Religion and feminism

Religion and feminism

Women'sStudies Int. Forum, Vol. 17, No. 6, pp. 593-607, 1994 Copyright © 1994 ElsevierScienceLtd Printed in the USA. All rights reserved 0277-5395/94 ...

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Women'sStudies Int. Forum, Vol. 17, No. 6, pp. 593-607, 1994 Copyright © 1994 ElsevierScienceLtd Printed in the USA. All rights reserved 0277-5395/94 $6.00 + .00

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0277-5395(94)00066-2

RELIGION AND FEMINISM A Consideration o f C u l t u r a l C o n s t r a i n t s o n Sri Lankan W o m e n THALATHA SENEVIRATNE a n d JAN CURRIE School of Education, Murdoch University, Murdoch, Western Australia 6150

S y n o p ~ - T h e r e is considerable evidence that discrimination against ~vomen exists in the economic, social, and cultural spheres in patriarchal societies. The women's movement has attacked most vociferously women's lack of opportunities within the labour market and the political arena. However, if women are to be fully liberated, one of the most important struggles will have to be against the accepted values and attitudes arising from cultural and religious practices. This article analyses interviews from Sri Lankan women living in Colombo and Perth, Western Australia on women's attitudes to religious notions. The results demonstrate the impact of religious ideas and practices on the majority of women who were interviewed in 1984-85. Except for the feminist respondents in the sample, the majority of women believed that they should carry out certain practices which subordinated them to their male partners and placed women on a lower rank than men within the community.

In every social group there are systems of beliefs about the nature of the appropriate behaviour of women and men. Some of these beliefs stem from the influence of religious norms and rules imposed from above or are the result of traditions and conventions that have come down through the ages and have gained strength of facts which are not easily challenged. Sri Lanka has inherited certain economic and social characteristics which have constrained women's behaviour. These attitudes and prejudices about women have developed from the more recent colonial experiences as well as from precoloniai, feudal practices. Before colonisation by a succession of European powers, Sri Lanka was under the influence of the Indian subcontinent and its social system and ideology. Under Hinduism, the accepted norm in society was that a woman's duty was to marry and procure sons (Geiger, 1960). A modified form of the Hindu caste system also relegated women to a subordinate status (Ryan, 1984). Both Hinduism and Buddhism have influenced traditional social norms in Sri Lanka, which have led to the notion that the husband is considered the head of the family and the woman plays a secondary role all through her

life. First she is a daughter to her parents, then a wife to her husband, and finally a widow to her son. The ideal image of women is still portrayed in magazines and films as the home maker who attends to domestic chores and is engaged in child bearing and rearing. The concept of a single woman or spinsterhood has still to gain cultural acceptance, while the age old notion of male protection continues to dominate women's and men's behaviour. The dowry system and arranged marriages are still popular institutions, especially among the educated middle class. Even though the dowry system has been outlawed in India, there is no legislation in Sri Lanka to outlaw it. In 1938 there was a motion to outlaw the dowry which, according to Jayawardena (1986, p. 130), "was dealt with facetiously by several members of the legislature and was defeated by one vote (Hansard, 27 October 1938)." This article argues that besides the blatant structural aspects of the economy that subordinate women, it is the cultural conditioning of both men and women that contributes to women's subordinate position in society. It is that kind of cultural conditioning that allows the dowry and arranged marriages to con593

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THALATHASENEVIRATNE and JAN CURRIE

tinue and prevents women f r o m taking a more prominent position in all kinds o f institutions within society, whether they are religious, political, or social. There are m a n y beliefs and customs, some o f which are tied to religious notions, that relegate women to a subordinate status. This study found that no matter which religion, Buddhist, Hindu, or Christian, Sri Lankan women followed certain religious practices which led them to see females as inferior or submissive to males. It was only the Feminist group of women who were at all critical of religious practices that subordinated women and questioned the role o f women in these religions. Three questions were used to ascertain women's attitudes to religious notions. The first of these attempted to find out whether women considered that their religion gave them a subordinate status. This was followed by asking them whether they believed that women have sinned in their previous birth to be born as a woman. A third question was given to find out their behaviour during menses and other religious practices. THESTUDY This study is a small c o m p o n e n t o f a m a j o r research project undertaken to investigate the feminist consciousness o f Sri Lankan women living in Perth and C o l o m b o . This article examines the religious attitudes and practices of women who profess to be Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus. One o f the researchers (Thalatha Seneviratne) interviewed Sri Lankan women living in Perth and Colombo. Between March and May 1984 a small n o n r a n d o m sample of 30 married Sri Lankan women living in Perth was interviewed. This group could be defined as an opportunity sample which gave a chance to explore the major issues which could be investigated on a comparative basis with a sample in Sri Lanka. In March 1985 three different groups in Sri L a n k a were interviewed. There were 30 middle class educated women similar to those in Perth, 29 women less educated and of a low socioeconomic group, and 11 feminist women (of mixed socioeconomic backgrounds). The feminist women belonged to the Women's Centre and the Voice o f

