religion and patriarchy, some thoughts

The following is a brief response to a perennial question I find in feminist communities, both online and in popular discourse.

The question: : “Is religion patriarchal? Are women ‘kowtowing to patriarchy’ by participating in religion?”

This is a very tricky question, primarily because it assumes all religions can be evaluated as the same and that we even all agree and understand what religion “is.” Religion is not patriarchal because it’s not a thing–it’s a historical concept, a very recent one in fact. If you’re looking at something like the structural authority of a religion, such as Christianity, yes, it’s patriarchal because it reflects the societal organization in which it’s formed. But are male leaders the only ones informing religion? And should they be the only ones we look to when trying to understand a tradition? Absolutely not. Religious activity takes place on many levels, spaces, bodies and objects. Is a woman who prays in her home, wears ritual clothing, recognizes days of special important kowtowing to the patriarchy? I’d say no, at least not in ways more influenced by male control that any other activities one may participate in. If we take the example of Catholicism, which many see as patriarchal, we ignore the spaces in which women have traditionally and contemporarily maintained power and carried forth the tradition on their own terms. The idea of “religion” is the product of European colonial encounters as well as an intellectual discourse that privileges Protestantism as the model of what religion is or should be. It is preoccupied with religion as belief, creed, and social hierarchy when we now understand religion to be far more polyvalent of a concept. This is all to say that if we are to evaluate religion as patriarchal, we need to be very specific with what we mean by religion and whose ideas of that religion we are privileging. Often what I notice most as “kowtowing to the patriarchy” in terms of religion is continuing to forward understandings historically defined by men and fore fronting male experiences/interpretations rather than women’s or marginalized peoples’.

This is all even more important to understand because there is certainly violence, discrimination, and control of women or other marginalized peoples perpetrated by organizations that justify such treatment on account of their “religion.” But the thing is, they are taking advantage of a historically vague concept to veil their own responsibility as individuals. We see this, unfortunately, very clearly in cases such as Hobby Lobby and other pending cases of discrimination against LGBTQ people. So we need to hold PEOPLE accountable for actions that are harmful and discriminatory–not nebulous concepts.


Desert Mother, Syncletica of Alexandria, c.1000 CE

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