A Buddhist Perspective on Women’s Liberation

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Kisa Gotami asks the Buddha to heal her dead son.

This winter, BGR chair Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi spent two months in India. During this time he was invited to give the keynote address at a conference on “Buddhism and Women’s Liberation,” held in Bodhgaya on January 30 and 31, 2019, under the auspices of the Maha Bodhi Society of India. Here is a lightly edited version of his address.

Obstacles to Women’s Freedom

When we speak of “women’s liberation,” we first have to determine what women are to be liberated from. What are the obstacles to their freedom? Perhaps the most pervasive—and the most subtly disempowering—is the limitation placed on the opportunities available to women for personal expression and achievement. In traditional cultures, and even in the West today, these limitations are considered almost intrinsic to the social order. An unspoken consensus prevails that casts women into stereotyped roles that severely hamper their freedom to realize their creative potentials.

Women are seen assigned by nature to be wives and mothers. They are caretakers of the family whose role in life is exhausted by the tasks of finding a good husband, bearing children, and maintaining the household. If women do get the chance to take up a career, the general view holds that they should serve in the caring professions—as nurses, teachers, or social workers—but beyond these, when it comes to the more demanding professions and positions of social leadership, the gates are largely closed against them.

Today, however, through the impact of the modern ideal of human equality, women are entering almost all the spheres of activity traditionally considered the exclusive prerogative of men. They have excelled as doctors and lawyers, as corporate executives, as scientists and engineers; they have even served in government and become heads of state. Nevertheless, while women have risen to the top, the openings available to them have been much fewer than for men, and the requirements imposed on them to climb the ladder of success are much steeper and more rigorous. In many countries, women are condemned to work at menial jobs, often monotonous, arduous, and dangerous. They work for lower pay than their male counterparts who perform the same work, and yet they receive fewer benefits.

Apart from vocational limitations, women face other obstacles to full liberation. For one thing, women are disproportionately subject to physical violence, with few outlets open to them to seek redress for their grievances. Physical violence is common at the home front, and can even result in the death of a wife and daughters. In India, a wife who disappoints her in-laws—usually because her dowry is considered insufficient—may be killed by them or driven to such despair that she resorts to suicide. A 1997 report claimed that at least 5000 women die each year in India because of dowry conflicts and at least a dozen die each day in so called “kitchen fires” thought to be intentional. Domestic legislation has been passed to prevent bride-burning, but it is seldom adequately enforced.

Women in poor countries often fall victim to human trafficking. They are given over to traffickers, shipped from their home country to other countries (usually under false pretexts), and there they are compelled to perform degrading work, including prostitution. According to the UN Report on Human Trafficking (2009), the most common form of human trafficking (79%) is sexual exploitation, predominantly of women and girls. Surprisingly, women make up the largest proportion of trafficking agents.

Still another transgression against women is sexual harassment, which again has multiple expressions, from sexual pressures at work to taunts and insults relating to sex. The extreme manifestation of sexual harassment is rape, yet in the current social milieu, even in the advanced Western countries, it is very hard for women to report rape to the authorities. If their claims of rape are not rudely dismissed as implausible, the women are regarded as temptresses who brought the rape upon themselves through their own provocative behavior.

One example of how victims of rape are humiliated or discredited was highly publicized in the U.S. this past fall. President Trump had nominated a judge named Brett Kavanaugh to fill an empty seat on the Supreme Court. Just as he was about to be confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee a woman named Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology, alleged that when they were in high school, Kavanaugh had attempted to rape her at a party. Although she gave extremely convincing testimony at a Senate hearing, even stating that she was “100 percent certain” that the boy who tried to rape her was Brett Kavanaugh (which would have disqualified him for the position), the Republican senators on the committee came to his defense and tried to discredit her testimony. In the end, the Senators dismissed her testimony–and that of other women who reported sexually inappropriate behavior on his part–and confirmed Kavanaugh to the Court.

When such moving testimony is rejected, we can easily imagine the ordeals an ordinary woman must face in reporting sexual abuse by a person of power and stature. Nevertheless, over the past several years, a movement has gained ground in the U.S. (with offshoots in other countries) called “Me Too,” whereby women report how they were sexually abused or exploited by powerful men. In a number of cases, their revelations have brought to an end the careers of the men who abused them.

Steps toward the Liberation of Women

I would propose four key measures as means to promote the liberation of women. These are not exhaustive, but I would consider them essential to any program of women’s liberation.

(1) The first is opening up opportunities for girls to receive an education. This is especially necessary in traditional societies where it is believed that girls do not need to attend school because their destiny is to become mere wives and mothers. Ten years ago, together with some of my students and friends, I founded an organization called Buddhist Global Relief, whose mission is to combat global poverty and hunger. One of our key strategies is to support the education of girls, and we have projects like this in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Haiti, India, and Nicaragua.

In India, BGR partners with the Bodhicitta Foundation, an organization based in Nagpur founded by an Australian Buddhist nun, Ayya Yeshe. The Foundation runs three-year programs that train 30 girls and young women at a time from the Dalit community for degrees in social work, health care, education, and nursing. Their training also includes courses in women’s health and economic issues.

