Women in History and Different Religions

Women in Early Christianity

In ancient Christianity, women played a significant role in the ministry. The pioneer of women’s increase in Christianity was Mary, the mother of Jesus. She was conceived as a virgin by the Holy Spirit and eventually gave birth to The Messiah. She was betrothed to Joseph, the human father of Jesus but conceived before they got married. Church leaders in Early Christianity conveyed the message of egalitarian marriages. Many evangelists proclaimed that both genders were equal before the eyes of the Lord and therefore had the same capability as men to lead (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011). However, some prominent apostles, such as Paul, initially contested women’s role in the ministry. They claimed that women should submit to men and follow their lead.

Paul initially considered the notion of electing female officials as deleterious to church leadership. He argued that it was against God’s initial plan and that since Eve was created from Adam’s rib, he was to be a companion of his primarily. However, Paul eventually changed his opinion about women and honored several women as prominent church leaders. Later, women began being influential in spreading God’s word. In the New Testament, it becomes increasingly clear that women had a unique role in the church. Besides being close associates of the prophets and Jesus Himself, they held important positions in the church.

In early Christianity, women were integral to the development of Judaism and the Christian religion. First, instead of descending directly from heaven, Jesus was born of a human mother, Virgin Mary. Then there were Mary and Martha, the sisters who offered Jesus hospitality during various stages of His ministry. Another major contributor to the development of Christianity was Mary Magdalene, the first disciple of Jesus. She was a prostitute before she was converted to Christianity (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011).

In the book of John, Jesus ordained her as an apostle of the apostles after teaching her extensively about the word of God. When Jesus resurrected, she was the first to announce that Jesus has risen. However, it was her role in the discipleship that earned her Christian acclaim. She often represented the disciples before Jesus, and this contribution was one reason women began attracting attention in the ministry.

Many other women played a significant role in the development of Christian religions. Some of the women who played some of the most prominent functions include Saint Blandina, a martyr of the 2nd century, Thecla, also a martyr who died a virgin. Thecla is famous for refusing to renounce her belief in Jesus despite being threatened with death and rape. In spreading the gospel, women such as Priscilla, the Corinthian women, martyr Perpetua, and Phillip’s daughters played a significant role, without which Christianity would have suffered (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011). In essence, they endured torture at the hands of gladiators and wild animals and even gave their lives for Christianity.

Mary Magdalene in early Christianity plays the most significant role in spreading the gospel. Saint Mary Magdalene was a well-known commercial sex worker who repented for her sins and decided to follow Jesus. She used her financial resources to support Jesus during His ministry. Some of the newly discovered Egyptian texts portray Mary as a devout Christian, even though male disciples refused to take her seriously (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011). Early Christian scholars reckon that she was among very few women who understood the gospel entirely in some teachings. Some other texts refer to her as one of the three Marys’ who supported Jesus in his life. Jewish women such as Mary Magdalene, Mary, Martha, Joanna, and Susanna were also influential in Early Christianity.

After the death of Jesus Christ, women continued to take prominent roles in spreading the faith. Many scholars consider women to be more approachable when spreading the gospel, and thus a majority of the believers in the first few women were women. Arguably, this is still the case in the 21st century. However, in the 3rd century, many theologians believed that women should not be given prominent roles and were supposed to play supporting roles to their male counterparts (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011). Since in the Roman Empire Christianity was outlawed, many women hosted secret Christian fellowships in their homes, which was a significant risk.

In the first century AD, the role of women in the church was suppressed considerably by the laws of the land and authoritative texts such as Pauline epistles. There were strict directives to diminish the influence of women in Christianity and reduce their power in the ministry. In his message to the Corinthians, he stresses that women should be silent in the house of God and should only submit to instruction.

In another letter to timothy, he forbade women from preaching the gospel or assuming any role that would require men to submit to them. Consequently, there was a backlash against the influence of women in Christianity (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011). Hence, there arose rigid patriarchal systems that would be used to assert male dominance in the church. Many scholars thought of women as the gateway to hell because of Eve’s desertion of God’s divine law.

Women in Ancient Hebrew Societies

The Hebrew society perceived women as important champions of Judaism. They were regarded as essential to Christianity even though they held the less significant church positions. In the narrative, many kingdoms wanted to enslave and colonize the Israelites throughout their early history (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011). Consequently, the Israelites became a nomadic nation that relied on women’s support, such as Sara, to thrive. During their migration, women were rarely mentioned despite their vital role in keeping their men and children as comfortable as possible. They were only mentioned when important laws that affected them were being formulated.

Moreover, the Jewish society was governed by men, and women had very few liberties. For instance, in many cases, girls were not allowed to choose their spouses and were often expected to marry into the families that their fathers approved. Nonetheless, women still worked their way up the social setup and managed to influence the Hebrew narrative positively (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011). One famous example is Esther, who married a Persian king and used her power to prevent the Jewish community’s persecution. Another exemplary leader in the Hebrew community was Judge Deborah and Moses’ older sister, who became a prophet of considerable repute.

