Gender and religion

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Sex differences in religion can be classified as either "internal" or "external". Internal religious issues are studied from the perspective of a given religion, and might include religious beliefs and practices about the roles and rights of men and women in government, education and worship; beliefs about the sex or gender of deities and religious figures; and beliefs about the origin and meaning of human gender. External religious issues can be broadly defined as an examination of a given religion from an outsider's perspective, including possible clashes between religious leaders and laity;[1] and the influence of, and differences between, religious perspectives on social issues. For example, various religious perspectives have either endorsed or condemned alternative family structures, homosexual relationships, and abortion.[2] External religious issues can also be examined from the "lens of gender" perspective embraced by some in feminism and/or critical theory and its offshoots.

In studies pertaining to gender patterns in religions, it has been widely accepted that females are more likely to be religious than males. In 1997, statistics gathered by Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle theorized this phenomenon into three primary causes. The first explanation is that women feel emotions at greater heights than men do, thus women tend to turn to religion more in times of high emotions such as gratitude or guilt. The second explanation is that female socialization is more likely to align with values that are commonly found in religion such as conflict mediation, tenderness, and humility. In contrast, male socialization is more likely to emphasize rebellion, thus making the guideline aspects of religion less appealing. The third explanation, which is also the most recent theory, is that females are more likely to be able to identify with religion as a natural consequence of societal structures. For example, since a majority of religions emphasize women as caretakers of the home, the societal expectation of women to take greater responsibility than men for the upbringing of a child makes religion an appealing commitment. Another example is that traditionally, men tend to work outside the home whereas women tend to work inside the home, which corresponds to studies that have shown that people are more likely to be religious when working inside of their homes.[3]

Gender of deities[edit]

The earliest documented religions, and some contemporary animist religions, involve deification of characteristics of the natural world. These spirits are typically, but not always, gendered. It has been proposed, since the 19th century, that polytheism arose out of animism, as religious epic provided personalities to autochthonous animist spirits in various parts of the world, notably in the development of ancient near eastern and Indo-European literature. Polytheistic gods are also typically gendered. The earliest evidence of monotheism is the worship of the goddess Eurynome, Aten in Egypt, the teaching of Moses in the Torah and Zoroastrianism in Persia. Aten, Yahweh and Ahura Mazda are all masculine deities, embodied only in metaphor, so masculine rather than reproductively male.

Some scholars[4] suggest that ancient religious Goddesses have been reinterpreted to follow specific gender roles. For example, the Nordic goddess Freya first represented war and love, but after centuries, she was transformed into only representing love and a sexual behaviour. The Hindu goddess Kali is interesting because she breaks the typical gendered role of women representing love, sex, fertility and beauty because she is simultaneously the goddess of the life cycle as well as destructive war. An example of the typical female goddess is Aphrodite, who is shown as vain, simple, and beautiful.

Various 19th-century scholars[who?] of comparative religion proposed that prehistoric animism worshipped nature viewed predominantly as matriarchal religion, a feature notable also within neopaganism. However, anthropological research of the early 20th century, among many pre-literate cultures, established a consensus against this theory.[citation needed]

In Christianity, one entity of the Trinity, the Son, is believed to have become incarnate as a human male. Christians believe that the other two entities in the Trinity, the Father and the Holy Spirit, have never been incarnated, hence having masculine gender rather than male sex. Islam, on the other hand, has a tradition that the name Allah, like its referent, can be allocated neither grammatical nor natural gender. Masculine pronouns for Allah in the Qur'an are interpreted as generic.

The gender or genderlessness of God is a controversial issue in many monotheistic and some henotheistic religions.[citation needed] While God has traditionally been portrayed as a masculine figure, this deity is also called Mother, and there has been an increasing view that God is synonymous with mother nature, and is feminine.

Creation myths about human gender[edit]

The creation myths of many religions contain stories about how humans came to have gender.

