Gender, Faith, and Development (3-3)
‘The timely, thought-provoking essays of this book provide valuable evidence of the impact of different gender and faith perspectives on practical development issues while also highlighting the complexities and ambiguities of religious influences. Development workers, researchers and social activists will gain from these studies a greater awareness and more critical understanding of how different religious beliefs and practices, whether of Christianity, Buddhism or Islam in the Middle East, Asia, Africa or Latin America, can either be a potential barrier or alternatively a strong incentive for social change.’
Girls and women enter prostitution in Thailand for complex reasons, and researchers are likely to point to the lack of educational and economic opportunities for poor females, as well as the demands of a profitable sex-tourism industry. However, a number of studies have suggested that cultural factors also play a part in sustaining the sex industry in Thailand. The tendency of Buddhist teachings not to view sex work as immoral or degrading removes much of the stigma associated with similar work in many other cultures.
In Thai culture prostitutes are not viewed with universal negativity and in the Buddhist texts we find stories about prostitutes, often as friends of the Buddha. Moreover, as Peach tells us, one popular attitude towards prostitution in Thailand is that it enables women to earn money that they can give as donations to monks. This provides them with an opportunity to earn merit in order to improve their kamma for a better rebirth in the next life (i.e. as a man). Thus, ‘traditional Thai Buddhist culture functions to legitimate the trafficking industry, and thereby deny the human rights of women involved in sexual slavery’.
Although this understanding of kamma is embedded in Thai society, the
Buddhist tradition can also be interpreted to support the view that men and women are equal; it can thus provide ‘sources of empowerment and liberation for women’. This feminist exposition of Buddhism has become the subject of numerous books and articles in different Buddhist traditions.
These studies emphasize men and women’s equal ability to gain enlightenment, positive images of women and the feminine in the texts, as well as the existence of the bhikkhuni ordination at the time of the Buddha. For instance, one popular view is that Buddhist teachings are essentially gender neutral and any patriarchal influences are later corruptions of the tradition. However, are such feminist interpretations of the Buddhist texts relevant in practice? Or do they represent elite perspectives that have emerged within a context of Western feminist critique and have little relevance at the grassroots level? For instance, reading the work of some Buddhist feminist authors one gets the impression that they are speaking about a generic Buddhism that has been responsive to gender issues and concerns as it has trans-located to the West, rather than Buddhism as it is actually lived and practiced in Asian contexts . As Peach writes:
Who is doing the reinterpreting, and for what audience? Would the reinterpreted texts be taught in school? If not, how would the reinterpretations be disseminated? Do Thai women – especially mothers and prostitutes – read Buddhist texts? If not, is it reasonable to assume that Buddhist monks will recite reinterpreted scriptures in religious services? What other mechanisms are available within local communities to communicate these new understandings to women? More generally, it may not always be possible to empower women using a ‘local’ cultural strategy such as textual reinterpretation, in part because of explicit religious or cultural restrictions on women’s autonomy to engage in such practices, including women’s basic literacy skills.
By Ursula King Bristol University, 26/03/2012