The Urban Dharma Newsletter - June 9, 2007


In This Issue: Buddhism / Gender / Religion

2. Is Gender an Issue in Buddhism? / Martine Batchelor
3. Buddhism as Gender Equal
4. Buddhism and Gender Equality
5. A Look at Korean American Buddhism, Gender, and Identity
6. Bastion of Buddhism faces gender debate
7. Gender Equality Ends at the Pew





Religion is a system of faith and worship, which provides adherents with meaning and purpose in their lives. It is one of the major institutions in society, with almost every human civilisation producing a system of religious belief. Religions may or may not include a belief in a supreme being, but all are concerned with the transcendent, the spiritual, and with aspects of life beyond the physical world.

Major religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism are practised throughout the world, but there are also numerous minor religious groups, and indigenous religions particular to specific regions. Within each organised religion, one generally finds a large number of different denominations, sects, and cults, each with their own interpretations, beliefs and practices.

Theology refers to religious study, or an academic discourse on religion.


Religion, tradition and culture are often used to justify women’s subordinate position in society. In all the world’s major religions, religious texts have been interpreted to reinforce the power of men in society. Recently, there has been a rise in conservative or fundamentalist religious movements, often associated with conservative nationalism or right-wing politics. These movements are generally opposed to the concept of gender equality. Their attitudes towards gender issues include: a belief that women’s proper place is in the home; opposition to reproductive rights; blaming women for the decline in moral values ; vilifying women who step outside traditional roles; and active homophobia.

“It is extremely unjust that women are excluded from ordination simply on the grounds of their gender roles or their sex: i.e. being female and there is no biblical backing for that whatsoever. It is based on tradition.”
In most religions, women are the majority of believers, but it is men who claim to hold the positions of authority and have the rights, including the authority to interpret religious texts. In many religions, women have historically not held leadership positions, and, in some where women have held leadership positions in the past, they are now denied the same leadership position today. Some religions still bar women from holding leadership positions.

2. Is Gender an Issue in Buddhism? / Martine Batchelor


In terms of Buddhist meditation does it make a difference if one is a man or a woman? I do not know. Time to time, I dream of finding an answer to this question by going around interviewing men and women about their meditation practice. But I am generally daunted by the complexity of the task.

It is important to acknowledge that Buddhism in itself is conditioned by the culture and social context in which it has grown. Although Buddhists sometimes proclaim transcendental values, a practitioner might transcend hatred, greed and delusion but would not necessarily transcend his or her own spiritual experiences or his/her social conditionings.

Secondly, people with little dust in their eyes who practise diligently are relatively few compared to the whole population of a country, therefore people of wisdom tend not to achieve a critical mass which would be able to change society deeply. Hence it is natural that society's own values and cultural preferences will influence Buddhism more than Buddhism will influence the society.

All this preamble is to explain why Buddhism in the past has been relatively patriarchal. Not because it is intrinsic to Buddhism but because it would have been truly amazing if it had not been because of the existing social patriarchal conditions. For this reason I am personally grateful that the Buddha let an order of nuns happen. He was already going against the tendencies of his time.

It is interesting to notice where all the Buddhist traditions are today. They all started from the same point. But 2500 years later, the positions of the nuns in the various traditions and Buddhist countries are very different. Simply put, I would grade it this way: in Korea, the nuns are 98% equal; in Taiwan, 95%; in Sri Lanka, it used to be 40% now I would say 80%; in Burma 55%; in Japan, 50%; in Tibetan Buddhism, 45%; in Thailand, 20%. I do not think this tells us so much about Buddhism as it tells us about cultural tendencies and historical facts.

In Korea, the full ordination is available to nuns. They have their own nunneries, their own preceptresses, their own abbesses and teachers. They are financially independent from the monks. For five hundred years, from 1400 to 1900, Buddhism was repressed by a Confucianist regime so monks had little power. Monks and nuns were very equal in their having to survive against difficult odds. In Korea, there is also a very strong tradition of female shamans. All these various conditions could go towards explaining why Korean nuns are the most equal to the monks among all Buddhist traditions.

In Taiwan, nuns have the full ordination but generally the nuns' preceptor is a monk apart from a few exceptions. There are many more nuns than monks and they generally live in the same compound. In Japan the position of the nuns is very ambiguous and there are very few. They live in small temples, they have few training places. They often have to support themselves financially by working outside teaching. Japanese monks can marry but nuns are not encouraged to do so.

