Radical Feminists emphasize the patriarchal nature of some mainstream religions such as Catholicism and Islam. They argue that such religions have developed in patriarchal societies and have been ‘hijacked’ by men. Men have interpreted religious doctrines in order to justify their positions of power.
Radical Feminists also believe that religion often serves to compensate women for their second class status within religion and society more generally. For example, by providing psychological rewards if they accept their role as mothers and limit their horizons to fulfilling that role well.
However, Radical Feminists do not necessarily see religion as inherently patriarchal. Historically, for example, Goddess religions have celebrated the creative and nurturing power of the feminine. It is really men hijacking religion and downplaying the role of women in the development of some religions over the past couple of thousand years which is the problem.
It follows that women can use religion to lead fulfilling lives, but need to fight oppression within mainstream religions organisations to do so, or even to develop their own unique, individual paths to a feminine spirituality.
The mind map above summarises the following Feminist perspectives on religion. Please click the links below for more details:
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In The Hidden Face of Eve (1980), Nawal El Saadawi considers the role of religion in perpetuating female oppression in the Arab World. She offers an Egyptian Feminist perspective on the role of religion and thus broadens our understanding away from the typically white female voices of feminism.
El Saadawi is a women’s rights activist, who has herself experienced oppression within Egypt. She has campaigned vigorously for women’s rights in the Arab world and has been imprisoned for her activism.
She was forced to undergo female circumcision as a young girl, without any warning or explanation and points out that male violence against women within the family is common in many Arab cultures. Young females are frequently the victims of violence at the hands of their fathers, uncles or brothers. In addition, women are also victims of forced prostitution and slavery which provide further evidence of patriarchal dominance of Arab men over Arab women.
However, despite the prevalence of female oppression across the Islamic world, El Saadawi does not believe that female oppression is caused by Islam.
She points out that male female oppression exists in many non-Islamic cultures and is in fact just as common in Christian cultures. A classic example of this is in the 14th century when the Catholic Church declared that women who treated those who were ill, without special training, could be executed as witches.
(Possibly our fixation with the oppression of women in Islamic cultures is a result of a broader anti-Islamic prejudice?)
For El Saadawi, the oppression of women is caused by ‘the patriarchal system which came into being when society had reached a certain stage of development’. It just so happened that Islam developed in those areas of the world which already had extremely patriarchal social structures. Over the centuries, Islamic doctrine was thus shaped by men and reflected their interests, with women’s voices being effectively unheard in this process.
Ultimately, El Saadawi believes that where religion evolves within patriarchal cultures, men distort religion to act in their own interests and to help justify their own privilege and the oppression of women.
The Origins of Oppressive Religion
El Saadawi argues that religion became patriarchal through the misinterpretation of religious beliefs by men.
She uses the Greek myth of Isis and Osiris as an example of this in which the evil Touphoun overpowers the male Osiris. His body is cut into small pieces and dispersed in the sea, and fish eats his sexual organ.
To El Saadawi, this story clearly implies female superiority, but men have interpreted it quite differently. They have emphasised the superiority of Osiris because he was created from the head of the god Zeus, who was greater than Osiris, according to Homer and other writers, because he was more knowledgeable.
However, the above is a narrow interpretation which conveniently leaves out the next link in the ‘creation chain’: all male gods were created by or given the ability to move by the greatest deity of them all, the goddess Isis.
Similar distortions have entered the story of Adam and Eve. Males usually portray Eve as a temptress who created sin in the world. However, if we read the original story as described in the Old Testament, it is easy for us to see clearly that Eve was gifted with knowledge, intelligence and superior mental capacities, whereas Adam was only one of her instruments, utilized by her to increase her knowledge and give shape to her creativity.
Monotheistic Religions and Female Oppression
El Saadawi argues that forms of religion that were oppressive to women developed as monotheistic religions (believing in a single god). Such religions were interpreted in the context of patriarchal societies, primarily by men. For example, male representatives of early Judaism interpreted Abraham as a patriarchal figure which served to justify the patriarchal family in which wives and children came to be under the uncontested power of the father.
