Women have often been disparaged, excluded and oppressed by organized religion, their public role limited to the menial. Despite—or because of—their lack of formal status, women have historically been attracted to new religions and sects, sometimes as founders and leaders.

During the 1970s, many women joined NRMs (see New Religious Movement). These movements varied widely in their beliefs and behaviour towards women, but can be broadly classified into two groups: traditionalist, and self-development oriented. Traditionalist movements appeal mainly to women who are confused and frightened by the complexity of the modern world. They offer clearly defined gender roles and stable family life, thus fulfilling security needs, though often at a price of limitation and oppression. Examples are the Jesus Movement and ISKCON (see International Society of Krishna Consciousness). However, as feminism slowly takes root in Western society, even conservative NRMs are responding as their women members find their voices and demand greater equality. It is significant that these movements tend to have a male majority—sometimes 2:1 or higher—whereas in the more liberal NRMs the ratio is typically reversed.

The appeal of NRMs focused on personal development combines secular opportunities for power and status with spiritual growth and empowerment. They attract both counter-cultural seekers and professional women. Their beliefs and practice on gender are more fluid and flexible, sometimes encouraging androgyny, and usually including women in leadership positions. NRMs such as the Rajneesh Movement, the Brahma Kumaris, and many Buddhist and Pagan groups offer equal opportunities with no glass ceiling, and possibilities for women to combine work, marriage and motherhood with spiritual growth.

In the Brahma Kumaris movement, gender roles are reversed to the point where women occupy positions of power and status, whereas men both in their secular and religious roles are subordinate to women—looking after the mundane side to free women for higher spiritual duties. However, the BKs do not think of themselves as feminists, and their prominence derives from their mediumistic capacities, channelling sermons from their dead founder.

The Rajneesh Movement also promotes female majority in leadership. Its founder Osho proclaimed his ‘vision that the coming age will be the age of the woman. Man has tried for five thousand years and has failed. Now a chance has to be given to the woman. Now she should be given the reins of all the powers.’ Although 80 per cent of the top positions in the organization were held by women, discipleship was the path to enlightenment for women and men. The goal was to become totally surrendered to the guru to receive the divine. This belief is in line with bhakti yoga, and is found in other eastern-based NRMs such as ISKCON, Elan Vital and the Sai Baba Movement, but is obviously not compatible with feminism. However, most women disciples claim to have found this path of devotion ecstatic and fulfilling. Since Osho’s death, leadership roles are shared between men and women.

Buddhism is doctrinally egalitarian, but the patriarchal bias of Asian society has permeated religious practice and been vigorously challenged in the West. Most Buddhist NRMs offer equal opportunities, particularly those led by Westerners. The former abbess of Shasta Abbey, Roshi Kennett, became a Buddhist because of the then impossibility of female ordination in Christianity. However, the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order has been criticized for its under-representation of women in the higher echelons and the reluctance of the movement’s leader Sangharakshita to ordain women.

There are few examples of women founders and leaders of NRMs, but paradoxically, in view of the conservatism of Indian society, there are several Indian women leaders, of whom the best known are Amritandamayi (aka ‘the hugging guru’), Mother Meera (now based in Germany), and Nirmala Devi (aka Mataji, founder of Sahaja Yoga). Like the Brahma Kumaris, these women are not overtly feminist, but are highly charismatic leaders with large folio wings.

One of the main issues for feminists regarding charismatic authority is sexual abuse. It should be emphasized that overall the problem is no worse in NRMs than within organized religion, and there is less evidence of alleged paedophilia than within Christianity. Sexual scandals were also more prevalent during the 1970s—the heyday of the ‘sexual revolution’. Many gurus have been accused of sexual abuse, including the leader of the Family (see Family, The), David Berg, who devised the practice of ‘Flirty Fishing’.

A distinction should be made between ‘abuse’ and ‘liberation’. The Rajneesh movement was notorious in the 1970s for Osho’s encouragement of ‘free love’ among his disciples, although the practice was voluntary and there is little evidence of his own involvement. His aim was to create a sacramental sexuality based on a synthesis between Tantra and Reichian therapy. Tantra has also been an influence on Pagan beliefs and practices on sexuality along with the mythology of the Goddess (see Goddess Feminists). Despite censure for ‘sky-clad’ (naked) worship, and for the Great Rite— ritual sex between the high priest and priestess—paganism appeals to women in its affirmation of the female body, and rituals for celebrating ‘women’s mysteries’.

Patriarchal religions sanctify motherhood as a woman’s destiny and true vocation. Some traditionalist NRMs, most notoriously the Unification Church/ Moonies, advocate arranged marriage. ISKCON also favours arranged marriage, though couples may come to a private understanding beforehand. However, women are perceived as temptresses, and excluded from sharing power with the men so as not to ‘sexually agitate them’. In Christian sects such as the London Church of Christ and the Jesus Army, marriages are not formally arranged but often rely on the advice and consent of the pastor, and divorce is forbidden except for adultery. The benefits for women are clearly defined gender roles and stable families, but the downside is rigid control of sexuality, work and worship by husband and elders, loss of status and opportunities for spiritual advancement, and a high incidence of wife and child abuse.

The third option encountered in NRMs is asceticism. ISKCON awards the highest status to celibate men. Buddhist monks (male and female), as in Christianity, take vows of celibacy, though often they are encouraged to wait till they are older and have experienced sex and parenthood. The Brahma Kumaris are the most uncompromising example of asceticism, perceiving sexuality as an obstacle to enlightenment, and requiring celibacy for their lay members, even between husbands and wives.

Nowadays, women are more likely to become involved in the New Age, neo-paganism or Shamanism than the more structured NRMs of the 1970s. Women co-created the New Age, including Helena Blavatsky (see Blavatsky, Helena) and Annie Besant (see Besant, Annie) in Theosophy, Alice Bailey of the Arcane School, and the magician Dion Fortune. In Paganism, women are perceived as equal if not superior to men. Feminist witchcraft obviously has a female leadership. Wiccan covens are led by a priest and priestess, but the priestess usually takes precedence and controls the ritual. Pagan priestesses gain their power partly from the preeminence of the Goddess in neo-pagan groups, the Goddess movement, and the women’s spirituality movement as a whole.

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