Tibetan nuns can be ordained only as sramanerikas (36 precepts). As far as we know, the full ordination never reached Tibet. They are fewer than the monks and have limited opportunity to study and to meditate, though this is improving. The Korean, Taiwanese, Japanese and Tibetan nuns wear the same robes as the monks.

In Sri Lanka, the nuns used to take only ten precepts, were not recognised as sramanerikas and were not really considered a part of the Sangha. Now there is full ordination in Sri Lanka and they have started to receive more support and training. They dress in saffron robes. In Burma, they are called anagarikas (which is the name given to laypeople who live a life of celibacy and training). They dress either in orange or pink robes. In Thailand the nuns receive eight precepts and are not considered anything, laywomen or nuns. They wear white and often serve as servants to the monks, specially by cooking for them, though this is starting to change.

Why did the full ordination for nuns reach Sri Lanka but die out until recently? The full ordination for the monks died out several times in Sri Lanka but every time it was revived. I would suggest it was because the society did not consider the women equal in general and the women having more restrictions placed on their actions in those days, it would have been harder if not impossible for them to organise a trip to Burma which is what the monks and their supporters did.

Why is it that the full ordination reached China and Korea and survived there and why did it not reach Tibet or Thailand? Is it historical or geographical? Is it something in the culture itself? Confucianism is a very strong part of both Chinese and Korean culture. Is it because of their kind of Buddhism? But Tibetan Buddhism and Thai Buddhism could not be more different? As yet I do not have the answers to these questions. It would necessitate not only research in the religious life of those times but also anthropological, cultural and historical studies.

Personally I am very grateful to have been born as a woman in 1953 in France because this gave me much more freedom and choices in my life. The greatest influence for the position of women in the world and on the spiritual path is the possibility of free and equal education. I was able to become a Zen nun in Korea and stay there ten years because the status and the opportunity for nuns are very good, I do not think that I would have remained otherwise.

The dharma is about becoming a full human being, awakened to and expressing totally our potential for wisdom and compassion. Being a woman or a man is only part of what makes us a human being. However to believe that because one is a woman one is spiritually inferior or disadvantaged is a trap set up by ancient patriarchal mores, still unfortunately existing today.

When I visited nuns in Thailand what impressed me most was to see that notwithstanding the difficult conditions, many great, wise and compassionate nuns have developed and arisen supported by great monks or on their own. This is the only proof needed. What the person is in themselves, their sincerity, their vision, their endurance, their commitment is what matters, not what gender they are.

Is gender an issue on the Buddhist path? I do not think so in practical terms. Is patriarchal social, cultural, historical influence on Buddhism, Buddhist traditions, Buddhist teachers, Buddhist practitioners an issue? Very often it can be.

3. Buddhism as Gender Equal


Looking through the history, both scriptural and practical, one would see that while Buddhism stresses the non-importance of sex for spiritual attainment and the negative consequences of strongly identifying oneself as 'male' or 'female,' it has still been forced to deal with both biological differences and the cultural settings of its time. In the Buddha's day women were revered as mothers, but not much else, and even today there are many cultural norms that place women below men, both in the spiritual life and in mundane matters. So the Buddha, in his quest to spread his teachings to all classes and genders of people needed to create a groundwork in which men and women could co-exist while fostering a spiritually supportive atmosphere.

In many early texts it is said that the Buddha not only taught to women, but at times went out of his way to do so. He realized that women, too, were capable of the same spiritual transformation offered by the dharma. In beginning to ordain nuns the Buddha laid out specific rules pertaining to women to guard against even the suspicion of sexual relations within Buddhist communities. The Buddha recognized that the intermingling of sexes was quite likely to be difficult for those without proper mindfulness due to simple biological urges in both sexes. Many texts from the time paint woman as temptresses, 'the stain of the holy life', to be avoided if possible, and if a monk were to mix with them it was not to be alone, and not to be for prolonged periods. These texts can be seen as simply warnings to counteract novices' and potentially impulsive monks' latent urges toward women, and are not to be seen as misogynous.

Later texts have added to the perceived limitations of being a woman, such as being unable to rule compassionately over a huge realm; but even these can be seen as consequences of cultural influence on Buddhism, and not adhering to known teachings of the Buddha. Certain texts even argue that while a woman may become an Arhat, full enlightenment (that of the Buddha) could only be accomplished by a male. But these can be countered by knowing that enlightenment is neither male nor female. It, just like karma, is beyond the confines of the human body.