In many stories, man and woman are created at the same time, with equal standing. Some scholars[who?] suggest that one such example is the creation story in Genesis 1: "And God created the man in his image. In the image of God he created him. Male and female he created them."[5] Some commentators interpret the parallelism to be deliberately stressing that mankind is, in some sense, a "unity in diversity" from a divine perspective (compare e pluribus unum),[6] and that women as well as men are included in God's image. The first man, Adam, has been viewed as a spiritual being or an ideal who can be distinguished as both male and female; an androgynous being with no sex.[7] Some[who?] argue that Genesis' gender-inclusive conception of humanity contrasts sharply with the views of gender found in older literature from surrounding cultures. Some go so far as to suggest a higher status of women in western society due to Judæo-Christian influence, and based on this verse.[8] Some scholars, such as Philo, argue that the "sexes" were developed through an accidental division of the "true self" which existed prior to being assigned with gender.[9]

In other accounts, man is created first, followed by woman. This is the case in the creation account of Genesis 2, where the first woman (Eve) is created from the rib of the first man (Adam), as a companion and helper.[10] This version is normally cited by Jewish authorities in support of patriarchy, and likewise by Christian interpreters.[citation needed] A similar story appears in the Qur'an.[citation needed] There is an interesting correlation between the two gender creation stories, both stories imagine the ideal of the unitary self. However, the unitary self is either androgynous or physically male; both of which are masculine in configuration. Thus male and female are to become one; meaning that she is to become male.[11]

The second creation story of Adam and Eve became influential in regards to how women were viewed in Victorian society by means of the "Eva/Ave Palindrome" where Eva was woman in her weak and evil state, based on Eve in the Garden of Eden and Ave was Mary (as in Ave Maria), the new holy and pure ideal that was impossible for women to mimic.[12] Historically, women have been placed into two categories; women and virgins. Women who become intimate with men are marked women, whereas those who do not participate in such acts and who are divinely inspired are considered virgins. Thus women can escape from being gendered as women if they participate in celibacy.[13]

In Plato's Symposium, Aristophanes provides an account to explain gender and romantic attraction.[14] There were originally three sexes: the all male, the all female, and the "androgynous", who was half man, half woman. As punishment for attacking the gods, each was split in half. The halves of the androgynous being became heterosexual men and women, while the halves of the all male and all female became gays and lesbians, respectively.[15]

Leadership roles[edit]

Some religions restrict leadership to males.[citation needed] In a small minority of religious some select roles are restricted to women only.[citation needed] The ordination of women has been a controversial issue in some religions where either the rite of ordination, or the role that an ordained person fulfills, has traditionally been restricted to men because of cultural or theological prohibitions.

Beginning in the 19th century, some Christian denominations have ordained women.[16] Among those who do not, many believe it is forbidden by 1 Timothy 2. Some of those denominations ordain women to the diaconate, believing this is encouraged by 1 Timothy 3-4. Some Islamic communities (mainly outside the Middle East) have recently appointed women as imams, normally with ministries restricted to leading women in prayer and other charitable ministries.

Indian religions[edit]

Both masculine and feminine deities feature prominently in Hinduism. The identity of the Vedic writers is not known, but the first hymn of the Rigveda is addressed to the masculine deity Agni, and the pantheon of the Vedas is dominated by masculine gods. The most prominent Avatars of Vishnu are men.

The traditional religious leaders of Jainism are all men.

Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) was a man, but the female Buddha Vajrayogini is very important in Buddhism. Buddha stated[where?][which?] that men and women are equally capable of attaining Nirvana, but some prominent Buddhist thinkers have expressed contrary opinions.[17]

Abrahamic religions[edit]

In Abrahamic religions, Abraham himself, Moses, David and Elijah are among the most significant leaders documented according to the traditions of the Hebrew Bible. John the Baptist, Jesus and his apostles, and Saul of Tarsus again give the New Testament an impression of the founders and key figures of Christianity being male dominated. They were followed by a millennium of theologians known as the Church Fathers. Islam was founded by Muhammad, and his successor Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman ibn Affan and Ali, for Sunnis and Ali ibn Abi Talib and The Twelve Imams for those of Shia faith, were also men. On the other hand, The Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, is not associated with leadership or teaching, but is nonetheless a key figure in Catholicism. Fatimah, daughter of Muhammad is regarded by Muslims as an exemplar for men and women.

