Reflection on Gender Justice within Culture & Religion Essay

Reflection on Gender Justice within Culture & Religion.

Introduction:

The suppression of women rights on the international stage has been something of an international blind spot.  While human rights violations and minority abuse in third world nations are constantly the focus of television and political discussions, the issue of gender justice is rarely discussed.  It is as if everyone tiptoes around the subject precisely because it is so volatile.  The issue of gender justice on the world stage has been negligible, as if the problem itself does not exist.  Yet everyday, while women in Westernized nations might enjoy certain freedoms, women in less civil rights minded nations are still mired in social stigma and injustice.  The purpose of this paper is to show that women are often victimized, this victimization results in gender injustice both within the legal system and within societal boundaries.  The clash of gender justice with established religious and cultural rules only proves further that the problem persists within our society and that in order to bring about more social justice, a detail examination of how and why the problem of gender injustice still persists in the world today.

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The problem with gender injustice in our global society is that in many cultures the social conditioning has made the problem so entrenched that even the women has become indoctrinated into their system of abuse and suppression.  In these countries it is very hard to prevent gendered biases and abuse because of the social stigma that women attach themselves.  After all it is inordinately hard to cause change in a society where the women do not see a tangible problem.  Therefore, a dissection of the impact of religion and cultural influences on gender justice within the global sphere will be crucial to making a decision about how to further progress gender justice within the global sphere.

The Problem of Entrenchment:

            The problem that persists within the international community is that even in finding supposed solutions for solving gender injustice, the international debate has begun to victimize and characterize women.  When discussions of international rights abuses arise, the common examples used all illustrate the helplessness of the modern day women.  This very mindset creates a certain gender injustice in the treatment of women.  Professor Martha Minnow, a professor of Law at Harvard University recently wrote in her article, “About Women, About Culture: About Them, About Us”,

“The common examples are female genital cutting, capturing young women to force compliance with arranged marriages, cultural defenses after the murder of a wife or daughter, traditional membership and property rules that disadvantage women, and the veil or scarf worn under religious compulsion by females. [1] These are also the frequent examples in debates over whether international human-rights law affords universal rights or imposes Western practices.”

The implication that Professor Minnow makes here is that the victimization of women in the international community goes far beyond the physical and psychological abuse they endure within their own countries.  It is also entrenched within the mindset of common policy makers that women in general are helpless to protect themselves.  In effect, on the grand international stage, the role of women is reduced to that of mere victim, and abused.  This very characterization takes away the voice of women and promotes general gender intolerance.

            Within the social stigma of profiling women on an international stage, comes the risk of forcing all women into the role of helpless victim on an international level.  Simply put, men do not take women seriously as a result of the constant hyperbole of their victimization.  Instead of helping to solve the problem within these specific nations that exhibit gender injustice, the international debate has up to now only perpetuated the entrenchment of gender injustice.

            Even without discussing the problem of the international entrenchment of gender injustice, trends within social settings have reinforced this problem.  Studies have shown that women, unlike men are less likely to rid themselves of their traditional upbringing and assimilate into different societies.  Therefore, the process of transforming women from gender suppressed nations into free thinking individuals is a much harder process than formerly expected.  This pattern can be observed through the migration patterns within the United States.  While migrating men appear far more ready to assimilate into the American work place by adapting themselves to fit the standards for industry and business.  Women are must less likely to do so.  Even in something as simple to consume as clothe, men will willingly forgo that traditional garb for the westernize suites popular in American culture as well as pants and shirts.  Women on the other hand still choose to hang on to the traditional clothing of their culture much longer than man, even though the variety of choices for women’s garb is far greater.  Implicit within this observation is that women innately choose to hold on to their upbringings much more than men, the rules that they are taught are far more deeply entrenched than the lessons that men learn.  As a result, while men seem to be able to shed their particular social, cultural and even moral standards through shifts in location and societies, women maintain their traditional upbringing.  The problem with this model is that women do not recognize that they are being treated unequally; as a result they are highly dubious of change to promote gender justice within their particular culture and religion.  Professor Eschel M. Rhoodie points out in her book, “Discrimination Against Women” that, “The modern task of promoting feminism in developing nations is strangely not the resistance of men, but that of women.  It seems that for women who have grown up within a culture that consistently treats them as subhumans; the psychological wall of indoctrination has run too deep to promote immediate change.”   Professor Rhoodie’s point is clear; women in countries that lack the initial education in women’s rights do not understand the issue of gender injustice.  Therefore, they treat gender injustice as part of the innate rules of society, and indeed life.  With this mindset in place, few women are willing to give up the security of what they know is true for an unknown element of freedom.  The virtual enslavement of women within patriarchal societies happens exactly through this policy of indoctrination.