The most important, and continuing theme in Buddhist texts has been that sex is not ultimate. It is not 'what you are' and should not be viewed as a hindrance or a help on the spiritual path. However, the attachment to one's gender, or the indulgence in the physical pleasures available to both is certainly a hindrance. Both sexes, when ordained, take vows of celibacy, recognizing that sex, just like attachment to people or material possessions is detrimental to spiritual development. While much of Buddhism has been shaped by social circumstances (which have generally been unfavorable to women), in spiritual terms the genders have always had equal access to enlightenment.

From the "Buddhism is..." page (7 May, 2005):

Sixth, we have the concept of gender equality. This is probably the most difficult one to actually argue, as it seems that little in the world is 'truly' gender equal. Historically, there have been some cases where Buddhism has been greatly progressive (establishing an order of women renunciates in the 5th century BCE), but never can we see real argument for the 'equality' of women on a grand scale. There are stories of enlightened women (the Therigatha) in the Pali Canon. In later Buddhism, the concept of nonduality became prominent. We have stories of great siddhas (accomplished ones) who were women (though only three or four out of the well-known eighty-four mahasiddhas). Within nonduality, one can ask, "is your mind male or female?" in part as a real question, but also in part to get the practitioner to stop clinging to ways of identifying him or herself. (Big caveat: such questions are fairly advanced, and should be approached only by those who have strong confidence and 'self'-understanding. It is also important to have a skilled teacher to guide you through the ensuing philosophical/existential dilemmas.).

There are also major issues facing Buddhism as it moves into the West, from cultures were male dominance is not much questioned (perhaps an over generalization as Buddhism is coming from several nations, each with its own character), to the liberal democracy of the West where feminism has been strong for half a century. For a highly personal assessment of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, see this article by an American woman who spent over twenty years in Tibetan Buddhism. If there is one thing I do know well about Buddhism, it is that it changes (sometimes dramatically) as it enters new cultures, so I am certain that we will see the feminist mentality of America play a strong part in the evolution of American Buddhism.

4. Buddhism and Gender Equality


Historical Background

Buddhism developed in the context of an Indian society that was patriarchal. Women were seen as subservient to men and very much dependent on them (see Hindu Views on Marriage). In Hinduism, the main religion in India at the time of the Buddha, only men were able to become priests. This meant that before a woman could be freed from samsara she had to be reborn as a male (as priests were the highest caste in Hinduism - for more on this see Equality in Indian Society). There was also the unfortunate practice of widow burning (sati) in which it was deemed a great honour for a woman to be cremated with her husband.

The first Buddhist nun was the Buddha's aunt, Prajapati (who brought him up after the death of his mother). At first Siddhartha was reluctant to allow her to join the monastic sangha because he said women would not understand his teaching. This seems to be a strange attitude for one who promoted compassion and loving kindness (metta) towards all living things. Some Buddhists choose to ignore this discrepancy in the Buddha's early life however others point out that he was simply expressing a typical Indian attitude towards women at the time. This is because they acknowledge that unlike Jesus (who Christians believe was always different to the average person), the Buddha began life as just an ordinary man (although admittedly he was significantly extraordinary in that he ended up making a major contribution to the Indian and global religious landscape).[1]

The key to understanding the Buddha's change of attitude towards women is his teaching about anicca (everything changes). Ananda, the Buddha's cousin, used the idea of impermanence to show that just because Indian culture treated women this way, this was not necessarily the way things should remain. As a result the Buddha changed his attitude and allowed women to enter the sangha and become a real part of the Buddhist community. The death of Prajapati's husband also demonstrated the reality of impermanence and allowed her to become someone different to the person she was when married (E.g. As a wife her life would revolve around her husband).

In many respect this change in the status of women is similar to that which occurred in Christianity during the development and growth of the early church. Traditional Jewish culture, from which Christianity developed, tended to deny women the right to be educated in the same way that men were. However, through the teachings of both Jesus and Paul women were gradually given equality with men (Galatians 3:28), allowed to be educated and hold positions of leadership in the church (for more on this see The Role of Women in the Church).