The Bahá'í Faith, a fast growing religion, teaches that men and women are equal, and there have been many and prominent women celebrated in Bahá'í history such as Bahiyyih Khánum, who acted head of the faith for several periods during the ministries of `Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, and Táhirih, who is also held by Bahá'ís as a penultimate leader. Women serve in higher percentages of leadership in appointed and elected national and international institutions of the religion than in the general population. However, only men are allowed to be members of the religion's highest governing body, the Universal House of Justice. See Bahá'í Faith and gender equality.

Nakayama Miki was the founder of Tenrikyo, which may be the largest religion to have a woman founder. Ellen G. White was instrumental to the founding of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and is officially considered a prophet by Seventh-day Adventists.[18] In particular, White's biblical commentaries and other writings are often considered inspired or even infallible.

Mary Baker Eddy was the founder of the Christian Science movement.[19]


A mechitza in Livingston, New Jersey.

Many religions have traditionally practiced sex segregation.

In traditional Jewish synagogues, the woman's section is separated from the men's section by a wall or curtain called a mechitza.[20] Men are not permitted to pray in the presence of women, to prevent distraction.[20] The mechitza shown in the picture on the right is one in a synagogue affiliated with the 'left wing' (more modern side) of Modern Orthodox Judaism, which requires the mechitza to be of the height shown in the picture. More traditional or 'right wing' Modern Orthodox Judaism, and all forms of Haredi Judaism, requires the mechitza to be of a type which absolutely prevents the men from seeing the women.

Enclosed religious orders are usually segregated by gender.

Sex segregation in Islam includes restrictions on interaction between men and women. Men and women also worship separately in most mosques. According to the Quran, women are not permitted to enter the mosque unless they cover their hair with hijabs and their bodies with modest clothing. Additionally, they are not to wear perfume, nail polish, or any other things that can cause sexual distress to men. For this reason, women pray behind men or in separate rooms from men in order to avoid causing sexual distress to them.[21]

Roles in marriage[edit]

Nearly all religions recognize marriage, and many religions also promote views on appropriate gender roles within marriage.

Two notable views are Complementarianism and Egalitarianism.

In Genesis 3, Adam names his wife Eve ("life") because she "was the mother of all living" (Genesis 3:20).


In Islam, a woman's primary responsibility is usually interpreted as fulfilling her role as a wife and mother, whereas women still have the right and are free to work.[22] A man's role is to work and be able to protect and financially support his wife and family.[23]

In regards to guidelines in marriage, a man is allowed to marry a Muslim, Jewish, Sabaean, or Christian woman whereas a woman is only allowed to marry a Muslim man. Both genders cannot marry nonbelievers or polytheists.[24]

The matter of divorce is discussed in verse 2:228 of the Qu'ran. The Qu'ran instructs women to wait at least three menstrual periods, called Iddah, before committing to a second marriage. The purpose of the Iddah is to ensure that a woman's pregnancy will be linked to the correct biological father. In the case of a Talāq, which is a divorce initiated by the man, the man is supposed to announce the words "I divorce you" aloud three times, each separated by a three-month waiting period. Certain practices of the Talāq divorce allows the "I divorce you" utterance to be completed in one sitting; however, the concept of "Triple Divorce" in one sitting is considered wrong in some branches of Islam such as with the Shia Muslims. During the three-month waiting period, only the man has the right to initiate a marital reunion if both sides desire to reconcile. This yields a gender equality perspective in the sense that women have power over men in regards to finance parallel to how men have power over women in regards to obedience, both of which are only valid to a reasonable extent. While a Ṭalāq can be completely easily, a divorce that is initiated by the woman, called a Khula, is harder to obtain due to a woman's requirement to repay her dowry and give up child custody. More specifically, a woman is to give up custody of her child if the child is over the age of seven. If a woman gains custody of her child who is under the age of seven, she must still forfeit custody upon the child's seventh birthday. Although the Islamic religion requires the woman to repay her dowry, she is also entitled to receive financial support from her former husband if needed. This cycle of financial matters protects the woman's property from being taken advantage of during or after marriage.[25]