            The question posed by many is how have women become so subjugated to this disadvantage?  The answer reveals a far more serious problem that has existed in society since the dawn of time, and the true instigator of gender injustice within our society.  The problem lies in gender roles and gender divisions in the home societies of these women.  Since gender roles divide the duty of men into the public sphere they are much more familiar with interactions and the free exchange of ideas as well as values whereas for women, the primary relegation is within the private sphere.  This means that they have far less association with the outside world and familiarity with cultural assimilation.  Thus, men when they are faced with changing situations and the ability to expand their cultural and economic horizons leap at the opportunity because they are indoctrinated into a system of change.  Women on the other hand lack exposure to the public sphere, thus when offered with the opportunity for further freedom and growth, they choose instead to hide within the private sphere that has been created for them.  Therefore, the fundamental problem with gender injustice within society is that the division of gender roles has forced women into a permanent place of subjugation.  Even without abuse or inhumane treatment, women are automatically placed in a situation of inequality by merit of their place within their society.  The outward translation of their inability to accept the social sphere is once again manifest in immigrants’ dress patterns.  While men change their dress to fit their new persona in the outside and public sphere, women choose to remind themselves of the private sphere by keeping with their home tradition even if they join the workforce or shop in public arenas.

            Now that a certain understanding of female subjugation has been reached, the next area of concern is whether or not the participation of culture and religion has a drastic effect on gender injustice.  In order to fully understand how this entrenchment process occurs, a closer examination of the particular forces behind female subjugation.  The two key factors within this arena are the particular cultures and religions that women are indoctrinated through.  Both have a dramatic effect on the lifestyle and indeed the nature of gender injustice within the framework of particular societies.

An Examination of Culture and Religion:

            A recent international study conducted by the Office of International Affairs presented that in the world today, women on average receive 60% less social, political and cultural mobility compared with men.  This implies that on a daily basis women experience discrimination in terms of their,

“resources and access to food, health care, inheritance, credit, education, vocational training, hiring, fair compensation for paid work, family and public rights, individual mobility and travel and religious education and participation, and they also may face legal, societal, cultural and religious practices which justify and endorse this discrimination.” (Bianchi, Casper & Peltola, 1999; Goode, 1993; Hauchler & Kennedy, 1994; Smeeding & Ross, 1999; United Nations, 2000; United Nations Population Fund, 2000), and psychology could address these global problems internationally (United Nations, 2000; United Nations Population Fund, 2000);

This lack of social mobility and deprivation shows that two forces are at play within nations that deprive women of equal status.  While women are definitively treated with callous disrespect and relegation to insult and discrimination, what is worse is that men are definitively treated better.  The importance of this statement is that these two factors are not the same as the cursory impression might guess.  If women were just treated significantly worse than men, the problem of changing that situation would be relatively easy in that they would just have to be granted the same privileges as men within their social setting.  However, the problem within most countries runs much deeper than this.  Instead of merely subjecting women to be treated worse than men, cultural forces gives men special status within the society.  This means that while women are entrenched within a society that discriminates against them, men are instead given special accommodations.  This polarizing effect means that women are even farther from men within the terms of social justice than ever before.  To understand how this can be possible requires an examination of cultural forces.