Women, two groups which had organised to improve the position of women in Sri Lanka. These organisations were aligned to the trade union movement and to left political parties. A snow-bailing technique o f sampling was used to gain interviews with women who represented different perspectives within Sri Lankan society. In Perth it was not possible to gain a varied socioeconomic sample since most migrants f r o m Sri L a n k a are highly educated and come f r o m professional backgrounds. Because both samples are small and limited in scope, the results cannot be generalised to the wider Sri Lankan society. However, the interviews provided a rich source of data concerning the beliefs and attitudes of these women which may not have been obtained in a larger statistically oriented study. Previous studies have indicated that favourable attitudes toward feminist notions correlate positively with higher social class (Fox & Auerbach, 1983). As a result of these studies, we expected to find positive feminist attitudes a m o n g the women interviewed in Perth who represented middle class Sri Lankans (defined by their high education and professional status or that o f their husb a n d s ) J When this did not eventuate, a more varied sample of women was chosen to interview in Sri Lanka. This study, therefore, wanted to determine if there was any relationship between feminist values and socioeconomic status and also whether women belonging to the three religious groups in Sri L a n k a would have different feminist values. Besides grouping the women by their religious backgrounds, they were grouped according to their location (Perth or Colombo) and their socioeconomic status (middle or lower class). A fourth group o f feminists was kept as a separate group because they were interviewed for their political stance rather than belonging to a particular socioeconomic class. The concept of feminism is subject to m a n y kinds o f definitions, and no universally acceptable definition exists. According to Randall (1982), there are two ways to look at feminism. One way to define it is to look at the definition historically. The other, which is more complex, is to identify the guiding principles (Randall, 1982, p. 4). It is the latter kind o f definition which is included in this study. After reading a wide range of feminist

Religion and Feminism

literature, it is evident that there seems to be some consensus on issues which these writers deemed as essential feminist goals. The researchers are aware that their ideological perspectives would influence the choice of these goals and would identify themselves, according to the different perspectives described by Tong (1989) as having a basically socialist feminist outlook. From this point of view, five feminist goals were included to question the women about the views on feminism. They are: 1. There should be equality between men and women before the law and in respect of their having equal potential to acquire human capabilities. 2. Women should be valued as individuals and not according to any derived status. 3. Any ideas that limit women's status based on traditional customs and religious notions should be rejected. 4. Solidarity should be encouraged among women, based on the idea that feminist women develop an empathetic attitude toward other women, especially toward women who are in similar or more oppressed conditions than they are. 5. There is a need to change legislation and attitudes that can remove current exploitation of women in the home and in the labour force in order to gain control over their personal, economic, social, and political destinies. The larger study investigated the attitudes of women to some of these principles. In this article we concentrate on the religious practices of women and their view of certain religious ideas. The principles of feminism as detailed here helped us to group certain women in the feminist category because they belonged to groups which were actively trying to improve the conditions for women in Sri Lanka and followed many of these feminist principles. RELIGION AND WOMEN Religion has considerable influence on the traditional forms of culture (Bellah, 1965). It also provides meaning in life. Jung (Jacohi, 1971), for instance, was convinced of the importance of myth and symbol in human life. Likewise, Geertz suggests that religion is a system of symbols which has both psycholog-

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ical and political effects because it creates deep-seated attitudes and feelings that lead to the acceptance of social and political arrangements that correspond to the symbol system (1979, p. 274). Geertz echoes the notion suggested by Marx that religion keeps people dependent on authority and thwarts their desire to improve their material situations. According to Marx (cited in Selsam & Martel, 1963), religious beliefs are not merely illusory, but they stand in the way of human beings mastering both nature and social relations in the interests of a better and fuller life. He further maintains that religion preaches unqualified subordination to the exploiters and submission to fate and nonresistance to evil by the exploited. At the same time, it paralyses the exploited's revolutionary energy and dooms them to passivity and to patient waiting for everything to be done by God's will. The stories about the kingdom of heaven and the happy life in the other world divert the working classes from the real issues of oppression and from their revolutionary struggle for a just social system. The feminist critique of religion adds a further dimension to the Marxist analysis. Apart from keeping people dependent on authority, religions are also sexist. For example, the Christian religion, with a male God and traditions of male leadership legitimates the superiority of men in family and society (Clark and Richardson 1977; Daly 1968, 1973; Plaskow and Romero 1974; Ruether 1972, 1974). Most feminists contend that sexism has permeated deeply the human psyche, and much of this sexism could be derived from religious notions and practices. Not all feminists reject the value of religion and would contend that there is a human need for ritual, symbol, and myth. The first wave of feminists attacked religion as a source of sexism. Elizabeth Caddy Stanton in 1895 was one of the first to point out how much the Bible degraded women (Stanton, 1895/1974), while Lucy Stone in 1897 tried to revise the Bible in the light of feminist thinking (Willard & Livermore, 1987). Contemporary feminist critiques of religion range from those who try to revise to those who reject the religious traditions. Feminist critiques of Eastern religious traditions, especially of Hinduism and Buddhism,

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THALATHASENEVIRATNE and JAN CURRIE

are few compared to the studies on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Critiques which exist of both Western and Eastern religions detail the subordination of women which has been created in part by the image o f womanhood developed over centuries (Currie & Kapadia 1983; Gunatilake 1982; King 1975; Leslie 1983; Metha 1982; Wadly 1978, 1980). Buddhism and women