The complementarian view of marriage is widely accepted in Christianity, the husband viewed as the leader and wife viewed as the follower.[26] Essentially, the man is given more of a headship role and the woman is viewed as a supporting component. In mainstream Christian tradition, the relationship between a husband and wife is believed to mirror the relationship between Christ and the Church. This can be seen in Ephesians 5:25:[27]

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

The man, Christian traditionalists assert, is meant to be a living martyr for his wife, "giving himself up for her" daily and through acts of unselfish love.[28] The woman, on the other hand, is meant to be a helper.[28]

While this has been the norm for years, some Christians are moving towards more Egalitarian views.[29] As the nature of gender roles within the societies churches operate within changes, views on what "natural" roles look like have been shifting as well. What once would've been rejected, gender equality within heterosexual marriage, is now being brought in as a viable option within the faith.[29]

Homosexual gender roles within marriage have not been widely expounded upon by Christian churches due to the inconsistency in doctrine regarding the issue across the faith as a whole.[28]


In many religions, abortion is considered immoral. For example, abortion is seen in Christianity as the taking of God's gift of life, bestowed upon a child.[citation needed] This viewpoint is often justified by the statement that women have the God-given gift of being able to bear a child, and thus should use this gift.[citation needed]

The Catholic Church recognizes conception as the beginning of a human life, thus abortion is prohibited under all circumstances. However, according to the Second Vatican Council, women who have had an abortion but are willing to commit to the right of life are ensured forgiveness.[30]

In Hinduism, it is a woman's human duty to produce offspring, thus having an abortion is a violation of that duty. The Vedas, which is an age-old sacred Hindi text, suggests that abortion is more sinful than killing a priest or one's own parents.[31] The practice of a woman having an abortion is deemed as unacceptable in the Hindu community, both socially and morally.[32]


Homosexuality is expressly forbidden in many religions, but typically in casuistic rather than apodictic laws. As such, the rationale for such proscriptions is not clearly evident, though avoidance of procreation and contribution to society via establishing families are sometimes offered as pragmatic considerations.

In general, homosexuality is perceived as sinful in conservative movements and fully accepted in liberal movements. For example, the Southern Baptist Christian denomination considers homosexuality a sin whereas the American Baptist denomination perceives homosexuality on an inclusive scale.[33]

Feminism and religion[edit]


The feminist study of gender and religion began in the 1960s and '70s, when some scholars and women (e.g., Mary Daly) began to feel increasingly dissatisfied with the position of women in religion. There were two main aspects of traditional religious institutions that were problems for feminists[who?] in Christianity:

  1. Christianity was typically androcentric. The texts, leaders, experiences, and rituals were focused on men, and women were seen as the deviants from the cultural normality.
  2. It was patriarchal. All of the leaders were men and assumed to be strong and assertive, whereas women were seen as subservient, passive and weak and thus unfit to be in a high position within religion. In support of these claims, feminists[who?] have noted that some religious leaders considered women as morally inferior to men, and many[who?] have considered women the source of temptations,[citation needed] especially sexual temptations, for men. In traditions where God is considered male, there is sometimes a view that men are more like God than women. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11:7, Paul asserts that man "is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man". In some cases[who?] leading to a view of male superiority and female inferiority.

Feminism has engaged with Christians in three main ways:

  • from outside religions as, often critically or as "Rejectionists", feminist scholars have cited religious texts and practice as evidence of patriarchal institutions within humans societies, antithetical to feminist aims;
  • from within religions as "Traditionalists", some members, scholars and leaders sympathetic to feminism have attempted reforms to harmonize contemporary religious thought and practice to be more in line with feminism; and,
  • independently of established religion, also as Rejectionists, some feminist thinkers have attempted to construct a theology or range of religious practices based on feminist principles, notably but not restricted to Wicca, neopaganism and various New Age religions.

