Slave holders and abolitionists both turned to the Bible to justify their cause. So do opponents and advocates of granting women equality in Jewish religious life. But slavery was wrong, and over the last few generations broad segments of the Jewish community have concluded that it is wrong to bar women from the religious roles and responsibilities traditionally reserved for men. Orthodox groups widely oppose this, but even here, change is afoot. In 2006, during Passover, Haviva Ner-David became the first woman to receive Orthodox ordination: “I felt so intensely what it must have felt like to leave Egypt,” she said, “and enter the desert: full of excitement and hope, and at the same time wary of the unknown.”*
Speaking as a Catholic woman, I believe it is a matter of justice that the church live by its own words from the Second Vatican Council that “every type of discrimination, whether societal or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language, or religion, is to be overcome.”* While I lament the way in which my church so often squanders the gifts of its women, my hope is that the Spirit of God will continue to breathe new life into the dry bones of patriarchy.
The Qur’an recognizes a woman’s right to life, property and freedom. Marriage became a civil contract and the Qur’an laid down a procedure for divorce. To assure a woman’s independence, the Qur’an made attempts to secure monetary protection for her.* Beyond this, supporters and opponents of equal rights for women differ in their interpretation of the Qur’anic verses relating to women. Fundamental questions like the following remain in dispute. Have Muslim women been granted all the rights that the Qur’an bestowed upon them? Does the Qur’an give women equal rights? Education plays a key role in preserving rights and human development. What shall Muslim women do to achieve equal rights in all walks of life? I suggest beginning with a massive education program to raise the rate of literacy in Muslim countries, especially among women.* Why? Because education is light in the darkness and helps one distinguish between right and wrong. Education is power and leads to awareness in knowing one’s obligations and rights.
The Exodus is the Jewish people’s founding narrative. But stark differences emerge when we compare the biblical version of this tale of deliverance with the text that we read annually at the Passover feast. Among the most striking? The prominent roles women occupy in the former and their complete absence in the latter. In the biblical Exodus women play an such an essential role that one of the Talmud’s most important sages states that the redemption from Egypt only took place because of the righteousness of the women of that generation.* When Pharaoh plans to reduce the burgeoning Israelite population he calls on two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill newborn males. The midwives “fear God” and refuse to participate in the king’s murderous plan. Mighty Pharaoh remains unnamed, but these two defiant women are recognized with names. “And God dealt well with the midwives . . .” (Exodus 1:20). “Then Pharaoh charged all his people saying, ‘Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live’” (Exodus 1:22). Yocheved hatches a risky plan to save her infant Moses.* She fashions a basket, lines it with pitch, and floats him down the Nile — with Miriam, Moses’ sister keeping a watchful eye — toward the place where Pharaoh’s daughter bathed.* Realizing “this must be a Hebrew child,” she took pity on him. Miriam arranged for his mother to nurse him and Pharaoh’s daughter raised him as her son in the palace. Reaching across class and religious lines, these women reject despair as they risk defiance of a brutal king. Women lay the groundwork for the Exodus, a saga that continues to inspire struggles for freedom around the globe.
Recent scholarship reveals the complexity of roles women play in biblical texts.*
Women play significant roles in the four gospels, and St. Paul names a number of women among his co-workers in the early church.* Among the most prominent in the gospels are Mary, the mother of Jesus: Mary of Magdala: and the sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany.
The Gospel of Luke tells stories related to the birth of Jesus largely through Mary. He depicts an annunciation scene, in which the angel Gabriel announces that Mary “has found favor with God” and “will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (1:30-31). Mary responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1:38). Shortly thereafter she departs to be with her relative Elizabeth, about to give birth to her son, John (“the Baptist”). In Luke’s account of this encounter of the two pregnant women, Mary utters a canticle related to that of Hannah (see 1 Samuel 2:1—10), praising God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly (1:52). This prayer, usually known as the “Magnificat,” (from the Latin translation of the first word) is one of the most important prayers of Christians; it has inspired many musical settings, such as the more elaborate compositions of Monteverdi, Bach, Vivaldi and Rachmaninoff, or simpler versions more suitable for liturgical use.