            In terms of culture, societies indoctrinate their form of gender discrimination and injustice through placement of gender roles and gender division.  Within these gender roles, women are placed at birth into a category of restriction in which they are only granted certain rights while being deprived of significant others.  This means that since birth women are given very little choice since the roles that are assigned to them, and thus passed down from generation to generation are uniquely associated with the private sphere.  Since the private sphere only involves the family, women within these societies do not have exposure to any sort of social, political or cultural mobility.  In effect, they’re lives and their progress is stagnant, whereas men are placed within the favored status of being able to move fluidly within different roles within the public sphere.  This implies that men as opposed to women will have exposure to different job opportunities, different political positions and voices than women.  By creating the gender roles that group within and limit them only to specific and restricted areas to pursue their life and career, the society creates and entrenches a patriarchal society.  Since women never even have the opportunity to voice their opinions, there are never any opinions of dissent and the perpetuation of this situation of cultural discrimination becomes permanent.

            Looking closely at the issue of gender injustice through cultural forces, a profile of the disenfranchised can be seen.  India serves as a prime example of how slowly the process of restoring gender justice to a nation with cultural barriers can be.  Within India, the societal creation of gender roles forces women to be wed by their parents at an extremely early age.  As soon as this happens, women are taught to become the wife of their arranged marriage.  Through this process, even at a very young age the future of their lives are already planned out and thus they have no other choice but to go down the path that their parents set for them.  Since the position of marriage begins at a very early age, the gender role assigned to young Indian girls is already to take care of the private sphere for their chosen husbands.  In contrast, young Indian men learn from an early age that they must marry; as a result they become aware of the necessity to provide for family and for the future.  Since this is one of his only responsibilities even from a very young age, young men have the capacity to explore many different avenues of development within the public sphere.  So within Indian culture, arranged marriages restrict the capacity of its women, while broadening the scope of possibilities for men.  This is exactly the polarized effect discussed in the above paragraph and the innate problem with preserving social justice.  Even in today’s India, the concept of allowing Indian girls to choose their own brides or to act for themselves is hard for traditionalist parents to understand.  Social and gender injustice still occurs for these Indian women.  The only way to help them gain equal status would result in leaving behind the chains of suppression that have kept them entrenched within this system.  However, this task is not easy and this has resulted in slow change within the Indian system of gender justice.

            The next area that needs to examined in the cultural context is the promotion of gender injustice within education.  Since the key feature in entrenching gender biases within women is to start a very young age, the educational system is the ideal place to initiate young women into their life of permanent gender discrimination and unequal treatment.  The accepted practice of most culturally oppressive nations is that the promotion of young children’s education is crucial to national success.  However, this policy is strangely only applied to males.  Females on the other hand are commonly taken out of the school system at a very young age and put to work in menial labor jobs such as sewing, working farm fields and other labor that creates permanent disenfranchisement.  By forcing females to work in industries that have no potential for furthering themselves or increasing the knowledge, these cultures trap young girls into a life of poverty with their only escape within the private sphere of family.  Men in contrast have the ability to attend school and achieve an education, and therefore have the ability to further themselves in society.  This advantage puts them on a much higher social plateau than women even if there were no gender injustice taking place within the society.  Thus education becomes one of the primary cultural tools that nations use to entrench gender injustice and inequality at a very young age.  Neera Burra stresses in her article, “Cultural Stereotypes and Household Behavior: Girl Child Labor in India that the definition of poverty has shifted from the fundamental lack of income to the more broad based perspective that was outlined within the 1997 Human Development Report.  This policy states that,

“The concept of human poverty is understood as ‘the denial of opportunities and choices most basic to human development – to lead a long, healthy, creative life and to enjoy a decent standard of living, freedom, dignity, self-esteem and the respect of others.”