Women in Early Islam

In the Muslim community, women also played influential roles in the development of the Islam religion. There is textual evidence that Prophet Muhammad consulted women extensively (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011). This indicates that early Muslims considered women to be wise despite their low representation in the Islam religion. Women had a significant role in the development of the Muslim community and often were used as medics, historians, and scholars (Keddie, 2012). Some of the most prominent Muslim women among the first converts were Aisha, the last wife of Prophet Muhammad, and Khadija. Others, such as Umm Waraqah, became Imams and led their tribes as Imams (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011). In the Muslim community, women are supposed to pledge an oath of allegiance to the religion, regardless of their male kin’s status.

It is common to find elite women converted to Islam in the study of religion. They would then convert their husbands and their entire households to the religion to ensure that the Muslim religion would survive through the ages (Demirci & Somel, 2008). For instance, Aisha studied medicine, and metaphysics, and was also a historian who helped preserve Muslim heritage. On the other hand, Umm Waraqah memorized the entire Quran and used her education to lead her Clan, the bani al-Harith. Prominent women scholars were also allowed to participate in the Holy Quran’s canonization (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011). In many instances, women protected their men from persecution and trade with other people from other tribes.

The growing influence of women in Early Islam practice is evident from Caliph Umar’s decision to appoint women as officials in Medina’s Market. It is in Islam records that there were powerful women in Muhammad’s household who behaved autonomously. Despite their limited opportunity to lead, women often could muster political voices and could affect the laws of the land (Keddie, 2012). It was common for male Muslim leaders to seek their wives’ counsel before making major political decisions. One woman whose political clout is often remembered is Zubaida (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011). Women were recognized as spiritual mothers, teacher because of their perceived wisdom. However, the role of women in the mosque has been diminishing over time and they cannot hold religious positions in contemporary Islam.

One of the most powerful women of the pre-modern era is Khayzuran, a leader of Muslim Empire. Malika Asma bint Shihab al-Sulayhiyya and Malika Arwa bint Ahmad al-Sulayhiyya also played a critical role in the pre-modern Muslim Empire (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011).

They wielded considerable political power in Yemen in the 11th century. Additionally, the leadership of a Fatimid queen of Egypt in the century is enough proof are just as capable as their male counterparts to rule the Muslim community (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011). Other examples include the Berber queen Zaynab al-Nafzawiyah (r. 1061 – 1107), governor of Tetouán in Morocco (r. 1510 – 1542), and the four 17th century Indonesian queens (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011). In Islam’s religion, the significant contribution of women was pioneered by Rabiah al-Adawiyah, whom Muhammad declared as unique and ordained her to lead many Muslims to Allah’s will.

Monotheism and Women

Since the beginning of time, women have often been involved in the expansion of various religions. They have been instrumental in the spread of religion universally. In many kingdoms, when Christianity became the state religion, women’s role became more and more insignificant. This marginalization of women is often associated with the part of women in the fall of man and their association with evil in various religions (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011).

In Judaism, women were instrumental in the migration of the Israelites but were often underappreciated. In different stages of the development of the Hebrew narrative, they were called upon to help their men. In the Muslim community, on the other hand, women played significant roles in the Umma. They spread Islam, especially among the soldiers although their roles have diminished over time.

In almost all religions, the onset of women is associated with women. In monotheistic religions, the links between women and evil are apparent. For instance, it is Eve’s dalliance with the devil that provided the gateway for evil into the human heart among Christians. In monotheistic religions, it is believed that there is one God and that He is all-powerful. In many of these religions, there is the belief that their God was tolerant of evil, and the weakness of women is the principal cause of the suffering of man (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011). The devil (Iblis) is given the power to tempt humanity but man is bestowed with the willpower to resist these temptations. However, many theologians believe that women were more susceptible to these temptations due to their weaker self-will.

Women and Political History

Rulers of the earliest civilizations emphasized the biological functions of women in the continuity of clans and societies. Biologically viable women were often treated well because they would give birth to tribal leaders. The time’s politics was marked with age and gender discrimination against women since their domesticity was considered their most valuable contribution to humanity (Fahmy, 1998). Nonetheless, women were powerful indirect rulers because they would influence the significant decisions made by their husbands and sons (Scott, 1986). Additionally, women played an important in uniting feuding political societies. If a girl were betrothed to a rival clan’s prince, then there would be long-lasting peace and trade between the two communities.

In the 20th century, women’s role in society and politics was affected considerably by the world wars’ ravages. First, women were thrust into public life and began to actively seek political positions in their communities to help their husbands overcome their enemies. Additionally, there was the increased participation of women in the economy (Demirci & Somel, 2008). During the wars, wealthy Arab women would flex their economic muscles by acquiring political capital to later use to run empires (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011). For instance, Sara Khatun, a wealthy Armenian-Iraqi, created close bonds with Ottoman governors to defend Armenians who fled Turkey. Their motherly instincts prompted them to seek more political participation to protect their people.