Interestingly, the high regard for Mary in the New Testament does not stem from her motherhood, but rather from her fidelity as a disciple. For Jesus, family is not so much constituted by blood relations as by faithfulness to God: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35).
The early church spoke of Mary of Magdala, a town in Galilee, as the “apostle of apostles” because after her encounter with the risen Jesus, he sent her to announce his resurrection to the apostles (John 20:1-18). Unfortunately, because various texts with women characters were conflated—many of them named Mary—Mary of Magdala came to be known as a repentant sinner, even as a reformed prostitute. An influential sermon by Pope Gregory I (540-604) gave this mistaken identity greater prominence. Contemporary biblical scholarship has restored Mary of Magdala’s rightful identity as the apostle to the apostles.
Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus of Bethany near Jerusalem seem to have offered hospitality to Jesus when he was in Jerusalem. In one of the best-known accounts of the Gospel of John (11: 1-44), Martha makes a confession of faith in Jesus as the “Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world”—similar to what the apostle Peter professes in the other gospels (Mark 8:29).
Although passages in some of Paul’s letters and those written in the tradition of Paul, such as Colossians and Ephesians, have given him a reputation as a misogynist, it is clear that he worked with and depended upon the gifts of women: Prisca (Romans 16:3-4; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19); Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2); and Junia, whom Paul says is his relative and is “prominent among the apostles” and “in Christ before I was” (Romans 16:7).* In fairness, the Pauline literature must be situated in the patriarchal context of Greco-Roman life.
Later, particularly after Constantine, women’s leadership roles in the church were curtailed. For the most part, women’s experience ran parallel to the official, institutional story of Christianity:
It is a different tradition that has kept alive many elements of the Christian vision that are otherwise forgotten. It is the story of Christianity as lived from the outside, from the margins, from the perspective of those members who were, for the most part, not considered to be full members with all the privileges enjoyed by men. This is the story of those who, for most of the story, are not heard, could not preach, whose Christian insights were not considered necessary, who risked their lives even in the act of thinking independently. It is the story of the millions of women whose grief at the death of children and whose joy at the birth of live children were equally considered inessential to the forming of Christian meaning. It is the story of women religious who had to strive ceaselessly for the right to engage in the public exercise of compassion, to which they felt called. It is the story of thousands executed as witches and heretics, for no other reason than that they were women. It is the story of millions denied an education, and therefore denied the opportunity to hand on their history, to reflect publicly on their lives, to name the God of their being.*
Women play a significant role in the Qur’an and the Hadith. Chapter 4, one of the largest chapters of the Qur’an, is named after women and deals with women’s issues. Chapter 19 of the Qur’an is named after Mary the mother of Jesus, praising her purity and giving a glad tiding of the birth of Jesus. Praising Mary, the Qur’an says: “AND LO! The angels said: ‘O Mary! Behold, God has elected thee and made thee pure, and raised thee above all the women of the world’” (3:42). Women and their role in society are mentioned almost in all chapters of the Qur’an.
I shall write briefly on Umme Musa (the mother of Moses)* in the Qur’an. The story of Moses’ birth is narrated in chapter 28 of the Qur’an. Pharaoh had oppressed the Israelites for a long time. He had a dream that that a leader would arise among the Israelites who would bring him and his nation to ruin. In response he ordered the killing of all male children among the Israelite bondsmen.
Pharaoh had a plan and God had His own plan. God wanted to destroy Pharaoh and his army and blessed the Israelites with power and leadership. When Moses was born, God sent an inspiration* to his mother to feed Moses but when she feared for his safety, she placed him in a padded basket with air-holes and let him down into the reeds on the banks of the Nile. God assured the mother of Moses that her son would be protected and she should not grieve over him. God assured her that Moses would be returned to her and he would be chosen as a messenger (28:7).
