Asking tough questions, faithfully: How women deal with inequality when talking about religion
In a closed-door session, women faith leaders share thoughts on inequality, social expectations and oppression in religion.
Talking about religion is seldom easy, even more so when you ask hard questions on why certain practices are done.
Too often, when religion is brought up, especially on social media, it is spoken about in a slightly dismissive or embarrassed tone, such as the Singaporean who was called out for singing Christian worship songs on a plane.
But religion is important to many people and that’s why conversations about it are important.
Such as the debate at The Whitehatters’ Ask Me Anything (AMA) session I attended last month.
The Whitehatters is a NGO committed to creating safe spaces and building a socially cohesive society that transcends religious, racial, and social barriers.
The closed-door AMA session — titled Faithfully, Women — exploring the roles of women in some of Singapore’s main religions, featured representatives from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.
The four women panellists — Venerable Shi Fa Xun, Sister Cecilia Yow, Soundharya Pradha and Uztazah Lina Salim — spoke and shared candidly on challenges faced by women in their respective religions.
In true AMA form, almost 50 attendees, men and women from all faiths and all walks of life, didn’t hold back.
Walking into the hall, I identified myself as a Muslim to someone I had just met and was stunned by her immediate question: “Why are you not wearing a hijab then?”
That was when I realised that this event wasn’t going to be for the faint of heart.
Some sensitive topics about women in religion were brought up out of a genuine desire to find out more — questions that, without context, could end up offending others.
But the safe space created by The Whitehatters’ Shahrany Hassan allowed questions to flow freely and opinions shared honestly.
Said Shahrany: “The AMA is a platform for women to ask questions relating to their faiths, shared lived experiences and most importantly, get to know another from a different faith or race. It’s about coming together in spite of our differences.”
The panellists observed that many of the issues that women face in our modern society seldom comes from religion. Instead, most of the inequality that appears tends to come from the patriarchal system that still permeates society today.
To be fair, Singapore has stepped up its efforts on ensuring gender equality — not just in the workplace but also at home.
For example, earlier this month, Parliament unanimously endorsed the implementation of the White Paper on Singapore Women's Development towards a more inclusive society.
Nevertheless, as society seeks to catch up, there are still many relics of gender inequality in both households and workplaces, especially in leadership roles.
Question: Are women being oppressed by religion?
The first question asked was whether women were being oppressed by their religion.
First to respond to the question was Sister Cecilia, who explained that in Christianity, men and women have different roles.
She gave the example of how most people would recognise the acronym YMCA (short for Young Men’s Christian Association), joking that it even became a hit song in 1978 that is still recognisable now.
Did you know that there is also a Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), she asked.
Then Venerable Shi spoke up. She said that she believes that “gender inequality comes from the female devotees who grew up in patriarchal societies”.
The Buddhist nun, who was ordained as a nun in 1992 in Taiwan, gave the example of how some monks would get bigger hongbao during festive periods from devotees as compared to the nuns. Or how monks would be released from kitchen duty because devotees would volunteer to take over their roles.
These devotees bring their personal bias into the religion, not the other way around.
Monks and nuns are of equal standing but some devotees would still specifically ask for a monk, and not a nun.
How did she deal with it? Venerable Shi, who gave me a copy of her recent book "One Life, Five Precepts: Buddhist Ethics for Modern Living", said that she learnt “to look within and not compare”.
Venerable Shi said that women have unique qualities that men do not. Similarly, men have unique qualities that women do not.
That does not make one gender more worthy of the other. Everyone contributes in their own way.
Question 2: Does menses make women “unclean”?
There have been some societal notions that state that women who are having their period shouldn’t be allowed in holy places like the temple or the mosque.
Soundharya explained that while “culture influences what we wear and what we do”, historical context is also important.
For example, she said, in the earlier centuries, Hindu temples were built with no proper sanitation facilities.
If any blood drips on the soil, it would make the temple an unsanitary place. The only way to be safe was to prevent all potential forms of impurities from entering the temple.
But it’s different now.
“We know how to handle ourselves, so still pray! Don’t stop!” Soundharya exclaimed.
Uztazah Lina explained that she believes that mosques are “not just a place to pray, but a community centre”.
She advocates for the inter-mingling of different faiths at Harmony Centre at the An-Nahdhah mosque.
A thousand years ago, in Medina, during the time of Prophet Muhammad, women from all walks of life would take refuge in mosques, said Uztazah Lina.
If women were walking freely in mosques, she said, it logically means that at some point, some of them would be menstruating.
In Islam, one of the reasons a person is exempted from praying is if they were having their period. But that does not mean they are not allowed to enter a mosque.
A mosque is for the community, said Uztazah Lina: “How can a community grow without women?”
A mosque is also a place for education and many women go into mosques to learn.
Uztazah Lina explained that a woman having her period does not make her impure, nor is it bringing ‘dirtiness’ into a mosque.
You can always enter a place of worship, period or no period. As the ustazah explained: “A believer is never impure.”
Question: How can men help?
Farid Abdul Hamid, who facilitated the event, spoke on men in society during the session.
He said: “Sometimes (in a patriarchal system) by not doing anything, we let things happen.”
“Even if it seems like there is nothing to do for a man to help a woman, he can still support her emotionally.”
It’s simple really, he said. Just be good to each other.
Sometimes, the panellists agreed, women are the ones who oppress other women.
In society, it is sometimes the women who set expectations of how a wife should behave — caring for kids and the home while still working a full-time job.
If a wife doesn’t cook, she is looked down upon. But sometimes, when a man does the minimum, like picking his child from school, he is praised for being a good father.
Such gender stereotypes are unhealthy and it sometimes takes uncomfortable questions to make real change in society.
Question: Why should women speak up?
For Uztazah Lina, speaking up wasn’t something she has always wanted to do, but she felt it was necessary to talk about controversial topics.
“People just don’t get it so I want to teach them,” she explained.
When she was in university, Soundharya joined a club on Hinduism and she said that there were just too many rules and so much she didn’t know.
Back then, said the 32-year-old, she didn’t take the effort to learn more. But when she started to question certain preconceived notions, she realised some people were wrongly interpreting what was being practised in Hinduism.
Since 2016, she has been volunteering as a teacher at the Hindu Centre, where the avid learner of Hindu spiritual teachings has been studying about women in Hinduism.
She wants to share and apply the teachings of Hinduism in daily life with anyone who wants to learn more.
“Choose love!” she exclaimed.
As for why she chooses to speak up, Venerable Shi said that she does not want women to feel inferior to men, to be agents of change to provide equal opportunities for our children.
“Only through education can we bring change,” said Uztazah Lina.
Event: Finding out about Fasting
The Whitehatters is organising another interfaith dialogue session this Saturday (Apr 23) from 6pm to 8pm at the Lifelong Learning Institute.
Fasting is often associated with Lent for Christians or Ramadan for Muslims; however, many other cultures and religions around the world fast throughout the year. While the duration, practice, and reasons differ, religious fasts have similar goals of showing sacrifice and cleansing oneself.
Said Shahrany: “We want to have a fun session where you can ask any questions on fasting relating to different faiths from different individuals in a speed-dating format.
“It’s a session to build bridges and foster better understanding, and a great way to make friends of people from various faiths — someone whom you can call up and ask religion-related questions instead of guessing or believing what you read or have been told.”
“You’ll be amazed at how few of us actually get to do that despite being brought up in multicultural and multi-religious Singapore!”
Sign up here.