In the case o f Buddhism, its liberalising influences have often been overemphasised. Theoretically, Buddhism recognises equality between men and women, and both sexes are charged with the duty o f following the Dhamma. The Buddha saw no intellectual difference between men and women when he said: "be it woman, be it man, for whom such chariot doth want, by that same can enter Nirvana's presence shall they come" (Majjima Nikaya in H o m e r , 1954). It is also recorded that Nirvana or the highest spiritual goal is open to both men and women. There should also be no barriers for women to enter the Bikkuni Order of Nuns. This order originally existed in the country but became extinct about the tenth century AD. Recent attempts to revive it have created tumult among the Buddhist community, both lay and clergy in Sri Lanka. Thus, Buddhism, as a liberal reaction against orthodox Brahamanism, elevated the status of women. However, after a modicum o f equality, the scales have been tipped in favour of males. For instance, the Buddha allowed women into the order under the eight high ordinances, the first one asked nuns, even ordained a hundred years ago, to show respect to a monk just ordained. In the Chullavagga it is stated that Buddha has made this clear in the following manner. "You are not, oh monks, to bow down before women, to rise up in the presence, to stretch out your joined hands towards them, nor to perform towards them those duties that are proper (from an inferior to a superior)" (Horner, 1952, p. x.3.1). As Leslie (1983) has argued, these incongruities make sense only when one realises that the Buddha himself was facing a tricky strategic problem. He preaches salvation for all yet does not wish to be accused o f undermining social norms. Consistent with this perspective, Horner (1930) suggests that the

ideas of Buddha may have been distorted because scholarship and texts were in the hands of males who interpreted them to suit the patriarchal ideology o f the time. The interpretations of these notions both in the Buddhist texts and folklore perhaps led to the concept o f male dominance and the subordination o f women in the course of its institutionalisation. Even at present, although every temple has its Kulangana Sarnithiya (Women's Committee), the Dhayaka Sabaha (the board of management, which makes all important decisions) is an all male body. The women's committee is normally entrusted with the responsibility o f performing poojas (rituals) and the maintenance of the temple. A study o f Gunatilake (1983) of contemporary Buddhist nuns in Sri Lanka reveals their intellectual and spiritual struggles within an unequal framework. Personal interviews with senior monks have indicated the contempt of the male hierarchy for these nuns. The study also highlights the reactions of the young, militant nuns who have the courage to challenge the views of the monks, which is demonstrated by this extract from a letter written by a 30-year-old nun to a distinguished monk in the country: Isn't there anybody to speak up for the nuns even in this women's decade? They who have given up house and home for the sake of Dhamma and have fallen into insecurity. The vast majority that frequent the temples are women. They who know more suffering than men need emancipation and Nirvana (Supreme bliss) as much or more than men. In the absence o f an order, how can they, the pious women lead a life o f renunciation and purity? (Gunatilake, 1983, pp. 11-12) The present status of these nuns as a marginalised group and the absence o f a Bikkuni order deprives women of the institutional support for the development of their spirituality. It also closes up an important avenue through which women can bring to bear their own religious perspectives on matters of national concern. Apart from these inequalities in the spiritual sphere, the ideal propounded for the lay women in society is not very different from

Religionand Feminism

the Hindu perspective. The woman has to serve the man. The idea of the mother as a self-sacrificing and benevolent figure is very much present in Buddhist thought. The images of the religious and historical personalities which have made the greatest impact on women in Sri Lanka reveal virtuous and faithful wives or self-sacrificing, devoted mothers, such as Yasodara, the devoted wife of Prince Siddartha who suffered in silence after the prince left her and her son in quest of the truth. She was an ideal example of female chastity. Other such examples were Kinnari in the Sandakinduri Jataka 2 and Amara in the Ummagga Jataka who suffered in silence and remained faithful to their husbands. The self-sacrificing ideal of women is well portrayed in the life of Madri Devi who agreed to give away her children as servants to a Brahamin so that her husband could attain Buddhahood. Hence, women have always had to make room for men, thus assuming a secondary role for themselves. According to Ryan, Karmic law seems to explain the concepts of merit and sin in doctoral Buddhism. "The fact that a wife is born a woman and a husband a man is prima facie evidence of sin and merit in a previous existence" (1984, p. 127). Thus, the dominance of the husband and the submission of the wife axe rationalised by both sexes to Karmic law. In his study of the Singhalese family system, he found that the wife was ideally supposed to be at least 7 years younger than her husband so that paternalistic authority could be transferred to the husband. The women in this study indicated that their fathers transferred their control over to their husbands and they insisted that beating was not sufficient cause for them to return home (1984, p. 127). Risseeuw found that women professed a preference for the male sex in their next life

(1980, p. 64). This report (Risseeuw, 1980)also observed that Sri Lankan women kept strict adherence to the custom of menstrual pollution. During periods she must conceal any symptoms of her state from the male members of her family and community. She should not frequent religious places and temples during her menses, nor attend religious ceremonies. During menstruation farm women in the North Central

