Project Conversion

Project Conversion

Women in Religion: Second-Class Believers?

A member of the Project Conversion Facebook page (affectionately called the “Congregation“) recently wrote:

It is a fact that many women are verbally and physically abused yet many religions put the man over the woman and/or make it a sin for the woman to leave “wedlock”. How can those be reconciled?

Thanks for asking such a difficult question, it’s what I live for. That, and bathing in acid. Just kidding. Here’s my answer:


Superficially, yes, it appears that women are generally found wanting in the larger world of religion. Of course there are exceptions that stand in the face of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, yet these usually evolve out of reform movements later on in a faith’s movement.

That said, the rise of new religious systems are often rebellions against the status quo of the current political, social, and/or theocratic models of their day. Here are a few examples of how women are treated in various faiths either due to scriptural directive or the culture built around the faith:

  • Ultra conservative Islam, as practiced by groups such as the Taliban or the Wahhabi movement, require women to be fully covered and veiled using niqab or burqa. While ostensibly utilized to protect the modesty of these Muslim women, many view this as a sign of male dominance using the Qur’an and Hadith as validation. Such verses in the Qur’an include Sura 33:53, 33:59, and 24:30-31.
  • There is also the issue of less than equal inheritance, power of witness, and others in the Qur’an for women.
  • In the New Testament, Jesus does not appear to explicitly cover the role of women, however his most famous apostle, St. Paul, goes to great lengths in spelling out the parameters of women. Women, according to 1 Corinthians 11: 3-12 describe how men are the “head” of women and how women should veil themselves in prayer as in other cases. 1 Corinthians 14: 33-35 instructs that women should remain silent in church (it is shameful for women to speak) and should reserve all questions for their husbands at home. Women are not permitted ordination in many Christian sects and denominations.
  • When the Buddha first instituted the Sangha (the order of monks), he refused admission to women. Only after the challenge of his trusted disciple, Ananda, did he relent, however not without conditions and a dire prediction. Buddhist nuns were given additional guidelines and rules which in some ways, subordinate them to monks. The Buddha also predicted that the Dhamma would only last half as long with women ordained.
  • While women are regarded as equals in the eyes of the Baha’i Faith, they are conspicuously ineligible to sit on the 9-member council of the Universal House of Justice, the highest governing body of the Baha’i Faith. A defense of this ruling can be found here.

For the purpose of space, I cannot go over cases of apparent inferiority in every faith, however do not take the examples above as the only representatives of less-than-modern outlooks on the role of women in society and faith. In many cases, these faiths reformed harsher conditions on women from previous religions. To be fair, there are other faiths, such as various Pagan traditions, Jainism, and Sikhi in which gender equality is exemplified–often ahead of its time.


The question posited to me was, in light of the abuses and general misogynistic tendencies of faith juxtaposed with our modern landscape, can these apparent dichotomies be reconciled?

Honestly? No, not without reform, and reform is exactly what is happening. Many are re-reading the script of our religious traditions and re-casting them in our modern light. Women are now leading congregations across many traditions, serving as teachers and champions of faith. For every scripture-based grievance listed above, there are debates raging over the interpretation and context of these rules, regulations, and practices within scripture.


But the question remains: If we have to refashion our faith from antiquated norms in order to fit within our modern sensibilities and notions of equality and justice, did they hold much value to begin with? If scripture is the infallible, timeless word of the divine, how can we justify transforming them to our satisfaction? Shouldn’t they hold just as true now as they did when first uttered?

Personally, this is the issue I have with scripture. While I value these documents for their struggle to articulate and understand this idea of the divine, they more often than not reveal the fragile construct and hegemonic tendencies of human thought. Human minds tend to compartmentalize ideals and reject much of anything that threatens or contradicts these protected theological files, so it’s no wonder we have such a diverse religious landscape and interfaith warfare.


Because I view religions as pseudo-organic memes subject to the same principles and stimuli of evolution as we are, I dare say we haven’t seen the last of so-called “revelation.” Just as every faith is often a protest and revolution against its theological contemporary, perhaps we are on the cusp of a new religious evolution where struggles with gender equality, for example, are finally subdued.

So, is there a chance to reconcile? Perhaps not, but there is always room for another critter to evolve amidst the chaos.

Jai Vita.


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posted November 28, 2014 at 9:39 pm

BRAVO for that statement KAY!!
I also don’t feel that my body should have anything to do with anything. Could we ever be human to each other??
EVen in Bahai’s Most Holy Book, the virginity proof is of utmost importance. Are women always going to be interpreted by men??

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posted June 1, 2012 at 12:18 am


Indeed she did. Too bad a woman’s leadership was no longer required in later generations. Given that the Baha’i Faith is an openly progressive one, perhaps this notion will change with time. I do not deny that Baha’is have done much for equality, however I am not stating an argument, but simply pointing out facts of the faith.


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posted May 31, 2012 at 6:31 pm

Much to be reviewed at

including graphs of percentages of women serving at national levels as well as proportions of women serving in prominent capacities.

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posted May 31, 2012 at 6:28 pm

Keep in mind the daughter of Baha’u’llah, Bahiyyih Khánum was operating as head of the religion during the journey’s of Abdu’l-Baha to the west.

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posted May 25, 2012 at 10:51 am


I appreciate your perspective. The listing of the Baha’i position on females serving on the Universal House of Justice was not a critique, only a statement of fact left for the reader to explore, which is why I offered a link for its defense. Motivations and rational are, of course, up to the members of the faithful to discern.


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posted May 25, 2012 at 10:49 am


Indeed, don’t hide.