The Pharaoh’s people picked up the baby from the banks of the Nile. When Pharaoh’s wife* saw the baby, she exclaimed with happiness, the Qur’an says: “A joy to the eye [could this child be] for me and thee! Slay him not: he may well be of use to us, or we may adopt him as a son!” And they had no presentiment [of what he was to become]” (28:9). She asked Pharaoh not to kill him and said that he might be of benefit to them. They might adopt him as their son as they had none. On one occasion, Moses’ mother was so much in grief over losing her child that she was close to disclosing his story if God had not strengthened her with patience and the promise she would be taking care of her baby soon. Moses refused to nurse and Pharaoh’s wife feared the baby would not survive. She needed a wet nurse to feed her new-found babe.
Moses’ mother had asked her daughter to follow the basket in which Moses had been placed. The daughter arrived at Pharaoh’s house as a stranger. Looking at the situation, she said, “Shall I direct you to a household who will rear him for you, and look after him in a good manner”? (28:12). She brought him to her mother, from whom the baby Moses at last suckled with will. In this way God restored the baby to his mother that she might be comforted and not grieve. The Qur’an says that God fulfilled His promise to the mother of Moses, and God’s promises are always true.* The story of the mother of Moses displays a mother’s love for her children and care for the welfare of the family. There are no female prophets in Islam in the strict sense of the word, but in Islam God has communicated with and sent inspiration to women on many occasions.
For millennia Jewish law has drawn fundamental distinctions between men and women. In light of the movement toward egalitarianism, two such distinctions are especially important: 1) exempting women from positive religious obligations that are time-bound (e.g., participating in prayer services that occur at particular times of day); 2) excluding them from public roles in religious life. Thus women were not expected to participate in most public prayer, were not counted in the minyan (the quorum of 10 required for group worship), could not read from the Torah, and could not serve as a cantor, rabbi or decisor of law. Likewise, there were even disputes about whether it was legitimate for women to engage in Jewish study and for centuries the negative view held sway. The language of the Talmud concerning the recitation of the Shema, widely considered Judaism’s most hallowed prayer, is instructive:
Women, slaves, and minors are exempt from reciting the Shema … That they are exempt from the Shema is self-evident — it is a positive commandment which is time-bound . . .*
A variety of biblical sources has been used to justify these limitations. The story of God’s creation of Eve from Adam’s rib has regularly been used to bolster the view that a woman’s primary obligation is to her husband. Legal decisors have argued that because Eve was created from Adam’s rib, Eve exists to serve him just like any of his other body parts are meant to serve him.* Exempting women from time-bound religious commandments therefore eliminates potential conflicts between serving one’s husband and fulfilling certain religious obligations. The story of Eve’s having eaten the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden has likewise provided a pejorative midrashic rationale for practices traditionally assigned to women. For example, ancient sources explain that as a result of Eve’s sin, she “brought death into the world” and “extinguished Adam’s soul.”* To atone for this, women light the candles before the onset of the Sabbath and festivals. It is also said that women must observe the laws concerning purification after menstruation as atonement for Eve’s having “shed Adam’s blood,” again by bringing death into the world.*
A verse from Psalms (45:14) has historically been invoked to support a view of modesty that defines a woman’s place as in the home rather than in public: “All the honor of the king’s daughter is within.” The story of the 10 spies who brought back negative reports about the Promised Land provided the Talmud with a rationale for not counting women in the quorum for congregational prayer: a) the 10 spies were referred to as a “congregation;” b) the spies were men; c) therefore only men should be counted in the congregational prayer quorum.*
Despite their prominence in the New Testament, women’s roles became circumscribed as the Christian movement settled into patriarchal societies. Interpretations of Genesis 2-3 played an especially formative role. Christian women were “daughters of Eve, and thus the source of temptation.” Women had a corrupting influence. Note how the author of the First Letter to Timothy (2:11-15) uses Genesis to rationalize his assertion of male superiority:
Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
For the early Christian writer Tertullian, women were the “devil’s gateway” (On the Apparel of Women, 1). Augustine, one of the greatest Christian theologians, nevertheless believed that a woman imaged God only together with her husband, whereas a man alone could image God completely ( On the Trinity, 12.7.10). Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor” considered women defective and misbegotten (Summa Theologica, 1, q.92, a.1).