In the earliest form of Buddhism, called Theravada, there was a conscious effort to follow the Buddha's lifestyle as closely as possible. The ever-increasing amount of rules and regulations to assist this came to be known as the Vinaya. As all scholars of Buddhism are quick to point out, there were many more rules for women than men however this may have been to protect them in a sexist society. Although the Vinaya required men to be present at nun's religious ceremonies this is likely to have been in order to protect them. It was certainly not to oversee or lead them in spiritual matters.

Despite the Buddha's inclusion of women to the monastic sangha some monks believed their presence was a hindrance to them attaining Enlightenment. This was because they were finding the women sexually attractive and as a result this increased their desires (which they were trying to overcome to reach nirvana (which is the extinguishing of desires)). The Buddha also became concerned about this but only in the sense that to view women in this way was degrading to them. In the end, nunneries would be phased out however this was more due to the pressures of a society which reacted against women being allowed to adopt new roles previously denied to them.[2]

Buddhist Teachings which Promote Gender Equality

Traditional Buddhist teaching naturally lends itself to the idea of gender equality. For instance, the idea of anatta (non-self) breaks down the divisions between male and female. Gender is often defined according to a fixed idea of what is considered masculine and feminine and as such male and female roles in society. These fixed ideas are often the cause of sexual stereotypes (for more on this see Gender Equality). However, if one has no fixed 'self' then such gender definitions become ambiguous (although this is not to say that there are no men and women!). In many respects the removal of divisions between men and women is also at the heart of Feminism which seeks to raise the status of women in a world which, according to them, has been shaped by men and male interests.

At the heart of Buddhism is the problem of dukkha (suffering). This is not only physical but also involves much emotional and psychological suffering caused through bad actions or attitudes. An example of how dukkha may arise in relation to women is if they are denied opportunities due to being discriminated against on the basis of their gender (E.g. Women should not be mechanics because that is a man's job). Combined with this is the idea of compassion which is the promotion of respect and dignity for all living things. Clearly, if women are not being treated equally then compassion is not being demonstrated.

Although the third precept challenges the sexual relationships of men and women, once again it is the first precept which encourages the development of wholesome attitudes by men and women towards each other ('I undertake not to take life'). As discussed in the section on Buddhism and Medical Ethics, this precept does not just involve the literal physical taking of life but anything which promotes attitudes that deny people a quality of life. Thus it is vital for Buddhists that society is seen to protect and promote equal opportunities for both men and women.

It should be remembered that despite these teachings traditional Buddhists believe that, although men and women are equal, they have different roles. They believe it is the role of the man (husband) to provide for the family whilst it is the role of the woman (wife) to care for it (for more on this see Buddhism, Marriage and Divorce). This attitude can also be seen in the separation of monks and nuns (also for reasons discussed earlier - and maybe the practical purpose of protecting both from breaking the third precept ('I undertake to avoid sexual misconduct')).

Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO)

The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order are a group of Buddhists who promote a revised form of Buddhism in Britain (as well as other places around the world). They are fundamentally committed to gender equality as can be seen in the following passage:

At the [heart] of the FWBO we therefore find a unified Order of women and men; everything in the Order is open to women and men; they take the same ordination and vows; they exercise the same functions at public centers; they practice the same mediations; study the same texts, and so on. In the FWBO we feel that no one should be excluded from the process of higher human development [Enlightenment] , whether on grounds of sex, race, colour, level of education, or social position. (Teach Yourself Buddhism p.125 - [My brackets])

Female Bodhisattvas and Buddhas

In Vajrayana (or Tibetan) Buddhism there are many female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The most well known is Green Tara whose name means 'She who saves'. There is also the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin, whose name means 'Compassion' as well as Prajnaparamita who is known as the mother of all Buddha's because she represents anicca (the fundamental truth of life). This shows that the truth of Buddhism can be represented to people in both male and female forms.


[1] It is interesting that both Jesus and Buddha rejected the religion they had been brought up to believe in to develop teachings which were to become the basis of new religions and what we know as Christianity (Jesus was brought up as a Jew) and Buddhism (Buddha was brought up as a Hindu).

[2] The traditional Hindu view is that priests should be male. By allowing women to become nuns Buddhists were essentially giving women the same spiritual authority as men.

5. A Look at Korean American Buddhism, Gender, and Identity


A UCLA graduate student reports on Professor Sharon Suh's colloquium presentation at the Center for Buddhist Studies.