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Province have to ritually purify themselves before starting work in the field. Moreover women are never allowed to touch the threshing floor, as their uncleanliness might seriously reduce the yield. In contrast men are not in any way unclean during their lives. (1980, p. 58) The notion of impurity among women therefore tends to dominate the lives of many Buddhist women, although Buddha himself discarded ritual and sacrifice and emphasised the purity of the mind over body. This contradiction is also apparent in the fact that in order to attain Buddhahood, which is a very rare event in the original Theravada Buddhism, a woman has first to be a man. In the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra it is stated: the body of a woman is filthy and not a vessel of the law. Moreover, a woman by her body still has five hindrances; she cannot become first, King of the Brahma-heaven; second Sakra; third Mara King; fourth a holy emperor and fifth a Buddha. (Kern, 1983, pp. 190, xi) Perhaps the religious practices concerning women's pollution and inferiority may have inf'dtrated from the dominant ideologies of Hinduism. According to Babb (1975), purity appears to be a universal rule of Hindu Ceremonialism. Purity must be understood in relation to the complementary notion of pollution. These two concepts are poles of a conceptual opposition that is virtually omnipresent in Hindu life. This opposition has both social and religious implications and indeed constitutes a point of fusion between these two cultural domains. In religious contexts it defines who or what may not be brought into contact with a deity. In the social structural context, it provides the conceptual basis for hierarchy. (Babb, 1975, p. 48) Hinduism and women

In the case of Hinduism, women enjoyed many privileges and religious rights in common with men during the Vedic period (AItekar, 1939). However, the period that followed saw the gradual decline of their status.

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During the period o f Smiritis, the famous Laws o f Manu were written down from which sprang many ideas and notions which led to unquestionable male dominance and the subordination of women under Hinduism. Thus it is written down that in childhood a female must be subjected to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons, a woman must never be independent (Manu V: 147, cited in Altekar, 1938, p. 329). The evil and weak nature o f women is the reason given for their inferior status. Manu says that in the process o f creation women were allotted love o f bed and o f ornament, impure desires, wrath, dishonesty, and bad conduct (V: 147). It is therefore the duty o f a man even o f low caste to watch and protect his women in the interest of his offspring. The duty o f the wife on the other hand is to worship the master (Pati) as her first God for only then can she hope to attain any spiritual gains (Mies, 1980, p. 44). What was expected of a woman was therefore unquestioning obedience to her husband, unlimited service to him however unfair his demands, however low he may have been normally (Currie & Kapadia, 1983, p. 31). In the classical texts, such a woman is called pativarta or one who worships her lord, the ideal w o m a n h o o d in Hinduism. Hence a woman could not hope for a life without marriage or without a husband. In marriage she had to be a pativarta and bear him sons for the performance o f his funeral rites. With the death of her husband the life o f a Hindu woman became one of absolute misery. During the early periods, strict codes had to be followed by widows and the custom of Sati or the burning o f widows on the funeral pyre o f their husbands began to be practiced. As Mies indicates, for a widow, death on the pyre was the highest fulfilment o f the pativarta ideal. It also liberated her from a miserable, hated, unloved, and lonely life in the house o f her father-in-law (Mies, 1980, p. 49). These Hindu ideas have influenced the lives of many Tamil Hindu women in Sri Lankan society. A study by Skjonsberg (1982) o f Tamil women in Sri Lanka found that wife beating was a c o m m o n phenomenon. Most women in Thoppukadu have received at least one severe beating in this life,

and once may be quite enough to instil the desired wifely behaviours. As one woman put it "it is because we are afraid of being beaten that women have come always to obey men" (Skjonsberg, 1982, p. 192). These ideas of male dominance and male superiority have moulded the lives and behaviour of not only the poor illiterate women but also their educated sisters in the more affluent classes. For Hindu women share with women everywhere the myth o f feminine evil (Hayes, 1972). Widows are thought to be dangerous not merely because they lack a husband to control them but also because they have not behaved properly in this or previous l i v e s that is, they have not maintained self-control (Wadley, 1980). If a woman had properly performed her religious rituals, appeased the deities, or had been chaste, her husband would not be dead. A barren woman, too, is considered a sinner as depicted in this poem from the Tamil epic, The Two Brothers: Oh King, I have no son In that world, in that country I was called a sinner, a sinner there. (Beck, nd, p. 84) Moreover, the barren woman is also feared because it is thought that her barrenness can injure others. Elder sister, the barren one, comes towards us The children will develop sores. (Beck, nd, p. 84) Hence, the ideology that widows and barren women have sinned, have not been controlled, and are viewed as unpredictable and capricious is developed within society. Tapper (1979) claims that Telugu widows are believed to have excess uncontrolled passion, lust, and desire. Widows are considered inauspicious because of previous lack of control and potentially out of control because they lack a superior male (Wadley, 1980). The extreme asceticism imposed upon them can therefore be understood as an attempt at control. For example, traditionally, a widow is expected to shave her head and wear only a plain sari, to dispose of her jewels and ornaments, to avoid attending auspicious occa-

Religion and Feminism

sions, and to eat no more than one spare meal a day. More than simply reflecting general ideas of Hindu renunciation, such practices specific to women symbolically approximated death (Robinson, 1985). Thus, as Hoch-Smith and Spring (1978) maintain, such notions are perpetuated mainly by males but they are also internaiised and perpetuated by women as demonstrated by some of the women in this sample. Christianity and women Although the Christian women in the study appeared to be liberated of the notion that women are inferior, the majority of them were unaware of the beliefs within their own religion that tend to control and dominate the lives of women. The image of women in Christianity is, however, not uniform (King, 1975) due to the contradictory images which may have resulted from the different time periods in which the Bible was written and by the different perspectives of the male writers. According to Currie and Kapadia (1983), a deeply embedded notion is the idea of a male God who sent as his representative to Earth, a son and not a daughter. Hence the notion of an androgynous God combining the masculine and feminine or as an asexual force that is neither male nor female has not been endorsed by most Western theologians. Clark and Richardson (1977) and Goldenberg (1979) indicate many instances where patriarchal notions seem to dominate the ideas of twentieth century theologians. Goldenberg quotes Pope Paul explaining why priests must represent Christ and nuns could not replace them.

