Religion in Women’s Lives Worldwide

Shannon Garvin

At a glance, the condition of women in religion across the globe often appears bleak. Religious systems foster and promote the power and voices of men at the expense of the women who make up the majority of adherents. Long-standing traditions and cultural or familial ties often make it difficult, if not impossible, for women to speak or to act on their own behalf. No major religion has ever allowed women to remain agents of their own spiritual destiny—each has eventually shuttered women out of its leadership and practices, leaving them subservient to men within official structures of the faith. Yet women do make up the majority of practitioners in every religion.

That leads us to ask why women continue to participate in religions that sideline or subordinate them. Are women simply passive recipients of religious teachings that relegate them to submission? Do they simply accept their oppression? Why don’t they leave?

Some do. We also know that many push back against the constraints of beliefs and practices that relegate them to second class status. Some do so by staying within their religious tradition and working for change. Others seek different religious traditions that offer a more egalitarian vision and empower them to live and work as people of faith.

There are no simple solutions when it comes to women and religion, but there are a lot of stories we can hear and a lot of hard questions to ask of ourselves and others. There are patterns, there are leaders, there are sacred texts and ancient stories, there is faith beyond ourselves, and there is hope in despair. Women are resilient and strong. They have carved lives out of deserts of despair and rocks of indifference. The voice and practice of one woman can change an entire generation. The global community in which we live now has given women unprecedented access to the stories of other women across their differences. This allows us to learn from women of faith and to come alongside women all around the world. All of us can support the work of women to continue to generate wholeness and well-being from within each religion and culture. In this chapter we will learn how to support women and men as they regenerate their own religious systems and structures from within their cultures and experiences, supported by their own ancient texts and stories, to create space for each person to actively and freely engage their own religion in their own particular cultural context.

American, BIPOC, Buddhist: Interview with Claudia Nuñez

by Janet Lockhart

JL: What brought you to Buddhism?

CN: Growing up in the Dominican Republic, I saw a mix of traditions, such as West African spiritual/nature practices incorporated into the dominant Catholicism. My parents were Christian and meditated daily.

Later, I explored, reading the Qur’an, and visiting Christian temples—Buddhism made sense to me. Its “philosophy” aspect allows any spiritual affiliation. I appreciate its focus on being part of the world and spiritual at the same time.

JL: Do you face any challenges as a female BIPOC Buddhist?

CN: Some of the challenges are the same as in any spiritual practice. I may be the only person of color in a sangha/temple; I may feel “other.”

However, that would not get in the way of my immersion in Buddhist practice. The point is to let go of all your identities, to figure out your own true nature so labels don’t define you.

JL: What do you want people to know about Buddhism?

CN: The media is over-focused on the principle of mindfulness. It goes hand in hand with compassion, loving kindness, and sympathetic joy [Sanskrit: mudita, feeling delight at another person’s well-being].

JL: How does Buddhism enact transnational activism?

CN: Buddhism emphasizes interdependence. The concept of the “global sangha” (a community without borders) reflects the tendency for transnational activism. “Engaged Buddhism” supports the struggles of others, including women, the Indigenous peoples of Washington state, the people of Tibet . . .

It is easier to engage in activism when your actions in the moment align with your true values. To be an activist, it is important to “sit and listen,” to see the “other” within yourself.

A Little History

When new religions are founded or ancient religions begin massive transitions, women are always at the forefront of the work—they are teaching, organizing classes and groups, meeting community needs, and speaking on behalf of themselves and others. Jesus was surrounded by women, and a woman announced his resurrection to the men. Mohammed’s wives were his primary counselors as military advisors, businesswomen, and educators.

As religions spread, they require organization to preserve a sense of cohesion. While women remain the primary participants of religion, history and theology record them as eventually losing power and voice as men controlled the institutionalization of religions. Why does this happen? Because for most of history, women have been unable to control their own fertility, being primarily responsible for child-rearing and maintenance of the home. With their time and energy invested there, they have been prevented from leading in public. Women who hoped to avoid a life of marriage and childbearing often chose single life as a nun to remain focused on their spiritual work. Yet even these women found themselves under male authority as men built religions as patriarchal institutions.

God Said What?

by Sarah Baum

One of the most fundamental human rights is the ability to decide if and when to reproduce. This was easier said than done for most of human history, but with the twentieth century came effective and safe means of birth control. With these methods, women and men now could plan when, or when not, to have a child, but the issue didn’t stay so clear-cut. Right next to the fundamental right to start a family (or not) is freedom of religion, and these two subjects butt up against each other in an interaction that is highly personal for believers.

The Catholic Church has long forbidden any means of birth control except the “rhythm method,” holding that sexual intercourse is intended for procreation only. Protestants have been allowed access to birth control since 1930 (although it may or may not be encouraged), because there is nothing in scripture forbidding it. In Islam, some birth control is allowed because the Qur’an expresses that children need to be provided for, which can only be accomplished if the parents are ready to start a family. In Hinduism and Buddhism, there is no prohibition on the use of birth control. In Judaism, certain types of birth control are allowed.

These are just some broad beliefs, as all religions have various sects that are more or less conservative. Most interesting of all is how things are changing. The benefits of family planning are so great that there is a growing demand for changes in doctrine. As the methods and means of birth control advance and evolve, so do most religious views on the subject. Will we see a time when religion won’t regulate this vital area of human life? Who can say?

Here we see another noticeable pattern in history. Either women slowly capitulate to men, or men slowly exert power over women. Religions themselves attempt to explain this universally repeated, historical phenomenon. The Bible speaks of the Fall, where the man Adam and woman Eve sinned by craving more knowledge than was beyond their abilities, knowledge that was for the divine and outside the nature of humans. Then God outlined the consequences—one of them being that women would crave men, and men would crave ruling over women. (Note: the Bible describes this as an outcome, not a punishment, as many people believe and teach.) Early Islamic writings record the words and actions of Muhammad and his wives, but after his death, his male followers continued to write interpretations of the original Qur’an and Hadith without including the wisdom or voices of his widows. These male writers eventually reinterpreted the role of women in Islam as nothing more than domestic servants and teachers of children. The early Vedas record women gurus, and the numerous Hindu gods are all “reimaginations” of the female goddess, but Hindu women are barred from many temples while they are menstruating.

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Hindu women offering water of the Ganges River to the Sun God

Ancient texts record that men across cultures from Asia to Africa commonly feared the power of women’s fertility—comparing it with the power of the earth to bring life and death. So men, fearful of what they could not do themselves, sought to control the creative power of the cosmos by controlling the women who possessed it. In an agrarian culture, where people cannot eat if they cannot grow their own food and babies come from women’s bodies like crops come from the ground, it was easy to correlate evidence of this cosmic power to create life and even death with women, and to fear it.

In modern times, we still see how religions attempt to control women’s sexuality and reproduction—from opposition to contraception and abortion to purity balls to laws that discriminate against queer and trans women. We see women who themselves accept and advocate for this control, believing it is the will of the Divine. We also see women who resist and work within religious traditions to bring about change and create transformation toward equitable and life-affirming faith and practice.

