Gender equality ends at the pew
As Canadian society strives to treat men and women
as equals, religion still lags behind
2007 04:30 AM
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
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
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."