In contrast, Christian writer and speaker Paul Coughlin[34] argues that male influence in Christianity is overstated, and moreover that a substantial misandric undercurrent has existed in American Protestantism for many decades:

Here are some of the messages Christian men have been told [by religious leaders], some for decades:

  • If there is a major problem in a couple's marriage, whether or not it leads to divorce, it is ultimately the husband's fault.
  • Women are more moral and spiritual than men.
  • Women are more sensitive to the Holy Spirit than men. ...
...beating up on Christian men in church is good business in Christian media [and husbands] have been told that a "good Christian man" does not confront his wife about her [abusive, self-absorbed or unreasonable] behavior. His spiritual training has told him that accepting abuse is synonymous with sacrifice, so he sits there and takes it.

Feminist theology[edit]

Feminist theology is a movement,[citation needed] generally in Christianity and Judaism,[citation needed] to reconsider the traditions, practices, scriptures, and theologies of their religion from a feminist perspective.

Likewise, those who practice feminist spirituality may adhere to a feminist re-interpretation of Western monotheistic traditions. In these cases, the notion of God as having a male gender is rejected, and God is not referred to using male pronouns.

Religious support for gender equality[edit]

Some religions, religious scholars and religious have argued that "gender inequality" exists either generally or in certain instances, and have supported a variety of remedies.

Pierre Chaunu has argued that the influence of Christianity is the main factor leading to equality for women.[8]

Priyamvada Gopal, of Churchill College, Cambridge, argues that increased gender equality is indeed a product of Judeo-Christian doctrine, but not exclusive to it. She expresses concern that gender equality is used by western countries as a rationale for "neocolonialism".[35] Jamaine Abidogun argues another interesting perspective: that Judeo-Christian influence has indeed shaped gender roles in Nigeria (a strongly Christianised country); however, she doesn't consider feminism to be a product of Judeo-Christian doctrine, but rather a preferable form of "neocolonialism".[36]

Specific religions[edit]

