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Influence of religion on women’s rights

Religion and women's rights

In my general article on women’s rights in Belgium, I mentioned I would address the influence of religion on women’s rights separately. So here’s my take.

Overall influence of religion on women’s rights

While most religions teach equality of women and men before God, some attribute different roles to women and men on earth. These religiously motivated gender stereotypes can lead to discriminatory treatment of women – and in some cases even violence. In many religious faiths, a deeply patriarchal culture persists, reinforcing traditional roles for women as mothers and wives responsible for childcare, while men are often seen as the wage-earners and decision-makers.

Extreme violations of women’s human rights

These include honour crimes, forced marriages, and female genital mutilation. The European Union estimates that around 600,000 women and girls are living with the consequences of female genital mutilation in the EU and that a further 180,000 girls and women are at risk of undergoing the harmful practice in 13 European countries alone. Unfortunately, one of these countries is Belgium.

Muslim women in places of Islamic worship

The role and participation of Muslim women in places of Islamic worship in Belgium vary depending on the type and orientation of the mosques or Islamic centres. Some mosques or Islamic centres are more conservative or traditional, and they tend to segregate or exclude women from the main prayer hall, the leadership positions, or the decision-making processes. Other mosques or Islamic centres are more progressive or inclusive, and they tend to integrate or empower women in the prayer, the education, the management, or the social activities.

Outside the place of worship, there is a sharp rise of discrimination against Muslim women throughout Europe. This was reported in some recent meetings on combatting anti-Muslim hatred that I recently minuted.

Women’s rights in the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church, as an institution, does not ordain women as priests, and this position has been a source of contention and debate. While some within the Church advocate for greater inclusion of women in leadership roles and decision-making processes, others adhere to traditional interpretations of doctrine that restrict such roles to men.

Belgium has a significant Catholic population, and the Catholic Church plays a prominent role in Belgian society. In October 2021, Pope Francis initiated the “Synod on synodality” a process aimed at discussing the functioning of the Catholic Church and its future. This process was also organized in Belgium, and parishes across the country engaged in discussions, asking parishioners if they felt listened to by the Church. The results were made public and sent to the Vatican.

Many Belgian parishioners called for the opening up of the ordained ministry, specifically so that the priesthood could include women. Respondents described a sense of injustice regarding the place of women in the Church, and called for greater gender equality and inclusion.

Women's ordination in the Catholic church
The call for women’s ordination in the Catholic Church is growing (©Paul Haring)

This has led to increased dialogue about the role of women within the Catholic Church. Pope Francis has formally changed the law to allow women to administer communion and serve at the altar. However, he maintains that the ordained priesthood remains the preserve of men.

Women’s rights in the Anglican Church

The Anglican Church in Belgium is part of the Diocese in Europe and is led by the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe. About 20 chaplaincies and 30 congregations exist across Belgium, serving a diverse and international community of Anglicans and other Christians. The Anglican Church in Belgium ordains women as deacons, priests and bishops, and recognises the ministry of women in all orders of the church.

Women’s rights in fundamental evangelical churches

The position of women in fundamental evangelical churches is generally one of subordination and restriction. The reason is that many such churches tend to emphasize the dominant role of men in Christian ministry, and limit the opportunities and authority of women in the church – and even society.

They base this approach on a literal interpretation of the Bible, and resist the social and cultural changes that challenge their patriarchal norms. For example, they may refuse to ordain women as pastors or elders, and not allow women to preach, teach, or lead mixed groups of adults. They may expect women to submit to their husbands in all matters, and to be obedient, gentle, and quiet in their demeanour.

To me, as a firm believer in the importance of equality, this stance appears strange for two main reasons. It seems to go against the legal regulations within the EU for gender equality in the workplace, and it seems to be based on a narrow and selective interpretation of the Bible. So let’s look at those two points in more detail.

Why are religious organizations exempt from anti-discrimination laws?

If I understand matters correctly, the EU has a law that says that a religious employer (e.g. a church) can choose or reject employees based on their religion, if it is really important and reasonable for the job they do, and if it matches the organisation’s values. In other words, a church can be picky about who they hire based on what they believe, if it matters for the work they do.

Where in the Bible are women subjugated?

