FEMINIST THEORIES OF
FOR A2 SOCIOLOGY:BELIEFS IN
• Feminists see society as patriarchal- based on male
• Many feminists regard religion as also patriarchal that
reflects and perpetuates this inequality.
• Religious beliefs function as a patriarchal ideology that
legitimates female subordination.
EVIDENCE OF PATRIARCHY
• They are mainly male dominated despite the fact that women often
participate more than men in organisations. For example, Orthodox
Judaism and Catholicism forbid women to become priests. Armstrong sees
women’s exclusion from the priesthood of most religions as evidence of
PLACES OF WORSHIP
• They often separate the sexes and marginalise women, e.g. seating them
behind screens while the men occupy the central and more sacred spaces.
• Women’s participation may be restricted, for example, not being able to
preach or to read from sacred texts. Taboos that regard
menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth as polluting may also prevent
participation. For example, in Islam, menstruating women are not allowed
to touch the Qur’an. Holm describes this as the devaluation of women in
• They largely feature the doings of male gods, prophets ect, and are usually
written and interpreted by men. Stories often reflect anti-female
stereotypes, such as that of Eve who in the Judaeo-Christian story of
Genesis, caused by humanity’s fall from grace and expulsion from the
Garden of Eden.
RELIGIOUS LAWS AND CUSTOMS
• These may give women fewer rights than men, e.g. in access to divorce,
how many spouses they may marry, decision making, dress codes ect.
Religious influences on cultural norms may also lead to unequal treatment,
such as genital mutilation or punishments for sexual transgressions.
• Many religions legitimate and regulate women’s traditional domestic and
reproductive role. For example, the Catholic Church bans abortion and
artificial contraception, Woodhead argues that the exclusion of women
from the Catholic priesthood is evidence of the Church’s deep unease
about the freedom of women in general.
• Feminists argue that women have not always been subordinate to men within religion.
Armstrong argues that early religion often placed women at the centre. For
example, earth mother goddess, fertility cults and female priesthoods were found
throughout the Middle East until about 6,000 years ago.
• However, from about 4,000 years ago, the rise of monotheistic religions saw the
establishment of a single, all-powerful male God, such as the Hebrew’s Jehovah, and
male prophets such as Abraham/Ibrahim, the first prophet of Judaism, Christianity and
• While religion may be used to oppress women, Saadawi argues that this is not the direct
cause of their subordination. Rather, this is the result of patriarchal forms of society
coming into existence in the last few thousand years.
• However, once in existence, patriarchy began to influence and re shape religion. For
example, men reinterpreted religious beliefs in ways that favoured their dominance.
• Thus, religion now contributes to women’s oppression. Like Armstrong, Saadawi sees
the rise of monotheism as legitimating the power of men over women.
• Woodhead criticises feminist explanations that simply equate religion with
patriarchy and the oppression of women. While accepting that much
traditional religion is patriarchal, she emphasises that this is not true of all
religion. She argues that there are ‘religious forms of feminism’- ways in
which women use religion to gain freedom.
• Woodhead uses the hiijab or veil worn by many Muslim women. While
Western feminists tend to see it as a symbol of oppression, to the wearer it
may symbolise resistance to oppression. Woodhead argues that some
Muslim women choose to wear the hiijab to escape the confines of the
home and enter education and employment. For them, the hiijab is a
symbol of liberation that enables them to enter the public sphere without
losing their culture and history.
• Women also use religion to gain status and respect for their roles within the
private sphere of home and family e.g. belonging to an evangelical group can
be empowering for some women. Despite the strong belief in traditional
gender roles that such groups hold, women are able to use religion to increase
their power and influence. For instance, a strongly held belief among
evangelicals is the that men should respect women.
• This gives women power to influence men’s behaviour by insisting that they
practise what they preach and refrain from ‘macho’ actions.
• Similarly, women make use of activities linked to the church, such as bible
study groups to share experiences and to find support.
• We should also note that the position of women within some religions is
changing. For instance the Church of England has permitted women’s
ordination into the priesthood since 1992 and about a fifth of all priests are
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