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Religious Grounds for Women’s Equality

Wikis > Religious Grounds for Women's Equality

Women and Religion

All religions offer grounds to respect women and support women’s role in family and society. Moreover, the basic equality of women often lies enshrined in the deepest beliefs and hallowed practices of a religion. In this WIKI we bring together the evidence, explore the implications and study how these data can help improve the situation for women in communities where these deeper religious truths have been obscured.

We hope to make this a useful resource both for academic researchers and feminist campaigners. The following sections have been created to facilitate a variety of contributions.


Please, note down (1) your name [e.g. AMELIA SMITH], (2) summary of your findings and (3) reference (with internet link, if possible).

If the full text is available in electronic format (e.g. WORD), please send it to admin<<@>>wijngaardsinstitute.com. Then we will post it in the online bibliography of www.equalityforwomen.org.

EVALUATION STAGE (in the future)

When enough data have been gathered, we will need your advice and help to assess their meaning. We will then try to answer questions like: What do these data tell us about common strands across religions? What are the implications for researchers and campaigners committed to women’s full emancipation?

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See here the list of participants of our Academic Network.

1. What are the religious grounds – introductory thoughts?


[URSULA KING] The goals of modern feminism and the perennial human quest for spirituality seem at first to have little in common, at least not when each is understood in a narrow, exclusive way. When both are approached from a wider, more inclusive perspective, then all sorts of connections can be discovered.  ‘Feminist spirituality’ in its widest sense means the spiritual quest and creativity of contemporary women, whether pursued in more traditionally religious or non-traditional, secular ways. In a more specific sense ‘feminist spirituality’ refers to a new spiritual movement that has arisen out of second wave feminism, and exists outside traditional religious boundaries and institutions. Feminist spirituality is the reclaiming by women of the reality and power designated by ‘spirit’, but it is also a reclaiming of female power, of women’s partaking in the divine, and their right to participate in shaping the realm of spirit by fully participating in religion and culture.

Contemporary women’s spirituality is a tapestry of many strands. Prominent among them is women’s discovery of their own self and agency, the experience of networking and sharing, the new awareness of empowerment from within to work collaboratively for personal, social, and political changes.  Many of these themes are reflected in contemporary women’s culture which, through poetry and fiction, through songs, music, film, art and theatre, explores different aspects of women’s spiritual quest. This includes their experience of loss and pain, oppression and freedom, intimacy and mutuality with others, and the multiple connections between sexuality and spirituality.

Excerpt from Ursula King, ‘Reflections on Spirituality and Gender’ Journal of Chaplaincy in Further Education, Spring 2010, pp.  3-13.


Ahmed, Durre S., ed. (2002). Gendering the Spirit. Women, Religion and the Post-Colonial Response. London and New York: Zed Books.

Borresen, Kari Elisabeth  (1995) Subordination and Equivalence. The Nature and Role of Woman in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.  Kampen: Kok Pharos Publishing House [first edition 1968].

Collier, Diane M. and Deborah F. Sawyer, ‘From Isolation to Integration? New Directions in Gender and Religion’ in Deborah F. Sawyer and Diane M. Collier(eds), Is There a Future for Feminist Theology? (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), pp. 11-24.

Egnell, Helene, Other Voices. A Study of Christian Feminist Approaches to Religious Plurality East and West  (Uppsala: Studia Missionalia Svecana C., 2006).

Fletcher, Jeannine Hill, ‘Shifting Identity. The Contribution of Feminist Thought to Theologies of Religious Pluralism’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion  19/2 (2003): pp. 5-24.

Garon, Henry A., The Cosmic Mystique (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006).

Gross, Rita M., ‘Feminist Theology as Theology of Religions’ in The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Theology, ed. Susan Frank Parsons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 60-78.

Gross, Rita M., ‘Feminist Theology: An Overview’ in Encyclopedia of Religion. Second Edition (ed. Lindsay Jones. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, Thomson & Gale, 2005)¸ vol. 5: pp. 3031-3034.

Harris, Maria (1991) The Seven Steps of Women’s Spirituality.  New York: Bantam Books.

Hartshorne, Charles, ‘Transcendence and Immanence’, Encyclopedia of Religion. Second Edition (ed. Lindsay Jones. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, Thomson & Gale, 2005)¸ vol.13: pp. 9281-9286.

Isherwood, Lisa and Bellchambers, Elaine, eds (2010) Through Us, With Us, In Us. Relational Theologies in the Twenty-First Century. London: SCM Press.

King, Ursula (2009) The Search for Spirituality. Our global quest for meaning and fulfilment. Norwich: Canterbury Press.

King, Ursula (2005) ‘Gender and Religion: An Overview’ in Lindsay Jones, ed., The Encyclopedia of Religion.  Second Edition, vol 5: 3296-3310. Farmington, Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA.

King, Ursula (ed.), Feminist Theology from the Third World. A Reader. (London: SPCK and Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994).