More information on the role of gender in specific religions:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Juschka, Darlene. "Gender." In ed. J. Hinnels. The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2010:245-258.
  2. ^ 'Unborn Child Protection Bill' Archived March 3, 2016, at the Wayback Machine., State Parliament of New South Wales, 2006.
  3. ^ de Vaus, David; McAllister, Ian (1 January 1987). "Gender Differences in Religion: A Test of the Structural Location Theory". American Sociological Review. 52 (4): 472–481. doi:10.2307/2095292. JSTOR 2095292. 
  4. ^ Davidson, Deborah. Class Lecture. Introduction to Women's Studies. Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo. 21 Jan 2009.
  5. ^ Genesis 1:27
  6. ^ See Geneva College discussion of a biblical foundation for a broader concept of multiculturalism based on this verse" "Rather, human diversification receives its first mention in Genesis 1:27, where the text announces the creation of the one human race: 'So God created the human race in his own image ... male and female he made them.' The text's singular term, 'human race' (`Adam in Hebrew), is specified as diverse in gender, male and female. Diversification immediately receives further stimulus in the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:28: "Be fruitful, increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it." This divine command calls explicitly for the scattering of the race—a theme that shall recur in the Genesis narratives—and thus calls implicitly for cultural diversification." Byron Curtis, "A Blueprint for Excellence Through Diversity at Geneva College", (Geneva College, 1999).
  7. ^ Boyarin, Daniel. "Gender." In ed. M.C. Taylor. Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998: 120.
  8. ^ a b "Pierre Chaunu also contends that the very recognition of women as full fledge human beings depends on moral and ethical categories that derive ultimately from the Bible. He points out, for example, in his book Foi et histoire (Faith and History, 1980), that it is only in those cultures where the biblical text and Christianity have had some long term influence, that the status of women has gradually improved from that of property and progenitor to that of a full human being, equal to man. In cultures where the biblical text has not had any significant impact, women are regarded as property whose main purpose is to produce children. In such cultures, women are married as soon as they are able to procreate, they have little or no access to formal education, and they are allowed little self-determination. The main reason behind this social transformation is fundamentally linked to a statement found in Genesis 1:27: 'God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.' This text affirms the intrinsic dignity of both men and women regardless of their gender or social status. This is in stark contrast to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia where the value of human beings was primarily determined on the basis of their social standing." Pierre Gilbert, How the Bible Shapes Our World
  9. ^ Boyarin, 120.
  10. ^ Genesis 2:18
  11. ^ Boyarin, 124.
  12. ^ Deborah Davidson. Class Lecture. Introduction to Women's Studies. Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo. 21 Jan 2009.
  13. ^ Boyarin, 122.
  14. ^ Richard L. Hunter, Plato's Symposium, (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 60.
  15. ^ The Symposium of Plato, 189c2-193d5
  16. ^ "Religious sexism: when faith groups started and stopped ordaining women". 
  17. ^ "Women are messengers of hell. They cut off the seeds of Buddhahood.[…] women can no more attain Buddhahood than can a dried-up seed sprout." Quoted in "Nirichen, Selected Writings," Issue 26 of Asian Studies At Hawaii, 1980, University of Virginia Press, ISBN 0-8248-0682-4.
  18. ^ "Fundamental Beliefs". Seventh-day Adventist Church. Retrieved 2006-11-01. 
  19. ^ "Who is Mary Baker Eddy?". 
  20. ^ a b "Synagogues, Shuls and Temples". Retrieved 2007-02-25. 
  21. ^ "Conditions of women going out to the mosque -". 
  22. ^ Ahmed, L., 1992, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, New Haven, Yale University Press.
  23. ^ Hessini, L., 1994, Wearing the Hijab in Contemporary Morocco: Choice and Identity, in Göçek, F. M. & Balaghi, S., Reconstructing Gender in the Middle East: Tradition, Identity & Power, New York, Columbia University Press
  24. ^ "Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement". Archived from the original on 2015-02-02. 
  25. ^ Imani Jaafar-Mohammad, Esq.; Charlie Lehmann (April 11, 2011). "Women's Rights In Islam Regarding Marriage And Divorce". William Mitchell Journal of Law and Practice. Retrieved August 23, 2016. 
  26. ^ DeRogatis, Amy. "What Would Jesus Do? Sexuality and Salvation in Protestant Evangelical Sex Manuals, 1950s to the Present". Church History. 74 (1): 97–137. doi:10.1017/S0009640700109679 – via Cambridge Core. 
  27. ^ "Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her". 
  28. ^ a b c Grudem, Wayne, ed. (2002). Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood (PDF). US: Crossway Books. ISBN 1-58134-409-0. 
  29. ^ a b Thomas, G. (2013). The sacred search: what if its not about who you marry, but why? Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook.
  30. ^ "Evangelium Vitae (25 March 1995) – John Paul II". Archived from the original on 2015-02-12. 
  31. ^ "BBC – Religions – Hinduism: Abortion". 
  32. ^ Coward, Harold G.; Lipner, Julius; Young, Katherine K. (1 January 1989). Hindu Ethics: Purity, Abortion, and Euthanasia. SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0-88706-763-1. 
  33. ^ "Christian views of homosexuality – ReligionFacts". 
  34. ^ Coughlin, Paul. "Pain and Prejudice Archived July 23, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.", 2007.
  35. ^ "The insistence that equality is a western concept to be defended against the incursions of others relies on a continued deafness to resistant voices from outside Judaeo-Christian contexts. This, ironically, makes the self-proclaimed liberals who insist on this useful collaborators for authoritarian chauvinists from outside the west. For they are all in curious agreement that women's equality is a western concept and call for it, accordingly, to be either enforced (that's why we sent in the troops) or rejected (by keeping women secluded)." Priyamvada Gopal, "West has no monopoly on battle for gender equality Archived June 12, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.", Kuwait Times September 30, 2007.
  36. ^ "These perceptions demonstrate a pattern of gender roles shaped by Western Judeo-Christian doctrine within the formal education curriculum, minimal inclusion of local history or cultural content, and loss of indigenous knowledge and practices. Gender-role change is one aspect of a general Westernizing effect of formal models of Western education on indigenous cultures." Jamaine Abidogun, "Western education's impact on Northern Igbo gender roles in Nsukka, Nigeria", Africa Today (2007).

External links[edit]