Despite the benefits and positive entities that come from religion — core moral values, community service and charity — many organized religions are rooted in patriarchy
— or so it seems. From the gender of the deities we worship to the role of women in the religious texts we read and within religious spaces themselves, most religions have primarily been shaped by men and their perspectives since their inception.
But does it have to be this way? Is religion inherently at odds with feminist values? Can we reapproach religion with a critical view of gender and sexuality? According to some feminists, religion itself isn't the problem; the people who have had the power in writing, dictating and interpreting it are. Religious texts, customs and values can be reframed and refreshed through a feminist lens to create a more equal environment for faith: that's where feminist theology comes in.
What is feminist theology?
Feminist theology, like the feminist movement as a whole, has two sides — theory and practice. On one hand, it's grounded in academia — the study of religion from a critical perspective on gender (and, increasingly, sexuality and race). However, the academics in the field prioritize making their theory accessible, because so much of feminist theology takes place in practice. Since the goal
of feminist theology is to change the way we participate in and think about religion, it relies on the active efforts of women in religious communities striving to change the customs and rhetoric.
Feminist theology aims to push back against patriarchal norms in religious communities, texts and customs. It asks why, in the overwhelming majority of religions, the deities and authorities we follow and worship are male. Why do so many religious customs rely on sexist restrictions placed on women, their behaviors and their appearances? In what ways has religious rhetoric been used, even manipulated, to support and uphold patriarchy? Under a feminist religious practice, the aspects of patriarchy that have taken precedent in religious communities and religious doctrine are challenged, paving the way for a more equal and just faith and society surrounding it.
Because each religion has its own distinct customs and ideals, feminism in each religion looks different. That being said, patriarchy tends to be at the center of most religions and has many common effects on gender within their respective religious spheres, which is no coincidence.
So to address religion broadly, there are some central themes of feminist theology that apply to movement regardless of faith or denomination:
• Feminizing god-language.
As mentioned, most of the time we hear about god being a "He." Apart from in religions that have multiple deities and worship both gods and goddesses, God is usually characterized as male and referred to with masculine language. As many feminist theologians believe, this characterization of an all-knowing, transcendent being as male is selectively interpretive. Surely God is above gender, and even if they weren't, why do we assume it's a guy? The result of this choice is to enforce patriarchy through religion while distancing the relationship women get to have with God. Including feminine language in discussions of God — characterizing God as female or even neutralizing the language to be non-gendered — allows women to connect with their spirituality in a way they never have before and removes the ultimate patriarch from the conversation about religion and feminism.
• Reinterpreting religious texts.
Apart from God language, there are many stories and anecdotes in religious texts that emphasize men and their contributions and undermine those of women. Also, these texts are often used to justify women's place within society by passing off sexist values and customs as religiously-mandated and traditional. Feminist theology seeks to reinterpret religious texts to emphasize the role of women and the values of equality that are often overlooked in a male-dominated approach.
• Challenging male-centered leadership.
Women have been excluded from church leadership by multiple faiths for a very long time. Part of having a feminist religious practice means having women in the religious community in positions of power. Part of the problem, feminist theologians believe, is that the interpretation of religion has been in the hands of men in religious leadership positions, which has led to a less-than-feminist religious landscape.
How do people of different faiths practice feminism and feminist theology?
Each religion has its own systematic beliefs and customs, so the application of the themes above will look different in each of them. How feminism is expressed in different faiths is determined by the precedent of oppression within customs, hierarchies of leadership and scripture and the level of agency women have within the community.
Here's what feminism looks like in different prominent religions.
Islamic feminism tends to focus on fighting for gender equality in a secular society — in other words, separating religious influence from sexist, patriarchal restrictions put on women. Feminists within Islam seek to contextualize the religion within society and reinterpret the Quaran, challenging the notion that gender inequality is supported by the religious text. Muslim feminists have argued that female autonomy is supported by the holy texts, and it is the interpretation of these texts within a male-dominated society that has led to women's position within the faith. However, the two are not inherently linked, and it is possible to use Islam as a basis for advocating for women's rights within society.
