This powerful guest post by scholar Kimberley George, bio after the jump, launches our new Feminism & Faith series. Look out for weekly posts that explore this neglected intersection from a wide variety of voices in the coming months.
Whether “western” secular feminists like it or not, religion continues to play an enormous role globally in the 21st century, and women of faith are key participants. In fact, within some religious traditions, women make up the majority.
Last year I went to an important conference on Women, Religion and Globalization at Yale University (my place of study) that began to address critical issues of representation when it comes to talking about women and religion. Even as we drew attention to problematic representations, sometimes we unknowingly enacted them. My time at the conference helped me articulate four common problems that come up when feminists talk about women and religion:
Problem #1: We make monolithic statements about women and religious traditions.
To talk about any religious tradition with monolithic statements is like talking about “women” as a monolithic category—both are just bad feminism.
For example, it’s deeply problematic to say something to the effect of: “Muslim women who “veil” must be oppressed by their religion.” While such a statement might be an honest attempt to name perceived harm, these monolithic statements almost always prove to be ignorant, arrogant, and infused with “western” constructs of the self. Monolithic statements just don’t get at context and the complexity of systems within which we live. They certainly don’t respect cultural diversity or women’s agency.
Problem #2: We assume that religion is inherently “irrational.”
There is a tendency, especially within the academic world, to secretly assume that religious people aren’t quite on board with the modern “rational” project. But, it’s a serious misrepresentation. We have to realize that when we use the language of “rational” and “irrational,” we are borrowing (consciously or not) a hierarchical system of thought gifted to us largely by Anglo-patriarchal Enlightenment philosophers. It’s a binary that has justified sexism, racism, and colonialism. We feminists ought to be suspicious, to say the least, whenever the terms of this binary are invoked, implied, or even just snuck into the conversation by our dismissive attitudes.
When we assume women of faith are “irrational,” we elide their agency, and worse yet, we tend to marginalize important players in women’s history—because the truth is, women’s history is infused with super smart religious women who are writers, peace-keepers, reformers, and political agents.
Problem #3: We let loud fundamentalists define what a religious tradition is.
It is simply poor feminist strategy when we allow Sarah Palin or George W. Bush or Jerry Falwell to define for us Christianity. If we let fundamentalists define Christianity in America, we seed the battleground they want to create. Such people want you to think this is an “us” versus “them”—they want you to think that Christianity looks like their politics. Feminists can’t afford to buy into it their representation. There is a great deal of diversity within all religious traditions—Christianity included. We need to find the diversity that already exists and harness a middle base that isn’t being represented by the “us” and “them” binary.
Problem #4: We are too dogmatic about our feminism.
The tendency to be dogmatic about our beliefs is not so much a religious tendency as a human one. But our feminist dogma—even if inspired by the best of intentions—won’t fuel change.
What will fuel change is diligently studying the complexities of the systems in which we live, and then practicing a spirit of partnership, dialogue, listening, and curiosity. This point is critical. Even if we find ourselves adamantly atheist, we must still create imaginative space inside our heads/hearts that respects there might yet be a religious impulse—a kind of receptivity to the Divine—that has merit in people’s lives. That impulse lives in many, many people, even it’s shrouded in religious structures that can be weighted down by patriarchal and spiritual abuse. If we don’t allow for the genuine possibility of the religious impulse, we won’t partner well with religious women. And if we don’t partner well with religious women, we are not doing our job in the 21st century.
Kimberly B. George is a writer, feminist activist, and graduate student at Yale Divinity School. Her most recent research focuses on the intersection of sexual violence and philosophical and Christian traditions. When she is not writing or reading about violence, she is learning how to celebrate all the goodness in life. She blogs at http://www.kimberlybgeorge.com/.