The issue pertaining to the use of religion as a utensil for women’s oppression appears to have become highly prominent and attentive in the mainstream.  The recent announcement made by former U.S. President (and Nobel Prize Laureate) Jimmy Carter to leave the Southern Baptist Convention because of its silencing and oppression of women and girls stirred many emotions, and “scored points” with women who have been fighting to present these issues to the public.

Then there was the formation of the Elder’s Council, by Nelson Mandela, whose latest work included addressing the misogyny, sexism, and violence against women, which is often supported by various religious doctrines.  Finally, the self declaration of the Dali Lama as a feminist was met with acceptance and approval, which normally is met with resentment and disdain for women who choose to identify with the term.

So what do all of these persons and situations have in common?  The common denominator is that the mainstream movement pertaining to eradicating the oppression of women through religion is that of male leadership.  In addition, it also sends a message that true women’s liberation comes from men.

Time and time again, there are these consistent themes of an oppressed group not having the capability to save themselves, nor the ability to utilize archaic traditions, practices, or methods which are authentic to that particular group of people.  This particular situation pertaining to women can be greatly linked with the controversies surrounding the Oscar-nominated film Avatar.  In the recent article, “The Messiah Complex,”1 David Brooks presents an enlightening argument on the film’s depiction of the leading white, male hero and his leading the Natives (persons of color) “on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization.” He further goes on to mention other Hollywood movies and themes which continue to present the image of the white, male hero who is needed in order for Natives or communities of color to be successful in their own liberation struggles.

Like the Natives in the film Avatar, women are faced with such a controversy, as they too are deemed as not having the capability to conduct, or be in control of their own liberation, without male leaders spearheading the cause.  In this particular situation arises the concept of the “Male ‘Messiah Complex.” The current situation of the movement against religion as a tool for women’s oppression is the epitome of such as there is great attention heeded towards those leading, male, figures who have taken leadership positions (hence: Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the Dali Lama, Jimmy Carter, and others).

Even more interesting is that in this movement religious institutions, traditions, and practices which are inherently patriarchal and misogynist seem to be deemed the solutions for eradicating female subordination and oppression against women.  In solutions, we could refer to the consistent reiterations of women to have “equal” leadership opportunities in religious practices which historically, have prevented such to occur.  In the article, “Religion and Women,”2 Nicholas D. Kristof mentions the societal constructs developed to ensure the subordination of women and it is “a context which religion has helped to shape, and not pushed hard to change.”

Yet, we continue to see the desire to make modifications to traditions which have supported female oppression.  One of the main differences between this subject matter and the controversy surrounding the “White Messiah Complex,” and the film Avatar is that in the film the Native community (despite the leadership of the “White, Male Hero,” and his so-called supreme mastery of the culture and practices more so than the Indigenous people) still continues to utilize their traditional and spiritual practices for their own liberation.  Such is not the case when it comes to the movement against the religious oppression of women.  In addition to the movement being largely led and presented by male leaders, we see that the face of women’s liberation is that of male imagery.  Even with the establishment of women as religious and spiritual leaders in certain religions, the fact remains that such authority is allowed and monitored by the same male-dominated structure to begin with.  Thus, even in their authority, many (if not all) of these female leaders are still reliant, and thus dependent on that same structure and power for maintaining their positions.  It also sends the message that women cannot find freedom through themselves, culture, spiritual traditions and their own power, but rather that of the “’Male Messiah.’”

Many people would also mention that there have been many instances in which religion has been utilized for the good of people (i.e. the Quakers and their supposedly starting the abolitionist movement against slavery, and others).  Yet even when we discuss such issues we still observe the “Messiah Complex,” with the display of the oppressed being inept in their own liberation struggles.  As with the “’Male Messiah Complex’” in the women’s movement, would it even be too much of a stretch to state that such methods are even supporting ideals of male superiority and female subordination by using male religious and spiritual methods for women’s liberation from religious oppression?  Would it even be too much consider that even though there being the presence of female spiritual and religious leaders in traditions which are historically patriarchal and misogynist that they are still giving validation to a male power structure, which defines divinity (and women’s place in it) through the male gaze, despite their authority?  One could even argue that the use of certain religious and spiritual ideologies in the women’s liberation movement is even a subconscious recognition in believing that patriarchy and men are superior to women.  In addition, it is one which inadvertently encourages our submission to patriarchy, as we receive a few benefits under the illusion of “women’s advancement.”

When we examine the liberation of women from religious oppression, it is not to state that men cannot be part of such movement.  Such is far from true.  However, what needs to change is the negative reception of women (specifically in the mainstream media) who bring up such contradictions.  We should be even more supportive of women who are taking actions against religious oppression, and who are utilizing tactics and practices which are not modeled after inherently sexist, religious doctrine and spiritual practices.

Towards the end of “The Messiah Complex,” David Brooks states that “Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self admiration.” Such is highly relevant to the situation of women and the struggle to eradicate the syndrome of the “’Male Messiah.’” Until we continue to utilize practices which are inherently of the feminine, in which we become the directors, strategists, and master game players in our own liberation struggles, we will continue to be the “supporting” actresses in our own films.

©Lauren Kaye Clark

Brooks, David.  “The Messiah Complex.”  New York Times Op-Ed.  January 8, 2010
Kristof, Nicholas D.  “Religion and Women.” New York Times Op-Ed.  January 10, 2010