Women in Buddhism

On February 14, 2013, events in over 200 countries took place to break the chain of violence against women. Worldwide, the UN estimates that 1 in 3 women has experienced rape or beatings. That translates to one billion women, thus the events were part of One Billion Rising.

Because Buddhism is often portrayed in the West as a peace-loving religion, i thought i’d take a closer look at violence against women in Buddhist countries. As feminist and Buddhist scholar Rita Gross has pointed out, Buddhism in the East has some troubling patriarchal tendencies that, if we do not question them, will be perpetuated in the West (where we are far from beyond those patriarchal tendencies…). She calls upon Western Buddhist to integrate feminist analysis with Buddhist teachings, which, she shows, are more radically egalitarian than most (male) Buddhist scholars admit.

Despite Rita’s appeals, sexism prevails in Western Buddhism. This can be as seemingly innocuous as hardly mentioning one of the influential trainer of Western teachers: Dipa Ma was one of the few Asian women who became a respected and sought after Buddhist teacher. She is now almost forgotten, it seems, especially as a teacher.

This sexism might also be reflected in the silence around violence against women in countries where the majority of the people consider themselves Buddhist. We rarely hear about the status of women in Buddhist countries themselves, especially as measured by the level of violence against them.

A freely available online database, WomanStats, gives us access to data that allowed me to take a closer look at such violence. I’ve selected two summary variables: One that measures the physical security of women and one that assesses the discrepancy between law and practice in ending discrimination against women. I then looked at these variables in the top 20 Buddhist, the top 20 Islamic, and all European Union (EU) countries with the US and Canada thrown in as an additional comparison. (Sixteen of the top 20 Buddhist countries and 18 of the top 20 Islamic countries have data in the WomanStats database, so this analysis is based on these subsets).

I decided to take a look at Islamic countries, too, because one article i reviewed for this research suggested that it is the influence of Buddhism that leads to violence against women in Pakistan. That claim seemed odd to me and worth investigating in an assessment of violence against women in Buddhist countries. Although it reminded me of something i read as a teenager: Islam has a much more progressive history than most of us would think possible. Or as Unaiza Niaz puts it so eloquently in the article (175):

Hence Islam in most countries of the world today is the male interpretation of uneducated or semi-educated Maulanas (Ulema/priests). This interpretation came to include all the negative implications of other religions such as the inequality and subjugation of women, denying women’s rights to inheritance, divorce and marriage.

If violence against women in mostly Islamic countries is lower than it is in Buddhist countries, Niaz’ assessment of the impact of Buddhism on misogynist beliefs in Pakistan might have some empirical support.

Physical Security of Women

With this as the backdrop, let’s take a look at what i found about the physical security of women:

  • None of the countries offers the highest level of physical security (coded as 0). At best, laws against gender-based violence aren’t always enforced and there are some norms against reporting these crimes (coded as 1).
  • There are no Buddhist or Islamic countries that offer this fairly high level of physical security. Nor does the US or Canada, because their laws are only sporadically enforced thus lowering women’s safety (coded as 2), yet about a third (33%) of the 27 EU countries protects women at that higher level.
  • Most (63%) of the Buddhist countries have laws against certain gender-based violence, though they are rarely enforced and there are strong norms against reporting such crimes (coded as 3). About a third (30%) of EU countries also fall into this category.
  • Most (61%) of the Islamic countries have no or few laws against gender-based violence and, if they do exist, are hardly enforced (coded as 4). Only a fifth (19%) of Buddhist and none of the EU countries fall into this category.

Clearly, women are not safe in this world! The level of safety varies across countries, sure, yet we are all faced with at least some norms that make reporting of violence against women challenging. Islamic countries are less safe than Buddhist countries, often not even offering the protection of laws even when they are not enforced. It is hard to see how this data supports Niaz’ contention. At least, whatever higher status of women there has been in the past, it clearly has been wiped out by those uneducated male priests…

Anti-Discrimination Law-Practice Discrepancy

Let’s take a look at the law-practice discrepancy, the second variable i analyzed. This variable measures how consonant (consistent) a country’s laws are with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW, a UN convention, measures women’s status along three subcategories: right to education, rights within the family, and the right to physical security (see the WomanStats’ codebook for more details).

To summarize my findings:

  • Two EU countries, Ireland and Luxemburg, have no discrepancies between laws consistent with CEDAW and their enforcement (coded as 0).
  • Almost three-quarters (74%) of EU countries mostly enforce their laws that are consistent with CEDAW (coded as 1). Only one Buddhist and no Islamic country nor the US or Canada fall into this category.
  • Most Buddhist (63%), the remaining EU (19%) countries, and the US and Canada have laws that are consistent with CEDAW yet aren’t enforced consistently and the country’s government does little to challenge cultural norms that harm women (coded as 2)
  • Slightly over half (56%) of Islamic and one-quarter (25%) of Buddhist countries have governments that don’t prioritize women’s status (coded as 3). Although most laws are consistent with CEDAW, they are hardly enforced.
  • A third (33%) of Islamic and the few remaining Buddhist (6%) countries fall in the lowest category: If they have laws consistent with CEDAW at all, they remain unenforced (coded as 4).

Although this measure also paints a fairly bleak picture, it is a bit more hopeful as at least some of the governments in Buddhist countries signal an interest in improving the status of women. As the comparison with the EU shows, though, they still have a long way to go. And since cultural norms, as the microaggression they perpetuate and the power differentials they create, form the foundation of violence against women, challenging those norms is crucial for an improvement in women’s safety.

What are we to do if we want to create a (Western) Buddhism that does not simply copy the misogynist teachings of the East? There are at least two approaches. First, we can follow David Loy’s suggestion for integrating East and West. Instead of letting our misplaced respect for diversity lead us to unquestioningly adopt whatever comes from the East, we can do what historically has happened whenever Buddhism entered a new country: Inform Buddhist teachings by the culture in the new country. Granted that has to be done carefully because not everything in the Western culture is worth preserving. Hardly! Yet certainly our push for greater equality between people might be worthy of adapting into Western Buddhism. Second, we can return to the more radical roots of Buddhism that several scholars are uncovering. As Rita Gross has shown, the original teachings of the Buddha are much more consistent with feminism than most male Buddhists admit (both East and West). Stephen Batchelor also provides evidence for more radical teachings of the Buddha.

Most importantly, though, we need to talk more often about the treatment of women within Buddhist countries and communities. Transforming violence against women is part of the Buddhist teachings. We need to make that message heard loud and clear across all Buddhism and ask for concrete steps to use those teachings to increase women’s safety, starting with norms of equality between genders.

Comments are closed.