In the rest of this chapter, we will draw from a wide variety of academic fields of knowledge to compare, learn, and develop compassion and understanding as we work to understand the relationship between people and religion and move into the future together. First, we’ll discuss women in religion generally, and then we’ll look at some of the ways women experience and participate in religion in homogenous communities, in refugee and immigrant communities, and in multireligious communities.

What Is Religion?

The ancient Greeks explored knowledge and used definitions to separate the process of knowing (philosophy) with what we know (the world) and how we choose to interact with the world and our knowledge (religion). For cultures that were influenced by the Greeks, religion is a way of understanding the world we live in and what happens beyond what we see. These beliefs consciously and unconsciously affect how we interpret events, how we live our lives today, and how we plan for the future. We see the influence of Greek thought in Christianity as it evolved in its first few centuries and later in Islamic jurisprudence. In other cultures, outside Greek influence, religion, and philosophy remain melded together as a whole, and the world is understood holistically. In these cultures, religion is not primarily about belief but about all of existence experienced as a unified whole.

The Diverse Divine

by Ramona Flores

Throughout history, mythology about the divine has included lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, or intersex plus (LGBTQI+) figures, either as gods themselves or as protectors of queer people. Stories of deities’ origin and significance often play loosely with the gender binary, one example being the Hindu deity Vaikuntha Kamalaja, the androgynous form of the Hindu god Vishnu and his partner Lakshmi; another is the Greek Hermaphroditus. Ometeotl, an Aztec god of duality, was a self-created deity that presented as both male and female and contained every multitude of the world.

Classical Greek mythology included a number of gay, bisexual, lesbian, and intersex entities (Achilles, Apollo, Artemis, Bacchus/Dionysus, Callisto, Pan, Neptune, Zeus). Further presence of queer supreme beings can be found in Chinese mythology, with Tu Er Shen, the rabbit god, serving as the patron saint of homosexual love.

There are also many deities that serve as patrons of queer people. Xōchipilli, an Aztec god of art, games, and dance, also serves as the patron saint of homosexuals, and Tlazolteotl, the goddess of filth, purification, and illicit sex, was served by priestesses who cared for those who sought her blessings or cleansing, all of whom were said to be lesbians or transgender women.

In Chinese folklore, there is a story of an isolated island populated entirely by women, not unlike the legend of the Isle of Lemnos in Hellenic legend, where all relationships are between women, and reproduction is facilitated by the blowing of the wind when the island’s inhabitants sleep on the beach.

These legends share similarities despite being geographically and culturally distant, with the connecting thread being a place where queerness is the norm.

Queerness is not a new invention or new revelation. It is tied deeply to humanity’s origin stories and creation myths.

Religion is also about people’s relationship to the sacred and the ways they make meaning of existence. For many people around the world, religion is one of the most significant means by which they understand and interact with the world around them and think about the world beyond what they can see. Religion not only provides a framework for understanding the world and events, but it also influences our decision-making as we live in that world. Religion offers explanations of significant and traumatic events. In most cultures, it also offers definitions of a being (“god”) or multiple beings (pantheon) that interact with humans beyond the world we can see and touch. Religion is not just mystical; it is also practical. It grounds us to the earth where we live as well as the heavens beyond our reach. Women have always been at the forefront of creating a localized, life-giving system of religious practices that balance theological beliefs about the universe and cosmic spirits/deities with the everyday responsibilities of food and shelter in such a way that it nurtures both home and community and is adaptable over a life span as needs and responsibilities change. By the gendered necessity of caring for children, home, and neighbors, women have figured out how to practice religion that integrates these concerns. We can see evidence of this integration in home altars, care of local religious sites, and practices of hospitality and healing.

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Women at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem

Belief systems can be categorized as religions because they share commonalities in form and function. They define existence as well as practices. They attach meanings to locations and experiences. They explain the seen as well as the unseen. They call people to live outside of themselves in the larger community of humanity as well as in their local environment. Religions also define the parts and experiences of existence. They practice exclusion, as they name who is “in” and who is “out” by determining who does and does not share similar interpretations of reality. Originally, when religions were embedded in their local communities, religion, race, and environment were commonly all understood together as a localized whole—a group’s understanding of their identity and existence. Later, as ethnic groups or individuals were displaced or traveled into different areas with different belief systems, religious definitions became part of “oppositional identity”—how we tell ourselves apart from “others.”

Women’s Religious Leadership

Over time, women became excluded from leadership and lost both voice and identity in their own religions even though they practiced and taught it in the home. Few religions gave women any alternative to marriage and childbirth. Women who desired their own spiritual agency had to give up home and family relationships to live under the authority of a man. Nuns and monks were common to Buddhism, but Buddha, compelled by his own lascivious youth, feared women’s sexuality and confined the privileges of nuns within boundaries strictly controlled by local monks. Similarly, Catholic nuns were subservient to priests because only men could accurately reflect and authentically contain the image and work of God on earth. While women served as leaders in early Christianity, their leadership was limited and obscured as the church became institutionalized. Women emerged again as public leaders in some of the dissenting traditions following the Reformation—among Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists, for example. Still, women’s leadership among Protestant churches remained contentious, even as some women were ordained as ministers starting in the nineteenth century. Even today, the Catholic Church and many Protestant churches continue to exclude women from leadership. Only Daoism offered women free passage into religious service and retained their voice as primarily influencers. Nuns could rise to “Celestial Immortality,” as sexual energy was valued as the basis for transformation, and the female cosmic force of yin was superior to the yang (Despeaux and Kohn 2003, 167 and 250). Daoist nuns were also free to create monastic communities; they could marry, and children were an assumed part of monastic life.

Women Clergy: Broadening Their Faith Communities

by Andi Boyer

Finding your “self” in modern Christian religions may prove challenging as a woman. Christianity has historically been practiced as a patriarchal religion, with different rules of acceptable behavior and expectations for male and female practitioners. Most biblical teachings portray women in a role that is subordinate to men, though the Catholic faith does grant sainthood to women recognized for “great deeds or meritorious conduct,” which could be as varied as giving birth to a male saint or losing their lives in defense of their faith, as well as for their contributions to the Catholic church and their communities.

Recently, however, there seems to be a shift happening in some religious cultures. In formal western religions, women are beginning to be recognized in customarily patriarchal roles such as clergy. Although women have often provided a consistency of practice that holds a congregation together week after week, as they become part of the clergy, the diversity within their congregations expands and becomes inclusive of more races and identities.

Women as clergy seem to influence the expression of faith as well. Women are bringing into the ministry a perspective of becoming more focused on the actions of living their faith, compared to identifying one’s merit by learning and remembering a set of rules, as seems to be a governing practice of a religious patriarchy. This inclusiveness provides an opportunity for people to take their god “out of the box” and define the divine in a way that is meaningful within their own lives while continuing to participate in a common community.


Sheppard, Nancy. Community of Christ Church Elder. Personal communication. April 28, 2021.