The priest must resemble God. If the priest looked very different from Christ, a follower would not feel an immediate connection between God and the priest who was supposed to embody him. The Pope realised that people experience God through his representatives. If one were to change the sex of the God's representative, one would be changing the nature of God himself. (Goldenberg, 1979, p. 6) Another image of women in Christianity is that of the self-sacrificing mother. Farians

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(1972) illustrates this image in the following quote: It is noble to suffer, to endure pain in God's name is salvific; to be humble and patient is to be Christ like. It is their (women's) nature to be in subjection. To be feminine is to be humble and submissive. Suffering is not only women's lot and hence pleasing to God, but women have a special capacity to endure suffering. It is their nature to suffer. (Farians, 1972, p. 193) Farians further argues that although religion is supposed to be most concerned with justice, instead it has been an obstacle to social progress and justice. She observes a fundamental antagonism between women's liberation and the Church (Farians, 1972, p. 192). Even in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the idea of pollution taboos have not completely disappeared. Archer's (1990) research found that the menstrual taboo was similar in the early Christian churches where it was applied to maintain the purity of the Temple. Among orthodox Jewish women the taboo of menstruation means that they have to "abstain from physical contact with their husbands during their times of bleeding and for 7 days thereafter ( = 2 weeks every month; Archer, 1990, p. 40). Ruether (1990) also acknowledges these taboos in orthodox Judaism and suggests that similar ideas persist in some Christian sects. "Although menstrual taboos and generalised views of women as impure are less explicit in historical Christianity, remnants of such concepts persist even in Western churches (Ruether, 1990, p. 7). Furthermore, she notes that these kinds of purity laws "surviving today as an echo, an implicit feeling, rather than an acknowledged principle" (Ruether, 1990, p. 16) and can be felt even in Lutheranism which has had married priests for four centuries. Even in this religion, "the notion that the mere presence of a woman acting as priest pollutes the sanctuary can still be a powerful belief" (Ruether, 1990, p. 17). Therefore, the conversion of many Sri Lankans to Christianity made little alteration to traditional notions. Grossholtz (1984) argues that the decline of Buddhism and the spread of Christianity only enhanced the process of devaluation of women. Christianity

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took patriarchy as a given and reduced the personhood of women to roles o f wives and mothers. THE RESULTS Subordination o f women A not unexpected but rather surprising response emerged from the question of whether these women considered religion to give them a subordinate status. Nearly three fourths of the total sample (74°7o) felt their religion did not have practices which subordinate women. In contrast to this view, all of the respondents in the feminist group expressed that religions confer an inferior status on women and mentioned situations where women were subjected to such subordinate status. Yet less than one fifth of the other groups were able to mention such practices (see Table 1). In the Perth group, the women belonged to three religions, namely Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. In this group it was only the Buddhists (17070) who indicated any awareness o f women's subordinate status within their religion. These were a result of religious beliefs which prohibited women from touching sacred objects such as the relics of the Buddha and from entering sacred areas as the shrines of Hindu Gods and mosques in the case of Muslim women. Three women o f this group, however, maintained that Buddhism was a far more democratic religion than Islam and Hinduism. They felt that this was because Buddha gave women a more equal status compared to their subordi-

nate role in the other two religions. The rest o f the Perth group (83°70) stated that they were not aware of religious practices which conferred a secondary status on women. In the Colombo middle-class group there were 14 Buddhist, 10 Christian, and 6 Hindu women. None of the Christian or Hindu women mentioned any religious practices that subordinated women. Again it was only a minority of women who were all Buddhists (20%) who expressed awareness o f such practices. O f these, two mentioned the ideas associated with women's unclean status that have influenced religious practice. The rest o f the Buddhist women stated that they were not aware o f any religious practices or beliefs associated with women's subordination. In the low socioeconomic group in Colombo there were 20 Buddhists, 5 Christians, and 4 Hindus. Only a small percentage of this group (14%), and all of them (4) Buddhists, identified that notions of pollution or unclean status were often responsible for their inferior status in certain religious practices. The rest of the group (86o7o) indicated that they were not aware o f any practices which subordinated women. The Feminist group was composed of seven Buddhists, three Christians, and one Hindu. All o f the Feminist group in Colombo (100o70) were aware of women's subordination in the major religious traditions. Many o f the respondents stated that capitalist elements in the country use religion as a means to keep women in subservient positions by reinforcing such qualities as docility, patience, sacrifice and devotion to men as feminine vir-

Table 1. Awareness o f women's subordination in religion by group (percentages) Group

Response

Perth middle

Colombo middle

Colombo low socioeconomic

Colombo feminist

Total

W o m e n are given a subordinate position in certain religious beliefs and practices

17

20

14

100

26

Not aware of any religious beliefs and practices which confer a subordinate status on women Total

83

80

86

0

74

100 (30)

I00 (30)

100 (29)

lO0 (11)

100 (100)

