According to the World Economic Forum, the date we will achieve global gender parity has been pushed back from 2095 to 2133.
This stark stat led to a heartfelt call to “pledge for parity” as the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day.
Of course, the parity gap is unjust in whatever form it takes. But one type of disparity is often seen as particularly grievous: the one many feel exists between men and women in religion.
Whether evidenced as women locked out of leadership roles in Christian churches, separation of men and women in temples, mosques and synagogues or women hidden away behind Burqas, religion is often perceived as more of a culprit of inequality than a crusader for equality.
This sensitive subject was addressed at a recent meeting hosted by the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics.
Opening the meeting, entitled “Feminism and Faith: the impact of religion on women’s rights”, host parliamentarians Sophie In’t Veld and Virginie Rozière candidly laid out the many chronic issues women still face.
Some of these problems were graphically underlined by a video report on a survey that showed a significant proportion of women in modern-day Europe continuing to face sexual and other forms of physical abuse.
Yet, when it came to the specific question of religion’s role in keeping women down, the guest speakers offered a thought-provokingly nuanced view on perceptions surrounding women and Islam.
Human rights expert Dr Loren Sosa pointed out how aggressive secularization can inadvertently rob Muslim women, for example, of the very opportunities to pursue further education and careers that would prevent them becoming isolated within their communities.
The meeting also heard from sociology researcher Dr. Niels Spierings who said he had identified three types of feminist responses in women with a Muslim upbringing — those who reacted by rejecting their faith, those who embraced it while still living a full life in secular society, and those who felt the very teachings of Islam, rightly interpreted, supported male-female equality.
Finally, we heard from successful feminist campaigner Kristina Lunz who emphasised the problem was not any one religion, nor religion in general, but patriarchy.
But doesn’t that still leave this question: “Do patriarchy and religion coincide?” Or, as Sophie In’t Veld asked at one point, are there religions that actually promote women’s rights.
Clearly there’s a huge diversity of interpretations and implementations within each major faith tradition. So any black and white answer is inevitably going to be wide of the mark.
Yet one faith arguably has something of a head start. The founder of Christian Science was female, and from day one Mary Baker Eddy had to overcome the resistance facing a woman who not only refused to wait for the “stained-glass ceiling” to shatter before becoming a global religious leader, but also openly described God as “Father-Mother.”
In fact, Eddy broke through many glass ceilings in an era in which women were rarely invited into the workplace, let alone free to form a business and own property. Besides founding a worldwide church, Eddy launched a successful publishing company and a Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper, both of which are still going strong. Above all, the Christian Science healing she discovered and demonstrated, rooted in the works of Christ Jesus, offered a spiritual alternative to the materialistic emphasis of most health care practices.
The latter certainly proved liberating to countless women, not simply because it restored health to many whose needs weren’t met by other means, but because the healed often became healers in their own right. They also became lecturers and teachers of Christian Science. All of that afforded many women an avenue for employment that was otherwise denied them by society’s norms.
This didn’t happen in a vacuum. Religion not only played a part in this liberation, it was central to it. Eddy and the early adherents of Christian Science didn’t make their breakthroughs despite the Bible’s teachings but because of them.
After all, in its very first chapter the Bible says: “God created man in his own image; in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” (Italics added.)
Gaining this spiritual sense of ourselves as generic man – that is, understanding and demonstrating the divine parity of all men and women as equally cherished children of God – has proved powerful in enabling many women to break through 20th and 21st century glass ceilings. Whether in the world of politics (the first two women to take seats in the British Parliament were Christian Scientists), the arts or engineering, a spiritual sense of self-worth has given many individuals the courage to withstand opposition to them taking their rightful place as social equals with men. Similarly, accounts of healing in Christian Science periodicals have shown how it has helped both women and men overcome problems of victimisation and abuse.
Admittedly and tragically, much in religious life today falls way short of supporting male-female parity.
Yet if God is indeed Father-Mother, then paternalism – wherever found – is actually a limited, or even inverted, misconception of who we each truly are as God’s image and likeness – as the full reflections of the masculine and feminine qualities found in the Divine.
So here’s a pledge for parity that some might find rather surprising – let’s pledge ourselves to proving the divine will of equal opportunity and reward for one and all.
This article was first published on Slant as: Is there a religious remedy to the world’s gender equality issues?