On October 28, 2005, Professor Sharon Suh of Seattle University gave a lecture entitled, "Re-crafting the Buddhist Self: Korean American Buddhism, Gender, and Identity." Jennifer Flinn reports on her talk, which was the second in the 2005-2006 Center for Buddhist Studies Colloquium Series.

Professor Sharon Suh of Seattle University usually asks her students to try to distill their work down to a single question, and did the same courtesy herself at her colloquium presentation on October 28th. Her question: "How do ordinary Korean American Buddhists live their lives and come to a positive sense of self in the context of dislocation?" Although Professor Suh's academic training was in textual analysis and research, she found herself engaged in research centering on a temple in the Koreatown area of Los Angeles, which served first and second generation Korean-Americans. Her initial involvement with the temple began informally; she was able to use her connections to the temple attendees to begin a series of interviews that eventually culminated in a new book Being Buddhist in a Christian World: Gender and Community in a Korean American Temple (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004).

A number of important themes emerged from her conversations with her subjects, but together they formed a picture of a community both fraught with anxiety and providing an important sense of social unity and individual self-identity. A major reoccurring concern was how to maintain and pass on a specifically Buddhist religious identity while vastly outnumbered in both the local immigrant population and in the overall population by a Christian majority. Christianity is not merely the religion of most Americans, but of approximately eighty percent of all Korean Americans. Most networking for Korean Americans in Los Angeles, whether business or social, occurs in church associations, making it one of the most deeply penetrating social systems at work in the local community. There is immense pressure on Korean Americans to attend church, which has the social clout and connections to help newcomers settle and become integrated. This leaves Buddhists on the periphery of a tightly woven social network, and with far fewer resources to draw upon.

However, Professor Suh noticed in her interviews that this lack of networking was also a source of pride for many of her subjects, who noted that Buddhists were more self-reliant than Christians. This self-reliance found not just practical examples but also religious examples: interviewees, for instance, said that their religious practice involves looking inward and finding the origins of problems and their resolutions within one's self, whereas they saw Christians as intellectually lazy, relying on the Bible or ministers to supply solutions. Suh's subjects took pride in "creating their own path," which they identified as the "traditional American value" of self-reliance.

Still, the temple community was haunted both by problems with cohesion (since both attendance and tithing are optional, and the number of its attendees relatively small) and with passing on Buddhism to the next generation. Suh was initially recruited by the temple to teach first a children's course and then an adult course on Buddhism at the temple, because of a perceived lack of teachers and a need to provide enough education to maintain the community in the face of the Christian proselytizing going on all around them.

Second-generation Buddhists were vexed by a lack of information about their own religion, and language gaps between their parents and the temple staff exacerbated the problem. Having Suh teach, and beginning more community education and outreach through such activities as a Buddhist course for adults and a preschool for children, are first steps in attempting to tackle such problems, covertly co-opting successful methods from the Christian community.

Another key theme in Suh's work was the gendered differences in the temple population. Suh was primarily interested in the forms of practice, which displayed a distinct split, with men viewing their involvement as intellectual and rational, while women were more directly involved in worship practices. Men might assist the temple in practical terms, such as administrative work, but viewed their attendance or non-attendance at worship as trivial. Women, meanwhile, comprised the vast majority of attendees at devotional practices and chanting, and formed social bonds with the other women at the temple. Indeed, practice within the physical confines of the temple itself seemed incredibly important to many of her female interviewees, some of whom traveled great distances to attend pre-dawn services.

The women clearly experienced Buddhism and practice as highly important, finding in the teachings a rationale for self-actualization. The concepts of karma and Buddha-nature in particular were crucial in this construction of a positive, active self for many women, who described it as a process of becoming one's own subject, "finding and knowing one's own mind," and "taking matters into one's own hands." It was this discovery of control within the displacement of immigration and the chaos of new circumstances that allowed many women to cope and thrive, according to Suh.

There have been relatively few studies of Korean Buddhists in America, and while Suh's work is important and informative there are still many questions to be answered. The single Buddhist temple she worked with is one of several in Los Angeles, and they all face significant challenges in the future. How will they continue to function within their communities? How will they connect with other Buddhist and religious communities? How will the doctrines of Korean American Buddhism transform along with changes in practice? Suh's work is an important first step in exploring the ways in which Korean American Buddhism is redefining itself in the face of changing circumstances.

