Practice  Question – Are all world religions patriarchal ? Substantiate your answer with examples. [UPSC 2019]

Approach – Introduction, Introduce major religions and explain how patriarchy is ingrained in them (or not), Give examples for your arguments, Solidify your argument in the conclusion part. 



Gender, simply defined, is the social construction of the expectations, behavior, privileges and constraints associated with those identified as male or female. Gender has become significant in the understanding of development and social phenomena especially in developing nations in view of the inequitable participation of men and women in the social organization of society. Gender, religion and patriarchy are foundational social constructs operating at the basis of social organization of society.



Most feminists argue along similar lines to functionalists and Marxists that religion acts as a conservative force, maintaining the status quo. For feminists, that status quo is a patriarchal society. Simone De Beauvoir (1953) took a very similar view to traditional Marxists, only instead of seeing religion as assisting in the subjugation of the workers, she saw it as exploiting and oppressing women. She argued that religious faiths encouraged women to be meek, to put up with inequality, exploitation and suffering and doing so will bring rewards in the afterlife.

There are several ways in which religion can promote patriarchy:

  • Through religious scripture / teachings
  • Through religious ceremonies and practices
  • Through the structure and power-relations of religious organisations



  • In several religions, women are presented as temptresses who distract men from the serious business of worship. In the bible, it is the first woman, Eve, who disobeys God and then goes on to tempt Adam and bring about his downfall too.
  • Religious texts are full of male Gods, male prophets, male saints and male heroes. The books are written by men and interpreted by men.
  • In many religions both menstruation and pregnancy are treated as impure or ungodly. For example, in Islam women who are menstruating are not allowed to touch the Koran. Jean Holm (1994) suggests that these various restrictions on the participation of women contribute to the devaluation of women in many contemporary religions.
  • Karen Armstrong (1993) argues that it was the development of monotheistic religions, with their all-powerful male Gods (such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam) which imbued religion with a patriarchal and sexist core. She points out that various goddesses and priestesses were replaced with male prophets.
  • In many religious teachings across a wide range of religions, women are given the role of nurturing, caring and giving birth. While these roles are presented positively and as essential, they reinforce the gender norms in society and the patriarchal power structures. If women choose not to conform to gender stereotypes, they are not only deviating from gender norms and family expectations, but deviating from God’s will too.



Religious feminists seek answers to the fundamental question as to how theologians engage in creating systems of thought that become naturalized as the ‘truth’. Many feminist theologians assert that personal experience can be an important component of insight into the divine, along with the more traditional sources of holy books or received tradition. They ask why there is hardly any mention of women in religious history. Feminist historical theologians study the roles of women in periods throughout history that have influenced any particular religion. What a feminist approach to religion aims to do is to reconsider the traditions, practices, scriptures, and theologies of the major religions of the world
from a feminist perspective. Some of the goals of feminist theology include increasing the participation and role of women among the clergy and religious authorities, reinterpreting male-dominated imagery and language about God and favouring the use of non or multi-gendered language, determining how religious discourse fixes women’s place in relation to career and motherhood and studying images of women in the religion’s sacred texts and matriarchal religion.



In a country replete with myriad religious practices, a secular education has always seemed the best option and there is hardly any tradition of the academic study of religion by men or women. Most studies of Indian religions were undertaken by Western scholars in the past, sometimes with an unfortunately absolutist Western perspective influenced by imperial and
missionary ideas.

This means that there has been a predominantly text-oriented approach to Indian religions such as Hinduism and a tendency to confine the study to selective male-dominated texts and to interpret textual prescriptions as descriptions of actual reality. In addition, this privileging of texts ignores other avenues of information like dance, music, art, folklore, oral narratives which could provide a far more realistic and accurate picture of women’s religious lives. Within Hinduism, religion is not limited to texts or scriptural authority and a text-based approach is limited and limiting. Traditionally, European-inspired histories and the Indian texts cited by them essentialized Indian women as devoted and self-sacrificing.
While religious, legal, political and educational texts carried numerous pronouncements for men dependent on caste, class, age and religious sect, women were lumped together in one category, and their socio-religious differences were overlooked because of their biological characteristics and subordinate role. If Indian women are occasionally singled out for mention
by historical narratives, it is usually because their accomplishments were significant by male standards. Important areas of women’s lives like “household and agricultural technology; religious rituals and sentiments; fertility and family size; furnishings; jewellery and clothing; inheritance and property rights; and marriage and divorce were largely overlooked”.

Despite the availability of other liberating textual perspectives of women, there has been a focus on patriarchal and misogynistic texts such as the Dharmashastras and the Laws of Manu, conferring on them an authoritative status. Scholars have ignored the fundamentally gynocentric core of the Indic tradition which is evident in many everyday practices and in traditions like Goddess worship, Bhakti and Tantra. The complex web of thousands of years of history is complicated further by “Western hegemonies of the past few centuries that used the very idiom of women’s oppression to create an ideology of the white man’s burden to save non-white women from their men”. 

Like in other parts of the world, the 19th century saw the beginnings of a women’s movement in India. This was mostly in response to the colonial justification of the British rule in India, which claimed among other things, that Indian men oppressed the women. A vigorous reform movement was launched in response, led by men and seeking to improve the status of
women. Social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar campaigned against child marriage and sati, and for widow remarriage and women’s right to own property. 

As Sugirtharajah suggests, “this male espousal of the women’s freedom was emancipatory and yet enslaving because it was constrained by male-values”. For example, supporting the idea of education of women was largely due to the desirability of having efficient wives and good mothers for their children. During the Indian independence movement in the 1930s
and 1940s, women became much more visible, joining the men in the struggle against colonial rule. The advent of Gandhi on the national scene heralded a more equitable position for women within the freedom movement, and while Gandhi too was using the traditional concept of streedharm, or duty to one’s husband, for the first time this was seen to extend to the public domain. In addition, he did not see the domestic role of women as inferior and in fact valued the qualities traditionally associated with women such as self-denial, sacrifice, non-violence and endurance and expected men to emulate these values.

Post independence, India’s constitution and the laws it enshrines are quite liberal vis-a-vis women although they are not always enforced within the more specifically religious sphere in India there have been some fairly dramatic changes in the roles of women. For the first time, women are functioning as religious gurus and initiating disciples. Many male gurus and
teachers have passed their spiritual lineage and authority on to women, something that would have been impossible in earlier days. Traditionally Hinduism has not encouraged women to be world renouncers, but now women ascetics are seen as bearers of Hindu spirituality.

Religions such as Sikhism and Buddhism which are seemingly at core gender-egalitarian are now being interrogated by women who feel that while scripturally women are accorded equal status with men, in practice, women have been consistently marginalized within their religions. As far as Sikhism is concerned women have started to question the patriarchal appropriation of all public spaces within religion, the preference for male offspring and rampant sex selective abortion, dress codes and behaviour that are socially if not scripturally imposed.



All world religions are inherently patriarchal. The scriptures offer justification for exploitation and the rituals keep the women subordinate in the structure. But due to secularisation of religions and modernisation, religion is becoming more accommodating. 

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