This definition implies that the depriving of females the rights to education can be detrimental to their future economic status within the society.  Virtually forcing them to rely on men in order to survive thus shifting the balance of power drastically in favor of the men within that society.  This is the fundamental problem with taking away the educations of young women; it creates a disparity in the future earning potential and the cultural and political understanding of their society for them to take proactive action to create better opportunities.  By entrenching illiteracy and ignorance on young women, their voice effectively becomes cut off and they have no ability to voice their concerns as females nor do they have the capacity to further their position within society.  This undercuts any possibility of change and once again allows the flagrant abuse of gender injustice and discrimination with no checks against these abuses.

The Problem of Religion Instilled Gender Injustice:

            The next major issue of gender injustice lies in the religious discrimination and the entrenchment of abuse as a result of gender discrimination within religions.  In countries that have severe discrimination much of the justification for this type of gender injustice comes from religious justifications.  For example, the requirement of Muslim women to hide their faces is the result of an interpretation of the Koran explicitly saying that women must shield themselves as to prevent the possibility of temptations to other men.  The result is that women must hide their faces to the world and thus presenting themselves as an open target for social and gender discrimination.  The problem with religious discrimination is two fold, the actual discrimination that takes place within religious documentation and particular theocratic government, but also that the controlling interpreters of these religious documents are men themselves.  Both of these circumstances help to entrench gender injustice through religious justifications.
The first case of religious discrimination involving the actual religion itself is a tricky situation to resolve.  In these circumstances gender injustice is very much entrenched at the most basic level of these individual’s lives.  In that they form fundamental beliefs of the afterlife and how they should behave in general to the innate concept of gender discrimination.  Many times the results of gender injustice within actual religion are in the form of gender roles.  Women in many religions including Christianity and Islamic religions are viewed as mother and caretaker. Since they are pigeon holed into this particular role, they are given the status of the private by their own belief system.  The glorification of women has mothers and caretakers of the home and hearth forces them to assume this position.  By entrenching this concept into the very nature of their religion, these women have no way of escaping their gender discrimination and confined ability to mobilized.  Even more troublesome is the fact that religious entrenchment of gender roles results in the women’s unwillingness to attempt to protest gender injustice themselves.  Since they personally believe in the righteousness of their faith, they lack neither the will nor the mental toughness to confront their social immobility and gender discrimination.  Georgina Ashworth writes in her article, “The Silencing of Women” that, “Women are often their own worst enemies as their belief in their religious and culture antiquities that they are destined for a life of enslavement and should be grateful to even be given the opportunity to live” This type of religious entrenchment of gender injustice implies that it is very rare for women to even attempt to escape such a lifestyle.  They are forever pressed into servitude to their particular culture without the ability to mobilize themselves.
The Hindu religion in the Eastern Asian sector and India in particular is an excellent example of this problem.  The religious teachings of Hinduism dictate that reincarnation is in fact the key tenant to achieving Nirvana.  Since each individual spirit is reincarnated based on the amount of good that they do within their lifetime, the religion teaches that only in respect to one’s place in life can they achieve further status within the next turn of the cycle.  However, the problem with this teaching is that women are in fact lower on the rung of reincarnation and the path to enlightenment than men.  The nature of their religion preaches that women should strive to live a good and successful life in order to become men in the next life.  This kind of religious entrenchment naturally places women on a much lower level than men in society.  In fact, since women must act within their place to the best of their abilities to be reincarnated as men, the religious teachings of Hinduism forces gender injustice as part of the supposed “test” for enlightenment.  Under these conditions women rarely wish to see themselves “liberated” from their place within society because they believe that only by serving their role in society through their particular private domain will they be able to advance in death.  This religious fervor thus presents one of the most formidable barriers to social change and the increase of gender equality within these nations.  The very concept of hierarchal change sets this nation’s specific religious leaders into frenzy because they understand that in order to maintain their power within the society the concept of keeping the status quo of the religion is a must.
The next problem facing religious entrenchment of gender injustice occurs because the people controlling the religious interpretation of these religious doctrines are men themselves.  As in most societies, the post of priest cannot be attained by women, but instead can only be attained by a male heir to the religion’s teachings.  In Muslim and Jewish culture for instance, the place of worship for men and women are separated with women unable to even enter the church that men can receive prayer at.  Since religious interpretation takes place from a masculine perspective, the culture is dominated from the religious standpoint of men, and as such reflects the patriarchal society and social standards of this society.  In these male dominated religious cultures, women will never be able to rise to power and thus their place within society will be interpreted as beneath men because of the fact that they do not have power within the church.  The problem of religious entrenchment then becomes similar to the problem of cultural entrenchment.  Women do not have the ability to mobilize on the religious ladder just as they lack the ability to mobilize on a social and political ladder.  Lacking these avenues to empowerment, women do not have a voice within society and without this voice they lack the ability to change the circumstances that they live in.
The persistent disenfranchisement of women in the religious arena has lead to the problem of tacit consent.  Women within these societies have finally decided that without the power to act they are helpless to empower themselves and therefore forgo any desire to change the system they live in.  This allows the religions to continue its oppression and entrench the gender injustice within these countries.  By tacitly consenting to this entrenchment women are in effect giving up on their enfranchisement.  Through generations of this practice, the problem of religious entrenchment becomes so permanent that even if there are women who attempt to break the mold of religious captivity they have no outlet to voice themselves.  These women are either branded as heretics or quickly accept the fact that the concept of gender injustice is so widely accepted within women that the possibility for mobilizing a large scale change within the religious interpretation of women empowerment would be impossible for these countries.  This trend can be observed most obviously within the migration patterns of women from different cultures.  Even those women who migrate to the United States which has shown it to be a leader in the war against gender injustice, these women are unwilling to shed their chains of religious bonds.  They choose to live a life of isolation within the private sphere, caring for the family and for the home without attempting to venture out into the world of possibility.  There actions might be puzzling to some who believe that given the opportunity women would jump at the chance to change their living conditions and become free and established women within themselves.  However, history has shown that once indoctrinated into a religious entrenchment, women very rarely will have the ability to rid themselves of the chains of gender injustice.

