How does religious belief influence our understanding of gender?

Gender is a system of social relations, learned ways of acting and how we visualise image representations, all learned through our culture intertwined to create our gender identity.
Different countries worldwide have different teachings and ideologies upon gender, shaping the individual and creating gendered barriers, illustrating what is ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ within a particular society. Religion in particular is one of the main underlying foundations which a society’s culture and gendered teachings are based upon, and throughout my source report I intend to uncover the history of gender and religion and the international issues and how religious beliefs shape thinkings in a plethora of different cultures through looking at different sources ranging from the media to academic evidence.

Academic text
Amongst the worlds religions is a plethora of varying attitudes and beliefs towards gender issues and normalities. However, these beliefs and attitudes were once the norm and were not questioned in the seventeenth century. Witchcraft was a large belief then, with many women in touch with the devil and failing to “conform to the accepted norms of female behaviour”, “The behavioural opposite of the stereotypical role model of the good wife.”(Louise Jackson: Witches, Wives and Mother: Witchcraft persecution and women’s confessions in seventeenth-century England: 1995:63-84).
Louise Jackson’s research was based upon a Suffolk subversive community in the seventeenth century within the Christian society where any woman who didn’t show the typical “good wife” characteristics could be branded a witch, and routine witch hunts would be carried to remove such from society, almost like a method of behavioural control to members of society. Even back in the seventeenth century, there is evidence of gendered differences, with 80% to 90% of witches accused female. There is also evidence in Louise Jackson’s study of physical violence, with many witchcraft trails “involving physical coercion” (Louise Jackson:1995:64) in order to gain confessions, and “male supremacy over women through mechanisms of violence” (Louise Jackson:1995:64).

Christian morals are also reflected in this report, with the quote “women were portrayed as particularly venerable to the attentions of the devil because they were identified through Christian scripture, as the lustful daughters of Eve, who has openly brought evil and sin into the world”. (Louise Jackson:1995:71) This relates to the idea that women are projected as subordinate to men throughout Christian teachings. Eve is said in the Bible to have been created second, and to submit to Adams needs, like a companion, which still influences the way women are seen in the Christian Church, although with different results depending on your view of scripture.

Eve in the Christian bible is generally seen as the disobedient temptress, who ate the apple when told not to do so, whereas Mary, the mother of Christ’s characteristics being purity and obedience, the ideal ‘good wife’ in society, almost illustrating women can only be one or the other, Eve or Mary, and cannot possess any of the negative characteristics without informal punishments like gossiping and labelling, unlike men, often praised when sexually promiscuous and disobedient.

One similarity between most religions, like Christianity and Islam is the definite belief of a male god, which could be perceived almost as patriarchal teachings, based with the same essential factors, all-powerful, all-seeing, and omniscient, which again could help explain this male centred gender heirachy within the majority of societies, with religion teaching men to be the superior sex, like their god, or role model.

Islam is vastly similar in its teachings of gender, with in the Koran stating “Men are superior to women on account of the qualities with which god hath gifted.”, and justifying the act of having multiple wives. (J.O’ Faolcaint; 1871:122) This again undermines women, providing them fewer rights and handing over all economic power and decisions to the male, linking into the Essentialists and Aristotle’s sociological thinking of women, claiming “a female is a deformed male, women are inferior to men in their ability to reason”, reinforcing the idea women were often undermined.

Feminism is a contrasting theory, in particular Radical Feminism, claiming women are marginalised in society reconsideration of traditions, scriptures and theologies of religion is needed. The second wave of Feminism looks closer into domestic and sexual violence against women in intimate relationships, attempting to place it on the political agenda, one major stepping stone to the gender equality movement.

Internet sources
AngelFire, a website contains quotes extracted from the bible illustrating how gendered morals are taught in the bible and are in favour of male dominance, control and power over women.
( :Last accessed 05/11/10)
The following are examples of quotes from the website.

 Timothy 2:12 :I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent”, 1 Peter 3:7 “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” and 1 Timothy 2:11 “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.” 

These extracts again reinforce the gender hierarchy idea females are secondary to men, being the  “weaker partner” and reliant upon their partners.

Another website source is from the National Resource Centre on Domestic Violence in Pennsylvania, (2007) looking at Religion and Domestic Violence statistics within U.S society. ( : Last accessed 05/11/10) 
Within this, results from the National Violence Against Women Society Survey indicate women are the typical victims of physical violence from their partners, with approximately 4.9 million women falling victim to physical assaults in relationships, in contrast to 2.9 male victims, almost half the amount. This source goes into further detail, claiming 63% (163 Million) of all Americans are actively affiliated to a faith group (Domestic Violence and Religion:2007:04), and how particular faith groups have different statistics of intimate partner violence (IPV).