Theology and Religious Texts

Religions are not monolithic even when they appear so at first glance. Their theology (beliefs) and practices are not static or identical over time and space. They vary from culture to culture. Despite concrete anchoring points in history, most religions today show creative varieties across cultures and history. For example, evangelical Christianity in the United States, with its emphasis on converting people and influencing politics, differs greatly from the ancient Christianity of Iraq or Palestine, where families live alongside their neighbors without the pressure to convert them or determine whether they can access health care or have an abortion. Likewise, Buddhism across Southeast Asia holds firmly to beliefs and practices that require women to return in their next life as men and excludes them from education and access to Nirvana in their female bodies. But Buddhism in the United States and Europe embraces and affirms not only women and men, but also those who are transgender or gender nonbinary. Within Islam today, the issue of veiling is a multilayered and complex practice that reflects interpretations of ancient texts as well as modern cultural contexts. In some places, veiling, which is not required by the Qur’an, is required by the civil and/or religious law for women. In other places, wearing a veil is banned by the government for being too religious. In none of these places are the women themselves allowed to choose how their dress does or does not reflect their religious beliefs. Historically, women rarely wore veils. But over the past few decades, an upsurgence in conservative Muslim influence (Wahhabism) and the ensuing inter-Islamic and anti-western violence forced women to veil and judged the purity of a local culture primarily on the appearance and subjection of its women. In other places, where women want to make their faith visible, some moderate Muslim women are choosing to wear hijab to make a public statement that is layered with political and religious sentiments. The current conversations about laws, modesty, stereotypes, personhood, and faith are an excellent example of the twists, turns, complications, and symbolisms of religion, culture, and gendered practices in the everyday lived experience of women.

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Veiled women attend a mosque in the western Sahara

While official beliefs and practices of most religions have mostly been developed by men, women have also shaped religions from their unique perspectives and experiences. For example, rich traditions across the majority of Indigenous religious around the world honor women as keepers of sacred sites and relics as well as healers in their communities. Many groups also honor girls and boys as they come of age, with boys acknowledged for strength or prowess and girls for their ability to create and bring forth life. In Tamil Nadu, India, Manjal Neerattu Vizha (a turmeric bathing ceremony) is a celebration of a girl’s onset of menstruation. While most Hindu ceremonies are led by men, this one is conducted mostly by women. It begins with ritual seclusion, where the girl is cared for by other girls and women and engages in ritual bathing, and ends with a public function in which people give the girls gifts, including silk sarees.

In Judaism, feminist thinkers have challenged traditional beliefs about women. Some have modified old practices. For example, some feminists have created Passover seders (ritual ceremonies) that center women. So instead of setting out a cup for the prophet Elijah, feminists set a cup for Miriam, the sister of Moses, who often becomes the primary character in the telling of the Passover story.

Scholars today are using the breadth of culturally specific experiences to reformulate theology and practices for today’s cultures in which people of all genders experience spiritual agency. Contextual theologies recognize individual and group experiences as the starting place for constructing theologies. Kwok Pui-lan, for example, a displaced Christian postcolonial feminist Chinese theologian, notes that the Bible is “highly diverse and pluralistic,” showing both the “indelible marks of imperialistic theology” and the challenges to the “dominant power” that have “liberating possibilities” (Kwok 2005, 8). Islamic scholars from Southeast Asia to Africa are using the Qur’an to challenge the “cult of virginity” theology, which assumes that through marriage, men are to own a trophy wife to carry on their male line rather than create a life partnership of mutual respect. They also write against the subjugation of women under Sha’ria laws that highlight the difference between the Qur’an (written by Mohammed) and the early Hadith (interpretations written by Mohammed’s friends and students) from the later Hadith interpretations that devalue women (interpretations written by men promoting their own cultural beliefs centuries after Mohammed died).

When we look at ancient texts from the Qur’an, to the Torah, to the Bible, to the Vedas, we must remind ourselves that the “winners write history” and theology. Those who are in the room shape the decisions that will be implemented outside the room and taught as “fact” even if they are little more than culturally influenced interpretations. Today, we have the privilege and the challenge to read between the lines of ancient texts and stories and interpretations and to notice what human voices and experiences are missing as well as those which are included. Then we can evaluate how the interpretation is incomplete and invite in those voices we need to complete the whole of our religious beliefs. This work is best done from inside each faith community. We do justice by asking hard questions of our own religion and supporting honest questions asked by adherents of other religions.

Impacts of Colonization

More than any other outside force, colonization has affected religious beliefs and practices around the world, and religious beliefs have often propelled and maintained colonization. From the ancient Persians to the Romans, to the Chinese, to the European powers, active colonization of land for the financial benefit of an outside dynasty has intentionally used religion to further its self-serving interests. From displacing peoples from their land to forcing them to change their names and stripping them of civil and religious power, Confucianism, Christianity, and Islam have often become transnational in service to civil masters. As African postcolonial feminist biblical scholar Musa Dube notes, colonizers of Africa took land and resources for “God, gold, and glory.” She also notes a fourth “g”—gender, arguing that practices and impacts of colonization had specific detrimental consequences for African women. European colonizers used the Bible to justify the taking of land and control of people they considered to be innately inferior. In Africa, as in North America, colonizers assumed the inferiority of Indigenous religions and sought to impose Christianity on Indigenous people through evangelization that was often accompanied by violence. Through these generations of colonization, the religious traditions of both colonizers and colonized interacted and shaped one another, usually to the benefit of the colonizer.

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Havasupai People representative Diana Sue Uqualla blesses an amphitheater at Grand Canyon National Park

Scholars today are wrestling with the arduous task of untangling (as much as possible) the effects of colonization of people (both oppressed and oppressors) and are seeking creative ways to integrate transnational faiths with ancient Indigenous stories and practices. This is not an easy process, as evidenced in the United States and Canada in debates over land. For example, scientists recently won approval to build a new telescope on a volcano on the Big Island of Hawai’i, over the opposition of Indigenous Hawai’ians, who consider Mauna Kea to be sacred. Similarly, Indigenous activists have fought a decade-long battle against the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would cross their lands and could threaten their water. (One of the first acts by President Joe Biden was to cancel the Keystone XL Pipeline project.) In Guatemala, Indigenous Mayan human rights defenders draw strength from traditional Mayan ceremonies by engaging in struggles over land and water rights, ending violence against women, and seeking justice for the genocide during the thirty-six-year internal armed conflict in the latter part of the twentieth century. The Chinese government represses religion in Tibet because it sees Tibetan Buddhism and its reverence for its leader, the Dalai Lama, as threats to its control. China is also trying forcibly to assimilate its Uighur Muslim minority in what the US State Department calls “genocide.”

In contrast, postcolonial theologians are uncovering colonial entanglements in belief and practice and are imagining new ways of doing religion that do not perpetuate colonization. Each religion must navigate these tensions between theology and practice, history and current events, freedom and gendered teachings, and must do so within the larger field of global, multireligious conversations and applications.

Women practice their faith in many contexts around the world, and these contexts shape the practice of faith, even as the practice of faith shapes these contexts. In the next sections, we’ll look at religious experiences and issues for women in their local historical communities that are characterized by a dominant religion practiced by most of the population, women in diasporic communities where they are refugees or immigrants, and women in multireligious or pluralistic societies.