King, Ursula (1993a) Women and Spirituality. Voices of Protest and Promise. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press. Second edition.

King, Ursula (1993b) ‘Rediscovering Women’s Voices at the World’s Parliament of Religions’ in  Eric J. Ziolkowski, ed., A Museum of Faiths. Histories and Legacies of the 1893 World Parliament of Religions.  Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 325-343.

Nelson, James B. (1988) The Intimate Connection. Male Sexuality, Masculine Spirituality. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Nelson, James B. (2001) ‘Masculine Spirituality and Addiction: A Personal Journey’ in Ursula King with Tina Beattie, eds, Spirituality and Society in the New Millennium.  Brighton and Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 93-106.

Pui-lan, Kwok, Introducing Asian Feminist Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).

Slee, Nicola (2003) ‘The hope for wholeness: spirituality in feminist perspective’ in N. Slee, Faith and Feminism. An Introduction to Christian Feminist Theology. Chp. 9. London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

Umansky, Ellen M. and Dianne Ashton, eds. (1992). Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality. A Sourcebook. Boston: Beacon Press.

Vallely, Anne, Guardians of the Transcendent. An Ethnography of a Jain Ascetic Community (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2002).

Van Doorn-Harder, Pieternella, Women Shaping Islam: Reading the Qu’ran in Indonesia  (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006).

Webb, Val (2002). Florence Nightingale. The Making of a Radical Theologian.  St Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press.

Wolski Conn, Joann, ed. (1996). Women’s Spirituality. Resources for Christian Development.  Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press. Second edition.  

Young, Serinity, ed. (1999) Encyclopedia of Woman and Religion (2 vols). New York: Macmillan References USA.

Young, Serinity, ed. (1994). An Anthology of Sacred Texts by and about Women.  New York: Crossroad.

Zappone, Katherine (1991) The Hope for Wholeness. A Spirituality for Feminists.  Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications.



2. Is gender equality a basic component of religious belief?

Are there good reasons to assert that, if both men and women are truly human, the basic equality of the sexes is somehow inherent in religion itself?





3. Which elements of your own religion support gender equality?

Men and women have different functions in life. But are there, in your religion, principles, values, religious texts that prescribe the basic equality between men and women?






4. What are the historical links between patriarchy and religions?

Do we have information on how ‘patriarchy’, i.e. the dominance of men arose? Was it linked to the rise of organised religion(s)?


[SUBASH AANAND] In ancient times there was no clear-cut distinction between religious and secular. Whatever was good for humans was divinely sanctioned, and even ‘promoted’.

I am inclined to think that the ‘second’ place of women in our society goes back to the earliest part of our common history: the gathering stage. Our ancestors lived on what they could easily get: fruits, leaves, etc. Then gradually they became trappers and hunters, then domesticators and shepherds. In those stages pregnant women would work practically till a few hours before delivery. But then for some weeks and months, depending on the health of the child, their mobility would be less, more so because breastfeeding was normal, and it continued for a long time. This biological situation slowly becomes a sociological situation: men become more important and patriarchy evolves. We need data coming from cultural anthropology, especially from those studies that are based on the data emerging from the most primal communities to be found today in some remote forests and deserts.

My latest book “The Divine Feminine: Towards a Biblical Gynaecology” (Bangalore, Claretian Publications 2015) is an attempt to see how the Bible understands woman. The first two chapters show that in the Old and New Testament we can see God being presented with motherly features. The third and fourth chapters discuss how the Old and New Testament view woman.

[Wijngaards] It seems that men are genetically programmed towards aggression and conquest. The disposition towards aggressive tasks obviously makes man rather than woman a likely candidate for leadership in society. The step from aggression to dominance, however, is neither necessary, nor was it universally followed. In many ancient, fruit-gathering societies it was woman not man, who was considered the centre of the family and tribal life. And although male dominance became the rule afterwards some societies have preserved a matriarchal organization to our own days.
For ancient people the female, not the male, was the symbol of life and fertility. In the pre-agricultural phase, people did not know the biological function of the male seed. Fertility was attributed to mother earth, from which life was seen to spring forth in so many different forms. Undoubtedly from this originated the belief in the mother goddess as the oldest and most fundamental divinity, a belief documented in the mythology of Oceania, Africa, North and South America, the ancient Middle East and Asia.
Most societies that exist today and those of which we can trace the history show a bias towards male dominance. The supremacy of man over woman may be due to the increasing need of physical strength and force in economic and political leadership. Favoured by genetic factors man assumed the leadership role in cattle husbandry, heavy agriculture and urbanization. The focus on masculine power asserted itself also in religious thinking.
The new organization of society implied also a new vision of the world and a new understanding of God. From reverting attention on the earth and the power of birth man began to see the world as a large city created by a supreme power. All the creation myths of the ancient religions that are known to us speak of a strong male god who created the world by bringing order in the chaos. Such male gods are now considered to reign supreme. They are thought to rule from heaven, to display their power as warriors and supreme craftsmen. Marduk of Mesopotamia and Woden of the Germanic tribes have the same traits. Fertility too is understood in a new light. It is no longer the female but the male animal carrying the seed that is considered the symbol of fertility. The bull, not the cow, came to be worshipped as the giver of life in the Middle East.
Excerpted from John Wijngaards, ‘The Rise of Male Dominance’, published on www.womenpriests.org.