Religion and Feminism

tues. Some of them also pointed out that most of the religious hierarchies are dominated by men, and while they have played a socially liberating role for oppressed sections in society, at present they are supportive of the male-dominated bourgeois ideology brought about by capitalist development. On the other hand, one feminist noted that there are both liberating and constraining features in Buddhism, which is the religion of the majority of the population. She explained that Buddha advocated an intellectual role for women, and he saw no intellectual difference between the sexes. Yet to attain Buddhahood, which is a very rare happening, a woman has first to be born a man. In her life time, she can only attain 'arahatship' which is only the second stage in enlightenment. According to another Feminist respondent, both Buddhism and Hinduism have become inextricably bound up with myths and rituals dating back to a prerefigious phase in society. Many of these have a constraining effeet on women, limiting their freedom and mobility, which is indicated in this response. Many people continue to believe in sooth sayers, astrologers, fight readers, auspicious times and exorcising devils. There is a wide spread belief that women are easily possessed by devils like 'Disti'. Hence they should not go out alone after dark. Women are more susceptible to these befiefs than men. They resort to nonscientific remedies in the form of 'Yantra Mantra' (talismans and charms) and 'Yak Thovil' (exorcising demons). All these practices are not prescribed in the religions but date back to rituals in ancient times. (Feminist respondent) Meanwhile, a Christian Feminist pointed out that the church does not accept women's ordination and therefore instils the notion of women's subordination. Religion and culture legitimise the subordinate role of women. Some denominations of the Christian faith refuse ordination rights for women. An objection often made by the Church is that even if men take part in politics, women should not because their main role is to be a mother and a wife. If it is accepted that to be a true

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Christian is to work for the values of the kingdom, then according to this argument, a woman is no Christian, (Feminist respondent) The majority of women were unaware of religious practices that subordinated women even though it was obvious from the comments of the other women that there were well-known practices that could only be interpreted as giving women inferior status. It is difficult to know why they were unaware of these or unwilling to respond in the interview that they knew of these practices. Aside from the Feminist women, it was by and large the Buddhist women who seemed more aware of these practices. The women's class background was not associated with whether they recognised these practices within their religions. Previous sin The second question put to the respondents was whether they believed inthe idea of previous sin. The majority of the respondents (68%) rejected this notion. Except for the respondents in the low socioeconomic group, the majority of women in the other three groups stated that they did not believe in the notion of previous sin (see Tables 2 and 3 in Appendix). The majority (73%) of the Perth respondents rejected the notion of previous sin and labelled it as a superstition. In this group there were a few (23%) who believed in the concept of Karma, meaning that a person's good and bad deeds tend to have an effect on his/her next birth. But they did not believe in the idea that women are born as women due to previous sin. Most of the women in this group lead comfortable lives which they found difficult to rationalise with the idea of previous sin. They were not necessarily rejecting the notion, but may have been implying that they had not sinned in their previous life but other women's unfortunate circumstances could be due to their sins in a previous fife. As one respondent, the wife of a professional, remarked:

I don't believe in this, because I don't think I have sinned to be in this position. I am quite comfortable and happy as I am. (Perth middle class respondent)

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Table 2. Attitudes towards the notion of previous sin by group (percentages) Group

Response

Perth middle class

Colombo middle class

Colombo low socioeconomic

27

27

55

0

32

73

73

45

100

68

100 (30)

100 (30)

1(30 (29)

100 (l ! )

100 (100)

Believe in the notion o f previous sin Do not believe in the notion of previous sin Total

In the C o l o m b o middle class group, about a quarter o f the women (27070) believed that to be born a w o m a n is unfortunate and a result o f previous sin. The Christians and the Hindus, however, did not profess to believe in previous sin. It was the Buddhist women who felt that the subordinate status of women was related to their previous sin. One Buddhist w o m a n commented: I think there is a truth in it. A w o m a n has less freedom and she also has to bear more pain and suffering like at childbirth. (Colombo middle class respondent) The majority (80°7o) of the low socioeconomic group accepted the notion o f previous sin. Most o f these (14 out o f 20) were Buddhists; half (2 out of 4) of the Hindus believed in this notion, and none o f the Christians believed. Most of the Buddhists were able to relate their own experiences to prove it. One sweeper w o m a n commented:

Colombo feminist

Total

To be born a w o m a n is a sin. In everyday talk they say womankind is dirty. See our life, it is because we have sinned that we are born like this to suffer. Men know that women are there to do the work, to look after children and to cook. Even at childbirth it is the w o m a n who has to suffer. (Sweeper) Again it was the Feminists as a group, no matter what their religion, who rejected the notion of previous sin as a traditional myth invented to keep women in continuous subordination. According to some o f them, religion is commonly, though not overtly, used by men to dominate and control women's lives. This feminist's response sums up this attitude: This kind of belief leads to women's inferiority. Men do not believe these things themselves, but encourage it a m o n g women. This goes right through our society

Table 3. Attitudes towards the notion of previous sin by group and religious affiliations (numbers) Group Perth middle class Response Believe in the notion of previous sin Do not believe in the notion of previous sin Total

Colombo middle class

Colombo low socioeconomic

Colombo feminist

Total

B

C

H

B

C

H

B

C

H

B

C

H

B

C

H

8

0

0

8

0

0

14

0

2

0

0

0

30

0

2

6

7

9

6

l0

6

6

5

2

7

3

1

25

25

18

14

7 (30)

9

14

l0 (30)

6

20

5 (29)

4

7

3 (11 )

1

55

B: Buddhist; C: Christian; H: Hindu

25 20 (100)

Religion and Feminism

that men encourage superstition and women perpetuate it among their children. (Feminist respondent) It was surprising that a third o f the Colombo group believed the idea that women are born as women due to previous sin. There was no clear class association with this notion except that a slightly greater portion o f the lower class group believed in the idea; however, a quarter of the Perth and Colombo middleclass groups also subscribed to this notion. There appeared to be more o f an association with Buddhism than with class. Only the Feminists as a group, whether they were Buddhist, Hindu, or Christian, did not subscribe to this idea.