Islam similarly developed patriarchal doctrines because it was established in the context of a patriarchal social structure: Authority in Islamic society belonged ultimately to the political ruler (the Khalifa) or the religious leader (the Imam), and then down through a small male minority who had power due to their ownership of herds of horses, camels and sheep, and finally down to the level of the lifeworld via the male head of household.
As a result, the enforcement of many laws in Islamic culture remains highly unequal. For example:
Although the Qur’an states that both men and women can be stoned to death for adultery, this fate rarely befalls men.
Men are permitted many wives, but women are not permitted many husbands
Husbands can divorce their wives instantaneously.
Fighting back against religions which oppress women
El Saadawi concludes that female oppression is not essentially due to religion, but due to the patriarchal system that has long been dominant. She is not hostile to religion, but only to the domination of religion by patriarchal ideology.
‘The great religions of the world uphold similar principles in so far as the submission of women to men is concerned. They also agree in the attribution of masculine characteristics to their God. Islam and Christianity have both constituted important stages inn the evolution of humanity. Nevertheless, where the cause of women was concerned, they added a new load to their already heavy chains. (El Saadawi,1980.)
She believes that the only way for women to free themselves from oppression is to themselves fight for their own liberation.
Thankfully, there is a long tradition of religious radicals doing precisely this, probably the best-known example being Jesus Christ himself who El Saadawi describes as a revolutionary leader who opposed oppression. She also points out that early Christianity tended to have codes which enforced the equal treatment of men and women.
Finally, El Saadawi believes that revolutions are generally beneficial to women and so can thus be regarded as a Marxist Feminist as much as a Radical Feminist.
Adapted from Haralmabos and Holborn 8th edition 2013
Feminist Karen Armstrong argued that women were central to many spiritual traditions in early history.
She pointed out that in early history, there were very few effigies of male gods, while symbolic representations of the ‘Great Mother Goddess’ were numerous. In the Middle East, Asia and Europe, for example, archaeologists have uncovered numerous symbols of the Mother Goddess. One common representation is of the mother goddess as a naked pregnant women, which seems to place fertility as central to early spirituality.
Armstrong argues that female figures began to be written out of religion with the acceptance of monotheism. She suggests that this process originated with Yahweh, the god of Abraham, and writes…
‘[this] God of Israel would later become the God of the Christians and the Muslims, who all regard themselves as the spiritual offspring of Adam, the father of all believers’.
This type of Feminist analysis seems to suggest that it is not necessarily religion itself that is patriarchal. Thus, unlike Marxist perspectives, we do not need to eradicate religion in order to achieve female liberation. Rather, we, need to ‘get back’ to more female centered spiritual traditions and develop a female-focused spirituality.
Mary Daly theorised that women were part of a ‘planetary sexual caste system’ which was patriarchal and exploitative of women. She saw this religious patriarchy as being maintained in a number of ways:
The early Catholic church systematically eliminated religions in which female gods were equal to or more powerful than male gods. It also ‘demoted’ the role of female figures in the historical record: for example, Mary Magdalene, who in reality played a large role in the spread of Christianity, is given less significance than is appropriate, according to Daly.
Churches have also tended to support a type of sex role segregation in society in which women are given a ‘derivative status’. This means that women derive their status not from their own contribution to society, but from their husband. Daly further argued that early socialisation of women into subordinate roles meant that women willingly consented to their inferior status.
Patriarchal religious ideology teaches that patriarchal religious institutions are bestowed by God. This ideology also teaches that the subordinate status of women is God’s will, and that it is virtuous for women to accept such positions.
Much like Simon de Beauvoir, Daly also believed that women encouraged false consciousness. It taught them that the way to redemption was through prayer, rather than concrete struggle against religious authorities in society.