Women in Their Local Communities

Many women around the world still live and practice Indigenous religions in their own communities, where that religious faith is dominant. These women live on the same land as their ancestors, within a place where it is easy to consider their own experience as normal, and it may be hard to delineate between culture, religion, race, and ethnicity. On the one hand, this means women may feel supported by a community of like-minded people; on the other, it may mean women’s possibilities are limited by religious beliefs and practices that seem natural and inevitable because they are unchallenged.

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Yoruba festival of Zangbeto (guardians of the night) in Benin

The African traditional religions (ATRs) practiced in sub-Saharan Africa inform all aspects of life from birth to death. Within these traditions, to be human is to be in community and to participate in the community’s rituals, ceremonies, and festivals. At the same time, women are mostly excluded from religious leadership, although there are rare exceptions, like the Shona and the Chewa of Malawi.

Legacies of Colonialism

Indigenous communities and religions are often shaped by legacies of colonialism that are particularly devastating for women, as well as for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, or intersex plus (LGBTQI+). Before the colonization of North American, for example, many Indigenous communities welcomed and revered Two-Spirit people. Contact with Christianity, however, disrupted Two-Spirit status in many Indigenous communities as missionaries taught traditional western gender roles and sexual mores.

In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, transnational colonial religions have had many adverse impacts on women. For example, women in Ecuador possess the fewest rights in South America. A woman there gives up her property and money when she is married under Catholic law. If her husband dies, the inheritance goes to male relatives who can choose to support her or not (Wilson 2013, 8). From North America to South America today, the lines between religion and politics are so blurred that many political campaign promises are made to incorporate conservative Evangelical or Catholic beliefs into law. In his inauguration speech on January 1, 2019, President Bolsonaro of Brazil said, “We will unite people, value the family, respect religions and our Judeo-Christian tradition, combat gender ideology and rescue our values.” His ministers of education and family have followed his lead and reinforced gender stereotypes, including “appropriate” colors of clothing for boys and girls and removal of discussions of gender from classrooms (Faiola 2019). In Southeast Asia, 20 percent of the population lives or works in another country for financial gain or education or because of a natural disaster. The global economy has led to massive migrations, and national citizenship is often subservient to local ethnic group and religious membership. As a result, migrants are easy targets of gendered policies and religious persecution, such as women and children without citizenship or rights, persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, and a ban in Singapore on foreign workers worshipping at local temples, mosques, and churches.

Women’s Religious Resistance

Despite colonial impositions and patriarchal religious interpretations, women remain at the forefront of grassroots discussions around the world, supported by the United Nations (UN), nongovernmental organizations, religious organizations, and diasporic populations. In Malaysia, women came together in the 1990s because “they were observing such a disparity between lived realities and their ideas of what they thought represented justice and equality” (Ali 2019, 71). They recognized the necessity of “grappling with the trajectory of Islamic discourses critically with regard to gender in order to challenge how they get manifested in real lives either by culture or by policy.” They decided that “the context of people’s lives takes precedence over text.” In an “exegesis of praxis” within an Islamic faith historically based in jurisprudence, “Can there be justice if Muslim women do not experience justice?” (Ali 2019, 72).

Across the world, in western Africa, Methodist Mercy Oduyoye, who lives in the colonized country of Ghana but came from the ruling line of an ancient matrilineal tribe, noticed how the male theologians around her talked about polygamy. “I found that the men were talking for women all the time, and I thought, well, it’s about time they heard the women’s voices in the first person” (Oredein 2016, 160). She notes that a fellow male theologian said to her, “This is a good thing you have started, because a bird with one wing does not fly.” She has prioritized the voices of women not only to tackle issues such as polygamy and HIV/AIDS that disproportionally affect women, but also to challenge patriarchal notions of masculinity. She has also encouraged her religious community to ask, “What does it mean to be a man?” so men could change their behavior. To do this well, she has engaged the critical necessity of cultivating interreligious relationships (Oredein 2016, 161).

In the 1990s, Buddhist Theravada nuns were ordained in Sri Lanka for the first time anywhere in Southeast Asia in a millennium, even though they are still not officially recognized by the local governments or the ruling monks (Paudel and Dong 2017, 13-14). The Sakyadhita Conferences address topics like abuse, power, and sexuality in Buddhism while affirming that enlightenment is contingent upon the mind, which is genderless, and not on the physical body (Langenberg 2018, 11). Women have greater access than before to online support, international groups, and scholarly theological and historic writings. We see the results of this in the religious and social changes women are bringing to health care, education, and access to their own religious rites and sites.

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Buddhist nuns in Myanmar

Reimagining Religions

There are both positive and negative effects for a religion embedded in its own historical community. On the positive side, sorting through the effects of colonization, growth, and reimagining that comes from within a particular religion and culture avoids another layer of colonial damage. Scholars today note how unpacking the effects of colonialism ironically also continues the legacy of damage to ancient cultures and religions. In short, you cannot undo the past; you can only struggle to move into the future with integrity. In Ghana, Mercy Oduyoye, leading the Circle of Concerned Theologians, notes, “We are awake to our responsibility as creative beings made in the image of God” (Oduyoye 2001b, 99). “We need new myths, new metaphors, new language” (between men and women) to “become a source of healing for the unhealthy relations foisted upon us by patriarchy and androcentricism” (Oduyoye 2001a, 44). In India, women inspired by the #MeToo campaign online have begun demanding access to their own temples and publicly questioning the religious hypersexualization of women, which has led to cultural bans on discussing the common human experience of menstruation and has normalized a gang rape culture of girls and women alike. In places like Botswana, new models of enculturated faiths are emerging, like Vashti Christianity as a model for preventing HIV infection and promoting patriarchal resistance (Kebaneilwe 2011). Queen Vashti, who in the Bible refused to be paraded as a sex object in front of the king’s friends, is seen as a hero for women and a model for resisting marital violence and HIV.

Gender Violence and Intolerance

On the negative side, gender violence and religious intolerance remain deep seated in many places. For example, across sub-Saharan Africa, many Muslims practice female genital cutting (FGC) even though Islam does not call for it. In some places, even outsiders who live in these areas feel pressured to participate in FGC as a rite of passage. One journalist tells how she would not allow her daughter to be circumcised while they lived in Africa even though her daughter begged and said “all of her friends were” as a sign of their womanhood. Sikh women, in their native Punjab, as the minority religion in a Muslim majority culture, now fear leaving their homes or exercising leadership in their religious community. Because of culturally accepted norms, they now experience intimate partner violence at the same rate as their Muslim neighbors, even though their faith is one of equality in theology and practice. Sikh women can now only freely and safely practice their faith in diaspora communities.

Because religion and culture are deeply mixed and reinforcing, change can be slow and difficult. Religions around the world continue to exert enormous pressure on vulnerable populations that perpetuate oppression of women, children, and Indigenous tribal populations in the name of civil leadership and stability. Even when nations commit to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was ratified by the UN General Assembly in 1948, or to other human rights treaties, they may still apply for religious waivers to subject the international charters to local religious laws that nullify the protection of women, minorities, children, and LGBTQI+ populations as human rights are subsumed to religious practices.

