Religion: Empowering or oppressive to women?

One Angel Nduka-Nwosu recently sparked an interesting discussion on Twitter when she requested African Christian women to quote or reply with a tweet about the most sexist/dehumanising thing they had ever heard about women in the church.

Many responded with tweets that condemned religious beliefs for holding women back in an era where women empowerment is at the forefront.


Just this year, Saudi Arabia lifted its widely criticised ban on female drivers, sparking jubilation among many women in the country who went out on the roads shortly after the ban was lifted.


During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia were limited in comparison to the rights of women in many of its neighbour countries due to the strict Sharia Law in place in the country.


In some religious institutions, there is only too far a woman can go. For example, in the Catholic Church, women cannot be ordained as priests because the current Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, states that ‘only a baptised man validly receives sacred ordination.’

To date, most religions still elevate the status of men over women. They require women to be submissive and have firmer sanctions against women as opposed to men.

Could religion be hindering the attainment of women empowerment?

Sarah Mujawase, a businesswoman, believes that to some extent, religion doesn’t favour women empowerment because some principles and practices are warped to keep women in an inferior position.

“Religion oppresses women, whether it is the dress code or some other principle, it is always stricter on women whereas men are left with all the freedom,” she says.

She, however, believes that religion is not a bad thing altogether, only that sometimes it is misinterpreted and it is women who suffer.

Ronald Gakuba, an IT consultant, says people abuse religious beliefs and misconceive teachings, this they do according to their traditions, that’s why its women who end up burdened.

“The core of every religion should be doing right by everyone in society since all people are equal, but this is not always the case,” he says.

Gakuba says it’s the inflexibility of people that is causing trouble.

“Times have changed and I think those teachings that were written hundreds of years ago should be adjusted to fit the current context,” he says.

Olive Uwamariya, a gender activist, says religion, to an extent, hinders the advancement of women’s rights. First and foremost, religious institutions were founded in times and societies where women were considered as second class citizens.

Second, religion thrives in societies where cultures are already oppressive to women and other minority groups. Religion also easily endorses societies where patriarchal hierarchies are a norm, or are simply male-dominated, she adds.

Uwamariya says it is unfortunate that today we continue to see negative patriarchal norms sustained by religious institutions as well as cultures.

“Submission as required by the Bible is one of those teachings, which is clearly directed towards women, not men. One-way submission is unjust and it creates the assumption that women are subordinate to men. This becomes dangerous when men use their authority and headship to oppress and abuse women,” Uwamariya says.

She also points out that women’s rights across the world have always been denied in the name of religion, for instance, access to sexual and reproductive health and rights is a battle women’s rights activists continue to fight today. Women’s bodily integrity and rights should not be debatable.

“The Catholic Church, for instance, has made it clear that they will not provide modern contraceptives to women and girls in health centres they run in Rwanda,” Uwamariya says.

The gender activist hence wonders why the world has evolved yet many religious institutions, like the Catholic Church, refuse to progress.

She also calls it unfortunate that today, the Catholic Church continues to vehemently deny women to be ordained as priests.

“I do not see this as ‘fulfilling divine will’ as it is often said, but simply the inability to accept women as capable leaders in the church on the basis of their sex. The institution that supposedly supports women’s rights should walk the talk and change its structures to mirror where we are today,” she says.

If the church is willing to reconsider their stance on contentious issues like divorce, Uwamariya believes women will hopefully be allowed to be ordained as priests in the future.

She, therefore, calls on women’s rights activists, the Government and other key players, to continuously engage religious groups to ensure they are on board in spreading messages that do not view women as subordinates to men, but as equals.

“There are plenty of positive scriptures in the Bible that can be used to counter the messages that are often misinterpreted, messages of love, tolerance and respect. I am also glad our laws do not adhere to male headship as previously believed. As long as religious institutions instil this kind of teaching in their congregations, then we are making a step forward and two steps backwards,” Uwamariya says.

Clement Kirenga, a gender activist, says most (if not all) religions he knows, for example, and specially the major ones Christianity and Islam, require (in their guiding books Bible and Quran) women to be submissive to men and definitely, this hinders women empowerment to a larger extent.

This, he says, is because women who submit to men have less power in decision-making and have less capacity to stand for their rights.

“Though they denote women submitting to men in marriage, these religions generally strengthen the patriarchy system that places male over female and that leads to domination by one sex,” he says.
Kirenga articulates that religious practices are as strong as culture; theorists argue that it takes two generations to change culture, and with such a slow process, there is no hope for changing this soon. But with increased knowledge through the internet, women’s increased access to education and leadership, there is hope.

