Beginning to explore a neglected intersection

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Maha Elgenaidi, a true force (pictured above in red), leaned across the round table towards me and asked, “Why do Western feminists assume that I am oppressed just be looking at my hijab? Why do they define feminism so narrowly as to not include the strong women of my faith tradition?”

At first I felt defensive. “Western feminists?!” I thought. “We’re not a monolith.” But I took a deep breath and heard her out. This is her experience, her impression, her conclusion based on real interactions with women that she sees as Western feminists.

“I don’t feel that way,” I explained, “but I can understand why you’ve been left with that impression.” We then got down and dirty with the true pain and profound division that Western and Eastern feminists feel.

Underlying much of what we discussed was the undeniable truth that so many feminists, particularly of my age group, are suspicious of organized religion. That too, of course, is understandable. As a teenager, I watched Focus on the Family try to shut my school newspaper down in Colorado Springs because we reported a story on being queer at our high school. That and so many other things, gave me real reasons to be suspicious of religion. I imagine many of my peers feel the same; we came of age hearing the hatred of Jerry Falwell and watching a war waged under the banner of both our country and Christianity (as defined by George W. Bush).

But it’s time to unpack all of this. It’s time for women like Maha and I to have a real dialogue. It’s time for us to explore the intersections of religion and feminism.

This week, I had the good fortune of being at an intimate gathering of some of the country’s leading women spiritual leaders—women like Yoland Trevino, the coordinator of the United Religions Indigenous Initiative, Nahid Anga, a Sufi leader and professor, and PK McCary, an independent journalist and peace activist, among so many others. They were gathered to build on the momentum first created by Joan Chittister at the Parliament on World Religions in Melbourne last year. They feel that the time has come for women to claim their rightful power within religious traditions and make the world better.

Likewise, I realize, it is time to really open up the dialogue about feminists and spirituality. Look out for a series that I plan on launching, and be in touch (courtney_at_feministing.com) if you’ve got something you’d like to contribute or a person you think I should involve.

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15 Comments

  1. Posted November 19, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I really do try to live my faith, both in what I write here and how I conduct myself. If you need a Quaker perspective, I’d be glad to contribute.

  2. Posted November 19, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I am also very grateful to learn that you are doing this, Courtney.

  3. Posted November 19, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Thank you! As a student of feminist theology, the questions of faith and feminism are deeply intertwined for me, and I’m excited to see these questions more fully explored here. When we treat faith and feminism like opposing poles, in my opinion, religion just becomes even more patriarchal, and more women and men suffer for it. I hear your suspicions and I applaud you for joining the conversation. :)

  4. Posted November 19, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    This is really important work. I do a lot of research work in Northeast India, amongst women who are often fiercely independent in spirit, while also being devoted wives, mothers, and Hindus. Vandana Shiva has written about ecofeminist spirituality, how the women of the Chipko movement saw it as their responsibility to protect the earth from miners and loggers because the earth is their mother. That being said, a lot of Indian feminists have rejected religion altogether, but some have really embraced it and rightly said that within Hinduism there are models for the powerful, realized woman, and that embracing heterodoxy (that is, non-orthodox ways of approaching and interpreting deity) is often the answer to rigidly orthodox modes of thinking.

    Feminist spirituality (often synonymous with Goddess spirituality, with good reason) is frequently looked down upon by non-religious feminists, or feminists of more traditional religions. Women’s spirituality academic departments are similarly often belittled by traditional women’s studies departments. This is really just another manifestation of institutionalized patriarchalism, the idea of “we know better than you what feminism is, and your religion doesn’t fit into that.”

  5. Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    I wish you luck. All too often, these types of discussions devolve into callous snark fests, complete with references to the Flying Spaghetti Monster and quips about the color of the imaginary unicorn. Other feminist sites are particularly bad about this. I hope that with proper moderation, you can avoid alienating people of faith and acheive some real dialogue.

    • Posted November 19, 2010 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      There isn’t dialogue when only one side is allowed to talk. What, atheists aren’t allowed to speak during you theism ass kissing sessions? That’s not a dialogue, it’s sitting around patting each other on the back. I do not like religion, I do not like faith, and I am not going to pretend otherwise. There should be plenty of space to talk about double standards around brown and black muslim women and white christians, but I have zero interest in pretending like I think religion is anything other than oppressive and foolish. Atheists are one of the least popular groups in the US. There are more muslim representatives in the Congress than openly atheist ones, and polls find that people are slightly more likely to vote for a muslim than an atheist, so stop pretending atheist privilege exists in the US, because it clearly doesn’t. A person who openly declared atheists should not be counted as citizens has been elected within my lifetime. Cut the crap here, really.

      • Posted November 22, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

        Yes.