Daly placed particular attention on the role of imagery and language in perpetuating male control and female subordination. For example God is often portrayed as male ‘ which serves to alienate women and places them in an inferior position to men.
In order to liberate themselves from religious oppression, women needed to abolish the male-centered language used by mainstream religions and replace it with a different language. Daly also believed that ultimately women needed to stop relying on ‘religion from above’, and should instead seek ‘spirituality from within’.
The systematic domination of women by men in some or all of society’s spheres and institutions
Origins of the Concept
Ideas of male dominance have a very long history, with many religions presenting it as natural and necessary.
The first theoretical account of patriarchy is found in Engels theory of women’s subservience under capitalism. He argued that capitalism resulted in power being concentrated in the hands of fewer people which intensified the oppression of women as men passed on their wealth to their male heirs. (I’ve outline this theory in more detail in this post: the Marxist perspective on the family).
The main source of patriarchal theory stems from Feminism, which developed the concept in the 1960s, highlighting how the public-private divide and the norm of women being confined to the domestic sphere was the main source of male dominance and female oppression, highlighted by the famous Feminist slogan ‘the personal is the political’.
Subsequent Feminist theory and research explored how
Today, there is much disagreement over the concepts usefulness within the various different Feminist traditions (for the purposes of A-level sociology, typically divided up into Liberal, Marxist, Radical).
Meaning and Interpretation
The concept of Patriarchy forms the basis for radical forms of Feminism which has focused on how Patriarchy is reproduced in many different ways such as male violence against women, stereotypical representations in the media and even everyday sexism.
Sylvia Walby re-conceptualized Patriarchy in the 1990s, arguing that the concept failed to take account of increasing gender equality, but that it should still remain central to Feminist analysis, suggesting that there are six structures of patriarchy: Paid Work, Household Production, Culture, Sexuality, Violence and the State.
Walby also argued that analysis should distinguish between public and private forms of patriarchy.
The concept of patriarchy has been criticized from both outside and within Feminism.
The concept itself has been criticized as being too abstract: it is difficult to pin it down and find specific mechanisms through which it operates.
Many Feminists argue that Patriarchy exists in all cultures, and thus the concept itself is too general to be useful, as it fails to take account of how other factors such as class and ethnicity combine to oppress different women in different ways.
Black Feminists have criticized the (mainly) white radical Feminist critique of the family as patriarchal as many black women see the family as a bulwark against white racism in society.
Postmodern Feminism criticizes the concept as it rests on the binary distinction between men and women, the existence of which is open to question today.
Much contemporary research focuses on discourse and how language can reproduce patriarchy. For example Case and Lippard (2009) analysed jokes, arguing they can perpetuate patriarchal relations, although Feminists have developed their own ‘counter-jokes’ to combat these – they conclude that humor can act as a powerful ideological weapon.
Inequality between men and women is the most significant form of inequality
Anthropological evidence demonstrates that inequalities between men and women exist in every single society in human history, and in most of these societies women have an inferior social status to men. Feminism exists to rectify the Systematic injustices that women experience because of their sex
Gender norms are Socially Constructed, not determined by biology and thus gender norms can be changed
Feminism is a set of ideas which criticises the discrimination experienced by women based on their gender. Remember, there are few biological differences between men and women at birth, but the social norms associated with being a “women” result in discrimination against females. Children are taught “gender norms” from a young age i.e. what it means to be a “women” in terms of dress, language, expectations, roles within the family, how they relate to men etc. Gender norms are learned in the family, but reinforced in the school, at work and through the media.
Note, boys also learn gender norms e.g. assertiveness, confidence etc, but more importantly for feminism they also learn the behaviour they expect from a “women” based on female gender norms. Many boys will grow up watching gender norms being played out in the family and will therefore replicate the same roles with their own partners.