One girl in the current program is named Sonali, aged 15. Her father abandoned the family when she was an infant and her mother became a sex worker to support the family. The mother contracted AIDS and died by the time Sonali was 10. She and her sister were passed from family to family, working all day just to sustain themselves. Sonali heard about Bodhicitta and was accepted into the program. Now, she says, “for the first time since my mother died, I feel I have a home where I am loved and supported and not alone.” When she finishes high school, Sonali intends to study global politics and gender studies at university. She says, “Gender inequality literally kills women.… I think women have to stand up for their rights and education and proper paying jobs. If my mother had been educated and found a proper job, she would not be dead now.”

Many of the poor girls in economically backward countries have, I believe, untapped potentials. If these girls were properly educated, I think it likely that at least a few would be capable of making valuable contributions to society—as teachers, social workers, and even community leaders. But sadly, their lives are wasted because they don’t get the chance to go to school—to a good school that could cultivate their latent talents.

(2) A second measure is providing women legal protection from violence and sexual harassment in all its forms. In particular, attitudes toward rape have to change. The legal system has to recognize the disastrous impact rape—including “marital rape”—has on a woman’s self-esteem. A woman’s accusations of rape have to be taken seriously, with sympathy and understanding. This is a difficult hurdle to overcome, since those who administer the law—the police and judges—are usually males who tend to side with the accused rather than with the women making the accusation.

One practical way to deal with this problem would be to establish legal agencies (run either by the government or privately managed) that can serve as intermediaries between the women who feel violated and the civil authorities, the police and the courts. Such agencies exist in Western countries, but more are needed in other countries as well. These agencies would be staffed by legal professionals, preferably women, who would hear the complaints of the women and represent them in their interactions with the police and in court. The police department too should include a bureau specializing in rape cases, again made up primarily of women. They would be charged with investigating the charges to determine whether they merit prosecution.

(3) A third measure to liberate women from subordinate positions in society would be quotas for female representation in business, government service, and political administration. The quotas would ensure that women are admitted to positions of responsibility, and as they gain increasing visibility and authority, they would guarantee that in the future more women gain the opportunity to rise.

(4) As a fourth measure, liberating women from the liabilities to which they are subject will require far-reaching changes in social customs, and this in turn requires a change in perceptions–a radical shift away from traditional attitudes that demean women and ascribe a lower value to their lives. We need to make a complete turn away from deeply entrenched patriarchal models that give pride of place to men, replacing them with models founded upon the equality of the sexes. A minimal step in this direction would be implementing “gender sensitivity training” at the workplace and in schools. This training gives women the opportunity to express their feelings about inappropriate conduct on the part of men and to teach men the proper ways to relate to women.

The liberation of women in all spheres–secular and spiritual–requires above all a deep recognition of their inherent dignity, an honoring of their full humanity. As far back as 1869, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in the opening paragraph of his tract, On the Subjection of Women:

An opinion which I have held from the very earliest period … is that the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.

This claim by J.S. Mill has still not been fully implemented. If a “principle of perfect equality” were to be adopted, women would enjoy equal rights at the workplace, including equal pay with males. They would be recognized as equal partners in marriage, with the right to determine whether and when they will bear children. They would be granted the full range of health care options, particularly the right to contraception so they can regulate their own reproduction. And their complaints of sexual misconduct to legal and business authorities would be recognized and properly investigated.

Buddhism and Women’s Liberation

When we turn from the secular sphere to Buddhism, we find that its record with regard to women’s liberation is a mixed one. On the one hand, the Buddha accorded extraordinary respect to women and recognized their potentials in both mundane life and the spiritual domain. In the Sigalovāda Sutta, for example, he describes the marital bond in ways that recognize the wife as a full and free partner in the relationship. Elsewhere he describes the ideal marriage as one in which both husband and wife observe the precepts, practice generosity, and revere ascetics (Aṅguttara Nikāya 4:54). With a great deal of hesitation, he sanctioned the creation of a monastic order for women, the Bhikkhuni Sangha, and he included women in his list of pre-eminent disciples.

Yet the Buddhist texts–including the suttas–contain passages that demean women and devalue their moral and spiritual capacities. For instance, Aṅguttara Nikāya 5:229 says: “Women are like a black snake–they are impure, foul-smelling, frightening, dangerous, and they betray friends.” Again we read in Aṅguttara Nikāya 2:61: “Women die unsatisfied and discontent in two things. What two? Sexual intercourse and giving birth.” The Jātaka stories go even further in representing women as obsessed by insatiable lust, even willing to plot against their husbands to satisfy their craving.

Sexual desire of course is a universal human trait, and thus women are not exempt from it; none are born as arahants. Still, the questions might be raised: “Which gender is responsible for the multi-billion dollar pornography industry, males or females? Which gender keeps the brothels in business? Which gender is most likely to engage in rape and sexual violence?” The answers, I think, are obvious.