Roman Catholicism has traditionally emphasized the role Mary of Nazareth; this emphasis has both healthy and unhealthy dynamics. On the one hand, it has placed a woman in a central role, thereby providing “imagery for God missing in the masculinized monotheism of Western Christianity.”* On the other, much of the piety associated with Mary has dwelt on her submissiveness and gentleness; the Virgin Mary is exalted, while other women are subordinated to men. Recent writings, however, offer more balanced views.*
The Qur’an did not make Eve responsible for tempting Adam to commit sin, but both were equally tempted by Satan and both were forgiven by God. The Qur’an in one place warned Adam by saying: “O Adam! Verily, this is a foe unto thee and thy wife: so let him not drive the two of you out of this garden and render thee unhappy” (20:117). “But Satan whispered unto him, saying: ‘O Adam! Shall I lead thee to the tree of life eternal; and [thus] to a kingdom that will never decay?’ (20:120). “And so the two ate [of the fruit] thereof: and thereupon they became conscious of their nakedness and began to cover themselves with pieced-together leaves from the garden. And [thus] did Adam disobey his Sustainer, and thus did he fall into grievous error” (20:121).
Having bestowed equal social, political and educational rights to women in the Qur’an, women played an active role in the medieval period of Islam. Many women were great religious scholars, politicians and rulers in the early period of Islam. Even Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) wife `Aisha narrated Hadith from the Prophet and played an active role in society. Mohammad Akram Nadwi* has compiled biographies of 8,000 female jurists during the Islamic medieval period and orientalist scholar Ignaz Goldziher estimated that 15 percent of medieval Hadith scholars were women. Women were important Transmitters of Hadith compiled by Sahih Sitthah (Six Collections of Prophetic Traditions).*
Since Islam has no priesthood, anyone with reasonable knowledge of Islam can lead the congregants in worship. But can women lead the congregants? There are various Hadith that prophet Muhammad asked some knowledgeable women to lead women of their household in worship. The Hanafi, Shafi`i and Hanbali, the three known Schools of Islamic Law, allow women to lead women in worship. But can a woman lead a mixed group of males and females? It is controversial. There is no Qur’anic rule that woman cannot lead but there are some Hadith that are subjects of dispute between the Islamic scholars in the modern period.
Also because Islam has no priesthood, there is no attraction to be Imam of the community. Many Imams in Muslim world, including America, live with meager salaries, are subject to daily criticism and have no religious authority and little influence on the community. Those who have gained acceptance and excellent reputations have done so mostly because of their scholarship and civic engagement. I was Imam for 25 years but every day I looked forward to leaving — even though I had gained a wider respect from the Muslim and non-Muslim communities because of my interfaith activism.
In Islam women may not lead a mixed congregation. What I foresee here in North America is the possibility that the next generation of many women will refuse to accept a man’s saying they cannot have this leadership role. Today in some American mosques women are presidents, give speeches from the pulpits and are very active in Mosque affairs. But whether they will demand to lead a mixed congregation, only the future will tell.