Women in Diaspora

Women who live in diasporic communities, either as refugees or immigrants, encounter different advantages and challenges to living out their religion than women in their local communities. A diaspora community is any place where people of similar ethnicity and language live together that is not their original home. Diaspora communities retain their culture (religion, rituals, food, etc.) in a new location. Women can live in a diasporic community on the same continent as their ancestors (in a refugee camp), or they can live across the world (as an immigrant). Those who live close often assume their diaspora to be temporary and hold hope of normalizing their life and returning “home” eventually. Wars, local violence, natural disasters, and/or economic need commonly create refugees across Africa and Asia, where identity is found in local tribes and communities rather than in colonially created national identities. Long-distance travel and formal immigration to another country can create a permanent diaspora for an individual or family, but the vast majority of refugees plan to return home as soon as possible. “What remains consistent through various kinds of diasporic migration . . . is an ongoing identification with a communal identity based on a culture of origin.” Marie Griffith notes that diaspora includes imagined communities, cultural hybridity, and “timeless connections to a monolithic and primordial continent” (Griffith and Savage 2006, xii). That is, immigrants and refugees hold a dual relationship both with their “original homes” and culture on the continent where their people have always lived and the “communities where they now live,” whether they are close to their place of origin or around the world (Marshall and Corman 2016, 2).

New Ways of Practicing Faith

woman reading (link to file)
Negotiating faith in new settings

Because a woman in diaspora is a woman “out of time and place,” a space of dissonance and growth is created within her where she can work out new ways of living, worship, and passing on her faith to her children. Identity formation and retention, recognition of religious traditionalism, and adaptation and innovation all commonly occur in this new context (Behloul 2016; Rüland, Lübke, and Baumann 2019, 69). Women are at the practical theological forefront in diaspora settings, working through creative ways to practice their religion with internal integrity and transmitting valued traditions and beliefs to their children. In diaspora, women come to experience for themselves, firsthand, the separation between culture and religion. In some instances, this may mean women have greater agency and ability to create new understandings and practices of their faith. Other women may face greater constraints because of pressure to maintain the faith of home amid another culture. Women in particular may be considered responsible for producing the future for a people. In Orthodox Jewish communities formed after the Holocaust, for example, women experience great pressure to produce new generations to preserve the future for Orthodox Jews.

Many women also begin to write more in diaspora. Separation from home drives inner reflection and finds expression in novels and poetry as well as theological work. “Contemporary Muslim women writers from migrant backgrounds often write about the intersections of gender, religion, and violence inflicted by religion in particularly complex and illuminating ways” (Friedman 2018, 202). It is easier to see how “women’s accounts of their religious experiences may demonstrate multiple shifting claims to power that are sometimes built on and sometimes defiant of their understandings of womanhood” (Griffith and Savage 2006, xv). In diaspora, people tend to gather by religion as well as by language and race. In the United States, this often creates a “Little Italy” or “Chinatown” where people are comfortable among those who look, act, and believe in similar ways. Such groups are emotionally and relationally necessary to first-generation refugees and immigrants because of the emotional burdens of transition, language barriers, and cultural misunderstandings. Second- and third-generation immigrants and refugees are more or fully integrated into the local community, having shared educational experiences and being skilled in language and cultural differences. While integration benefits the children of diasporic communities, it also causes relational challenges with close-knit family and community over religious differences in theology and practice and cultural ideas of individuality and choice.

Challenges of Integration

Women in diaspora not only encounter people of other religions, but they also meet people who practice the same religion in difference ways. They make alliances within the sphere of religion across ethnic and national boundaries in ways that were unimaginable back “home” (Behloul 2016, 66). While unique forms of coming together are possible under a broader understanding of transnational religion, women also face challenges of language and cultural misunderstanding.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, where the Canadian ideal of equality in diversity is actively pursued from civil land planning to education, researchers have observed that recent Afghan refugees have had to remain “other” in order to receive the help they need and to find a place to “belong.” This means that Afghan refugees need special assistance to learn a new language or job skills, or to navigate new stores and schools, but as they do this, they must present themselves as genuinely Afghan. They need to remain “immigrant” at the same time they are trying to integrate into a new society. This is an unexpected result of intentional diasporic places in pluralistic cultures. Immigrants and refugees work hard but do need help, as local economies are generally far more expensive than the ones from which they came, and it takes time to become financially stable in a new job or career. In Canada, “There must be the multiplicity of cultural identities in order to sustain the contemporary Canadian multicultural identity” (O’Bryan 2014, iv), but how can refugees also become “Canadian” while still being Afghan or any other former nationality? Time solves this problem for the ensuing generations, but immigrants right now face a pressing question: “How do I integrate into Canadian society and still create financial stability for my family?” This Canadian diasporic experience is different than the United States, where immigrants are less welcomed and more pressured by “bootstrap theology” to “prove themselves” economically worthy of becoming an American.

Supporting Others

For an immigrant woman in diaspora, practicing her religion may look different from how her children practice their religion. She may cling more to the “old ways” because her sense of self has been disrupted as she has moved into a new place and culture. She may also be at the forefront of creating new ways to pass on beliefs and practices that once were traditional in the old country. In Britain, for example, satsand and bala vihars (devotional and educational groups) have sprung up to keep the descendants of Indian immigrants connected to their culture of origin (Lourenço 2011, 40). Scholars have also noted that women in diaspora raise and give more money back to their home country than into their local religious centers. In fact, women in diaspora raise more money for disaster relief than anyone else in the world. Women may also find they eventually have the space to reflect on their faith and the ways in which it was practiced in their home country that may be incongruent with their religion’s original writings and beliefs—in short, how cultural traditions highjacked authentic religious practices over time. Women may find space to imagine new ways of living and worshipping with greater equality, especially where their human rights are protected by the civil government rather than subsumed under local religious practices. Many women also create ways to support and encourage other women back home. The Kaur Collective in Canada began as a way for Sikh women, free to worship and lead in British Columbia, to remind their fellow Sikh women in the Punjab and around the world that they have the freedom to be themselves, look like themselves, and practice and lead their faith for themselves in their communities as well as in their homes—that oppression and gender violence are cultural experiences, not a part of their Sikh history, theology, or practices.

Dissonance, Adaptation, and Creativity

Often, when women have been displaced by violence, famine, or a natural disaster, they find their way into UN refugee camps, where they meet aid workers and encounter people who may hold different values, especially about women. For many women, this experience can create dissonance and disruptions as religious beliefs come into contact with the discourse of human and women’s rights. For some women, these encounters underline agency and self-determination and mark the beginning of a journey into personal exploration. Women may also take these new ideas back into their local communities or their new communities in ways that shape the practice of religion there.