The notion of pollution and religious practices In the final series o f questions, respondents were asked about their religious practices. The first of these was whether they observed the notion o f menstrual pollution and restricted their religious practices accordingly. It was indicative o f the power o f religions that more than half the sample (52o7o) still observes the rules and customs related to menstrual pollution (Table 4). The majority (57o70) in the Perth group stated that they abstained from participating in religious and sacred activities during menstruation. The Buddhist women seemed to adhere to this practice mainly out of habit and tradition, although it seemed meaningless to them. The Tamil Hindu women in particular strongly upheld this practice, for they considered that one has to be ritually clean to

603

perform the religious activities in the household for which they were responsible. From a religious perspective, the ritual status o f a Hindu woman closely equated the status o f Sudras (untouchables) as the former were considered as easily susceptible to pollution as the latter. In the Colombo middle-class group, more than half (53O70) o f the respondents observed the customs relating to menstrual pollution. Some observed them through mere habit (20°/o) while others as a strict code in ritual behaviour (33°7o). To the latter category belonged the Tamil Hindu women and a few Buddhist women who felt that it is polluting and irreligious to visit sacred places like the shrine o f the Buddha or that of deities (Gods) or to indulge in sacred ritual during menstruation. A bath 3 days after mennstration was very essential to be ritually clean to take part in any sacred activities. The majority o f women (66o70) in the low socioeconomic group were following the rules and customs relating to menstrual pollution. Some (17o70) followed it out of habit and respect for old customs while the others followed out o f fear, thinking that breaking these customs would bring harmful consequences. One woman explained why it is bad to go to the temple or devalue the house of God when one has menses: It is bad to step into any place visited by Gods. It makes the place unclean and then the Gods will be angry and that will lead to bad consequences. You may fall sick or something might happen to you. (Sweeper)

Table 4. Behaviourconcerningmenstrual pollution by group (percentages) Group

Response Practice rules and customs concerningmenstrual pollution Do not practicerules and customs concerningmenstrual pollution Total

Perth middle class

Colombo middle class

Colombo low socioeconomic

Colombo feminist

Total

57

53

66

0

52

43

47

34

100

48

(3~

(30)

(~)

(l l)

(l~)

(304

THALATHA SENEVIRATNEand JAN CURRIE

However, a third (3407o) o f the Colombo middie-class group did not believe in the idea and did not practice any rules related to it. Not surprisingly, the Feminists as a group rejected the idea o f menstrual pollution and stated that such ideas should be wiped out from the minds of all women. Overall more than half of the women (52o70) in the sample practised the rules o f menstrual pollution by abstaining themselves from anything sacred during this period.

Observance of religious practices When asked generally about the religious practices they observed, the majority o f respondents in the Perth and Colombo middleclass groups and the Colombo low socioeconomic group mentioned that they engaged in more than one form o f religious practice. However, the majority o f Feminists could not identify any specific religious behaviour that they practiced (see Table 5). Except for the Feminists, most women were involved with religious observances as a part of their daily lives (Table 5). O f the Buddhist women in Perth, 30°70 mentioned that they took part in dally worship, went regularly to the temple, and gave alms to the priests at the temple in North Perth. Some sent their children to the Sunday Dhamma classes for religious education. Two women in particular mentioned that they attended the meditation classes at the Serpentine Monastery as well as the retreats at Mount Helena. However, there were a few (17°/0) who mentioned that they did not participate in daily rituals and even the regular activities o f

the temple due to lack o f time and due to the great distance to the temple from their houses. They maintained that they were content in practicing the good things in religion, in this case Buddhism, and in transmitting the same values to their children. The Tamil Hindu women formed 30o70 of the Perth group, and all o f them mentioned that they took part in daily prayers at home, weekly fasting, and regular participation in religious ceremonies at the Tamil House in Perth. Seven out o f nine women stated that they indulged in fasting once a week mainly for the well being o f their husbands. A Perth middle-class respondent explains this behaviour: I fast mainly for my husband. If he has a bad period (astrological) or some sickness then we believe that the fasting o f his wife who is very close to him will minimise the bad effects. I have been doing this for a long time. (Perth middle-class respondent) The Christians formed 23o70 o f the Perth group, and their religious behaviour was not very different from the others. Their most frequently mentioned activities were daily praying, attendance o f Sunday services and other activities organised by the Church. These respondents were also very concerned about the religious upbringing of their children. Five out o f seven Christian women stated that they send their children to private schools mainly with this idea in mind. In the Colombo middle-class group, all

Table 5. Religiousbehaviour and practicesby group (percentages) Group Response Daily worship and praying Fasting Regular participation in activities associated with temple/ kovil/church Occasional participationin religious activitieswhen time permits Total N in the sample

