This post is written in response to Dr. Naomi Goldenberg’s desire to have at least 15 minutes of discussion on religion and gender. I’ve decided to take up this challenge and timed this post for 15 minutes. After about 15 minutes of writing, I will stop. So here goes…

Many participants found the gender question unnecessary and divergent for the overall question of the Rethinking Religion conference. What was interesting that the three people who I heard, say this, were all men! This is not to say that women did not feel that gender question was irrelevant, but it just points to a problem that we men could be accused of (ie. we are the problem) and thus, perhaps we should be a little more cautious in rejecting to hear voices (whether rightly or wrongly) that critique our own blind-spots.

Anyway… Gender in religion has usually followed the hermeneutic of suspicion, where religion is often seen as a problem (in terms of representation, power (patriarchal) structures and the like). So it was interesting to hear Naomi’s own experience of women in Canada think of religion in positive (constructive) terms. The positive (even liberating) view of religion is not uncommon, but it is interesting to hear it from women, and perhaps it may be true that women have historically seen religion more positively than men… simply evident by the way churches in India are filled with more women devotees than men.

But I don’t think the ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ or the ‘positive view of religion’ is necessarily helpful for gender equality and discussion about gender. Personally, I see the Christian narrative liberative (for men and women), because there is no reference that God is male. The only male figure is Jesus Christ, and yet there is little emphasised (theologically in the texts) about his gender. Furthermore, Galatians 3:28, in the Bible, an important verse for many Christian egalitarians, states that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, nor male and female. Rather than think of this as a negative assertion, I think in the context of problematic relationships between Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, I find this as a deconstruction (in Christ) of the false binaries between male and female. (The reason why it is not a destruction of distinctiveness of male and female, is a little more complex, but lies in the use of “male AND female” unlike the previous constructions “jew NOR greek”. But this point is a little more specialistic than I have time here.)

What I am saying, however, is that while I obviously don’t need to reject my tradition, nor do I need to see religion as positive (ie. for gender equality I do not need to deny my tradition nor have a view that religion is helpful for society or gender equality).

In the case I illustrated above, it is evident that I see my own tradition as not necessarily negative, with enough in it to help me view and propagate and practice gender equality. Others may disagree about my interpretation of the Christian tradition (narrative), and say that the Christian God is male etc. Perhaps (I can argue) that they have been distracted by the church, claiming to represent the authorative voice of what is to be believed. But there are enough voices, even within the church, that argue against the church’s hierarchical view… especially in the last few decades.

So what has all this to do with religion?

Firstly, I don’t think we need to look at religion and gender in the same breath… because in doing so we are making (or using) religion as a universal category which is actually the question in doubt. I would argue that gender is certainly the (more) universal category and religion benefits from the association (ie. gender is everywhere, so religion must be everywhere). It is perhaps more appropriate to speak in tradition-specific terms, such as I have done above and stick to what we know. Ie. what does the Christian tradition say about gender, or what do Indians who claim to be Hindus, say about gender.

Secondly, if we use religion and gender together (and I’m saying we should not) we would be assuming religion has properties, that it is either positive (helpful for society) or negative (oppressive against women etc), that suggests not only that religion is universal (because it exerts that kind of power on women… all over the world?) but also seems to suggest that religion is a thing that can have properties that can be understood, having value and effects. As we have seen, even that is under question… Gender, should avoid being dragged down… ooops my 15 minutes are up!!!…. gender should avoid being dragged down by the religion debate.

More can be said, but I guess this is enough to get started, right Naomi?

(ps. after my 15 minutes I edited out many grammatical errors and typos)

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