Gender equality ends at the pew

As Canadian society strives to treat men and women as equals, religion still lags behind

May 30, 2007 04:30 AM

Feature Writer

Which door a woman uses to enter her mosque the side door or the wide one at the front may seem a minor thing.

But to Alia Hogben it's a major symbol of the overarching way women are dismissed in churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of prayer. At the Ottawa funeral of a close friend, the women were directed to the side door, beside the garbage bins, a common practice in Ontario mosques.

"It's anathema to me and against the teachings of my religion," says Hogben, who heads the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. Muslim women can pray at home, she adds, so the purpose of going to the mosque is to pray in community. "I think it's a way of making women feel not as equal as men. It's symbolic of what's wrong again, in the house of God, women are still put to the side."

Across the spectrum of faiths in Canada, women are treated differently than men. Catholic women cannot be ordained as deacons or priests. Only priests can say mass. In some movements in Judaism, women cannot be counted among the 10 required for a prayer group. Seating for women in mosques often inferior spaces in basements or crowded side rooms is a continuing controversy in Islam as are inheritance rights and the troubling issue of polygamy.

To some faithful women this disconnect some will say more boldly, discrimination contravenes equality rights enshrined in the Charter, which also protects their rights to freedom of religion. Is this a private matter of faith, or one that deserves wider, public debate?

Others argue since women freely choose a congregation, knowing the terms of membership, their equality rights are not being undermined. If they're unhappy with their role, they can find a more progressive place to worship.

"Religious rights are considered sacrosanct and beyond the powers of the state," says Hogben. "But why, in the practice of religion, should women be considered less than equal? Why is that considered private space?"

Farzana Hassan, president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, for one, has had enough. "I'm angered by the fact that Muslim women themselves don't recognize the oppression they suffer. Because of the argument, `Oh, there's no discrimination,' they constantly justify inequity."

But some argue just the opposite the religious practices and beliefs that have endured for millennia should not be adapted to changes in society. "A mature person attempts to conform herself to the precepts of her faith, not the other way around," says Catholic writer Kathy Shaidle, who dismisses what she calls a "campaign to remake God in their own image."

How the balance between women's rights and freedom of religion is achieved is generally left to the legal framework of each faith, or often, to each congregation. Most often, there is no sorting out and no discussion, because there is no place to press for change.

"The church hierarchy has to ensure that its practices are just," says Mary Ellen Chown, of the Catholic Network for Women's Equality, who wears an "Ordain Women" button to Sunday mass. Seeing the button, her fellow parishioners will say something like, "You go, girl." "The first step has to be open dialogue on the place of women in the church. There is no forum for that."

The Catholic Church has declared discussion on ordination of women a closed issue.

But that has not stopped some Catholic women from seeking ordination unofficially. Marie Bouclin, 66, a Sudbury translator, was "ordained" by a group known as Roman Catholic Womenpriests in a service held Sunday at West Hill United Church in Scarborough. There is a dire shortage of priests, especially in the north, and churches are closing, including two this week in Sudbury, says Bouclin. "We don't want to let our beliefs and values disappear we want to provide the sacraments, to celebrate mass, baptisms and marriage," she says. Her hope is to offer her services to small groups of Catholic believers and women who feel they are excluded in the church.

The late pope John Paul II asserted in his 1995 Letter to Women, "there is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area," though the line was drawn at ordination.

This teaching couldn't be clearer, says Suzanne Scorsone, director of research for the Toronto Catholic archdiocese. "There are differences in role, but no difference in dignity or equality, not only dignity, but skill and capacity."

Others see discrimination intractably embedded. "The problem is we legitimize legal systems inside religious institutions which systematically discriminate against women and there is a social sanction that comes with it," says Janice Stein, director of the Munk Centre for International Studies. They receive tax advantages exemptions from property tax and charitable status, which helps fundraising.

Zarqa Nawaz, documentary filmmaker and creator of CBC's Little Mosque on the Prairie, has addressed the question of where women sit in the mosque, in her film The Mosque and Me. "There are imams who tell me we don't want barriers in the mosque but women say they want them. What are they supposed to do: tell women they are oppressed?"

But there are lots of creative solutions. Barriers may be made lower. In the Noor Cultural Centre in Toronto women and men pray side by side. During Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, men and women pray side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder.

In her own Regina mosque, a progressive board was elected which led to women being more influential. "People need to hear of the implications of segregating women: when you don't see them, you don't acknowledge them."