6. Bastion of Buddhism faces gender debate / A female monk enlists Thailand's Senate in her uphill battle against a ban on the ordination of women / By Simon Montlake | Special to The Christian Science Monitor


NAKHON PATHOM, THAILAND – From the outside, it looks like any other temple in Thailand, a country that considers itself a bastion of Buddhist culture. A cluster of modest wooden buildings and a well-kept lawn hide behind a 15-foot-high golden Buddha that faces the busy highway to Bangkok.

But this temple is breaking the mold of Thai Buddhism. Its nominal head is a female monk ordained two years ago in Sri Lanka as Dhammananda Bhikkhuni. One of only a few women to have challenged the male makeup of Thailand's 300,000 monks, she now wants to extend that right to other women, and has turned to the Senate for help.

As a result, a subcommittee is considering a proposal to permit the ordination of women as monks. The final say, however, lies not with lawmakers but with the country's Buddhist clergy, known as the Sangha, whose ruling council of elders has long opposed the idea.

Their opposition puts the elders on a collision course with modernizers inside and outside the Buddhist establishment, who argue that Thailand's clergy are too focused on doctrine and tradition, rather than the needs of their followers. They say conservative monks are missing a chance to update the faith in a time of rapid change in Thailand.

Sanitsuda Ekachai, a columnist and religious-affairs specialist at the Bangkok Post newspaper, argues that the Sangha won't drop their opposition. If so, she says, "monks will continue to fulfill our needs with rituals and rites, but they will play a narrower role in society ... if they can't understand that society is changing."

Thailand has grappled with this debate before. Dhammananda's own grandmother was among a group of educated women in the 1920s who created an order of female monks. In 1928, King Rama V followed the advice of Buddhist elders and banned the practice. That ban is still in place. Thai women can take the vows of a nun, who shave their heads and wear white robes, but they can expect lower status and fewer privileges than monks, who travel for free on public transport in Thailand.

Other Asian countries have in recent years revived an ancient order of female monks known as Bhikkhuni (PIK-koon-nee). Among those is Sri Lanka, where Dhamannanda was ordained.

Campaigners in Thailand point out that Sri Lanka practices the same school of Buddhism as Thailand, known as Theravada. Unlike Sri Lanka, though, Thailand has never ordained women as Bhikkhunis, making it more problematic to change course. Tuan Siridhammo, deputy director at Thailand's leading Buddhist school and a spokesman for the Sangha, says that any changes must be in accordance with sacred texts. "We can't change the rule from the Buddha's time because we respect the rule of Buddha."

Advocates of female ordination say the ban has less to do with doctrine than with dogma. "Women feel themselves outside the Sangha, which is not true. We are part of that Sangha. We must evolve. It is like the Buddha set up a company, and we are all shareholders," Dhammananda says.

As well as providing a place of worship for the local community, the temple, founded by Dhammananda's mother, is also a place of retreat for laywomen and aspiring nuns or monks. Fourteen women live there now. Local opinion on Dhammananda is mixed. Some men living nearby turn up their noses at the mention of the temple, saying that it's wrong for women to wear the saffron robes of a monk. Most are familiar with Dhammananda from her morning alms collection.

But Kanjana Charoensuitvimon, a local housewife, praises Dhammananda for bringing Buddhism back down to earth. "I used to go to other temples, but we can't talk about women's stuff with male monks. We can talk about anything with Dhammananda. She gives us confidence and support," she explains.

As the Sangha deliberates over the Senate proposal, a process expected to take six months, some observers are drawing parallels with a similar debate within Christianity over women priests. Thailand has had its share of scandals with monks, including cases of rape and murder, that have undercut public trust.

In the 1990s, when Britain's Anglican Church began ordaining women as priests, the move precipitated a split in the ranks amid public mudslinging. Analysts play down the threat of that happening in Thailand, saying that Buddhism is more adaptable, particularly in this country, where other beliefs are easily absorbed into daily rituals and rhythms.

"Buddhism is a flexible religion, it is a way of life, so it reflects more of a way of life, instead of what we call entrenched dogma," says Somchai Phagaphasvivat, a politics professor at Thailand's Thammasat University.

7. Gender Equality Ends at the Pew / As Canadian society strives to treat men and women as equals, religion still lags behind / May 30, 2007 / Leslie Scrivener / Feature Writer


Which door a woman uses to enter her mosque – the side door or the wide one at the front – may seem a minor thing.

