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In contemporary times, the role of women in organized religion has engendered much debate, dispute, and discord. For centuries, women have essentially been relegated to the shadows of the major monotheistic faiths while male-dominated religious hierarchies have determined the course and content of their particular creeds. The reasons for this exclusion vary from faith to faith and tend to depend on a mix of religious and extra-religious factors, including culture, geography, and history. Recent history has witnessed changes — including the ordination of women as priests in certain Christian denominations — but in many major religions, women's power remains proscribed.

Karen Armstrong is in a unique position to assess the place of women in some of the world's largest faiths. The former nun is a renowned religious scholar — the author not only of A HISTORY OF GOD, but a biography of the Buddha and well-regarded volume on Islam:

The great flaw of these traditions has been the denigration of women....When I say a flaw, it means that there is a great wound going right the way through our religion that spoils, that ruins the integrity of these traditions. And one of the dreadful things about this oppression of women has been that women take their own valuations. It's like people who've been colonized in developing countries, who begin to accept the colonists' denigration of themselves and their race.
listen Hear more from Karen Armstrong (15:54) or read the transcript.


The year 2006 offers an interesting vantage point for assessing the place of women in Christianity. Among the most controversial aspects THE DA VINCI CODE is the notion that women, particularly Mary Magdalene, played a much more central role in the life of Christ than has been traditionally thought. In fact, Da Vinci Code proponents say misogyny and conspiracy wrote powerful women OUT of the Christian tradition.

Da Vinci Code speculations aside, religious scholars and church historians have long noted that the early church's attitudes toward women altered over time. In 2003, religious scholar Elaine Pagels discussed with Bill Moyers the shift toward sexism in the early church and the effect that has had on women up to the present day: "I would find myself thinking about women as gullible or weak — total stereotypes that had nothing to do with my reality of what I believed. They were just cultural stereotypes that I found emerged quite unconsciously...I heard many of the same stereotypes about women that I found among those second-century Christians. They're part of our cultural attitude.-- Elaine Pagels, religious scholar."

listen Hear more from Elaine Pagels (48:12) or read the transcript. (PDF) (DVD/VHS)

Mary Gordon, who has written a biography of Joan of Arc (and slept with a statue of Joan next to her bed as a young girl), touched on the problematic issue of women's faith and their role in the Church when she discussed her childhood heroine on FAITH & REASON:

"So, here was this peasant illiterate girl who stood up to bishops and kings and nobles, and said, 'I can do this, and I know I'm right.' That was a wonderful model for a young girl to have, when we were being told to just behave. And interestingly enough, as a person of great faith, she chose not to wear women's clothing and to give up communion to do that. It's again that notion of vocation-that she could only do what God called her to do if she was dressed as a man. Because it was the only thing that would mark her as able to take her place in the world. She couldn't do her work signed as a woman. The work that she believed God called her to do required her to be signed as a man."
In the 20th century some of that has begun to change. The Anglican Church, for instance, has recently ordained women as priests and the American branch of the church has just ordain its first woman bishop. The Catholic Church, on the other hand still takes a traditional line on women in the clergy — women, interestingly, can achieve sainthood, but they can't be priests.

Of course in many denominations of the Christian faith women achieved a greater role in church hierarchy in earlier centuries. Many of these groups where women were prominent were notable dissenters — the Shakers and the Quakers both had women at or near the top.

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When Islam first appeared in the seventh century, it raised the status of women on the Arabian Peninsula inestimably. Long treated as little more than chattel by their fathers and husbands, women found in the words of the Koran something approaching a liberation: They were given rights of inheritance and divorce (which would not reach women in the West until the 19th century) and the right to refuse marriage, for starters. In the areas of education and suffrage, the Koran left open the possibility of full equality with men. Some of the first converts to Islam were women, and the prophet Muhammad's first wife, Khadijah, is a revered figure among Muslims. However, in recent years the status of women in many Islamic cultures — particularly those that claim to follow sharia, or strict Islamic law — has for years been a subject of growing controversy.

In a 2002 conversation with Bill Moyers, Azizah al-Hibri, a female Muslim scholar and law professor, touched on the equality granted to women in the Koran: "I thought if that's the case why don't I just grab the Koran and read it from the heart, for myself, without having other people interpret it to me. And when I did that I found out that I have all the rights I ever wanted, there was no reason for alienation, there was no reason at all to think that the Koran gives women a subordinate place in society. To the contrary. Except that people who were of a patriarchal tendency did not see it that way." .

listenHear more from Azizah al-Hibri (12:25) or read the transcript.

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Ancient mythology is packed with tales of women-both good and evil, goddesses and mortals-engaging in all manner of shenanigans, Bill Moyers talked with both British author Jeanette Winterson and Israeli writer David Grossman about the predominance of the femme fatale in ancient texts.

Jeanette Winterson: "Death by female, yeah, it's a worry. I think it's because there is, often, in the Greek myths, a very one-sided aspect to the hero. He is the ultramasculine figure who denies in himself any femininity, any softness. This is now much clearer to us since Freud and Jung have begun to unravel psychology. They talk about the shadow side, the part of you which is repressed in some way, a sense of yourself which you don't acknowledge, which you can't acknowledge. And it's often a weakness, the fatal flaw, the failing. Hercules believes that he can do anything and nobody will ever be able to touch him. And that, of course, goes wrong, because he is destroyed by a woman. So the thing that you push outside of yourself is always likely to be the thing that comes back to claim its property. I think that's the trouble with death by female.

David Grossman: "[Delilah] was irresistible. That's why she was chosen, I guess. And the Philistines come to her and they tell her, 'Tempt [Samson] and find out the secret [of his superhuman strength].' And probably everyone involved in this little scheme felt that she was irresistible, that she will do to him what previous women failed to do. That she will make him full of desire to give himself away to

Of course women's power isn't always fatal. The feminist movement issued in a resurgence of interest in ancient belief systems in which women reigned supreme.

"[The Goddess] has to do with the earth, the human woman does give birth as the earth gives birth to the plants. She gives nourishment as the plants do. So woman magic and earth magic are the same, they are related. And the personification, the of this energy which gives birth to forms and nourishes forms is properly female...And when you have a goddess as the creator, it's her own very body that is the universe. She is identical with the universe." -- Joseph Campbell

listenHear more from Joseph Campbell (12:25) or read the transcript, (PDF)

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Perspectives - What do you think?
"There have been systems of religion where the mother is the prime parent, the source, and she's really a more immediate parent than the father, because one is born from the that the image of the woman is the image of the world."
-- Joseph Campbell


"This woman's question is a dangerous question... What is the role of women in the church? Is there such a thing as a woman being called to priesthood? Those are questions...I'm in good company calling for that discussion. I have never insisted that I know the answer. I do know that it's a question."
-- Sister Joan Chittister


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