Just so I don’t seem to be picking on Islam, I’m going to write first about Christianity and then about religion in general when it comes to gender roles. Islam is generally seen as the most oppressive to women, followed by Judaism and then Christianity. But in reality, Christianity has mixed reviews when it comes to its attitude toward women. On the one hand, it has the whole Mary devotion thing going on (which ironically it shares with Islam) and women had key roles in Jesus’ ministry. On the other hand, it has Paul whom my mother used to call a misogynist, and whose writings heavily influenced the Church’s attitude toward women.
The thing about the Christian religion is that it is hung up about sex. And since women are the objects of men’s sexual desire, they are often seen as temptresses and whores. There’s also the little matter of Eve tempting Adam in the Garden of Eden and through her actions (some say) unleashing sinfulness among mankind. The Church Fathers never forgave her for that. (Nor did they assign Adam equal responsibility for his actions.
The Catholic Church has its Mariology and female saints to whom its adherents pray. And orders of nuns have done incalculable good in this world. (Tell that to a Catholic who went to a parochial school, particularly in “the old days.”) But it has also done more to give people (especially women) sexual hangups than any other Christian denomination–or other religion, for that matter.
But what about gender roles? When you compare Christianity to Islam for example, it’s important to compare like with like. That means that you have to take into consideration that it is the fundamentalists on both sides who are the most rigid about gender roles. You can’t compare a liberal Christian–which means almost everyone who belongs to a mainline Protestant denomination–with an Islamic fundamentalist. There are plenty of Muslims, even devout Muslims, who don’t see women as strictly bound into their roles as wives and mothers. And there are plenty of Christians, especially those who are conservatives, who insist on specific gender roles for men and women.So in essence it’s not the religions themselves that are the culprits. They may lay the foundation, but it is the adherents who build the building that most people see.
The more germane question is: are gender roles a bad thing? Most feminists would say yes. But developing an identity that is consistent with your sexual identity could be seen as an important part of your maturing process. I think the real question is, how rigid are these roles? If a woman feels forced into having children, for instance, that’s not a good thing. And it’s no accident that insisting on rigid gender roles is a key component in homophobia. People just don’t like those who don’t fit in boxes.
The problem with gender roles is, it’s hard to tell how much is biology and how much is socialization. Feminists are most interested in allowing people to develop according to their unique personalities. When socialization occurs, it obscures what might be a very broad spectrum of gender behavior. This is especially important when we consider trans-sexuals. What if a person doesn’t fit into gender roles and descriptions? What if a person feels like he or she was born into the wrong gender? Few, if any, religions do a very good job of ministering to people with gender “confusion,” let alone accepting them the way they are.
Gender roles can be comforting. They guide us through the tricky business of living. But when they get in the way of personal fulfillment, they’re not doing what God intended. I don’t mean to say that religion is all about feeling good about yourself. There are times when you shouldn’t, when your behavior doesn’t hit the mark, so to speak. But if you believe, as I do, that God has a plan for each of us, then it is a matter of following Him and discerning His will for you. That may mean that you stay home with the kids or provide for the family. But it could also mean that you do the opposite of what gender roles tell you to do, or at least that you don’t fit into them completely.
I believe that the most mature religious people recognize that their religions are strong agents for socialization. And that this is not necessarily a good thing, when it comes to each person’s standing before God. It should not be man who socializes, or shapes, us into who we are. It should be God who does the shaping.