Finding a solution to the problem of Gender Injustice:

            Now that an understanding of the problem that faces advocates of gender justice, an examination of possible solutions for this problem can begin.  Despite the bleak picture presented above about the entrenchment of Gender injustice within particular cultures, the picture is not completely dark.  Within the past ten years, the mobilization of women has been astonishing and the prominence of women rights among the international community has increased in stature.  The way to solve this problem of social injustice must take place within the mobilization of foreign agents.
The problem innate within the cultural disenfranchisement of women and gender injustice is that they lack the ability to independently change their situation.  However, foreign intervention becomes a crucial tool for this woman to rid themselves of the chains of gender injustice.  By instituting agencies that pressure governments to create standardized practices for education, the international community has allowed young women to enjoy the same privilege of education that men within their society take for granted.  This means that they will have future opportunities to better themselves and escape their restricted gender roles.  Education is one of the keys for the furtherance of gender justice because it creates the ability for women to have a voice within their particular society.  By educating them, these women are empowered with the ability to understand the forces both working for and against them, giving them the ability to analyze and recognize how to change their particular situations.
This has already been evidenced in the development of India into a modernized and gender equal nation.  Within the past ten years the enrollment of females in Indian Universities has more than doubled, as more and more young women are given the opportunity to choose a career and professional life before they decide whether or not to start a family.  This has helped the increased enfranchisement of women within Indian society as they are now have achieved new levels of empowerment in their voice inside the government and their job positions within society.  The ability to have a college education also allows Indian women to find suitable environments to exercise their particular talents on the international level. This grants them an even bigger perspective of how the issue of gender justice can be presented to their people.  Foreign educated Indian women who return to their native country have created centers for female education and empowerment, they have begun to train their country women in understanding that the path to great achievement and to escape poverty is through voicing their own concerns rather than living in perpetual enslavement to the patriarchal society.  Although arranged marriages are still prevalent within this society, it is now not the only mechanism for escaping poverty and social ostracism.  It grants new voice to the women of Indian society and grants in such a way that it promotes the growth of gender justice at an increasing rate.  This is the type of development that must occur in all countries that hope to break the chain of enslavement and instead grow into a productive gender equal nation.
The concept of gender equality itself is hard to grasp within many nations because of its cultural bias, but the problem of changing religious bias is even harder.  The only method for changing the situation of social injustice within these nations is to create through example that women do not have to lead the life of gender discrimination that they currently endure.  Western countries have done this by educating the youth of these theocracies that they are open to a far larger scope of possibilities outside of their religious restrictions.  By presenting those with the possibilities outside of their own religiously structured positions in life, it allows them to make educated decisions about how to further their own chances at success.