Women in diaspora also come to make creative and localized forms of religious syncretism. They draw from their own religious tradition as well as the traditions of their new places of residence and blend them into meaningful religious beliefs and practices for themselves. For example, “Mostly Tamil-speaking Hindus in Guyana, Trinidad, and Suriname worship Mother Kali. In Trinidad, a syncretistic worship of Mother Kali sees her as the Catholic Virgin Mary. This Catholic La Divina Pastora, meaning ‘The Divine Shepherdess’ was adapted as a dark-skinned Virgin Mary and is worshipped on Good Friday. She is credited for traveling with the Indian people across the ocean to their new home” (Naidu 2007, 15).

Diasporic living creates both positive and negative religious and personal experiences for women as they encounter new communities, beliefs, and practices. It can provide distance, space, and opportunities for women to reflect on what they believe and why. It may allow creative and personalized adaptation of religion to real life instead of forcing life experiences to conform to religious beliefs. It may allow women to speak hope and ideas (theology and practices) back into the communities of origin in hopes of restoring original beliefs lost over time, patriarchal control, and culture (Kaur Collective). It may allow creative improvisation and compromise that attain a sense of purpose and make peace over reality within lives with little to no control (Griffith and Savage 2006, xvi). It may give those who take note of “lived religion” a variety of examples of how people of the same faith tradition in various places create and navigate space—dominant theological themes can lose power, and dormant ones can spring back to life. It may reveal “new and old oppressions” but also “opportunities to defy them” through citizenship in a new space (Lourenço 2011, 40).

Pushback and Backlash

For all people, change often creates fear—fear of the unknown—and this fear without thoughtful direction can create religious backlash and a felt need to dig in one’s heels to preserve religious “purity.” Women themselves may struggle with the new people and beliefs they encounter and may hold even more tightly to the beliefs and practices they brought with them. The emotional energy (fear and anger) in these situations often plays out as gender violence against the most vulnerable—women, children, minoritized and Indigenous people, and LGBTQI+ people. When women do begin to question traditional beliefs or practices, they may also encounter resistance from more conservative members of their communities of origin who may claim religious beliefs are necessary to preserve culture or tradition. Often, however, this pushback is really about control and power over women. Women may face labels of “faithlessness” or “rebellious” from men when they encounter opportunities in their own communities that challenge traditional beliefs and practices, such as in Afghanistan or Iraq, as women work outside the home or seek safety in domestic violence shelters supported by the UN or NGOs.

Church-Sanctioned Domestic Violence in Russia

by Janet Lockhart

In 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law making it no longer a crime for a man to beat his wife, child, or elder parent. Instead, a perpetrator might have to pay a fine if the survivor of his abuse pressed charges (providing her own evidence, since police no longer have to investigate). Both houses of the Russian Parliament passed the bill by wide margins. Protests and debates about it were stifled.

Astonishingly, the Orthodox Church in Russia supported this move, saying, among other things, that the state should not interfere in family matters, and that protecting women against domestic violence is a western phenomenon that they call “gender ideology,” which flies in the face of Russian culture and so should be rejected.

The church denies there is a problem, saying domestic violence is not an issue because the church supports the traditional structure of the family, with men in charge, women subordinate, and parent-child relationships based on “authority and power.” It urges women to forgive their abusers, emphasizes keeping families together in spite of harm to individuals within them, and even opposes programs to prevent violence in the first place.

Russian activists are working to reduce the impact of domestic violence by supporting survivors, advocating for changes in the law, including the introduction of restraining orders, and using social media to bring awareness to the problem. In the meantime, Russian women—some estimate as many as fourteen thousand per year—die at the hands of their own husbands, sons, and fathers.

The experience of diaspora can create both opportunities to reflect on and reshape faith, or it may feel threatening and overwhelming and lead to a retreat into even more tightly held convictions about beliefs and practices. Practicing one’s faith in a diasporic community can provide a sense of familiarity and comfort in new and challenging circumstances. As immigrants and refugees encounter diverse people and faiths and people who practice the same faith in different ways, they may begin to think differently about gender in particular, recognizing and perhaps challenging cultural practices and adapting beliefs and rituals to fit with new experiences and communities.

Women in Pluralistic Communities

Pluralistic societies are those in which different types of people with different beliefs coexist. People who advocate for pluralism believe that living and working together across differences is a good thing that strengthens societies. Some religions embrace pluralism, recognizing that diverse beliefs reveal the varied experiences that contribute to larger social understandings and benefits. Many religions, however, struggle with pluralism. Convinced that their religion is the only true religion, practitioners may hold negative beliefs about people of other faiths or refuse to cooperate with them. They may proselytize or even try to impose their convictions on others through influence in public processes. Typically, in pluralistic societies, governments try to protect the religious rights of all people, even when one religion dominates, although, as we will see, these efforts are not always successful.

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Druids or neo-pagans may struggle for religious recognition

Human Rights and Religious Rights

It is easy for us to assume that women in pluralistic communities experience freedom to live out their religious beliefs without interference according to their own wishes, but as we are seeing with the worldwide and highly politicized debate over the veiling of Muslim women, this is not necessarily the case. In France, for example, women are not allowed to wear a hijab or other religious marking in school or public buildings in an effort to preserve France’s secularity. In Turkey, which has maintained a civic rather than religious core despite its overwhelming Muslim population, the wearing of headscarves was banned in civil service jobs and in government offices until 2013. In Quebec, Canada, the hijab has been banned for civil leaders such as teachers and judges, but the French-speaking province is being pressured by the pluralistic priorities of those who want full religious freedom for citizens to dress as they see fit.

In many secular governments, laws and policies are guided by a human rights framework, which recognizes the freedoms and conditions inherent to all people as a result of their humanity. In a pluralistic or multireligious community, these human rights precede (come before) religious rights and may clash with religions when religious practices conflict with secular laws. So, for example, female genital cutting on a girl under the age of 18 is illegal in the United States even if it is a traditional religious practice within a family or local religious community. We also see this when gay couples are denied service because of a business owner’s religious beliefs. Then the courts must affirm the functioning order of human and religious rights.

Even in secular communities, religion often has a significant influence in political and social life. The dominant religion in a community in particular may shape women’s experiences. Often, these dominant religions have played a considerable role in colonizing Indigenous communities and imposing gendered roles on women and men. In the United States, for example, Christianity is the dominant religion, and even though the Constitution forbids the government from establishing, favoring, or prohibiting religion, many laws and policies have been shaped by Christian belief. To a great extent, laws that limit abortion access reflect conservative Christian viewpoints about when human life begins. Laws that allow businesses to deny service to LGBTQI+ people result from beliefs about the sinfulness of diverse sexualities. In India, Hindu nationalists have begun to challenge the nation’s secularism and have targeted Muslims for discrimination and violence. In Myanmar, majority Buddhists have participated in genocidal violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Learning Activity: Treatment of LGBTQI+ People across Lutheran Majority Countries in Europe

by Karly Michon

Lutheranism is the largest religion in northern and Western European countries such as Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. But there is variety within and between these countries in their attitudes toward and treatment of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, or intersex plus (LGBTQI+), on issues such as same-sex marriage, adoption of children, serving as clergy, and expressions of sexuality.

Take time to research Lutheranism in a few of these countries, and note the church’s stance and policies on the LGBTQI+ community.

