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Traditional and Modern Roles of Women in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

The role of women in religions of the peoples of the world, especially in the Judeo-Christian group, seems insignificant just at the first glance. We will not see many women among the most common types of so-called “religious people”, for example, among the prophets, saints and religious reformers, founders of religions or new trends in religions.

But this is how the picture looks like if religion is seen as a “social costume that can be laid off and changed”, following the metaphor of Sorokin. While considering the deep, sensual and emotional experience of faith – which is the fundamental core of religion – women come to the forefront although not too noticeable, but irreplaceable. In addition, over time, the understanding of women’s role in religion has changed.

Thus, traditionally in Judaism, woman’s life has focused almost exclusively around the house and family. There were two reasons for that. First, in the Jewish community, as well as in society at large, women rarely participated in public life and took over the functions of leaders. Secondly, in accordance with Jewish tradition, it was believed that marriage and motherhood are particularly important for the development of woman’s personality (Greenberg, 1994).

Today, the feminist movement has achieved crucial changes in education and professional opportunities for women. Religious Jews, along with all people, have welcomed these reforms. However, in their view, sometimes, feminism mixes up the two above aspects. Satisfied with the fact that women obtained new, previously unavailable opportunities, religious Jews reject firmly of the view expressed in some feminist works that marriage and motherhood are a burden for women and limit their opportunities. The Jews claim that raising and educating children is not a burden but a privilege (Fisher, 2010).

The Jewish tradition attaches such importance to women’s family responsibilities that halakha even frees women from the mitzwot, observing which is associated with a particular period, such as the tefillin ceremovy, reciting the Shema, counting of the Omer. Women are also exempted from the obligation of collective prayer. Distribution of their time cannot be determined by mitzwot, or public prayers. Of course, many women undertake the implementation of such mitzwot and participate in the prayers of the community. But they do it on their own will, not by obligation (Greenberg, 1994).

Over the centuries, when boys went to school or yeshiva, their sisters did not have such opportunity. Most girls studied Judaism at home, watching, listening, and performing commandments. Wealthy parents would sometimes hire private tutors for their daughters, but they were taught a limited number of subjects. Nevertheless, throughout history, there were prominent women who reached a high level of Talmudic knowledge. Some of them are mentioned in the Talmud; in particular, in the 2nd century AD the sages of the time consulted with a woman named Bruriah. The wife of one of the prominent rabbis of the 16th century was such a learned woman that in his absence she rendered halakhic decisions to community members. Of course, such women were an exemption (Greenberg, 1994).

Currently, many synagogues provide lessons for women in all Jewish subjects and at all levels. In the United States and Israel, there are schools that provide evening courses or short courses with accommodation; some are also designed for middle-aged women. Academic level of some schools is very high, which attracts graduates from other educational institutions (Fisher, 2010).

Woman in Judaism can pray wherever she wishes, and praying time is not as rigidly set, as for men. Men are obliged to participate in the community prayers at certain times. From the standpoint of Jewish law, decisions of Conservative Judaism on enrollment of women in the “minyan” (a quorum of 10 Jews required for public prayer), or the permission to arrive to a synagogue by car on the Sabbath are much more radical innovations than allowing women to become rabbis. However, the resolution of the Jewish Theological Seminary of 1983 which permitted women to become rabbis led to violent attacks not only from the orthodox, but also from many traditionalists in the most conservative trend, particularly among teachers of the Talmud in Seminary (Fisher, 2010; Greenberg, 1994).

But actually this decision was inevitable because the reformers started appointing women as rabbis back in the early 1970s. Recently, many women have been eager to participate more actively in religious service and pray together as an independent community. The first women group for collective prayers was organized in the synagogue of the north-west London in 1992 (Fisher, 2010).

Now, what is the treatment to women in Christianity? Every modern man knows that there is no gender equality in the Christian religion. Only men can be priests (the exemptions are only certain trends of Protestantism), women have no right to preach, must cover her head in the church, finally, according to Christian tradition, the husband is the head of the family. Common tradition dating back to the days of Christ says of the woman as a tireless assistant, sensitive listener, faithful wife and myrrh bearer. Moreover, according to Christian doctrine, woman cannot and should not be the head of family, or community, or the leader of state or church – hers is only the role of housewife, mother and wife who satisfies all the needs of the man (Ingersoll, 2003).

Today, however, one can often see female police officers, female astronauts, woman presidents, women pastors, etc. In Spain, there is a woman who controls the army. In Germany, the largest and most influential state in the EU, Angela Merkel has long been successfully governing the country and strongly influencing the fate of Europe and the world. The Church of Germany (Lutheran) is headed by a woman. In the US for nearly 10 years, women have headed the State Department and taken top-influential positions in the country and in the world (Condoleezza Rice, Hilary Clinton). And all these women are working successfully in their posts, no worse than men.