Conclusion:

            The concept of gender justice has to take place within a context examination of how it has advanced itself over the past decade on both the international arenas as well in the localized arenas of their origin.  It has been the goal of this paper to show that on the international level the issue of gender justice has been approached with much more ridicule and stigma that is previously thought.  Just through the very concept of entrenching the concept of female victimization in the mindset of human rights discussions, we have allowed the world to see women as the disenfranchised, by telling ourselves and others that women need to rescued from the state of victimization rather than attempting to conscious promote their gender equality.  This places women at the unique disadvantage of being unable to rescue them; it stigmatizes the role of the international community as the “Knight” in its bid to save the “helpless princess”.  It is this very imagery that conjures up the feelings of disenfranchisement and gender injustice, and therefore the international community in many ways perpetuates its own code of social and gender injustice.  Even worse, on the localized level, gender discrimination has become so entrenched that women are unable even to recognize themselves that they are being treated unfairly.  This means that they lack the ability and the desire to change their current situation of discrimination.  Lacking these two elements they are forced into a state of consistent stagnation without any remedy to solve their gender injustice.  This is the result of both cultural and religious forces.  On a cultural level, the patriarchal society’s use of gender roles and gender division allows the male dominated society to place women in a position of social immobility.  They are only charged with taking care of the private sphere which is the family and home.  Thus they lack the ability to mobilize themselves outside of their particular niche within this society.  Without this mobility they are forever stuck through generation upon generation to the rules of the male dominated society because men are the only ones who have the voice within these nations by capturing all the elements of social, political and cultural mobility.  In effect, the polarization of women and men’s roles in these societies is the leading cause of entrenchment of gender injustice.  Religious factors are also important in gender injustice debate because religions are both discriminatory on its most basic level as well as in its interpretation by male dominated members of the clergy.  This means that women are taught to believe that their ability to achieve spiritual enlightenment and salvation is intrinsically tied with their ability to cooperate with the strict limitations on them as women.  Therefore, they are unwilling to attempt to change their situation of gender inequality fearing that any such change will result in religious ostracism and banishment.  Thus, religious becomes another tool that the patriarchal and theocratic governments of many oppressive nations use to control women gender injustice.

            The fundamental issue becomes that to mobilize women on an international scope to achieve gender equality and justice requires intervention from international sources.  This means that on an international level, foreign factors need to intervene within governments to allow young children to understand at an early level that they can escape the precarious situation of poverty and dependence on men by creating a better future through education and through creating a voice for themselves within their societies.  This is exactly what the international community has been attempting to do through a myriad of methods such as requiring the equalization of educational systems and job equality within nations joining into the international consortium.  Thus, the situation for women empowerment and gender justice is improving.  The ability for woman to find a stronger voice within our international society requires proactive action both on the international and local levels.

Ashworth, G. (1999) `The silencing of women` in Dunne, T and N. J. Wheeler (eds) Human Rights in Global Perspective (Cambridge: CUP).

Minow, M. (2000) `About Women, About Culture: About Them, About Us`, Daedalus, Vol.129 (Special Issue: The End of Tolerance: Engaging Cultural Differences).

Rao, A. (1995) `The Politics of Gender and Culture in International Human Rights Discourse` in Peters, J. and A. Wolper (eds) Woman`s Rights, Human Rights. International Feminist Perspectives. (London: Routledge).

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