There's a new book out called Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up For Religious Equality that I am recommending to everyone I know. I am surprised it hasn't gotten more attention yet, considering its subject matter, and the intensity of the religion-fueled 'culture wars' in this country.
The author, Leora Tanenbaum, explores the role of women within Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam. She interweaves religious history with
interviews of contemporary women who care deeply about their religions, and
derive great knowledge and sustenance from them, but are unhappy with the
restricted roles of women within them. Many of these interviews are very
moving, because these women have really struggled with this issue.
Although I consider myself spiritual rather than religious, and if anything would consider myself Buddhist, this book, and especially the stories of the women within it, touched me deeply. The book gets to the heart of why I consider a focus on women's spirituality to be so important. This focus often surprises friends of mine, based on my Buddhist background. Isn't the point of spirituality, one friend recently asked, to move to an understanding that transcends distinctions like gender? Does it really serve the process, she wondered, to imply there is a separate spirituality for men and for women?
As part of my response, I referred her to Taking Back God. One of the biggest problems for the women featured is the restrictions placed on their access to teachings and official roles. Many of their religions restrict women's rights or abilities to read certain scriptures, or to teach or preach. Since scriptures are often considered the word of God, or a conduit to enlightenment (in the East), this sends the message that women are ‘further' from God or enlightenment, and that they don't have the right to communicate directly, or to learn, teach, or preach on their own. They have to get everything secondhand. Contemporary American women don't accept this in the office, and are increasingly uncomfortable with it in their houses of worship.
While Taking Back God focuses on the official role of women in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, things aren't altogether different in the New Age or self-help communities, or in many Buddhist or Yoga centers. Although there are more women spiritual teachers, authors, and religious leaders in America than elsewhere in the world, they are still vastly outnumbered by men (just check out the Amazon bestsellers list). This despite the fact that according to book marketing surveys, women outnumber men as the purchasers of spiritual and religious books by as much as 4 to 1. In other words, women would appear to be more interested in spirituality in general, but the majority of books, teachers, organizations and resources out there are male-dominated. What is the message sent by this?
So, my answer to my friend, the reason focusing on women's spirituality is important to me, even though I am wary of over-identifying with gender issues, is that I think it really matters how many women religious leaders and spiritual teachers there are out there. And I think full access to scriptures, and leadership roles, and teaching positions - within every tradition - is imperative. Women's access to spirituality, their relationship with God/Tao/Nirvana/Brahma (or whatever you believe in), can't be secondhand. In a way, changing this is the most essential form of change that can occur, because our spiritual and religious beliefs define our organizational view of the world. If we see women as ‘lower down' the totem pole, even subconsciously, we are denying ourselves our full power.
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