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Is religion good for women?

Hindu women hold bowls of steaming camphor at Ratha Yatra in LondonBettany Hughes wonders why women seem to have been written out of the history of religion

BBC-Historian and broadcaster, Bettany Hughes has addressed the BBC RE:Think festival in Media City calling for media coverage of religion to confront controversy head on. Here she asks whether the history of women’s role in religion might have important lessons for society today.

Women and the divine have long been intimately linked, but our role in religion has, for thousands of years, been suppressed.

During filming for my BBC series, Divine Women, the evidence was all around me. Wherever the team went – whether it was Turkey, Greece, China or Italy – we were advised to use the title Women and History. Women and Religion, the original title, was just too incendiary.

The Venus of Schelklingen,  also known as the Venus of Hohle FelsThe Venus of Schelklingen, also known as the Venus of Hohle Fels, has been dated back to c 40,000 BC

For me as a historian this is mind-boggling.

Like it or not, women have always formed 50% of the human population; and yet we generally occupy around 0.5% of human history.

With religion, those statistics are reversed. It is strikingly clear from archaeological and historical evidence that women have at various times in history played a key role in faith.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the world’s oldest known Prehistoric sculpture, the Venus of Schelklingen.

The most ancient 3D sculpture in the world is of a beautiful, fat, fecund female figure.

Discovered in 2008 in a cave in Hohle Fels, near the town of Ulm in Germany, she is a beautiful, voluptuous, woman dating to around 40,000 BC.

A new Goddess in India

In 1953 in Jodphur one young woman was on the verge of throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.

But the night before she dreamed of another path – one where she could use her wisdom for good.

Living only off buffalo milk and fruits, men, women and children would go to her for advice until at the age of 85 she died.

After her death she was deified as Muti – the Great Mother.

She sits now in sculpture form, a kindly old woman – paid the respect goddesses have been paid since the Stone Age – her rites heralded with calls from a conch-shell, her worshippers adoring her in the oronte position- their arms raised in prayer – an image I see on ancient temples from Babylon, Egypt and Greece to the early Christian catacombs under the streets of Rome .

The cult at Muti’s temple, tended not by a male Brahmin priest but a priestess, is booming.

One young woman was on the verge of throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre in 1953. But the night before her immolation she dreamed of another path,one where she could use her wisdom for the good in the real world. She became what we might describe as a hermit, or one of those great medieval ascetics such as Julian of Norwich or Simon Stylites.

After her death at the age of 85 she was deified as Muti, the Great Mother.

And yet when we hear of women and their relationship to religion in the headlines today it is not typically triumphant or potent – but bad news.

The barbarity of suttee and honour killings; repression in Islam; the struggle for equality in the Christian church – all cast women as victims rather than victors in the religious sphere.

So what went wrong?

In a nutshell, I think our species got greedy. Populations stabilised at the end of the Bronze Age and although womens’ generative powers never lost their relevance, they did not have to be nurtured at all costs.

Society deemed women less important as they strove to build empires.

Instead we looked over the horizon and wanted more – more land, more wealth, another man’s citadel to call their own. Muscle won out over mind and the power of “Ma” – the Proto Indo European word meaning “breast” that gives us “maternal”, “mammals”, “mother”.

For a relatively brief period in the story of humanity, between the 5th and 20th centuries AD in both the East and West, it frequently became illegal for women to talk or even write about religion and often even to participate in the most central religious rites.

But now wisdom is coming to the aid of women.

A recent study by Oxford academic, Dr Mohammad Akram Nadwi, on the women of Islam reveals that wives, girls and widows once not only taught the basics of the Islamic faith, but preached in the great mosques of Damascus, Cairo, Medina and Jerusalem.

Women bishops

Historians’ re-readings of 2nd and 3rd century AD Christian headstones in Italy and Greece show that women were once almost certainly bishops in the early Church and were honoured as venerabilis – most venerable.

Throughout the history of human religions, 97% of deities of wisdom have been female.

The father of Western philosophy, Plato (following the lead of his mentor Socrates, who had an atypical respect for women and their potential) wrote in the 4th century BC:

“Nothing can be more absurd than the practice that prevails in our country of men and women not following the same pursuits with all their strengths and with one mind, for thus, the state instead of being whole is reduced to half.”

In the 21st Century, it seems that contemporary wisdom is at last putting women back were they once belonged – at the heart of our relationship with the world – both physical and spiritual.

Religion might have been very bad for women in our recent history – but there is every reason it can be a force for the good now.

Bettany Hughes is an award-winning broadcaster and fellow of Kings College. She recently presented the BBC two series Divine Women.