The past century has witnessed enormous victories in the struggle for egalitarianism. At this point, women in the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements enjoy complete equality with men. These developments are clearly reflected in liturgical revisions. For example, the traditional blessing men recite for “not having been created female” has been dropped or modified. Prayers that invoke the patriarchs have been supplemented with references to the matriarchs. In varying degrees, a similar spirit infuses the official Haggadot published by these movements. The Reform Haggadah (2002) includes a Hebrew option for a blessing formula that refers to God in the feminine gender. Both the Reconstructionist (1999) and Reform Haggadot include narratives that recognize the role women played in the Exodus. They also feature the relatively new ritual of Miriam’s Cup that celebrates the life-giving well — associated with Miriam — that sustained the Israelites on their 40-year journey through the wilderness. Likewise, the Conservative Movement’s Haggadah (1982), the text of which is mostly traditional, makes key innovations in bringing women into the story.
In the Orthodox world, egalitarianism has not been embraced, although there have been many encouraging changes. There is a greater willingness in some Modern Orthodox circles to find ways of giving women greater roles while still remaining true to their interpretation of Jewish law. One of the most fundamental developments involves the commitment in many Orthodox quarters to give girls a solid Jewish education, including Talmud study. Involvement in study has not only empowered the ranks of Orthodox feminists, but has led to the beginnings of a development once thought inconceivable — the ordination of women as Orthodox rabbis. As mentioned above, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem has launched a program that now ordains women.
Opponents of these developments argue that the traditional limitations upon women do not imply inferiority, but reflect different roles. They decry the rush to egalitarianism as embracing a false god that is fundamentally at odds with Judaism. Thus, the traditional daily morning blessing “for not having been created female” does not signify a woman’s second-class status, but a man’s privilege in being required to carry out all God’s religious commandments, including those from which women are exempt. Traditionalists also note that the custom of reciting “A Woman of Valor,” (Proverbs 31:10-31) on Friday night, is not just a paean to a woman’s conventional domestic role, but recognizes her strength and intelligence.
“A woman of valor? Her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband safely trusts in her, and he shall have no lack of gain . . . She considers a field, and buys it: with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds her loins with strength, and she makes her arm strong. She perceives that her merchandise is good; her candle does not go out by night. . . . She stretches forth her hands to the needy . . . She makes garments, and sells them; and delivers girdles to the merchant. Strength and dignity are her clothing . . . She opens her mouth with wisdom; and on her tongue is a Torah of steadfast love . . .”*
Given the diversity of Christian churches, the status of women varies significantly. Certainly, in developed countries, women generally are better educated than at any previous time; combined with wider societal recognition of the contributions of women, more women are in positions of ecclesial leadership than ever before.
Many Christian denominations ordain women, both as priests or ministers, and increasingly as bishops or equivalent offices. For example, the current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church is Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori—the first woman to be elected to that high office. In contrast, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, does not ordain women, maintaining that although “both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” While holding that husband and wife are of “equal worth,” the text continues that women are to “submit graciously to the servant leadership of their husbands.”*
Neither does the Roman Catholic Church ordain women, though that issue remains as the preeminent symbol of the “lack of the presence of women in the official life of the church, a symbol of women’s exclusion from all significant decision making and practical policy formation, a traditional exclusion that is historically based on the inferiority and subservient status ascribed to them.* Nevertheless, Catholic women exercise vital leadership in church and society across a range as professionals (most church positions are held by women) and volunteers. Women increasingly constitute membership in and play significant roles in organizations such as the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Catholic Biblical Society. Similarly, women across the range of Christian denominations fill the ranks of comparable organizations, such as the Society of Christian Ethics, the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion.
The Muslim society is as divided over the role of woman today as are Jewish and Christian communities. The Western media present the Muslim woman as oppressed and deprived of fundamental rights and veiled in Burqa (all covered, including the face). This image is inaccurate. It comes from some mountainous areas in different Muslim countries where the literacy rate as well as living standards are very poor and both men and women live in miserable conditions. They live in a centuries-old tribal tradition and lifestyle. My own parents (may God bless their souls) lived like that.