W.C. POUNG, R.W. GOY and C.R. PHOENIX. Hormones and Sexual Behaviour, Science, 13 (1964) 212-218.
D.A. HAMBURG and D.Y. LURDE, Sex Hormones in the Development of Sex differences in human behaviour. ed. E.E. MACCOBY Tavistock, London 1967.
R.G. D’ANDRADE. Sex Difference and Cultural Institutions, in The Development of Sex Differences, ed. E.E. MACCOBY, Tavistock London, 1967, pgs.174-204.
M.F. ASHLEY-MONTAGU, Ignorance of physiological paternity in secular knowledge and orthodox belief of the Australian aborigines, Oceania 12 (1940-42) pgs. 72-78.
M. ELIADE, Traite d’Historie des Religions. Payot, Paris 1959. pgs. 221-231.
C.S. FORD and F. BEACH, Patterns of Sexual Behaviour. Harper and Row, Naw York 1951





5. How did female emancipation start in your own religion?

Is it still gathering strength? Which factors drive this process?



[from LEKSHE TSOMO] Sakyadhita, the global Buddhist women’s movement was inaugurated in 1987 in Bodhgaya in the presence of the Dalai Lama. Founded for Buddhist nuns and lay women in East and West, the fourfold aims of this movement are

  1. to create a global network of communication among Buddhist women;
  2. to educate women as teachers of Buddhism;
  3. to conduct research on women in Buddhism;
  4. to work for the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sangha.

So far, Sakyadhita has organised eight international conferences in different Asian countries. Much effort goes into education and the reinterpretation of texts, but also on reforming unjust, non-egalitarian practices, and on the development of socially engaged Buddhism, where the issues for Buddhist women in Asia are different from those of Buddhist women in the West.

The president of Sakyadhita, the Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo, is an American Buddhist nun ordained in the Tibetan tradition who spent many years in India but teaches now at the University of San Diego, California. She has edited the papers given at different Sakyadhita conferences in a series of volumes that provide an inspiring documentation of the transformative processes taking place among Buddhist women.  Karma Lekshe Tsomo has provided some illuminating reflections on women’s spiritualities in the light of the encounter between Buddhism and feminism, arguing that women’s traditional roles in Buddhist cultures have been changed without any direct link to the women’s movement in the West and that these changes are virtually unknown to outsiders.

Excerpt from Ursula King, ‘Gendering the Spirit. Reading Women’s Spiritualities with a Comparative Mirror’, in Reading Spiritualities. Constructing and Representing the Sacred, Ashgate, Aldershot 2008, pp. 71-84


Cheng, Wei-Yi, Buddhist Nuns in Taiwan and Sri Lanka. A critique of the feminist perspective (London and New York: Routledge, 2007).

De Silva, Ranjani,  ‘Reclaiming the Robe: Reviving the Bhikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka’ in Karma Lekshe Tsomo (ed.), Buddhist Women and Social Justice. Ideals, Challenges, and Achievements (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004), pp. 119-135.

Findly, Ellison Banks (ed.), Women’s Buddhism, Buddhism’s Women. Tradition, Revision, Renewal  (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000).

Goonatilake, Hema, ‘A Silent Revolution: The Restoration of the Bhikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka’ (IAHR Regional Conference on the Study of Religions in India, Dec. 11-14, 2003: New Delhi, India).

Tsomo, Karma Lekshe (ed.), Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1988).

Tsomo, Karma Lekshe (ed.), Buddhist Women Across Cultures: Realizations (Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press, 1999).

Tsomo, Karma Lekshe (ed), Innovative Buddhist Women: Swimming Against the Stream (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2000).

Tsomo, Karma Lekshe (ed.), Buddhist Women and Social Justice. Ideals, Challenges, and Achievements (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004).

Tsomo, Karma Lekshe (ed.), Out of the Shadows: Socially Engaged Buddhist Women (Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications, 2006).

Tsomo, Karma Lekshe, ‘Mahaprajapati’s Legacy: The Buddhist Women’s Movement: An Introduction’ in Tsomo (ed.), Buddhist Women Across Cultures: Realizations: pp. 1-44.

Van Ede, Yolande, ‘Of Birds and Wings. Tibetan Nuns and their Encounters with knowledge’ in Tsomo (ed.), Innovative Buddhist Women. Swimming Against the Stream: pp. 201-211.



Add your contribution to the related WIKI:

The Origins of Prejudices against Women Across Religions.