Religion and the Challenge of Gender Awareness
By Farish A. Noor
In the light of the trying times of the present, religion offers comfort and
solace in the form of absolute, irrevocable and uncontestable truths. This is
true for all religions and religious discourses, and helps to explain the
renewed interest in and relevance of religion in the lives of ordinary people
the world over. It is hardly surprising to see how and why religion has suddenly
been 'rediscovered' by modern individuals who are forced to confront the complex
and pressing realities of modernity, with all its painful internal
contradictions and anxieties.
But it must also be remembered that the dislocating effects of modernisation and
globalisation also have their positive aspects. Modernisation and globalisation
have forced societies and cultures to come closer together and to look into
themselves as well. One of the defining characteristics of the modern age is the
way it has forced us to question some of our most fundamental beliefs and
assumptions about who we are, what we believe in and how we look at the world
Forced to come under the harsh glare of objectivity and positivism, some of our
long-held beliefs and convictions have proved to be wanting. The same can be
said about our prejudices and fears as well: Racism, ethnocentrism and sexism
have come under close scrutiny and have been rendered historically outdated,
relegated to the margins of history as aspects of our embarrassing past. We can
no longer assert that our race is superior to others; that our culture or
civilisation is higher than theirs, or that our beliefs are better than others
without a tinge of shame. Invariably others around us would be mortified and
scandals would ensue.
Yet despite the questioning of some of our deepest-held convictions, we are
nonetheless at a loss to discover new meanings, languages or systems of thought
that would help us navigate our way through the tangled web of modern life.
Modernity has swept away the cobwebs of the past, but it has not necessarily
brought us any closer to a truly uplifting, emancipating future. Part of the
reason for this lies in our own inability to adapt to newness and the challenges
that come with it.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the discussion of gender-related issues in
societies such as ours. Asia happens to be the cradle of all the major religious
and philosophical systems of the world. It also happens to be the home of the
majority of the world's population and most probably it will also be the engine
for human development and material progress in the coming millennium.
Yet in Asia we also face some of the most chronic social problems in the world
today- from the spread of AIDS that brings with it its staggering human cost to
the enduring structures of domination and exploitation that robs the biggest
part of humanity of its fundamental rights and essential human dignity. In many
of these cases, the root of the problem lies in the lack of awareness of gender
differences and power relations.
In many Asian societies today we witness the institutionalisation and
perpetuation of modes of domination and exploitation that have come to be
accepted as the norm in many societies. Young girls and boys are routinely
employed in the local sex industries as sexual workers. Women are subjected to
impossible standards of morality and conduct set by men. In some societies,
women are still regarded as being intrinsically less worthy than men.
Gender-based discrimination may come in the form of sexual exploitation,
domestic violence or even denial of cultural rights such as education and
Sadly, in many cases these everyday abuses are normalised in the name of
religion or tradition. That religion or tradition can and have been used to make
invisible relations of power is a fact that none of us can deny, though this
need not lead us to blanket condemnations of religion as a whole.
The real problem lies in trying to generate awareness of gender relations and
what it means. That so little of this has been done before is due to the fact
that in most of our societies we do not really have an understanding of gender,
only sex and sexuality. In many Asian societies the word for 'gender' does not
even exist in the local language. For those who stand at the top of the pyramid
of power the attractiveness of sex rather than gender is easy to see. 'Sex' and
'sexual difference' is often portrayed in naturalistic and essentialist terms.
Religious functionaries, be they Ulama or priests, often talk of differences
between men and women in terms of sexual differences, and they present these
differences as God-given, natural and therefore unchangeable.
That sexual differences exist is of course undeniable and obvious. But this does
not present us with the complete picture of human life and existence with all
its complexities, for human beings are also gendered beings with gendered
identities. Here is where Modernity comes to play its pedagogic role once more:
The experience of modernisation has taught us that identities are invariably
socially-contructed and relational. 'Men' and 'Women' are not just different
sexually or physically, but also culturally in terms of the subject-positions
they occupy in society.
It is for this reason that we cannot overlook the fact that beneath the sexual
differences between men and women lie power differentials that are very real,
and which remain as obstacles to the emancipation of many. It is indeed ironic
that while Asian societies have been able to locate and identify the structures
of domination and control that shape the global architecture of international
power-relations around them, they have been slow to see the existing power
relations that cut through their own societies between men and women and the
various gender groupings in their midst.
That such selective ignorance and negligence exists is hardly surprising,
considering the fact that Asian societies tend to be more conservative and are
less willing to deal with potentially disruptive changes brought about by a
radical questioning of themselves and their identity. But question these
identities we must, if Asia is to move ahead and to keep abreast of the
globalisation process that is already upon us.
For the sake of Asia's own future, some of its deepest beliefs and values will
have to be interrogated if it is to confront the challenges that lie before it
successfully. Major problems such as the AIDS epidemic in Southeast Asia, the
chronic disequilibrium in gender-divided societies like Afghanistan, and the
persisting problem of domestic violence in many of our societies will never be
successfully handled as long as we stick to notions and values that are divorced
from the needs of the immediate present.
Here at least the wisdom of our forefathers can no longer come to our rescue-
Not least for the simple reason that the wisdom of our foremothers were not
taken into account.