Patriarchy is one of the main causes of female disadvantage
‘Patriarchy refers to a society in which there are unequal power relations between women and men whereby women are systematically disadvantaged and oppressed’ (London Feminist Network)
NB – the idea of ‘structure’ is central to the concept of Patriarchy – Women are inferior because men are superior – For example, women end up staying at home looking after the kids BECAUSE it is assumed that men are the breadwinners, thus men are the ones who go out to work. Similarly, women dress up in high heels, make up and short skirts BECAUSE they have internalised the idea that that’s what they need to do to attract men. The idea behind patriarchy is that men gain and women lose from socially constructed gender differences.
Feminism is a political movement
Feminists emphasise the importance of political activism in order challenge gender inequalities. Feminism exists to rectify the Systematic injustices that women experience because of their sex. There is a lot of disagreement within Feminism over how to achieve this – strategies vary from doing research to highlight the extent of gender inequality, to having consciousness raising sessions with groups of women and men, to working with governments to create social policies, to more radical strategies such as political lesbianism.
Feminist Theory: A Criticism of Previous Sociological Explanations Gender inequality
Feminist theory arose as a reaction to the sexist, biological explanations for gender inequalities such as those of Talcott Parsons. Feminism actually sees sociology itself as sexist as all previous theories: Functionalism, Marxism and Interactionism have failed to adequately explain gender differences in modern society. Feminism is a huge body of theory. Below it is simplified into four main perspectives: Radical Feminism, Marxist Feminism, Liberal Feminism and Difference Feminism
Inequality between men and women is universal and the most significant form of inequality
Gender norms are socially constructed not determined by biology and can thus be changed.
Patriarchy is the main cause of gender inequality – women are subordinate because men have more power.
Feminism is a political movement; it exists to rectify sexual inequalities, although strategies for social change vary enormously.
There are four types of Feminism – Radical, Marxist, Liberal, and Difference.
Blames the exploitation of women on men. It is primarily men who have benefitted from the subordination of women. Women are ‘an oppressed group.
Society is patriarchal – it is dominated and ruled by men – men are the ruling class, and women the subject class.
Rape, violence and pornography are methods through which men have secured and maintained their power over women. Andrea Dworkin (1981)
Radical feminists have often been actively involved in setting up and running refuges for women who are the victims of male violence.
Rosemarie Tong (1998) distinguishes between two groups of radical feminist:
Radical-libertarian feminists believe that it is both possible and desirable for gender differences to be eradicated, or at least greatly reduced, and aim for a state of androgyny in which men and women are not significantly different.
Radical-cultural feminists believe in the superiority of the feminine. According to Tong radical cultural feminists celebrate characteristics associated with femininity such as emotion, and are hostile to those characteristics associated with masculinity such as hierarchy.
The various alternatives suggested by Radical Feminists include separatism – women only communes, and Matrifocal households. Some also practise political Lesbianism and political celibacy as they view heterosexual relationships as “sleeping with the enemy.”
Capitalism rather than patriarchy is the principal source of women’s oppression, and capitalists as the main beneficiaries.
Women’s subordination plays a number of important functions for capitalism:
Women reproduce the labour force for free (socialisation is done for free)
Women absorb anger – women keep the husbands going.
Because the husband has to support his wife and children, he is more dependent on his job and less likely to demand wage increases.
The traditional nuclear also performs the function of ‘ideological conditioning’ – it teaches the ideas that the Capitalist class require for their future workers to be passive.
The disadvantaged position of women is seen to be a consequence of the emergence of private property and their lack of ownership of the means of production
They are more sensitive to differences between women who belong to the ruling class and proletarian families. Marxist Feminists believe that there is considerable scope for co-operation between working class women and men and that both can work together
In Communist society, Marxist feminists believe that gender inequalities will disappear.
Nobody benefits from existing inequalities: both men and women are harmed
The explanation for gender inequality lies not so much in structures and institutions of society but in its culture and values.
Socialisation into gender roles has the consequence of producing rigid, inflexible expectations of men and women
Discrimination prevents women from having equal opportunities
Liberal Feminists do not seek revolutionary changes: they want changes to take place within the existing structure.
