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Giving women a voice in religious studies

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By Jennifer Myers
Originally published in Umagazine

Religious studies professor Morny Joy is helping female religious studies scholars in South Asia be heard

For 12 years, Morny Joy, a professor of religious studies, has examined the ways in which religions help or hinder women’s access to human rights and gender equality.

“Does a religion say women are capable of the highest spiritual attainment such as enlightenment? Does it allow women to study the sacred texts in their original language, and can they teach that text to both men and women? Does it allow them to preside at rituals? And are these biases cultural or are they rules and laws within the religion itself?”

While studying these issues in Bhutan, Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan and Thailand, she stumbled upon a basic problem: female scholars in South Asia were not participating. Her travels revealed that not only do some religions favour men’s participation over women’s, the academic study of those religions was also male dominated.

“Women in religious studies in South Asia were having a hard time presenting papers at conferences, publishing their research and earning promotions in academia,” says Joy. “The lack of women’s perspectives left a gap in the discipline.”

As a member of the International Association for the History of Religions, she joined forces with Rosalind Hackett, a professor at the University of Tennessee and president of the same organization, to found the Women’s Scholars’ Network in 2006. The network helps Joy organize academic panels where women from South Asia present research and communicate with each other.

“I don’t see myself as coming and giving directives,” says Joy. “I consult with women to understand the barriers and discuss avenues for appeal if there are deliberate attempts to prevent women’s advancement.”

Joy, whose work was recognized in 2011 with an honorary doctorate from the University of Helsinki, lends her experience to her students, by infusing her teaching with cross-cultural comparisons.

“It is of immense benefit for Canadian students to understand what women in many Asian countries are still trying to achieve. By comparing and contrasting other societies with our own, it helps students to value how privileged they are about many things they take for granted.”