But to Alia Hogben it's a major symbol of the overarching way women are dismissed in churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of prayer. At the Ottawa funeral of a close friend, the women were directed to the side door, beside the garbage bins, a common practice in Ontario mosques.

"It's anathema to me and against the teachings of my religion," says Hogben, who heads the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. Muslim women can pray at home, she adds, so the purpose of going to the mosque is to pray in community. "I think it's a way of making women feel not as equal as men. It's symbolic of what's wrong – again, in the house of God, women are still put to the side."

Across the spectrum of faiths in Canada, women are treated differently than men. Catholic women cannot be ordained as deacons or priests. Only priests can say mass. In some movements in Judaism, women cannot be counted among the 10 required for a prayer group. Seating for women in mosques – often inferior spaces in basements or crowded side rooms – is a continuing controversy in Islam as are inheritance rights and the troubling issue of polygamy.

To some faithful women this disconnect – some will say more boldly, discrimination – contravenes equality rights enshrined in the Charter, which also protects their rights to freedom of religion. Is this a private matter of faith, or one that deserves wider, public debate?

Others argue since women freely choose a congregation, knowing the terms of membership, their equality rights are not being undermined. If they're unhappy with their role, they can find a more progressive place to worship.

"Religious rights are considered sacrosanct and beyond the powers of the state," says Hogben. "But why, in the practice of religion, should women be considered less than equal? Why is that considered private space?"

Farzana Hassan, president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, for one, has had enough. "I'm angered by the fact that Muslim women themselves don't recognize the oppression they suffer. Because of the argument, `Oh, there's no discrimination,' they constantly justify inequity."

But some argue just the opposite – the religious practices and beliefs that have endured for millennia should not be adapted to changes in society. "A mature person attempts to conform herself to the precepts of her faith, not the other way around," says Catholic writer Kathy Shaidle, who dismisses what she calls a "campaign to remake God in their own image."

How the balance between women's rights and freedom of religion is achieved is generally left to the legal framework of each faith, or often, to each congregation. Most often, there is no sorting out and no discussion, because there is no place to press for change.

"The church hierarchy has to ensure that its practices are just," says Mary Ellen Chown, of the Catholic Network for Women's Equality, who wears an "Ordain Women" button to Sunday mass. Seeing the button, her fellow parishioners will say something like, "You go, girl." "The first step has to be open dialogue on the place of women in the church. There is no forum for that."

The Catholic Church has declared discussion on ordination of women a closed issue.

But that has not stopped some Catholic women from seeking ordination unofficially. Marie Bouclin, 66, a Sudbury translator, was "ordained" by a group known as Roman Catholic Womenpriests in a service held Sunday at West Hill United Church in Scarborough. There is a dire shortage of priests, especially in the north, and churches are closing, including two this week in Sudbury, says Bouclin. "We don't want to let our beliefs and values disappear – we want to provide the sacraments, to celebrate mass, baptisms and marriage," she says. Her hope is to offer her services to small groups of Catholic believers and women who feel they are excluded in the church.

The late pope John Paul II asserted in his 1995 Letter to Women, "there is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area," though the line was drawn at ordination.

This teaching couldn't be clearer, says Suzanne Scorsone, director of research for the Toronto Catholic archdiocese. "There are differences in role, but no difference in dignity or equality, not only dignity, but skill and capacity."

Others see discrimination intractably embedded. "The problem is we legitimize legal systems inside religious institutions which systematically discriminate against women and there is a social sanction that comes with it," says Janice Stein, director of the Munk Centre for International Studies. They receive tax advantages – exemptions from property tax and charitable status, which helps fundraising.

Zarqa Nawaz, documentary filmmaker and creator of CBC's Little Mosque on the Prairie, has addressed the question of where women sit in the mosque, in her film The Mosque and Me. "There are imams who tell me we don't want barriers in the mosque but women say they want them. What are they supposed to do: tell women they are oppressed?"

But there are lots of creative solutions. Barriers may be made lower. In the Noor Cultural Centre in Toronto women and men pray side by side. During Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, men and women pray side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder.

In her own Regina mosque, a progressive board was elected which led to women being more influential. "People need to hear of the implications of segregating women: when you don't see them, you don't acknowledge them."


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