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

around us.


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have come under close scrutiny and have been rendered historically outdated,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

economic empowerment.


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.