Perth middle class

Colombo middle class

Colombo low socioeconomic

Colombo feminist

83 30 83

87 20 87

59 7 52

0 0 I8

17

13

48

27

30

30

29

11

Religion and Feminism

the Buddhist women, who formed a third of the group (33070), maintained that they visited the temple at least every month mainly the poya day (full moon). The most frequently mentioned activities were daily offerings to the Buddha, Bodhi pooja (Bo-tree worship3), and giving of alms to Buddhist priests. The Hindus formed 20070 of the Colombo group, and their daily practices were daily praying, fasting, and observance of religious ceremonies associated with Hindu Gods and Goddesses. The Christian respondents were 33°70 of the group, and their religious behaviour was not very different from the other two religious groups. All the women stated that they had a lot of faith in God and indulged in daily praying and attended weekly Sunday services at church. About two fifths of the Buddhist women in the low socioeconomic group (38070) responded that they daffy light a lamp for the Buddha in their homes and go to the temple on the day of the full moon or when there is some crisis. All these women stated that religious behaviour like going to the temple and worship gives them some mental comfort. It is also interesting to note that although in doctrinal Buddhism there is no emphasis on the placation of Gods, a fourth (25070) of women in this group stated that they seek the help of Gods when there is some crisis in the family or when they want special favours. The four Hindu women in the group mentioned constant praying, fasting, and making vows. Out of the five Christian women in this group only two said that they prayed daily and regularly attended church services. The majority of the Feminists who were Buddhist respondents limited their religious behaviour to the observances of the five precepts and, in a few cases (18%), occasional visits to the temple. One Feminist in particular was closely involved with the spiritual struggle of the dasa-sil-mathas (Buddhist nuns), and this brought her closer to a religious community than the other Feminists. The few Christians in the group said they had some contact with the Church and indicated their alignment with liberation theology that preaches to fight against the injustices that dehumanise human beings and calls upon all Christians to construct a new society according to the Christian vision of the kingdom of God on earth.

605

CONCLUSION All three religions, Christianity, Buddfiism, and Hinduism, preach social justice, the essential sameness of human nature and the intrinsic worth of all human beings. But as King 0975) observes, this lofty ideal is of little consequence, for in actual practice, these religions, both in the interpretation of their texts and in their rituals, reflect the social position of women in a particular historical period. As a result, many sacred texts assign a low status to women, and these texts are used as the scriptural basis to legitimise the low status given to women throughout the ages (King, 1975). Religions at the same time tend to justify the existing order indirectly in terms of a past Karma or as given by God. From these notions, a sense of fatalism emerges which pervades women's psyches and obstructs them from moving out of their traditional roles. It has been ingrained in them that their destiny is preordained. Expressions such as 'women are created to look after children' or 'this is women's lot in life' are very common. The findings from this study reveal that for many of these Sri Lankan women, religion may have added to other cultural factors in limiting their perspective on the role of women in society. A minority of the women were able to perceive that some of the established religions could be inhibiting the role of women. These women were able to analyse the effects of traditional religions on women and were working to change some of those practices. Huston 0979), who interviewed women in Sri Lanka about their religious beliefs and practices, also found that many women believed in notions of previous sin and pollution. More research needs to be done to discover why women are able to say in response to one question that women are born as women due to previous sin and then in another that they did not believe that religion has led to the subordination of women. It may be that the strength of tradition and family duty outweigh any sense of an individual's ability to identify how religion may suppress women. These women were probably taught that discipline and order are important and that religious practices will reinforce these. They may be esteemed within their com-

606

THALATHA SENEVIRATNE and JAN CURRIE

munity for carrying on family and religious traditions. This may also give them a sense of being in control of the family's destiny. Many of these women may also find a sense of community in practicing their religions. For the Sri Lanka women living in Perth, it is a chance for them to see other Sri Lankans. It may also be a time for quiet moments in their lives, a time to reflect on who they are. For these moments of joy and solitude, they may accept the less attractive aspects of their religion. All of these may be reasons why they continue to practice their religions. But why are they not resisting some of the more negative aspects of their religions? It appears that there is a role for women's groups to be more active in the deconstruction of religious practices and making Sri Lankan women more aware of how these cultural mores have limited women's views of themselves. Today social, economic, and political emancipation of women has become widely accepted, with new pressures from the social environment affecting all the religious traditions. In Sri Lanka, there were struggles witnessed among the nuns within Buddhism, but few acts of resistance were evident in the Christian and Hindu religions. Among the women interviewed it was only the feminists who criticised these religious traditions for their lack of social justice and the inequalities that they perpetuated which led to women's subordinate status in society. Few of the other women were aware of how they were being conditioned by these religious traditions that separated them and labelled them as polluted during their menstruation and castigated them into an impure state so that in their life time they could never achieve the highest state within their religion. The interviews with these women confirm Marx's trenchant analysis that religion will lead to the kind of fatalism expressed by these women, particularly the sweepers, who appeared doomed by the notion that they had sinned in their previous life so that they were relegated to the inferior position of being born a woman and could do nothing to change their oppressed conditions. ENDNOTES 1. We have utilised the concept of class as defined by Giddens (1973) and Wild (1978) which is determined by

market capacity. According to these theorists the market

capacity of middle-class occupations is conferred by educational and technical qualifications. It produces the economic differences between middle and working classes. The former have better earnings, fringe benefits, and better job security. The boundary between middle and working class is defined by qualifications and expertise on the one hand and labour power on the other. 2. The Jataka stories portray the life of the Buddha prior to Enlightenment.

3. The Bo-tree is considered to be very sacred among Buddhists for Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating under a Bo-tree.

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