Traditionally the majority of major world religious organisations have been androcentric in nature. Women have faced the problem of being members of sometimes misogynistic, frequently sexist and patriarchal, and male-dominated religious traditions. However, it is a commonly held view that Buddhism has been less misogynistic then other faiths, such as Christianity, Islam and Baha'i.
In such religious traditions, the establishment of scriptures, practices, and ethical spiritual authority codes of conduct for both lay and monastic existences lay with men. Almost all of the significant spiritual leaders or "heroes"- the Buddha included - are male, and women are often accorded an inferior status, particularly in regard to their assessed capabilities for spiritual progress. Masculine religions tend to view the world as essentially impure or corrupt, at least to the human spirit. If the world is corrupt then women, being both the bearers of future generations and the seductresses of men, are the greatest impediment to male liberation.
Therefore, most masculine religions, in the East and West are misogynistic.
Countless feminist critics argue that the majority of global creeds are a constant reminder of a phallocentric focus. However, this factor in various religious traditions raises the question as to what extent Buddhism is misogynistic, and when contrasted to other religions how it differs? The position of women within Buddhism has traditionally been relative to specific cultures. Within traditional Buddhism we find both misogynistic attitudes, and strong powerful female role models.
A religion that is often labelled as misogynistic is Christianity. In Christianity, fundamental doctrines marginalise women based on patriarchal interpretations of scripture - not necessarily supporting the Bible. "While the theological tradition supporting women's subordination has dominated the history of Christian theology, it has not been the only tradition," writes the Rev. Scovill, a minister in the Disciples of Christ church. Equally, St Paul states: "There is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." This statement suggests gender equality in Christianity.
However, there are clear examples of Christian misogynism, including a letter from Paul's to the church. In this Paul states: "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home; for it is a shame for women to speak in the church." This statement at face value is androcentric in its portrayal of the role of women.
Christianity, presents women as subordinate to men and in some instances, men appear, according to the Bible as the owners of women, as they are in the same category as animals. Bible commandments suggest that a man could sell his daughter as a slave or give her in marriage. This subordination of women to men in the Bible, is made clear in Leviticus, After the birth of a male child, a woman is ritually impure for seven days, however after the birth of a female child she is ritually impure for fourteen days according to the law of the Bible. However, many have taken advantage of the fact that religious texts leave much to interpretation and have interpreted the ambiguous meanings of religious texts to further personal beliefs.
In this respect, Buddhist teachings are not much different. There are many things and ideas the Buddha said and practiced that, like almost anything, can be construed as gender favouritism. Given the gender non-specific nature of the Buddha's teachings and practices, it seems that this would not be the case. In a conversation with one of his disciples, Ananda, The Buddha says: "Just, Ananda as houses in which there are many women and but few men are easily violated by robber burglars; just so, Ananda, under whatever doctrine and discipline women are allowed to go out from the household life into the homeless state, that religion will not last long." Buddhism's emergence in this male-dominated culture obviously led to religious practice that was often patriarchal it not outright misogynistic.
Here the Buddha seems to be saying to Buddhist followers not to allow women to practice the religion for fear that it will not last. This statement seems odd since the Buddha himself praised laywomen and ordained nuns for their knowledge and faith concerning Buddhism. One explanation for this statement is that the Buddha was still very much a part of the Indian culture in which he was raised. This culture was a Hindu society in which women were regarded as inferior to men. The Buddha was raised in a society where he saw only women that could not read, write, or perform intellectual tasks. This was not because they did not possess the capacity to learn these things, but rather that they were not allowed to learn them as women in India.
In his discussion with Ananda, the Buddha may not have been dismissing women as a gender but protecting the transmission of Buddhism by illiterates; he was making a statement of protection for the religion he founded and wanted to flourish. The Buddha also taught that all things are transient and all of them change, even people and relationships. Thus Buddhism was founded on the notion that it would change according to the time and place in which it was being practiced. Just as Paul's epistle to the Church of Corinth taken out of context has created a great deal of turmoil in the Christian church, the Buddha's conversations with Ananda may appear something that they are not. "Anti-feminine tendencies of both traditional Theravada, and to a lesser extent, traditional Mahayana Buddhism, are disturbing. Many schools of Buddhism teach that one cannot attain enlightenment in a woman's body." This statement illustrates that religious scripture doctrine can be easily misinterpreted.
At the center of Buddhism are The Eightfold Path, teaching Buddhists the ideas of trust, ethics and meditation through righteous living between extremes. Nowhere in these doctrines does the Buddha denote men as being better than women nor does he suggest that men have a higher spiritual capacity than women; in fact, he does not address either gender here at all. Given this, it can be assumed that the Buddha never had any intentions of excluding women from Buddhism.
The Theravadin Suttas quote the Buddha as saying that "women are not leaders of business or judges because they are more lustful, greedy and ignorant than men; that women are to be perceived as sea serpents, unclean, evil smelling, timid, fearful and betrayers of friends, always passionate, fork-tongued, slanderous of speech and adulteresses; that a woman can never be a Buddha, or even a higher deity". These Suttas state that the Buddha eventually agreed to ordain nuns due to the haranguing of his relatives. But to limit their influence he instituted a rule that while a senior nun may never criticize a novice monk, he can criticize a senior nun. Finally, the Buddha is quoted as stating that "having nuns in the order would be like a disease, weakening the sangha and allowing it to live only half as long as it otherwise would have". Each of these statements is contrary to the idea that misogynism in Buddhism is a result of misinterpretation, or a by-product of patriarchal society. The language used is clearly misogynistic and negative in its connotations that women are an inferior sex.
