Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Saudi Women, Feminism, and Buddhism

Saudi Monarch Grants Women Right to Vote

Published: September 25, 2011

Saudi women, who are legally subject to male chaperones for almost any public activity, hailed the royal decree as an important, if limited, step toward making them equal to their male counterparts. They said the uprisings sweeping the Arab world for the past nine months — along with sustained domestic pressure for women’s rights and a more representative form of government — prompted the change.(New York Times) King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Sunday granted women the right to vote and run in future municipal elections, the biggest change in a decade for women in a puritanical kingdom that practices strict separation of the sexes, including banning women from driving.
“There is the element of the Arab Spring, there is the element of the strength of Saudi social media, and there is the element of Saudi women themselves, who are not silent,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a history professor and one of the women who organized a campaign demanding the right to vote this spring. “Plus, the fact that the issue of women has turned Saudi Arabia into an international joke is another thing that brought the decision now.”

The Practical Buddhist Responds

The Practical's Buddhist's sister Kathy used to work in Saudi Arabia as a nurse. When she left the hospital compound to transport a patient she wore a burka. Her male ambulance driver/chaperone  handled all interactions with he public, even registering at a hotel. Things are starting to change in the Kingdom, and it's time for the Practical Buddhist to comment on the role of women.
Buddhism is an old religion/philosophy, and one that evolved from even older Hinduism. It’s a supple body of teachings that has always molded itself to places and times.  As cultures quickly evolve in understanding of women’s roles, Buddhism will follow suit and apply its most central teachings to the process.

Buddhism is far less likely to oppose and resist full equality for women than, say, Catholicism or Mormonism or other power-centralized faiths that regularly issue new commandments and lists of required beliefs.

The Practical Buddhist spent a lot of time online looking for one good summary of the topic “Buddhism and Feminism” or even “Buddhism and Women.” No luck. There are plenty of articles and a few books. They tell various tales of the Buddha’s reluctant experiment letting females into monastic life (but with extra rules).  They recount Hindu and Buddhist histories on gender roles. They show how profoundly gender roles were shaped by politics and history and geography. They talk about current trends – more and more women teachers of high rank and rapidly increasing recognition that men and women are equal.

The Practical Buddhist couldn’t find anything in basic Buddhist thought that would justify keeping women in inferior roles. Period.  Where Buddhist women remain second-class, it’s due to culture and custom, not mainstream teaching.

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