  • How do they interpret the Bible and other religious texts and speak about LGBTQI+ people?
  • Are LGBTQI+ people allowed to have church weddings in these countries?
  • Are LGBTQI+ people able to serve as clergy? Are there any restrictions on their service?
  • Are LGBTQI+ church members able to be “out” about their sexuality in the church community?

Do you think the various branches of Lutheranism are supportive of the LGBTQI+ community, based on your findings?

Are there any correlations between acceptance of LGBTQI+ people in Lutheranism and governmental policies for that country?

Take notes on the information you find, and share it with classmates or friends to raise awareness of the issues facing the religious LGBTQI+ community on a global scale.

Find some ways to get involved with your local LGBTQI+ community.

Religious fundamentalism roots itself in an imagined past in which a purer form of faith was practiced and ruled social and political life. Fundamentalism, no matter the religion, advocates for strict adherence to rigid interpretations of sacred texts and belief in fixed traditional beliefs. In the present, fundamentalism can fuel oppression when it dominates in a society or conflict when fundamentalists are a minority and feel threatened by changes brought about by modernity or plurality. Religious fundamentalism requires the suppression of women, and in pluralistic communities that profess women’s equality, women’s oppression often plays out in religious life and in the home.

Pluralism and Syncretism

Religions can be flexible, and practitioners can adapt beliefs and traditions as they come into contact with diverse people, customs, and faiths. “Majority and minority cultures also change as they adapt to each other” (Friedman 2018, 206), and in pluralistic societies, diverse religions interact with and influence one another. At times, syncretistic forms of religion are begun, such as Vodou in Haiti and Santería in Cuba. Syncretism is an attempt to take the best of more than one religion and combine them, generally, in a way that adapts Indigenous beliefs with an influential and imported transnational religion such as Christianity or Islam. Both Vodou and Santería combine traditional West African religions, which were practiced by many enslaved people, with Catholicism. In both Vodou and Santería, women are honored and can serve as priests.

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A santera (priestess of Santería) in Cuba

People in pluralistic communities today are reimagining ways in which ancient religions can coexist and create meaning alongside each other in today’s globalized world—where people are agents of their own spiritual destiny and support each other across religious beliefs for the sake of all people in all communities. For example, women on the border of Pakistan (Muslim) and India (Hindu) work hard in their communities to support and care for each other and their families, believing common humanity is more important than the religious threats of the governments that seek to divide people. In openly pluralistic societies like the United States, religious leaders in cities from Los Angeles, California, to Birmingham, Alabama, come together to engage public issues from housing to racial justice. Religious and civil leaders find common ground in kindness, compassion, mercy, and hope as the foundation of all faiths to work together across religions and denominations to address issues of the common good for all people.

Pluralistic communities offer distinct religious opportunities and challenges as diverse people coexist in geographic proximity. In many places, these relationships are complicated by legacies of colonialism. As both Muslim and Christian postcolonial theologians note, people who belong to dominant and colonizing groups and people who belong to oppressed and colonized groups both have distinct work to do to bring about reconciliation and justice. Pluralistic communities offer women opportunities to reflect on their religious beliefs and practices in conversation with other beliefs and practices in a mutual process of sharing and shaping religion.

Women Speaking and Writing around the World

Women also have opportunities to encounter different people and belief systems around the world with expanded access to global platforms such as international conferences, distance educational opportunities, and online religious academic circles and theological groups. Women writers from many religious traditions publish both in traditional print formats and online, making their writings much more widely available. For many women writers, however, publishing online also brings a level of danger, from trolling to threats and instances of violence. Some women are protected or defended by their academic or religious community; most are not. For example, Susan Shaw of Oregon State University wrote a piece on white Christians and climate change in 2020 that was picked up by Breitbart News and quickly went viral. Almost instantly, her email and phones were trolled, and she was harassed and threatened. Her university stood by her and encouraged her to write about her experiences in a follow-up article. Others, such as Buddhist nuns Tenzin Dadon and Thubten Chodron in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, live and teach outside their mainstream faith. Dadon and Chodron must remain “freelance nuns,” unattached to a monastery, because nuns, as women, are still not accepted as fully ordained leaders. The male leaders will not openly support them, and they do not want to take vows of obedience to a male monk. Both women hold degrees in higher education, teach, write, and share their experiences trying to live faithful to Buddhism even when their gender is not accepted as fully capable of pursuing Nirvana. Conservative Muslims across the world still denounce African American Muslim scholar Amina Wadud for leading prayer in a mosque in New York in 2005, simply because she was a woman. Amnesty International continues to monitor the danger women face in multiple social media platforms, whether they are civil or religious leaders or even which country they live and work within. A globalized world offers both greater protection and greater threats for women who speak and write openly online.

Creating and sustaining healthy, peaceful, multireligious societies is difficult. As we have seen in the immigration crisis in Europe, particularly as people have fled civil war in Syria, when diverse religious traditions come into close contact, even in a secular society, conflict is likely. As the European Union (EU) has opened its border to millions of refugees, secularized societies such as France and Germany find some communities are open and welcoming, while in others there is an increase in violence against refugees of other faiths or violence against residents by refugees with different cultural and religious assumptions. In the fall of 2020, French teacher Samuel Paty was killed by an immigrant who was offended that the teacher had shown a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad in a class on free speech. Many French citizens believe the ban on images of Muhammad is not acceptable in a secular society, but many Muslims hold this as a foundational belief. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel accepted more than the quota of refugees to set an example for other EU nations. She suffered political backlash and lost political support for her position. In many places in Europe, integration has proven difficult, as many Muslim immigrants live in ethnic enclaves. Islamist extremism among some immigrants and among some native Europeans (post 9/11) continue to widen the gap between these communities, which desperately need to find common ground in their humanity.

Women Theologians

In response to increasing globalization and global awareness, women theologians around the world are seeking new ways to learn from each other and work together in interdependence to effect social change that affirms the personhood of all people. In Africa, the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) Women’s Commission gathers women from Africa, Asia, and Latin America and seeks to explore theologies that are relevant to their own cultural contexts. Mercy Amba Oduyoye became the first woman president of the EATWOT in 1997 and founded the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, which continues to engage pressing issues, such as polygamy and AIDS in African communities, and to share those issues from women’s perspectives instead of listening to men tell them what they think and feel and believe. Biblical critic Musa Dube of Botswana writes extensively on AIDS, postcolonialism, translation, and gender issues in religion. Melba Padilla Maggay is a Filipina anthropologist who founded the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture. Sikh Valarie Kaur recently took a year of sabbatical retreat to think and write on what it means for all of us to come together across religions to view each other with respect and to work together for the common welfare of all people. Now she is speaking on how to transition America to a truly multiracial democracy so that a sustainable cultural future can become a reality. Muslim professor and Los Angeles resident Najeeba Syeed joined fellow Southeast Asian scholars from a number of faiths to compile a reader edited by Hong Kong native and postcolonial scholar Kwok Pui-lan. In this text, students can read and learn from diverse Asian and Asian American religions.