An estimate by the organization Jewish Women International indicates that 15 to 25% of all Jewish households experience domestic violence (Domestic Violence and Religion:2007:05), and one in 5 Jewish women are abused by their partners, a consistent rate through the general population, Thus highlighting these patterns are more than just environmentally/location based. (2007:05)
Muslim women according to Muslim activists in the United States are also at a high risk of domestic violence, with approximately 10% of Muslim women abused by their husbands, again projecting the gender inequality within the majority of religions. (2007:05)

Although statistics cannot be trusted to show the complete extent of violence due to factors like being afraid to report the crime officially and the fact that it is difficult to report on crimes within the private sphere, This still projects a broad picture of how religion can influence a society’s thinking of this being a normative and acceptable act against women.

Visual sources
One interesting visual source is a Youtube video news report showing how strong religious beliefs in a culture can overrule other moral interests, even human rights. CNN Atlanta News posted an online news report about Ms Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani ( : Last accessed 05/11/10) , A Muslim woman sentenced to death by stoning due to committing adultery. This barbaric torture was sentenced in 2009, and caused global outrage with activists and human rights agencies fighting to prevent this ill-treatment to a human being. This internet report illustrates how the upkeep of Muslim religious moral beliefs of upholding the law are more important than that of a human life, and few Islamic believers rejecting this punishment. 

This source is interesting to view how religion can be so strongly believed, that an act against this can lead to a death sentence, almost destroying human rights in order to punish and prevent other potential ‘offenders’. This source also makes me question the gendered issues in this religion, for example why isn’t the male involved in this act of monogamy also being punished? Reinforcing the idea that males are socially accepted to be sexually promiscuous, whereas women need to stand by the Mary good wife ideology.

Print media
Cosmopolitan magazine (December 2010) has an interesting source helping show the extent of what some religious beliefs can result in, and how again the diverse gender partition can be. In Cosmopolitan’s infamous yearly ‘Ultimate Woman Awards’ (Cosmopolitan Magazine:December 2010:Ultimate Women Awards:115),
A Ms Jasvinder Sanghera was awarded the ‘Ultimate Woman’s Woman’ award for creating a charity, Karma Nirvana’ 17 years ago to help others in forced marriages, the same situation as she was almost once in. Jasvinder was made by her family to have a forced marriage at the age of 15 which she didn’t want, so decided to flee from home, resulting in her family disowning her, and her sister committing suicide years later due to being stuck in a forced marriage and unable to escape. Jasvinder consequently created the Karma Nirvana charity to prevent women being trapped into forced marriages and preventing the drastic actions some may take to escape, like her sister. Karma Nirvana was also instrumental in getting Forced Marriage Act made into a civil law in 2007.

Jasvinder’s profile in Cosmopolitan highlights how the Islamic religion can, in drastic circumstances can see the religious values like forced marriage more high profile than the family individuals, particularity the females having no say in who they marry and often these marriages resulting in “honour-based violence” (Ultimate Women Awards:2010:115), again subordinating women and this seen as the norm within society.

Other laws within society have been created for the equality of women to men, even since the seventeenth century. The Offences against the Person act (1861) changed in the rape law to allow conviction without actual emission, And more public based acts and laws to promote further gender equality, such as The Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Throughout conducting my source report, I have examined the role of organized religions in the ideas and practices regarding the social construction of gender. In particular, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, although different religions and beliefs, all share distant similarities in that women are the oppression of society, and could be seen to have helped sustain deeply sexist and patriarchal cultures, although reform could be identified within the creation of equality and prevention laws. From the academic resources used to the media sources (Youtube video report and Cosmopolitan’s profile) it could also be identified that the key to gender equality may be to move society away from religion and the religion dogma of all kinds as much as possible, Though this could be argued as already in transit in the public sector, being monitored and programmed with laws and acts, though the private sphere is more difficult to monitor, thus more difficult to control.


Academic Sources

Jackson, L. (1995). Witches, Wives and Mothers: Witchcraft persecution and womens confessions in seventeenth-century England. London: Roehampton Institute. 63-84.
Martines, L and O’Faolain, J. (1973). Not in God’s Image. London: Collins. 123-129.Martines
Internet Sources
Domestic Violence Information Depot. (2009). Religion: How it is used to control and abuse. Available: . Last accessed 5th November 2010.
National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. (2007). Religion and Domestic Violence Information and Resources:Statistics. Available: Last accessed 5th November 2010.
Visual Sources
WrathOfKhan. (2010). Activist Iranian Mother Of Two To Be Stoned To Death . Available: ttp:// Last accessed 5th November 2010.
Print Media
Cosmopolitan Magazines, The National Magazine Company Limited. (December 2010). Ultimate Woman’s Woman. Ultimate Women Awards. 12/10 (2), 115.