An article in the Christian Science Monitor from a few days ago reminds us of the discrimination nuns face in Thailand. The Thai Buddhist establishment does not allow women to be ordained. But the article says there are 25 Thai bhikkhunis, ordained in Sri Lanka, who are trying to get legal recognition of their status.
Monks get free public transportation, including reserved bus seats, and government funds to support their temples. Nuns get nothing from the government, and their temples are not considered "real" temples. This isn't just a matter of injustice. In the Thai monastic sangha a monk may not be alone with a woman or touch her at all, and lay women have a lot of issues they don't want to talk to a man about. There is a huge need for ordained women who can minister to other women.
One of the nuns involved in this effort says they are trying to remain low-key and respectful. Their request must be about the Buddha's teaching, not women's empowerment. So let's talk about that.
First, I don't think anyone denies the Buddha ordained women. As I understand it, the loophole used by the Thai Buddhist establishment is that, according to the Vinaya, fully ordained nuns must be present at the ordination of nuns. And since the Thai nuns' orders died out centuries ago, new nuns may not be ordained.
The article doesn't say why the Thai sangha would not respect an ordination in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan and Thai Buddhists are both Theravada, and as far as I know they follow exactly the same version of the Vinaya. However, I understand nun's ordinations in Sri Lanka were revived by importing Chinese Mahayana nuns for the ordinations, so perhaps the Thai establishment does not consider the ordinations legitimate.
According to the Pali Canon, the Buddha was reluctant to ordain women and had to be cajoled into the first ordination of Buddhist nuns by his cousin, Ananda. Then the Buddha predicted that allowing women into the Sangha would cause his teachings to survive only 500 years instead of a 1,000. In addition, he gave eight "grave rules," or Garudhammas, for nuns to follow that seem mostly designed to keep the nuns subordinate to monks.
For centuries, and to the present day, scholars have debated about the Buddha's attitude toward nuns. Some conclude he was trying to protect the nuns; other say he was a man of his culture, so what do you expect? But there is another explanation.
There is a new theory that the story about the first ordination was not in the original Pali text, but added later. As I understand it, the basic argument is that at the time of the first ordination, of the Buddha's aunt Pajapati, Ananda would have been a small boy. It is also noted that the story does not appear in any version of the sutras preserved in languages other than Pali.
I've been told the latter also is true of the Garudhammas -- that they appear only in the Pali Vinaya, not in other early records of the Vinaya that were preserved in other languages. So it is possible these parts of the Pali text were not in the original teachings of the Buddha, but were added later.
It's been only relatively recently that historians with no particular sectarian axe to grind have been looking at the role of women in early Buddhism. I don't know if long-standing ideas about the status of women in early Buddhism are being radically challenged, but they could be.