A problem with third-world countries is that most of their educational, health and other living facilities are concentrated in urban areas. Villages and especially the mountainous regions are deprived and some do not even have clean drinking water. I remember my childhood when I used to drink rainwater or bring drinking water for miles on our donkey.
The Muslim women living in urban areas are mostly educated, working and playing an active role in social, political and religious life. For example, in Bangladesh both the ruling and the opposition leaders are women. In Pakistan the House speaker is a woman and similarly in many democratic Muslim countries including Indonesia and Turkey, women play an active role. As in America, today there are more young women than young men in professional colleges in many of the Muslim countries.
The third world, including some Muslim countries, needs to develop rural policy and spend money on education, basic living facilities and infrastructure including roads and hospitals. This will not only help reduce pressure on big cities, but will change the living conditions as well as the thinking and decision-making process of men and women in rural areas.
Overall, the Qur’an treats women mostly equal to men, but there are certain verses that are subject to debate and interpretations. Some of these are: “Men shall take full care (Qawwamun) of women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on the former than on the latter, and with what they may spend out of their possessions. And the righteous women are the truly devout ones, who guard the intimacy which God has [ordained to be] guarded. And as for those women whose ill-will you have reason to fear, admonish them [first]; then leave them alone in bed; then beat them (Wadribuhunna); and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek to harm them. Behold, God is indeed most high, great!” (4:34). The word Qawwamun is a subject of dispute and has been translated as meaning “in charge of woman,” “superior to woman” and others have translated it to mean taking care of a woman monetarily. Similarly, the translation of the word Wadribuhunna is disputed, as some translators say it does not refer to physical beating because the Prophet never did that.
Another verse, 4:3, deals with numbers of wives. The Qur’an says: “And if you have reason to fear that you might not act equitably towards orphans, then marry from among [other] women such as are lawful to you – [even] two, or three, or four: but if you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then [only] one – or [from among] those whom you rightfully possess. This will make it more likely that you will not deviate from the right course.” Fazlur Rahman and some other commentators on the Qur’an argue that monogamy was the order of the Qur’an and the permission of four wives was limited to orphan women for their protection and well-being.*
There are also many positive references in the Hadith literature to women’s rights and duties. Once a man came to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) asking, “Who is most deserving of my care?” He said, “Your mother.” The man asked, “Then who?” He said, “Your mother.” The man asked, “Then who?” He said, “Your mother.” The man asked (the fourth time), “Then who?” He said, “Your father. [Transmitted by Bukhari and Muslim on the authority of Abu Huraira in the chapter “The Pearl and the Coral” (Al-Lu’lu’ wal-Marjan) Hadith number 652)] To be good to her means treating her well, respecting her, humbling oneself in front of her, obeying her without disobeying Allah.
Some religious laws before Islam neglected the mother’s relatives, making them insignificant. With the advent of Islam, they recommended caring for uncles and aunts, both on the father’s side and the mother’s. A man approached the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and said, “I committed an offense, could I atone for it?” He asked, “Have you got a mother?” The man said, “No.” He asked, “Have you got a maternal aunt?” The man said, “Yes.” The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Be good to her. (Transmitted by Termidhi in chapter “Righteousness and Relations” Hadith number 1905)
There are some Hadith that placed women in a negative light. The Qur’an does not say that Eve was created out of the rib of Adam. However, there are some narrations from the Prophet saying that Eve was created from the rib of Adam. It is reported that he said: “Treat women nicely, for a women is created from a rib, and the most curved portion of the rib is its upper portion; so, if you should try to straighten it, it will break, but if you leave it as it is, it will remain crooked. So treat women nicely.”* The Hadith raise questions about what the Prophet meant by saying this.
This Hadith and some others together with the positive Hadith supporting women’s rights keep alive the debate over the role of woman in modern Muslim society. However, I stress education for both male and female. Higher literacy rates will eventually lead to better lives, a healthier environment and sound interpretation of Qur’an and Hadith resulting in overall human prosperity.