Evil and Women

Gender bias and stereotype has been a source of discriminatory attitude towards women in society. In the ancient world, people perceived women as weak and prone to manipulation by evil powers. This was apparent to those on the margins of society, such as older women, childless, and the poor. In most cases, the evil eye was linked to this population because they failed to fit the ideal feminine classification in society. It was believed that such individuals were dangerous and possessed an evil power. In Islam, such women were considered envious or jealous, and ill-will was thought to be an innate feature of women (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011).

Christianity portrayed women as highly susceptible to evil, where their actions determined the fate of humanity. In Genesis, the first woman on earth, Eve, was able to communicate with the devil, which was believed to be a superior power. In the Jewish community, women who failed to conform to the ideal feminine values were labeled devil worshipers who threatened the status quo. Notably, women were hypersexualized where sex was the source of power and often preyed on men to advance their evil agendas. Therefore, societies assigned women a stereotypical perspective that saw them as innately evil.

The ideology of women’s role in advancing superstitions in ancient history reveals the discrimination they faced in society. The 15th-century book, The Witches Hammer, was popular in Europe as people linked social panic due to diseases and witches. Standards of hunting, identifying, and punishing witches were established and targeted mainly women. The book held that women were heretical and defective since they practiced sorcery, which caused impotence and other societal problems. The war against witches specifically targeted women on the margins of society. The book systematically refutes the beliefs that witches did not exist and convinced people to view women as a threat (Garrett, 1977). This resulted in massive witch hunts that increased women’s oppression as they received painful punishments (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011).

Religion also played a role in advancing the notion of witchcraft in regions where ritual practices were conducted. Christianity only heightened the dangers to women, especially black women in American colonies. In that case, this subjective perception of women led to increased suffering despite their innocence.

Women and Education

Modernization marked the onset of education in post-colonial societies. In the Middle East, the controversies surrounding women’s education revolved around the book versus veil concept. Women experienced significant challenges to access education due to intersectional barriers such as gender, class, and race. The struggles for equality in education were important markers of women’s success in attaining formal education despite religious barriers in the Middle East. Feminist thinkers promoted women’s education in Muslim and Indian countries in the 18 century (Burden‐Leahy, 2009).

The women were perceived as ‘backward’ due to the oppression they experienced in society. The early women’s education focused on home economics and domesticity, where girls were taught to manage the household and care for the young. This type of learning was promoted by patriarchal ideology both in the western and eastern societies (Levine, 2004). Western curricula in the 20th century spread worldwide with intentions to support racism and orientalism. Most governments advanced nationalism and state-mandated education, although Iraq enhanced co-education. In Iraq, literacy increased by 300% as more teachers were sent across the country (Wiesner-Hanks, 2011). Therefore, feminist activism promoted the growth of education in most countries, enhancing modernization.

In conclusion, women have been instrumental in society playing active roles in religion and politics. Christianity perceives women as critical to the fate of humanity due to Eve’s susceptibility to evil. Islam has also linked women to the evil eye, where they are believed to advance jealousy and ill-will. The Bible documents women as having dual personalities where they cause evil and are essential in promoting good. However, most societies supported various stereotypes against women that led to their suppression and suffering. In Europe, women living on the margins of society were tortured and killed because they were associated with witchcraft. Such perceptions were highly detrimental to the survival of this gender in history. Women education experienced challenges due to gender issues and societal hindrances.

Female feminists played a significant role in promoting education in different countries. In the Middle East, Iraq’s education campaigns saw a massive adoption of co-education between both genders. In that way, the history of women shows their significant struggles and successes in both religious and political scenes.


Burden‐Leahy, S. M. (2009). Globalisation and education in the post-colonial world: The conundrum of the higher education system of the United Arab Emirates. Comparative Education, 45(4), 525-544. Web.

Demirci, T., & Somel, S. A. (2008). Women’s bodies, demography, and public health: Abortion policy and perspectives in the Ottoman Empire of the nineteenth century. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 17(3), 377-420. Web.

Fahmy, K. (1998). Women, medicine, and power in nineteenth-century Egypt. In: Lila Abu-Lughod (Ed.). Remaking women: Feminism and modernity in the Middle East (pp. 35-72). Princeton U Press.

Garrett, C. (1977). Women and witches: Patterns of analysis. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 3(2), 461-470.

Keddie, N. R. (2012). 1945–today: New states and trends, women’s activism, and the rise of Islamism. In Nikki R. Keddie (Ed.) Women in the Middle East: Past and present (pp. 102-165). Princeton U Press.

Levine, P. (2004). Sexuality, gender, and empire. In Phillipa Levine (Ed.) Gender and Empire. (pp. 158-161). Oxford U Press.

Scott, J. W. (1986). Gender: a useful category of historical analysis. The American historical review, 91(5), 1053-1075. Web.

Wiesner-Hanks, M. (2011). Gender in history: Global perspectives 2nd edition. John Wiley & Sons.