Previously, when Christianity had a great influence on government, women were weak and inferior, and women’s rights were discriminated against – women were not even allowed to vote. On the other hand men had all the power, because it was men who wrote the Bible.

Today, some feminists argue that man is no more than a half-finished product, which was used by God to create the perfect being – woman. There is also a contrary view that woman is a second grade person, just an assistant in the affairs of men, and her nature is reduced to this only. However, feminists add that, unlike men, woman was created in a blooming Garden, she ended the whole Creation and is truly a paradisiacal creature (Ingersoll, 2003).

This, at first glance, confirms the position of the feminists. But at the same time woman was created precisely as an assistant to man, which seems to be evidence in favor of the opponents of feminists. How should this dispute be seen from the Christian point of view? It should be noted that the Christian tradition rejects both of these radical points. Woman is the assistant to man, however, not a subordinate, but included in the daily dialogue.

However, the traditional point of criticism of social order is still the question of the status of women in Islam. Traditionally, Shari’ah (Islamic law) provides for significant differences in the roles men and women in rights and duties. The differences are expressed with regard to marriage, divorce, legal status, clothing and education.

Thus, the Qur’an states that men are the curators of women because Allah has made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (Hafez, 2011). According to Muslim tradition, wife is completely subordinate to her husband. The main role of women is reduced to the family, while the role of men lies in the financial support of the family. But if the woman is willing, she can obtain education, job, etc. with the consent of the curator (Fisher, 2010).

Also, since women have no financial obligations (for example, family support), men have more financial rights. Islam permits women to work with observance of certain conditions; for example a woman should never be left alone with men. Her work should not interfere with more important things like child care. It is preferable that employees in women’s schools, sports centers, were women, not men (Hafez, 2011).

Some Islamic schools do not provide women the right to take the position of judge. Others (Hanafi madhhab) suggest prohibiting only for criminal court and allow women to judge civil cases (Hafez, 2011). This is associated with the desire to protect women from the burden of dealing with brutal and bloody criminal cases.

At the present stage some Muslim countries like Egypt and Morocco still experience discrimination in education and work. The employment structure in the Muslim world is diverse: 16% of Pakistani women are economically active, while in Indonesia the figure is 52% (Fisher, 2010). It is remarkable that the money that women earn is their own personal property, which they can dispose of at their discretion, while men are obliged to spend the earnings for the whole family (Hafez, 2011).

In the 12th century, Ibn Rushd argued that women were equal with men in all respects and had equal opportunities (Hafez, 2011). However, in most countries of the Muslim world there is the so-called gender segregation in the public sphere and production, i.e. the division of professions into “male” and “female” ones, the lower level of employment and education of women compared with men. The reason for this phenomenon is indirectly caused by behavioral models dictated by some of the provisions of the Islamic religion. For instance, the fact that women typically have many children in Muslim families, which is directly associated with the prohibition of abortion, is an objective barrier to women’s career promotion. Large family as the model in the Islamic tradition serves as a guide for the majority of Muslim women, by which they plan and lead their life and pick a profession which leaves the main efforts to the family rather than work and career (Fisher, 2010).

However, in some cases, a woman today has certain advantages over men. For example, a woman is exempted from the daily prayers and fasting during menstruation and during the forty days after birth. She is also exempted from fasting during pregnancy and breastfeeding the baby, if it is dangerous to her health or her baby. If the missed fasting is obligatory (during Ramadan), she can compensate for the missed days when she can. A woman does not have to compensate for the missed prayers. Women usually attend the mosque when they wish and do not have to attend collective prayers on Fridays, when it is obligatory for men (Hafez, 2011).

Islamic doctrine shows delicate treatment of women, as it accounts for the fact that a woman can nurse or feed her baby and cannot attend the mosque for prayers. Islam also takes into consideration the physiological and psychological changes related to the processes in the female body. However, in the Arab world there is still a big problem with the observance of women’s social rights: many parents, husbands believe that women should stay at home not caring about her education and work (Hafez, 2011).

The topic of women in religion has been and continues to be relevant today. Raising the question of the role of women in politics, education, family and other spheres of social life, we can not ignore such an important sphere as religion, for it is this area that has the roots of many problems that we face every day defending the rights of women. However, our study does not aim at estimating the above said. It seems important to emphasize the diversity of opinions on this matter. Therefore we just tried to outline the problem to show its depth and the need for close attention from the researchers involved in gender issues. Only referring to the religious sphere we can discover the origins of many things of our interest, such as power, strength, and the ensuing problem of violence.



Fisher, M.P. (2010). Living Religions. Prentice Hall.
Greenberg, B. (1994). On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition. The Jewish Publication Society.
Hafez, S. (2011). An Islam of Her Own: Reconsidering Religion and Secularism in Women’s Islamic Movements. NYU Press.
Ingersoll, J. (2003). Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles. NYU Press.