Although the position of Islamic women appears subservient, it is possible to reinterpret the Quran and traditional sayings of Muhammad to show that Muslim women are treated as moral equals with Muslim men. Islam aims to reform believers, males and females alike. "Both of them are responsible and none is exempted because this duty is not based on gender, but rather on the fact that they are both part of humanity." Unexpectedly egalitarian in this approach, the Quran doesn't agree with the Bible's claim of men being owners of women, or with women being created for or from men. "Women impure for men impure. And men impure for women impure." There is little bias toward women, as men and women are classed equally.
The Koran also dispels the common myth among other religions that a woman is evil by nature and has been created to deceive mankind. It is through Purdah, or the "modest dress according to the legal systems, requiring covering except the face and hands in public, " that women uphold their status, guiding women to purity and morality. Islam also gave women the right to property ownership and a voice in legal testimony, through the Koran. Islamic and Buddhist teachings are similar in this respect as, "no major Buddhist teaching provides any basis for gender privilege or gender hierarchy," and none of the major Buddhist teachings - aside from the doctrine of karma, "has been used to explain or justify male dominance. " It is only the interpretation of the writings of the Buddha that misogynism is unearthed.
In many ways the Baha'i religion stands in intense contrast to other world religions because the Baha'i faith not only upholds the spiritual equality of women and men in its scriptures but also states that this equality must be "in both individual and social practice," "The spread and implementation of the principle of equality of the sexes through the world is one of the primary aims of the Baha'i Faith." The worldwide Baha'i community has lived up to this principle in its practice, as women form a high percentage of the leadership at national levels, relative to society. The Baha'i scriptures indicate that women have a vital role to play in the establishment of world peace. "In the Baha'i view, the expression of the equality of men and women is a vital and indispensable component in the spiritual and social evolution of humanity." Baha'i believe, of course, that humanity has entered a new era, one in which the equality of women and men has been fully revealed as a spiritual principle.
It has been argued that Buddhism historically, currently, and ideally has little, if any misogyny against women as compared to other religions. Conversely, tradition has discriminated against women while valorising images of the feminine. The unconcealed facets of sexism in Buddhist history include its views of women as sexual objects and as second-class members of monastic institutions. There are less prominent outcomes of patriarchy, such as the male-centred character of Buddhist scriptures and the small numbers of accepted women teachers and gurus, whose presence provides models for women.
In numerous religions, the vilification and inferiority of women is a persistent feature. Scholars have excused the historical Buddha's reluctance to admit women into the sangha, on the grounds of the patriarchal conditions existing in the surrounding society. This idea suggests that the Buddhist religion was not misogynistic in nature, but rather the Buddha's reluctance to admit women into monastic life was the unconventionality of such a move, and the fact that the Buddha was not a social reformer. Yet, inconsistently, the Buddha was a drastic reformer to the point where he rejected caste distinctions and admitted even outcastes into the sangha without resistance. So why not women? Buddhism may have inherited sexist gender institutions from the surrounding culture, and only maintained them, but it still constituted a form of misogyny - and the oppression of women.
There are many arguments that are made in support of Buddhism being slightly misogynistic. For instance, one of the "thirty-two" marks of a Buddha, that of having a hidden penis, was meant "not to emphasize the Buddha's maleness, but to emphasize his asexuality - a point that would seem clear to all but misogynists bent on finding any arguments, no matter how undignified, to disqualify women from high spiritual attainments." However, in the absence of historical support for this interpretation of the Buddha as asexual, the sexist interpretation has no real claim to authenticity than a feminist one.
"Buddhism" does not institute a monolithic entity, but covers numerous principles, doctrines and practices. Whilst encouraging male power through androcentrism, misogyny, and patriarchy, there is also a female power through the biological, religious, and political. This equality through conjunction of sexes or the concept of yin and yang suggests complementarity through conjunction of sexes. There is also rhetorical equality through the denial of sex/gender under the Mahayana doctrine. Also, while in some Mahayana texts women can be reborn in a Pure Land (heavenly) state she must do so in the body of a man. Whether such statements are truly the Buddha's, or those of later misogynistic editors, nothing changes the fact that such statements have been used to support misogyny. Throughout his teachings, the Buddha held to the notion that both men and women had equal capacities for spiritual enlightenment.
The fundamental paradoxes and frustrations presented by the patriarchal, and sexist dimensions of Buddhism appear similar to the differing interpretations of supposedly more "misogynistic" religions such as such as Christianity, Islam and Baha'i. In an historical context, Buddhism is not much different from most world religions, and Baha'i appears to have less of a misogynistic dogma accorded to it, then even Buddhism. The essence of Buddhism, has been subject to societal prejudices that have permeated the religion and become a part of it. Buddhism has not been any less misogynistic than other world religions, as although religions differ in doctrinal points of contention they all retain largely misogynistic stances.
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