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Sam Karvonen

posted May 25, 2012 at 5:25 am

Thanks Andrew for raising the all-important issue of gender equality and for candidly voicing your personal views. I take your measured criticisms of revealed religions also as a healthy sign of questioning for the sole purpose of establishing the truth. We agree on so many issues, but obviously also disagree on some. I call it “healthy sparring” with a kindred spirit.

Since the Bahá’í Faith was explicitly offered as an example of historical cultural milieu affecting affecting even the most progressive of religions, I would like to humbly offer my differing opinion. Let me offer a little more insight into the Bahá’í practice and views. Yes, Bahá’u’lláh was raised in an ultraconservative Islamic society in the 19th century Persia. You are also correct that he was a radical (like Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad) who challenged the prevailing notions of the times. So much so that his challenge led to his banishment and life imprisonment. However, one of his views that greatly challenged, not only the Islamic world, but the Western world too, was veritable the following:

“Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God. Verily God created women for men, and men for women.”

I haven’t found in religious history, not even in Sikhism, any statement on equality that is as explicit as the above, or as clear on God’s Will on the subject. And there are other similar ones from Bahá’u’lláh. Not even the suffragettes stated anything of the sort, nor established it as a Divine principle, but rather as a political and secular one. These words (and others similar to it) were written at the time when English and American women were legally and practically the property of men. Yet they were written by a Persian prisoner in Ottoman Palestine.

So to even imply that Bahá’u’lláh’s views on gender equality reflect the cultural milieu is diamterically contrary to the truth. Bahá’u’lláh is “the” prophet to establish gender equality as a God-given truth and commandment, as clearly as possible. Pardon my bluntness. Whatever reasons he had for the specific ruling on the Universal House of Justice, doesn’t counter this essential truth. Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, the famous Persian poetess and heroine who shocked the male public by couragiously and openly removing her veil as a statement of the new revelation of the Báb, was indeed a Bábi/Bahá’í figure. She was the 18th Letter of the Living (the group of the Báb’s first disciples who were given this special title). The highest personal offices in the Bahá’í Faith are not House members but Hands of the Cause, the highest-ranking of which was a woman (Ruhiyyih Rabbani). The House of Justice is indeed the highest administrative institution but the members have no official status as individuals whatsoever. The act solely as a consultative body. As individuals they are particularly known for their humility (albeit great learning).

Here is an interesting recent talk by Hooper Dunbar. Dunbar is a long-serving member of the Universal House of Justice who, owing to age, recently retired and moved back to California (from Haifa, Israel).

Bahá’u’lláh’s son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, whom the Bahá’ís regard also as having been very specially endowed, was asked the question about the male membership in the Universal House of Justice by an American woman (a Bahá’í herself). These are the exact words from the letter of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to the woman (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 80):

“The House of Justice, however, according to the explicit text of the Law of God, is confined to men; this for a wisdom of the Lord, which will ere long be made manifest as clearly as the sun at high noon.”

For the Bahá’ís, there’s a presently unknown “wisdom” in this ruling which will become apparent “as the sun at high noon” to the whole world in the future. In all the other Bahá’í bodies men and women serve together. The real question, therefore, is whether or not ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Bahá’u’lláh really possessed some spiritual “wisdom” on the matter of the House of Justice that we don’t. In any case, the principle of gender equality remains very much one of the most explicit teachings and practices of the Bahá’í Faith, setting it effectively apart from most religions (yes, I daresay with some confidence). For those of us who have through our own gradual investigation become fully persuaded by the supreme wisdom inherent in most of Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s elucidations, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is right and hence there indeed must be a “wisdom” (read: rationale) that will, in the future, become manifest as clearly as “the sun at high noon”.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá also clearly states that one *cannot* infer from the fact that women do not serve on the Universal House of Justice that “either sex is inherently superior or inferior to the other” (Dawn of a New Day, p. 85).

But it’s entirely justified and understandable to ask the question why. It is very understandable on the surface that a Faith which regards itself a spearhead of equality incorporates some practical details that *seem* to run counter to its own ideals. But like the art world knows, perfect symmetry always includes a detail that appears asymmetric. God’s logic is always simple in its basic outlines, but never simplistic. It is profound.

Key to the Baha’i understanding of equality is that *equality* doesn’t logically imply *identity*. Equality therefore doesn’t have to mean an absolute identity of roles and functions. For instance, in the Baha’i Writings the *girls* are given preference when children’s schooling is concerned and a choice must be made between a boy or a girl. The rationale is explained and easy to understand. However, unlike the case of girls and schools, the rationale for the exclusive male role in the House of Justice remains a genuine enigma in the Baha’i Writings which, we trust, only the future will make clear. We readily admit accepting the matter on pure faith in Bahá’u’lláh’s “wisdom”. The statement by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá seems to suggest that mankind is currently simply not ready to receive the reason. I know, this doesn’t reassure the critic in any way. But neither can anyone demonstrate that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is wrong.

However, we do know from other explicit verses and explanations in the Writings that the reason cannot be any presumed difference in the intellectual or spiritual capacities of men and women. The Writings are rather clear that men and women are equal in all their essential intellectual and spiritual powers, and that, in fact, women are superior in certain powers. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá repeatedly mentioned in his speeches in America that only lack of equal education and encouragement has resulted in outward disparities in performance between men and women. Nothing else.

Kind regards,


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posted May 24, 2012 at 9:37 pm

This is on aspect of most religions that I have struggled with and why I have never been able to say publically that I belong to one faith or another. I cannot accept that God, who made me with the same mental capacity as another but with female reproductive organs rather than male, would make me any less human. I am not ashamed of my monthly flow, I am not afraid to speak my mind, and I will not hide my body because it might tempt a man. I am a woman and if God had actually meant to make me inferior he would have made it so I wouldn’t have questioned it. A bird does not question why it has wings, it just flys. I have a mind, why would I hide this gift that I believe God gave me?

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