faces until the consummation. Judaism on the other hand, requires a constant upkeep of their modesty by an imposition of a dress code. Although they do not require covers for their head, they are not allowed to show skin nor dress skimpily and they must at all times maintain a code of conduct. They are also strict when it comes to dating, requiring a certain age before they can do so. Catholicism is limited to what they wear in Sunday services and is more liberal than its counterparts. They do not have any restrictions in dating, as long as there is a parental consent. All three religions discourage sex before marriage for all of them see marriage as sacred. The only difference is, in the Islamic sect, divorce has minimal restrictions and a man can have up to four wives simultaneously as long as he can provide for them. In the Jewish and Catholic tradition, the only ground that is acceptable for divorce is adultery and one should be monogamous.
Yet all of these religions, when it comes to women, forward the same concept: in modesty, there is purity and respect. Modesty is a form of a defense for women to keep them from being treated as mere objects for sexual pleasure. (42) A modest woman inspires awe and reverence in a man, respecting the “unattainable woman”. In foregoing modesty, a woman is debased into a mere sexual object and is judged superficially for her body. Some women might say that this is liberating but they are deceiving themselves since they have to resort to partial nudity in order to get the attention of the men. The only difference is that in Islam, the modesty of women is a defense for men against their seductive charms. Also, although women are more empowered in the Catholic tradition, they are still unable to neither hold the highest position nor oversee religious celebrations just like the Islam and Jewish sect.
In terms of responsibilities, Islam and Jewish women have far less tasks since they are limited to their duties as mothers raising their children and their responsibilities to their beliefs. In contrast to Islam women, the Jewish women have the power to influence their husband’s decision and can say what’s on their mind. Scripturally, they have been given the power and authority by God to balance their husbands and fulfill the missing parts from their lives, which is more or less the emotional aspect. Catholic women on the other hand, has responsibilities in various sects of their chosen church and are more involved and can in the decisions of the priests. All in all, the reason why women always have a secondary role in all three religions is due to the fact that all three religions are patriarchal in nature. The supreme god is male and the founders are also males, namely Mohammed, Abraham and Jesus. All traditions centered on them being the mediator between their respective gods and the devotees. In both Islam and the Jewish sect, Eve was the reason for the downfall of man thus she is naturally sinful, powerful and alluring. For these reasons, a woman has to be restrained and policed.
The neutralization of women in the more radical sect of Islam definitely contributed to the decline since it led to a more militant, coarse and unsympathetic society; as compared to the Jewish and Catholic religion, it took a most drastic and radical direction. Rather than back down, they answer to provocations with aggression and hatred; they also refuse aid from enemies due to their stubborn pride and lack of motherly instinct for their country. Most probably, this is due to the lack of balance between the feminine and the masculine. The concept of the balance between the masculine and the feminine is pronounced in the Jewish and Catholic religion: men who are naturally more aggressive and prideful are naturally balanced by a woman who is soothing and cohesive. Abraham listened to his wife while Jesus took heed of his mother, creating a balance. Women are “softer”; they are more naturally attuned to life and sensitive to their surroundings. That is not the case with Islam for the female voice has all been but silenced, unable to grow and mature. With this repression, it is not surprising to see most Islamic women devoid of softness.
Islamic men stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the feminine and resort to their use of force and violence, thinking that raw force and violence are the answer without thought to the lives of the people around them. Without feminine women, there is no one to balance the male aggression. Women are God’s last creation thus they are the crown jewel of the universe, the missing element that will bring everything together. In the radical Islam sect, the women are silenced and are influenced to become as aggressive and as bloodthirsty as the males. They are also marginalized and stripped of their rights, reduced as “tools for breeding”. The very concept of the granting of 72 virgins is proof of this outlook on women.
In October 2003, Hanadi Tayseer Jaradat killed eighteen adults and three children in Haifa; she was a suicide bomber. (141) Prior to this, a director of a Palestinian children’s aid association was interviewed for their education policy to teach the children to aspire death for Allah. Eleven year old girls that were interviewed unblinkingly told the reporter that they would like to die for Allah like how Western girls would say that they would want to be a lawyer or doctor. Women are also influenced to be eager to sacrifice their children for Allah, thinking it an honor to have a son that died as a martyr, much like the mothers of the Kamikazee pilots in Japan. In early August 2003, the New York Times reported of having more than 160 people killed with seven successive suicide attacks, with the female suicide bombers being dubbed as “The Black Widows” for their black garments and veils. (142) With these actions, the concept of a nurturing mother, one who is concerned for her children and would kneel in front of her enemies to save their lives, is almost non-existent. Marginalized, abused, submerged in male hate and aggression while being forced to forget and quell their feminine side, women have adapted the ways of man and forgot the peace and nurturing instinct that was inherent in them. It is not surprising that the radical Islamic sect took such a direction.
For the radical Islamic sect to reclaim their glory and erase the world’s presuppositions, they have to at least give women their voice. Although there is a boost in educational opportunities, it is not enough since there is almost no room for them to practice it. Even if equality between the male and the female is unimaginable and impossible for Islam, women at least have to have a bit of freedom for their feminine side. In letting the females practice and re-discover their femininity, their softness and peace will greatly aid in the re-establishment of balance in Islam. (142)
Boteach, Shmuley. Hating Women. New York: Regan Books, 2005
Bremmer, Ian. The J Curve. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006
Hawthorne, Melanie and Golsan, Richard J. Gender and Fascism in Modern France. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1997