Let’s now look at the Biblical basis for such discrimination. Traditionally, a literal reading of the Bible has often held that women are not permitted to teach men, or to hold offices of authority over men in the church, and should even be silent in church services. This traditional view is based on the following Biblical passages (New International Version):

  • 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
  • 1 Timothy 2:11-12: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

People like myself who advocate for gender equality in all aspects of life including religious practices are often called “egalitarians”. Egalitarians often critique the interpretation and application of passages like those above which have historically been used to restrict women’s roles in churches. Here are some main arguments used by egalitarians:

  • There is a need to consider the historical and cultural context in which these verses were written. Understanding the specific issues faced by first century Christian churches helps us interpret these passages more accurately. For instance, 1 Corinthians 14 is addressing disruptions during specific worship services, rather than insisting on a blanket ban on women’s participation.
  • Similarly, banning a woman to teach in church should be understood in light of the specific context in the Ephesian church, which was facing challenges of false teaching. Paul’s instructions were aimed at addressing these issues rather than imposing a universal ban on women teaching.
  • Earlier in the same letter, Paul acknowledges that women were praying and prophesying in the church (1 Corinthians 11:5). It therefore seems contradictory to completely silence them in chapter 14.
  • The New Testament affirms the gifts of the Spirit being given to both men and women (Acts 2:17) which does not seem to be problematic.
  • Critical Biblical scholars question Paul’s authorship of certain biblical texts, including 1 Timothy, and suggest that these passages might have been added later or reflect the views of specific communities rather than universal truths.
  • There are various examples in the Bible where women played significant roles in leadership, ministry, and teaching. These include Deborah in the Old Testament, Junia mentioned by Paul as outstanding among the apostles (Romans 16:7), and the role of women in the early Christian church, suggesting that women were not universally restricted from leadership positions.
  • A broader theological principle is the priesthood of all believers and the equality of men and women in Christ. A few isolated verses should not override the overall biblical vision of shared ministry and mutual service.

One final point that I would like to raise on the influence of religion on women’s rights is this:

Young girls need to see role models in church leadership

Young girls need to see a woman pastor or preacher rather than only a male pastor or preacher for three important reasons:

  • Seeing women in church leadership can inspire and empower young girls to pursue their own gifts and callings, and to realize their potential as leaders in the church and society.
  • Seeing women in church leadership can challenge and change the stereotypes and biases that limit women’s opportunities and authority in the church and society, and promote gender equality and justice.
  • Seeing women in church leadership can reflect and celebrate the diversity and richness of the world we live in, and honour the contributions and perspectives of women in the church and society.
The influence of religion on women's rights
Women need to be allowed to share their gifts in churches

An example of a misogynistic church in Belgium

One church where I have personal experience of these matters is the International Baptist Church in Wezembeek-Oppem. I think it’s important to highlight this church’s problematic stance on gender roles as it’s quite a popular church. The leadership structure is exclusively male, with women barred from holding any leadership positions. Female members are relegated to traditionally gendered roles such as teaching children or serving refreshments. While women are permitted to lead prayer meetings, this concession appears superficial; a male elder confided to me that attendance at these meetings is low specifically because they are organized by a woman. The sermons frequently contain misogynistic themes, reinforcing a patriarchal worldview that limits women’s participation and influence within the church community. Those seeking an egalitarian faith environment where all genders are valued equally in leadership and service may be advised to look elsewhere for spiritual guidance and community.

What do you think about the influence of religion on women’s rights?

17 thoughts on “Influence of religion on women’s rights”

  1. An interesting summary, and one which makes my blood boil! I don’t think it would be much different here. Although of no faith now, I grew up a Methodist which was one of the first churches, if not the first, to ordain women in 1974. My father was involved in some way (he was a minister) – I can’t remember what the exact term was but he was a mentor or sponsor of one of the women. So I feel quite proud of that.

    1. You can be rightly proud of him Anabel. 50 years ago – and in other churches nothing has changed. But it’s great that Methodism led the way back then.

  2. Denzil, thanks for this informative and comprehensive article on this contentious topic. > I was surprised that a large number of young women in Muslim immigrant communities across Europe continue to suffer from female genital mutilation. > I’m not surprised that the Anglican Church leads the way in ordaining women. How can a Church headed by a queen, at different times over the centuries, refuse to accept gender equality within its ranks? > In my view, the Biblical laws and regulations regarding the subjugation of women in the Abrahamic religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–should be subject to change/update/upgrade in keeping with the complexities of modern human societies. The so-called infallible male god of war of the Old Testament has brought human societies to the brink of human extinction.

    1. Thanks for your comment Rosaliene, and of course you know all too well the issues facing the Catholic church in this area.

      (For anyone interested in this issue, Rosaliene has written an excellent novel that incorporates abuse within the Catholic church directed at women)

          1. The story left me with a heavy heart. Our silence is complicity. The protagonist so desperately needed a friend that he refused to see his friend’s failings. It also made me realize that the religious life was a lonely one for me, too. Beyond one’s professional responsibilities, there are various charitable work and community activities to keep one busy.

  3. Hi Denzil,

    You are a brave soul to tackle this topic, a very timely one considering the political landscape in the USA and other countries. Rosaliene also brings up good points in her comments and I couldn’t agree more!

    1. Thanks Henry. Yes, the USA (and other countries) seem to be heading backwards to some extent on women’s rights. This year seems a potential tipping point.

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