Buddhist feminists try to reconcile the existing conflicts between core ideas of Buddhism and western feminism. For example, despite Buddhist concepts of enlightenment that seek to eliminate hierarchies within humans and all beings, women in Buddhist religious stories glaringly occupy a lesser position to that of men. However, all Buddhist concepts are gender-blind, and Buddhism at its core advocates for feminist values. It has merely been interpreted by men that have been unable, despite desiring enlightenment and seeking to transcend the physical realm, to extricate their perspectives from systemic patriarchy and sexism
Buddhist feminists seek to centralize and reclaim the aspects of Buddhism that emphasize the equality and interconnectedness of all beings. Through this, they can advocate for a more feminist faith.
Feminism within Christianity has taken several different approaches to reconcile the conflicts between a society with gender equality and Christianity. At the center, though, is the idea that God is not discriminatory and does not treat followers differently based on gender or race. Christian feminists aim to reinterpret the Bible in a feminist light, arguing that much of the Bible supports feminism but has been interpreted — largely by male clergy — otherwise. Other common pursuits of Christian feminism are fighting for the inclusion of women in church leadership, where they have long been excluded, and pursuing a female or genderless portrayal of God.
It's worth noting that some prominent Christian feminist thought leader
s have, after devoting themselves to feminist theology in the faith, concluded that feminism and Christianity are too opposed to coexist and have pivoted to critiquing and condemning the religion and its role in perpetuating inequality in society from outside it.
Hinduism appears much less at odds with feminism than some of the other religions. Historically, under ancient Hinduism, women and men are equally valued, and women even take precedent in some scripture, particularly in prayer language surrounding wedding vows. Characterization of multiple deities allows for religious texts that highlight gods and goddesses, and there's a lot of evidence to suggest that in many stories and proverbs, women take the lead and are followed by men. Also, there are many prominent female rishis, or enlightened and revered religious leaders, documented in ancient Hinduism. In more recent, monotheistic eras, there have been branches of Hinduism — specifically Shaktism — that specifically recognize a feminist deity for worship and reinforce the fact that, under Hinduism, men and women are equal in all measures.
Feminist scholars within Hinduism highlight the equality inherent in Hinduism, bringing it to the societies that center the faith and advocating for equality for women within social spheres in a way that is backed up by religion.
Jewish feminists strive to elevate the status of Jewish women to that of Jewish men in social, religious and political spheres. Some feminists within the movement advocate for the importance of a feminine deity and inclusion of feminine language and traits surrounding God in prayer books. The inclusion of this feminine emphasis on God, some feminists argue, can transform women's religious experiences and help them connect with their faith in a personal way that only men have been afforded. Jewish feminism also seeks to push back against male-dominated interpretations of religious texts that have led to their subordinate place in society, advocating for social equality.
While some more traditional and Orthodox Jewish communities continue to see feminism as an unwelcome Western intrusion on Jewish tradition, some more liberal factions of the faith have taken great feminist strides. Prayer books released as early as 2007 remove masculine language around God, include increased attention to matriarchs in religious stories that tend to focus on male prophets and even neutralize the emphasis of the gender binary in the language of the prayers.
The canon of feminist theology is always updating and improving, as do the feminist movement and the role of faith in our societies.
Here are some core texts that the practice is founded upon, and some more recent works, in case you want to learn more.
- “The Human Situation: A Feminine View” by Valerie Saiving
- "The Creation of a Feminist Theology" by Phyllis Trible
- "Female God Language in a Jewish Context" by Rita Gross
- "God Is a Woman and She Is Growing Older" Margaret Wenig
- "Islam, Feminism, and Islamic Feminism: Between Inadequacy and Inevitability" by Fatima Seedat
- She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse by Elizabeth A. Johnson (specifically focused on Christianity)
- In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza
- The Forgotten Queens of Islam by Fatema Mernissi
- The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust by Melissa Raphael