In establishing the Bhikkhuni Sangha, the Buddha did not set it up in a position of complete equality with the Bhikkhu Sangha, which would have been unthinkable in the social milieu in which he lived. As we know, he subordinated it in various ways to the Bhikkhu Sangha. Bhikkhunis, for example, must be ordained by both communities, while bhikkhus need be ordained only by bhikkhus. A senior bhikkhuni must pay homage even to a newly ordained bhikkhu. A bhikkhuni cannot reproach a bhikkhu, while a bhikkhu can reproach a bhikkhuni. In the texts, the Buddha is seen to predict that the going forth of women will cause the life span of the good Dhamma to be cut in half—a statement that has been partly responsible for the negative perception many monks hold about the revival of the Bhikkhuni Sangha.

This development has been a divisive issue over which a reigning conservatism among the prelates in the Sangha has become a major stumbling block to the highest spiritual liberation of women. Their objections, contrary to a common misconception, are usually not based on prejudice against women but on a narrow way of interpreting the rules governing ordination. Yet a more liberal mode of interpretation is possible and has been adopted by a number of learned monks both in Asia and the West. However, in my view, for Buddhism to become a full advocate of women’s liberation, it is not enough for small groups of open-minded monks to hold bhikkhuni ordinations on the sidelines. It is further necessary, in the heartlands of Buddhism, to have the status of bhikkhuni recognized by the Sangha authorities and, where relevant, officially endorsed by the government.

Of course, tradition too has a strong claim on our allegiance and we should not discard it in haste. Without the strength and conserving force of tradition, much that is central to the Dhamma could be diluted or lost. What must be done is to strike a healthy balance between the preservation of ancient forms and adaptation to present realities. If we hasten to innovate and neglect tradition, we might lose our anchorage in the continuous heritage of Buddhism. But if we let a rigid conservatism have the final word, we might fail to realize the Dhamma’s liberating potential for everyone, women as well as men.

A Change in Values

The present age has seen the emergence of a greater awareness of the uniqueness of the feminine and a call for the contribution of feminine voices—voices which have been subdued if not entirely suppressed in traditional Buddhist cultures. I personally believe that for Buddhism to thrive and realize its potential, it needs to be nourished, enriched, and renewed by feminine perspectives, to give space to feminine voices, especially on such crucial matters as social justice and care for the natural environment. The values at the heart of the Dhamma resonate well with the feminine point of view. Thus, I feel, these values should be clearly articulated and embodied in our Buddhist communities.

Beyond specific application to Buddhism, I would say that the full liberation of women in all spheres of life is critical to the survival of human civilization. From the dawn of history down to the present, the primary driving forces of civilization have been male attitudes, male values, male activities. I believe that the unchecked dominance of masculine values has been pushing humanity close to the edge of self-annihilation. To draw us back from the precipice, we need to listen to women.

Generalizations are always dangerous, but I would posit three values, deeply rooted in the masculine mind, that have largely determined the course of human history. These are conquest, competition, and extraction. The urge to conquer and subdue others has generated a culture of militarism and war. In the 17th through 19th centuries, this attitude culminated in colonialism, by which the countries of Europe divided up the lands of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, taking their resources to enhance their own wealth. In the last century the glorification of military might exploded in two world wars and a long cold war, and today can be seen in the many smaller conflicts dotting the globe.

Competition has led to the rise of a harsh economic system–corporate capitalism–in which the claims of human sympathy are pushed aside in favor of the brute struggle for economic dominance. In this system all value is reduced to monetary value, all virtues are downplayed in favor of wealth and ambition. As a result we see multinational corporations exercising control through a post-colonial type of imperialism. The capitalist economic system also leads to vast gaps in wealth between a small, extremely rich elite and everyone else, pushing almost a billion people close to the edge of survival.

The attitude of extraction governs humanity’s relationship with the natural world. We regard nature as little more than a source of materials for production and consumption, and thus we seek to exploit its forces in compliance with commercial motives. One consequence of this is the climate crisis, by which we are pushing the planet’s ecological boundaries beyond the point where they can sustain higher forms of life, including human life. If we continue along this trajectory—and we are foolishly doing so—we may decimate the geophysical systems on which human life depends. Already scientists predict that if it is not checked, intensified climate change will cause catastrophes on a scale far beyond our adaptive capacities.

In contrast to these masculine attitudes, I believe the future of life on earth requires a shift toward more feminine values. I will enumerate these as threefold, as correctives to the extreme masculine values. In place of conquest, we need to adopt a spirit of collaboration in promoting a culture of peace and mutual understanding between peoples of different nations, races, ethnicities, and religious beliefs. In place of competition, we need cooperation in building a society governed by more egalitarian ideals, a society that provides everyone with their essential needs–food, health care, education, meaningful work, and other basic social services. And in place of the extractive exploitation of nature’s abundant resources, we need an attitude of respect for nature and a sustainable economy, leading to the emergence of a culture marked by a deep appreciation for the awe-inspiring, irreplaceable wonders of the natural world. It is in promoting and actualizing these life-affirming values that I believe women can make an indispensable contribution to our shared human future. The liberation of women will not only free women from long-standing constraints. It will be, indeed, a double liberation, freeing men as well from their blind spots and self-destructive impulses.

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