“I believe at some point this will change. Currently, Protestants and Pentecostals allow female priests; this should serve as an example to other religions. However, some of these female leaders also preach women’s submission because they follow the Bible, something that has to change in addition to numbers.”

Kirenga also suggests that to overcome this, the theological basis of the patriarchy system, which is the Bible in case of Christians and Quran for Islam, should be reformed to create equal relationships.

“All teachings in churches and mosques should also change. It is one step to change a document and another to change rhetoric and behaviour. In Rwandan Matrimonial Law, the husband is no longer the head of the household but any person (man or woman) can be. This is a good example, it’s counterproductive to have good laws and have contradictory religious teachings to which without research, I believe has the most followers,” he says.

What religious leaders say

Onesphore Rwaje, an Anglican bishop, says religion doesn’t hinder gender empowerment, rather, it is a tool that actually supports women empowerment.

He says some people misinterpret some teachings yet whatever religion teaches is in the context of complementarity.

“One of the verses that have been misinterpreted, the one in Ephesians 5:22-25, says submit to each other — men and women together. It calls onto women to be submissive and for men to love their wives just like Christ loved the Church. Submission goes with love and love is greater than submission,” he explains.

Rwaje points out that submission, at times, is misinterpreted and this is what causes the confusion.

Submission is respect and obedience and this is required of men as well. He, hence, accentuates that religion has the responsibility to empower everybody.

In the case of women leadership in religious institutions, Rwaje says women do have access and are mostly limited by their own motivation to take part.

The Anglican Church of Rwanda has not yet reached the point of having female bishops but it is not forbidden. Women can be bishops or archbishops, nothing is forbidden. For example, Swaziland and South Sudan have female bishops and are leading dioceses, he says.

He adds that the very important step is to ordain women as pastors, since bishops are chosen among pastors and when there is a vacancy for a bishop, if they present themselves, they can be chosen.

“The Anglican Church encourages all women and men to serve the church to be servants of the lord in church,” Rwaje says.

And then there is Islam. When one speaks about Islam, one of the first questions posed is always about Muslim women. Invariably, the assumption is that Islam is irrevocably and uniformly oppressive to women.

Take the case of Saudi Arabia, for example, which was about the only country in the world that had a ban on female drivers. Women who drove in public risked being arrested or fined.

Sheikh Yusuf Mugisha says according to the teaching of Islam, empowering women is one of the basics of the faith since a woman is regarded as the foundation of the family.

He notes that Islam is all for empowering women in all aspects, be it social or economic.

“In the era of prophet Mohammed (S.A.W) his wife was the richest during that period and though she was married to a prophet, it didn’t stop her from being a businesswoman,” he says.

Mugisha notes that the confines in Islam only aim at protecting women. For example, women are not allowed to travel alone for long distances; they are advised to travel with someone close to them, like a brother or husband, to provide protection.

But Mugisha says this does not stop them from working, or going to school or venturing into what they want to participate in.

Women are also allowed to be leaders in Islam, however, they are restricted from some roles; they can’t lead prayers in the mosque. This is only done to avoid men from being distracted or tempted.

Asked whether this could change, Mugisha says with faith-based principles, nothing can be changed, “If it is what the Quran requires then we don’t have a choice of appealing or changing it, we follow it as it is.”

Reverend Agnes Mukandoli believes the church is doing its best to ensure that women are empowered, because women who were in the church before were not treated like women who are in the church today. “Women can now be trusted to do God’s work.”

Mukandoli explains that at that time when Paul wrote to women to be submissive, women were being mistreated and all he wanted was to protect them.

Though women and men have equal rights; there is a difference as far as responsibilities are concerned, she says.

She explains that when the Bible calls for women to be submissive, it talks about it in the sense of marriage.

“If you are a married woman you must submit to your husband, and men should love their women, because naturally, men want respect and women want to be loved, so it is a way of complementing each other; that’s what Paul said in Ephesians 5. But as far as work is concerned, the treatment should be the same.”

Mukandoli says that the lack of women in religious leadership positions is mostly because of an inferiority complex, and not restrictions.

“I was a pastor for over 40 years and it never came easy, I had to work hard. I am now retired but I thank God that whatever I was given to do, I did it in the power of Christ.

“Women or men serving in church need to know that it is not the power of their understanding or education that makes them perform well, but Jesus Christ who empowers them,” Mukandoli says.

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