        It’s my feminism that ensured my atheism – atleast for the Abrahamic faiths. Only a very select reading of the holy texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam can allow anyone to reconcile feminist beliefs with religious dogma. That’s why I’m always disappointed to see self-proclaimed feminists deny that THEIR faith (which is always different than the faith we see around every single day) is actually progressive and supportive of women’s equality.

        No Abrahamic faith has, as a basic tenet of the faith, equality between men and women. You can quote mine a few places where the texts suggest that is so, but the fact remains that all the established churches/sects, to lesser or greater degrees, preach the subjugation of women, that woman (ie. Eve) was the reason for the fall of man and that women are less than men.

        I really hate the assumption that, because I don’t respect the veiling of women, I’m some sort of racist or Islamaphobe as well. I can disagree with a belief system without hating the people who hold those beliefs.

  6. Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Whether the hijab is oppressive or not depends on whether the wearer is coerced into wearing it. A lot of Muslim women really do have a choice on the matter, and for that reason it is irresponsible to presume otherwise.

    But then, people have a habit of casting prejudice upon other people according to the clothes they wear.

  7. Posted November 19, 2010 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Hooray! I can’t wait to see what you have to share. I am in seminary right now and am considering getting my PhD in feminist theology when I graduate. I have only been exploring the subject for one year but I have been deeply liberated and inspired by the work being done by current feminist theologians. Great stuff but a long ways to go.

  8. Posted November 19, 2010 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    Yaaayy!! Please keep us informed, I can’t wait to see what you write.
    What I think would be neat, would be a sort of cultural exchange, wherein Western feminists go through a day or a couple of days or weeks, whatever, of wearing conventional muslim dress including hijab, just to see how it feels to move through the world with your body protected from the intrusive gaze of (male) eyes. I would love to do that.

    I think western feminists often react to organized religion from the position of assuming all experiences of religion are the same; from more or less viewing all organized religion through the prism that they view the roman catholic church for example. And since western religions, christianity and judaism, have historically shunned women from having and weilding power, it’s easy to assume that similar forces are at play in other cultures as well. But it’s also easy to forget that there is powerful resistance in the act of “conformity” also, neither can exist exclusive of the other.

    • Posted November 22, 2010 at 6:03 am | Permalink

      You might be surprised at how feminist and progressive the Catholic Church has been, at times in the past. Before commenting on specific religions I suggest that you learn a bit more.

    • Posted November 22, 2010 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      @andrea: I believe arielmorgan includes an appropriate disclaimer:

      “from more or less viewing all organized religion through the prism that they view the roman catholic church for example.”

      She is not owning that attitude of the Catholic church, but rather she is saying that other people have it.

      As someone raised by Catholics, it struck me as odd even when I was little that women were prohibited from serving in the highest positions. It’s not why I left, but it greased the wheels for me. There are some good things one can say about the church’s past, but it feels akin to saying the Republicans were the party that ended slavery.

  9. M
    Posted November 20, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    I really appreciate this post. I struggle to be both a feminist and Catholic. Yes, Catholic. It helps that the church I grew up in was pretty liberal.

    At times I feel fairly comfortable as both Catholic and feminist, but most of the time there is at least some level of discomfort. As clique as it sounds, my faith really has made a lot of who I am. As a child I learned in church that God loves everyone no matter what and doesn’t love one person more than any other and that every person deserves to be treated with dignity. The church may not always practice what it preaches, but the very basics of Catholicism are certainly where I got the foundation that was easy for me to build feminism onto.

    I don’t even come close to agreeing with the church about everything, and I don’t know if I’ll always be Catholic, but for now I still am. I get accused of being a “cafeteria Catholic” (taking what I like and leaving the rest)– and it’s true. I am a cafeteria Catholic, but so is everyone else: all the sexism and homophobia in the Catholic church certainly denies the dignity of many, many humans. Still, there are many wonderful individuals in the church who, like me, disagree with the church in many ways, but are still there because of the good aspects and working to change the church.

    Maybe the church will never change and maybe it’s naïve to hope it will, but, for now anyway, I’m okay with that.

    • Posted November 21, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      M,

      The church WILL change if people like you stick around to help make it happen. =) My fellow seminiarians and I talk a lot about whether or not we want to be ordained into a church that does not allow LGBT persons to be ordained. Our first reaction is no, why would we choose to do that? But usually we end up deciding that yes, we must, because we love the Church and without people in the church speaking up about LGBT rights or feminist spirituality than it will never change.
      I am Protestant so I suppose it’s a little easier for me to say…but…keep on keepin on.

  10. Posted November 20, 2010 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    I’m so excited for this! I’m a self-proclaimed “noob” to feminism, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my perception of religion from a feminist standpoint in comparison to my perception of religion before I discovered feminism. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve struggled with my feelings towards religion (even before feminism was a part of my life).

    I’m so thrilled with the thought of feminism improving the quality of life for more and more women, including women of faith. I can’t wait to be enlightened :-)

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