- Women now look up to their faiths for equal roles
How it happened, no one knows. But Asma Jahangir’s funeral prayer in Lahore saw men and women standing together – an un common act in a Muslim society. Whether it was the awe of Asma even after her death, or a crack in the mindsets, nobody objected. For some, it is still not a big deal. It was a big gathering, there were no separate arrangements for men and women since traditionally, Muslim women do not take part in funeral prayers, with many observing strict pardah and not even visiting the grave yard. But the fact that women stood shoulder to shoulder with men and offered prayer of such a nature probably for the first time in their lives of does point to a change. It would not be surprising that at homes and mosques, women now start taking part in a ritual previously participated in only by men.
Gender Parity is a movement taking place globally. A sizeable number of women now literate and more aware are demanding equal rights, equal education and employment opportunities, equal work conditions, equal pay – equality in all walks of life. And religion does not seem to be an exception.
In most religions, a person heading or representing a faith and religious clerics are men. Some rituals are performed only by men. Some places of worship do not allow women to enter. And God is also a masculine entity – the All Powerful, All Knowing, Omnipotent – characteristics probably thought to be too strong to be associated with women. But some disagree.
The Guardian reported last year that ‘the Church of Sweden is urging its clergy to use gender-neutral language when referring to the supreme deity, refraining from using terms such as “Lord” and “he” in favour of the less specific “God.” The national Evangelical Lutheran church has 6.1 million baptised members in a country of 10 million, headed by a woman, Archbishop Antje Jackelén.
In France, a woman rabbi – one of only three – preaches in a synagogue hidden in a parking garage and guarded by police. In a country where Jewish life is overwhelmingly Orthodox, Delphine Horvilleur is something of a scandal, a married mother of three who defies centuries of gender norms. She remains unrecognised by France’s central Jewish authority and extremists regularly threaten her on social media.
Two years ago, Supreme Court judges in India held that Hindu women cannot be restricted from entering holy sites. For centuries, many temple managers in the country have used ‘tradition’ as an excuse to stop women from entering a place of worship
Jamida in India also received extreme backlash on social media for leading Friday prayers in its southern state of Kerala. While various schools of thoughts differ on whether a woman may be imam or leader of a jamaah, a congregational prayer, Muslim women in many countries around the world have led prayers in mixed congregations, with some countries having females only mosques with women imams. Jamida herself went against centuries of Sharia law, saying it was a male-dominated religious practice which needs to be challenged and she will continue to lead prayer alongside other women. ‘We follow the Quran. It addresses humankind as men and women and does not discriminate between them. Both men and women have an equal role in religion,’ asserted the woman prayer leader.
With an overwhelming population as the country’s largest minority, Muslims in India also witnessed their first female qazis or Muslim judges last year, a role traditionally assumed only by men. Jehanara Begum, a woman from Rajasthan and 15 took part in a two year programme at the Darul Uloom Niswan, an institution in Mumbai that has begun to train Muslim women from all around the country. The new batch of female qazis insist that they will follow the requirements of Muslim personal law in India that are often overlooked by the male qazis, those being to demand documents to show the groom’s qualifications, proof of income, asking for divorce certificates if they say they are divorced and death certificates if they say their wife has died. This year, India also allowed Muslim women over the age of 45 to go on the holy pilgrimage of Hajj to Mecca without a mahram, a male escort.
Two years ago, Supreme Court judges in India held that Hindu women cannot be restricted from entering holy sites. For centuries, many temple managers in the country have used ‘tradition’ as an excuse to stop women from entering a place of worship. The Sabarimala temple prohibited women from entering, arguing that they are impure while menstruating. A controversy was stoked when the board’s president wanted to install machines outside the temple to check if women who are menstruating are trying to go into the temple. But denying or restricting a woman’s entry to a place of worship was seen as an infringement of her constitutional rights and the struggle for equal access to temples triggered a public commotion, including a social media firestorm on Twitter with the hashtag #RightToPray.
Increasingly across the world, women are seeking roles to provide a service to the faith to which they belong. Each week, two women versed in Islamic law and religion visit a prison outside of Milan. The ‘spiritual guides’ aim to limit the spread of Islamic extremism amongst inmates. Yamina Salah, who has a degree in Islamic law, teaches a course open to some of the 173 Muslim inmates housed in a prison outside of Milan. After each visit, Salah and her partner send a full report to the Italian minister of justice.
Although women feature as prominent theological figures in almost all religions, leading a faith or an important ritual mostly belong to men. Women aiming to take lead in religion is mostly seen as controversial and in defiance to ‘Divine’ rules, subject to some kind of decree for acceptance – usually from a man. But participation in a ritual is broadly accepted as a basic right, for both men and women who hold their faith close to their hearts. After all, religions are for the humanity, not for a specific gender.