It’s not quite so simple

Problematising the challenges for gender equality is fraught because too much research takes a unidimensional approach to the issues. Some state ‘the problem is religion’, with both Christianity and Islam labelled as patriarchal constructs that hinder women’s development and equality. Of course if you belong to one of those religions you may argue otherwise. There are women within both of these faith traditions who argue cogently for the emancipatory nature of their faith. So yes, the problem is complex.

Too often simplistic articulation of the problem denies the agentic nature of women’s engagement with and through their faith tradition. Everything about women and how they negotiate their everyday is subsumed under a rubric of their passive socialisation within religion to oppose gender equality.

However, the question that is not answered is how do men and women live their faith differently? What are the negotiations they engage in everyday that enable them to navigate the complexities of the religious and social dynamics that mediate their lives? How do they bargain with their faith, its institutions and traditions, its beliefs and practices, to challenge the barriers they face?

Working in a women’s college in South Asia, I was struck by the different ways women’s education enabled them to negotiate with socially and religiously embedded structures. As an outsider looking in I could only see structures that appeared antithetical to gender equality. As I spent time living in the community, and in some small way began to see how women lived intentionally and purposefully rewriting the rules of those structures, their agency became evident.

I had heard outsiders describe education for these women as simply a ticket to a better marriage, dismissing the education they engaged in as largely meaningless. What I began to see, however, was the ability education gave these women to negotiate who they married, what they brought to the marriage and how the marriage was navigated. Yes, education enabled them to negotiate in their marriage and that was a meaningful was of challenging old norms that would otherwise dominate their lives.

It is too easy for us to disregard the acts of agency of other women because they are not as we imagine their world should be. The path of change can only be defined by those who must pioneer it. Simplistic articulations of problems can blind us to the change that is happening in women’s everyday negotiations and navigations.

Gender Stereotyping

I once heard from a colleague who had someone attack her stating that her only problem was that she was a woman and she was Asian. Collapsed into those categories, it seems, were a whole host of negative characteristics, behaviours, ways of being. The person making this unbelievable statement felt it unnecessary to speak to the things that upset him. He simply caught up his problems or frustrations, or whatever it was, and threw muck widely, indiscriminately and in broad generalisations.

The blatant racism in his labelling her according to her ethnicity shut her down on the basis of however he stereotyped Asians. Neither she nor I had the answers to what that was. What was clear is that he had a negative stereotype and threw it with full force at her. She was a leader in his community, and I can make a guess he did not like her leadership style. Rather than talk about the specific issues, he made a broad sweeping stereotypical statement that said nothing.

Being a woman was another problem. The label itself was, it seems in his view, more than enough to define the problem. To be a woman, was a category of denigration. What it was we don’t know, simply being a woman was enough.

Stereotyping is an easy way to dismiss not just an individual, but a whole category of people. Which woman was this person speaking of? Women are not a homogeneous group. There are multiple diversities, and no one single description encapsulates all women. And yet, when we stereotype we usually focus on branding with a set of negatives, catching a whole group up in our own frustration and negativity.

Gender stereotyping defines women based on generalisations about who they are, how they behave, what roles they should have and how to manage them. While stereotypes have an adaptive function that enables easy categorisation, they are so often full of faulty assessments. Gender stereotyping limits agency, often denying, or seeking to deny, women’s creative agentic engagement with their world.

Some typical stereotypes around women include
• Victims of intimate partner violence are weak because they stay in the relationship
• There is something wrong with a woman who doesn’t want children
• Assertive women are unfeminine and are “bossy,” “bitches” or “whores”
• Women are natural nurturers; men are natural leaders
• Women don’t need equal pay because they are supported by their husbands
• Women who appear less feminine or reject advances from men are lesbians
• Women with children are less devoted to their jobs

Gender stereotyping is a barrier to gender justice and equality. They result from and are the cause of deeply held negative attitudes, values, norms and prejudices about women. They are fed by perceptions rather than actual realities and facts, and so often they are self-perpetuating.

As part of the work needed for gender justice and equality we must counter gender stereotypes with narratives of truth, offered without judgment and calling out labelling that diminish in its broad generalisations.

Using social customs and religion to perpetuate injustice against women

Sustainable development goal V aims at “achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls”. (

Two recommendations from CEDAW address some of the areas of concern with respect to this:

Recommendation No 35: “One of the primary challenges in the elimination of harmful practices relates to the lack of awareness or capacity of relevant professionals, including front-line professionals, to adequately understand, identify and respond to incidents or the risks of harmful practices. A comprehensive, holistic and effective approach to capacity-building should aim to engage influential leaders, such as traditional and religious leaders”.

Recommendation No 36 acknowledges that “the discriminatory and harmful practices of child and/or forced marriage, associated with religious or cultural practices in some societies, negatively impacts the right to education.” 

Women’s oppression is often justified on the basis of cultural norms and/or religious beliefs, even though at times these two are at odds with each other. Religious ideologies about creation, religiously sanctioned practices like polygamy, cultural beliefs around education, violence, forced marriages, women and property ownership, as well as cultural practices such as circumcision have informed cultural and religious decisions to justify the oppressive injustices experienced by women in many places. 

In a story attributed to Joan Chittister, we see how such injustice and inequality has many faces. ‘A merchant in the Middle East went from bazaar to bazaar buying rugs to export. One day he passed a stall where an elderly woman sat on a tiny rug before a very large hand-woven rug. He asked the old lady whether the rug behind her was for sale. Without looking up she answered that it is for sale. He asked her how much she wanted for the rug on which she replied: ‘One hundred rupees, sir. One hundred rupees’. Again he asked her to confirm the price on which she replied: ‘One hundred rupees. Not a single rupee less’. He looked at her and said: ‘Old lady, I have never seen a rug that beautiful’. She nodded and said: ‘I know that, sir. That’s why I’m selling it for One hundred rupees and not a single rupee less’. The merchant then said: ‘In the name of Allah, old lady, if you realize how beautiful your rug is, why would you ever sell it for only one hundred rupees?’ Shocked at this question the old lady looked up for the first time, and after a moment of silence she answered: ‘Because, sir, until this very moment, I never knew that there were any numbers above 100’.’ (

Where governments, religious institutions or civil society organisations seek to address social reforms that impact people’s private lives they face immediate backlash. To challenge traditions like polygamy, genital mutilation, inheritance rules or males’ authority over women requires a deep commitment to justice. I recall so many of the women activists in Pakistan who paid a heavy price in seeking to address the injustices perpetrated by these practices.

Where institutions and individuals seek to address the injustices written in religious laws, they face an even greater backlash. Governments fall, organisations and individuals are slandered, attacked and threatened, some even killed for seeking to ‘break the code of God’. That which is considered sacred is immutable. That God who is just could perpetuate injustice seems lost on those who feel they must protect God.

While we may want to think religion addresses issues of justice, religious laws and social norms make a lethal cocktail used to deny justice and equality to many women. Not only do women need those who will fight on their behalf, they need those who will enable women to raise their voices. But it will come at a cost.