The creation of equal opportunities is the main aim of liberal feminists – e.g. the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act.
Liberal feminists try to eradicate sexism from the children’s books and the media.
Liberal Feminist ideas have probably had the most impact on women’s lives – e.g. mainstreaming has taken place.
Difference Feminism/ Postmodern Feminism
Do not see women as a single homogenous group. MC/WC ,
Criticised preceding feminist theory for claiming a ‘false universality’ (white, western heterosexual, middle class)
Criticised preceding Feminists theory of being essentialist
Critiqued preceding Feminist theory as being part of the masculinist Enlightenment Project
Postmodern Feminism – concerned with language (discourses) and the relationship between power and knowledge rather than ‘politics and opportunities’
Helene Cixoux – An example of a postmodern/ destabilising theorist
Criticisms of Feminist Theories
1. Radical Feminists – ignores other sources of inequality such as sexual violence.
2. Patriarchal systems existed before capitalism, in tribal societies for example.
3. The experience of women has not been particularly happy under communism.
1. Based upon male assumptions and norms such as individualism and competition, and encourages women to be more like men and therefor deny the ‘value of qualities traditionally associated with women such as empathy.
2. Liberalism is accused of emphasising public life at the expense of private life.
3. Radical and Marxist Feminists – it fails to take account of deeper structural inequalities
4. Difference Feminists argue it is an ethnocentric perspective – based mostly on the experiences of middle class, educated women.
1. The concept of patriarchy has been criticised for ignoring variations in the experience of oppression.
2. Some critics argue that it focuses too much on the negative experiences of women, failing to recognise that some women can have happy marriages for example.
3. It tends to portray women as universally good and men as universally bad, It has been accused of man hating, not trusting all men.
Walby, women are still oppressed by objective social structures – namely Patriarchy
Dividing women sub-groups weakens the movement for change.
To Sylvia Walby, the concept of Patriarchy must remain central to a feminist understanding of society. She argues that there are six patriarchal structures which restrict women and maintain male domination – the existence of these structures restricts women’s freedom and life-chances compared to men. However, she does recognise that women of different class and ethnic backroads and different sexual orientations experience these structures in different ways.
Walby also recognises that patriarchal structures can change and they can be affected by the actions of both men and women – and in more recent works she talks of ‘gender regimes’ rather than patriarchy to reflect this greater fluidity.
Walbys’ Six structures of Patriarchy
Walby believes that paid employment remains a key structure for disadvantaging women in Britain. Today, men continue to dominate the best paid jobs and women are still paid less than men, and do more part-time work. Many women choose not to work, or work part-time because of poor job opportunities.
According to Walby individual men still benefit from women’s unpaid labour. Women still do most of the housework and childcare. However easier divorce means women are not as trapped as the once were by marriage and some black feminists see family life as less exploitative than the labour market, where there is considerable racism.
Walby believes that that the culture of Western societies has consistently distinguished between men and women and expected different behaviours from them, but the expected patterns of behaviour have changed. The key sign of femininity today is sexual attractiveness to men, and not just for younger women, but increasingly for older women.
Also, the increase in Pornography increases the freedom of men while threatening the freedom of women. To Walby, the ‘male gaze’, not that of women, is the viewpoint of pornography which encourages the degradation of women by men and promotes sexual violence.
Despite the sexual liberation of the 1960s, there is still a ‘sexual double standard’ in society – males condemn women who are sexually active as slags and those who are not as drags, which males with many sexual conquests are admired.
Walby also argues that ’heterosexuality constitutes a patriarchal structure’ – there is more pressure today for women to be heterosexually active and to service males through marrying them.
Like many other Feminists Walby sees violence against women as a form of male control of women, which is still a problem for many women today, although she concedes that it is difficult to measure how much progress has been made in this area, because of validity problems where the stats are concerned.
To Walby, the state is still patriarchal, racists and capitalist. She argues that there has been little attempt to improve women’s position in the public sphere and equal opportunities legislation is rarely enforced.