Women across religions are busy on Zoom and email, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting one another personally and professionally and redefining what it means to work together with an attitude of learning and respect, and with a focus on implementing theologies in communities where all people benefit because leaders and followers of all faiths respect one another and work together. For now, full implementation of respectful and flourishing pluralism remains a pipe dream in many cities and towns, but we have excellent examples lighting the way forward.

Gods, Goddesses, and Reimaginations

by Shannon Garvin

Images of deities have long caused both inspiration and confusion among humans. Whether they are in word or sculpted form, images of a deity both reflect and then reinforce and teach cultural stereotypes. There is much discussion now even among traditional and transnational religious scholars on the benefits of more gender-diverse symbols and the limitations of our inherited and traditional religious imagery.

For instance, Christianity prohibits physical forms to represent God, yet the male writers of the Scriptures had no problem reflecting their own male life experience in their descriptions of their ungendered God. As a result, generations of Christians struggle to view God as anything more than male, and the “maleness” of the ungendered Christian God has diminished the understanding of God into patriarchy and power. In Islam, while Mohammed himself did not seem to have held particular gender bias and was married to several strong and powerful women, the men who followed him were concerned with interpreting his writings in a manner that coalesced their expanding power base (militarily and economically) at the expense of women and foreigners.

Religions may be about the divine, but they are held and shaped by humans and communicated through verbal and visual symbols. It is impossible for humans not to leave their own mark with their prejudices, lusts, and fears. Today, as women find larger spaces and voices, it is not surprising that they also want larger, less gendered—or multi-gendered—symbols of deities. They want religious convictions and deities that are life-giving—for the good of all people. This idea is both threatening and liberating in and out of religious circles. These are necessary conversations and reflective reimaginations if we are going to continue to grow as a whole human community.


As citizens of a multireligious planet, we all face the daunting task of living and working together to create a more inclusive, equitable, and just world. Feminist theologian Letty Russell reminds us that “there is a great deal of painful oppression in the stories of women, which has to be dealt with if we are going to reconstruct theologies in partnership with one another” (Russell 1988, 16). We can learn a great deal from one another if we listen actively and with an open heart and commit to creating change together. “Solidarity has a dimension of being with the other in spite of distance, time, and physical presence” (Russell 1988, 136). This is why feminist theologians across religions remind us that we all have the ability to live out core, foundational beliefs that are shared across the world religions: kindness, courage, love, hospitality, and hope. While religions can play a role in maintaining systems of oppression, these core values also offer the possibility of religious participation as resistance. Especially for women and LGBTQI+ people, across their differences, religion is complex terrain, and our study of it reminds us of both the difficulties and possibilities of the work of justice.

Learning Activities

  1. What is religion and why is it important, according to Garvin?
  2. What is the historical relationship between religion and colonization? How do legacies of colonization continue to affect the lives of Indigenous peoples?
  3. What are the potential challenges and benefits of practicing religion in diaspora?
  4. How does religion influence political and social life in secular communities?
  5. How can religions play a role in maintaining systems of oppression, according to Gavin? How can they play a role in resistance against systems of oppressions? Provide at least three examples of oppression and three examples of resistance from the chapter.
  6. Working in a small group, add these key terms to your glossary: diaspora, contextual theology, pluralism, fundamentalism, syncretism.


Ali, Kecia. 2019. “The Making of the ‘Lady Imam’: An Interview with Amina Wadud.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 35, no. 1, 67-79.

Behloul, Samuel M. 2016. “Religion and the (De-)Construction of Diaspora.” Journal of Muslims in Europe 5, no. 1, 65-86.

Despeux, Catherine, and Livia Kohn. 2003. Women in Daoism. Cambridge, MA: Three Pines Press.

Faiola, Anthony, and Marina Lopes. 2019. “LGBT Rights Threatened in Brazil under New Far-Right President.” Washington Post. February 18, 2019.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. 2018. “Cosmopolitanism, Religion, Diaspora: Kwame Anthony Appiah and Contemporary Muslim Women’s Writing.” New Literary History 49, no. 2, 199-225.

Griffith, R. Marie, and Barbara Dianne Savage. 2006. Women and Religion in the African Diaspora: Knowledge, Power, and Performance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kebaneilwe, Mmapula Diana. 2011. “The Vashti Paradigm Resistance as a Strategy for Combating HIV.” Ecumenical Review 63, no. 4, 378-83.

Kwok, Pui-lan. 2005. Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Langenberg, Amy Paris. 2018. “An Imperfect Alliance: Feminism and Contemporary Female Buddhist Monasticisms.” Religions 9, no. 6, 190.

Lourenço, Inês. 2011. “Religion and Gender: The Hindu Diaspora in Portugal.” South Asian Diaspora 31, no. 1, 37-51.

Marshall, Katherine, and Crystal Corman. 2016. Religion, Refugees, and Diaspora Communities in the United States. Washington, DC: Georgetown University, World Faiths Development Dialogue.

Naidu, Janet. 2007. “Retention and Transculturation of Hinduism in the Caribbean.” Guyana Journal 14, no. 6.

O’Bryan, Christina W. 2014. “Gender, Mobility and Self—Afghan Women in Vancouver, British Columbia.” PhD dissertation. University of Oregon, Department of Anthropology.

Oduyoye, Mercy. 2001a. “A Biblical Perspective on the Church.” Ecumenical Review 53, no. 1, 44-47.

———. 2001b. “The Story of a Circle.” Ecumenical Review 53, no. 1, 97-100.

Oredein, Oluwatomisin. 2016. “Interview with Mercy Amba Oduyoye: Mercy Amba Oduyoye in Her Own Words.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 32, no. 2, 153-64.

Paudel, Archana, and Qun Dong. 2017. “The Discrimination of Women in Buddhism: An Ethical Analysis.” Open Access Journal 4, no. 4, 18.

Rüland, Jürgen, Christian von Lübke, and Marcel M. Baumann. 2019. Religious Actors and Conflict Transformation in Southeast Asia: Indonesia and the Philippines. Contemporary Southeast Asia Series. New York: Routledge.

Russell, Letty M. 1988. Inheriting Our Mothers’ Gardens: Feminist Theology in Third World Perspective. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Wilson, Tamar Diana. 2013. “Violence against Women in Latin America.” Latin American Perspectives 41, no. 1, 3-18.

Image Attributions

13.1 “Praying the Sun God – Varanasi, India” by is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

13.2 “Wailing @ the Wailing Wall” by kudumomo is licensed under CC BY 2.0

13.3 “New Mosque, Dakhla” by D-Stanley is licensed under CC BY 2.0

13.4 “0355 Grand Canyon_ Mather Point Landmark Dedication 10/25/2010” by Grand Canyon NPS is licensed under CC BY 2.0

13.5 “Zangbeto” by Linda DV is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

13.6 “Buddhist Nuns” by mistychoi is available under CC PDM 1.0

13.7 “Komen Race Jerusalem 2012 No.396” by U.S. Embassy Jerusalem is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

13.8 File:Three female druids.jpg by Andrew Dunn is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

13.9 “Cuban Santera Smoking Cigar” by Carlos Lorenzo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


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Women Worldwide Copyright © 2022 by Shannon Garvin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.