Women (and men) are often blind to women’s inequality. I, as a Buddhist practitioner, have been blind to the reality of women’s second-class status in sacred texts of Buddhism and practice.
In her book “Buddhism After Patriarchy” Rita M. Gross describes how her fellow western Buddhist women completely overlooked the fact that women are not allowed into Rumtek Buddhist monastery in Sikkim, even after watching a video of a woman leaving an offering outside the gate and walking away.
She also relates her view on the famous episode from early Buddhist history, whereby the Buddha first does not permit ordination of women into monastic order, but then, after having admitted that women can achieve enlightenment, gives his consent, but only if women monks (bhikkhuni) take upon themselves eight additional rules, which put them in institutional disadvantage vis-à-vis male monks – bhikkhu.
Originally, on learning about this episode I did not interpret it as directly relevant to me. And I feel that this is a common attitude among western middle-class educated women: “This is not about us.” It is all these Asian Buddhist women, they are used to being oppressed.
For years, bowing to the Buddha rupas in various Buddhist centres, I honestly did not bow to a MAN on a pedestal. I have related to the Buddha as an expression of universal wisdom and kindness, as a teacher that can lead everyone to Enlightenment, regardless of gender. The Buddha image has been universal for me. However, this is just the thing: it is only universal as long as you are a man.
If you are a man, the path is clear before you: be a monk, be a lay practitioner, concentrate on your practice, you’ll be fine. This is not the case for women. If you are a Buddhist woman, you have to dance around and find justifications for various male-centred statements and statements that question women’s spiritual abilities in Buddhist scriptures. And that is in addition to practising while surrounded by images of male practitioners, reading male academics’ works and being taught by male teachers.
We, Western middle-class educated women, bathe in the delusion that we are equals to western middle-class men. However, as long as patriarchal ways dominate, men would unite in making women second-class citizens. This effect was brilliantly demonstrated in the double episode “Stan of Arabia” of “American Dad”. Stan, who has considered Arab Muslims his enemies all of his professional life, instantly finds common ground with them over suppressing their women.
Recently, a man won Wimbledon men singles, and in public parlance this had been often abbreviated to “The first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years”. This resulted in a tweet by Chloe Angyal “Murray is indeed the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years unless you think women are people”. Virginia Wade was a Wimbledon champion in 1977.
Non-feminist western men will gladly let us be whatever: models, housewives, doctors, managers, CEOs, as long as we don’t presume that we are men’s equals in any of these roles. I lived under a delusion that I was an equal member of the academic community until the issue of childbearing arose. I was not a fellow academic anymore. Having fulfilled my “biological fate” I “naturally” had to fall out of the academic circles – unless I was prepared to send my baby to Nursery at 6 months of age.
I am in no way questioning the decisions of my female friends, who did just that, and of thousands of professional women who had to do that. I only maintain that women do not have to face such a choice.
The worst argument anyone can make here is that is the way of life, this is only natural. Nothing in society is natural. It might be useful to make poetic and sometimes systemic comparisons between natural and societal entities: society is like a river, or a forest, or a herd. It might be so, but society IS NOT a river, a forest and so on. Each and every practice in society has been enforced by someone under particular circumstances, with particular aims in mind.
As the common rule of mystery murders goes: “Seek those who benefit”. Under patriarchy, one alpha male benefits (and if we count the “leading countries” of the world, that would give us about 10 men on the planet). All the rest of men are fooled into believing that if only they follow the destructive rules of the patriarchal game, they will also one day be an alpha male. There can only be one alpha male, of course, by definition.
The decision to punish pregnant women and mothers in workplace comes from very particular individuals in each country – look up your central and local government websites. Sometimes it’s women, who are also promised that if they play the patriarchal game, they can become an alpha male. Which is even more ridiculous than the men’s delusion. Very often reality is simpler than that: women who make decisions on everyone’s behalf do not have to worry about Nurseries, childcare and such.
Men will not give up the worldview that offers them superiority, however phantom-like. It is up to women and feminist men to nudge them in the right direction. Recently I had a business meeting with a man, who spent more time relating interesting stories about his life than talking about business. I also have interesting stories about my life. However, he felt it was his right to waste my time in this way, and it did not occur to him that it was unequal in any way. Now, this man was not a CEO of an evil corporation. He works in charity sector.
When I realised he will not respect my time and my life stories, I started gently stopping his word flow and returning the conversation back to business: compassionately and mindful of my own rage as well as of his conditioning, but decidedly.
Oxana Poberejnaia was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and has been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention, now in its 9th year. Oxana is now exploring the Sacred Feminine through marking seasonal festivals, working with her menstrual cycle, frame drumming and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Oxana is an artist and an author. She teaches framed drumming and meditation. Her works can be found on her blog.
- Menstruation for Buddhist Women by Oxana Poberejnaia (feminismandreligion.com)