By Maria Riley
February 1996

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This issue is the most difficult and sensitive issue in global feminism. The reason is that a person's religious beliefs and a person's culture are really at the heart of their self definition. When you touching into a critique of either the culture or the religion, you're really walking on very sensitive ground. Every culture has different expectations of its women, and who of us outside of a culture and religious tradition can judge it? We always have to realize that we are observing it as foreigners, if it is not our tradition and not our culture. When we begin to talk about religious traditions, we can really only comfortably walk around and talk about our own tradition. With other traditions we have to do a lot of listening.

The reason I keep pulling religion and culture together, although they are not absolutely coexistent as we know, is that the religious background or religious foundation of any given culture is embedded in all of its forms of expression. The culture's process of meaning-making is rooted in its religious traditions. The culture's process of image-making and of creating the order of society is embedded in its religious views. This order of society includes social relationships, whether they're between the genders – between men and women; or race relationships; or relationships between the economic classes in this society; or the relationships among the different ethnic groups within the society, in pluralistic societies like Canada and the United States. It is a kind of meshing of the religious tradition and the way a culture defines itself, orders itself and organizes its social relationships.

It is important to remember that most but not all religious traditions, and therefore the cultures that have evolved from them, have been interpreted by men. Looking back into the Christian tradition, the messages of Jesus have been translated to us through the men leaders of the church right from the beginning. Women's understanding of those messages have been muted, and continue to be muted except in places where they are allowed to flourish.

Two Human Natures
The church has consistently talked about two natures even though they would deny that. Human nature translates into men and then women's proper nature, which is something different according to church language. The attempt of the United States Catholic Bishops to write a pastoral letter on women shipwrecked on the shoals of its theological anthropology, i.e. how the faith tradition understands the human. The church isn't able to recognize the differences between women and men and their radical equality even among these differences. What we need is an understanding of the human that affirms essential differences among us, but embraces a radical equality. Those differences cover a range of things, not just biology, but also intelligence, talent, personality, experience. We should be able to celebrate this incredible imagination of our creator God.

The reason I point this out is it's particularly important when we begin talking about images of women within our religious and cultural traditions. An example I think of is in my high school training where I was constantly being taught in religion classes that I was a source of temptation. That was not my self-perception nor was it my primary experience. It is not women's interpretation of who they are or what their experience is; this was and still is an interpretation that has been put upon women.

In Catholic seminaries in the United States several years ago there was a growing use of women theologians and women spiritual directors. It was becoming more and more common that the faculties in seminaries were women and men. There was a lot of affirmative action to bring women into the seminaries to try to reshape seminary education.

In fact, women had been in seminaries for a long time – cooking, doing the laundry, making the beds, and whatever else that needed to be done domestically. But they were never considered a threat until they were there in a peer relationship within the faculty, and in a faculty relationship to the young men studying for the priesthood. Then there was anxiety about what kind of impact these women would have on these young men.

These attitudes are not gone. They're very much alive and well in the church. It's the old Eve syndrome, that women are considered a source of temptation for men. I wonder if anyone has ever asked women what men are considered for them. The religious tradition has been built up out of the male experience and male perception. It's not that everything is wrong, but much of it is imcomplete and some of it is distorted. Until we can put women's experience equally with men's experience, and women's religious authority and moral agency on an equal footing with men's religious authority and moral agency, are we going to be able to move towards a mutual church, in it's teaching, forms of ritual, and everything else.

The reason that religion and culture are so significant is because they shape society's perception of who women and men are, and what women and men ought to be and ought to do, and how they should behave. They shape the self perception of women and men. There is a lot of self hatred among women. Where does it come from? Where have they picked it up? Where have they picked up negative self images?

Challenging Religion and Culture
The women's movement challenges every religion and culture. The movement did not start in the churches. It started with women struggling everywhere. Because it spoke to the liberation instincts of the human spirit – and in this case the liberation instincts of women as their consciousness began to wake up – it was then taken up within the churches. The women brought it into the churches and it has not had a happy reception. There's been a struggle because the churches themselves became an object of gender analysis, called upon to address the sexism in their own life, institutions and structures, within their own liturgical celebrations, within their own language and all across the board. I would say that the churches and the religious traditions, by and large, are well behind the current history of this movement. People's consciousness, women's and men's, have moved beyond where the institutions are willing to go at this point.

The role of religion, as liberating or subordinating, is ambiguous for most women everywhere. Religion is a problem or some people would say, the problem, where its structures of dominance continue to oppress and marginalize women. Yet, it also offers hope for a solution where its vision of liberation and equality support and engender powerful movements for social change. We can look at the Exodus story as a powerful symbol for our liberation. Instead of God saying to Pharaoh, "Let my people go," we can have the voice of God saying to the men of the church, let the women go, set them free. We have powerful, liberating symbols within our faith.

All religions do have a liberating vision. Most of us, particularly feminists, are hugely uncomfortable with Islam and its view of women. However, Islam has a powerful liberating vision of human equality. I have learned that we have to listen to the Muslim women talk about Islam to see that. It's the women within a tradition who are best able to critique that tradition, just as it's women within Christianity who are best able to critique Christianity. And within Islam you will get the same spectrum of women that we can get within the Christian community, from feminist to anti-feminist, from feminist Muslim women to very fundamentalist Muslim women. So there is the same struggle within Islam as there is within the Christian traditions.

The Hindu religion has this incredible affirmation of women's power. Very often you see women from India wearing the red mark in the middle of their forehead. That is the symbol of Shakti, of women's power. Since Hinduism is polytheistic (belief in more than one God) they have wonderful, powerful goddesses that give women images of themselves as quite powerful.

Judaism and Christianity both have the great Exodus tradition and the tradition of the prophets. The prophets' tradition was one of liberation. The liberating message of Jesus was not in any way short changed or mitigated between women and men. Jesus' actions constantly challenged the non-liberating aspects of the contemporary Judaism of his day.

These very liberation themes within a religious tradition have been defined by men until recently. However, every single one of these traditions are now coming under the scrutiny of very talented, trained women theologians and scripture scholars who are looking at them from a very different perspective, from the perspective of women's experience. The women's movement, and women, have started to appropriate these liberating traditions and claim them as part of the dimensions of their religious tradition. That's going to continue, there's no doubt at all. An obvious reality today is that women continue to be the major support system for religious traditions. One of my throwaway lines is that men have run the church but women have kept the faith.

As I begin to look at church history, within the Christian dimension, it's very clear that the churches won't change until their members demand a new kind of church. As more and more people begin looking at these issues and find some of the old order not comprehensible, there will be more of a groundswell for a new kind of church.

It's not surprising that women who are committed to social change – and particularly change involving the quality of their own lives, family's lives, community's lives – have a deeply ambiguous, if not paradoxical relationship to their religious traditions. Therefore, within the global feminist movement as in any local feminist movement we have a kind of double-edged sword of both working within the tradition and working against it at the same time. It's a paradoxical and ambiguous time to be a woman, and for some men.

Global Feminism
Global feminism fundamentally is trying to address the subordination of women and how that plays itself out in a particular historical setting. One can say that we can only let feminism be defined in its local context and then recognize our solidarity with women in the struggle wherever they are in the world, at whatever is for them their primary issue. That's where our unity comes.

What is now beginning to emerge as the global feminist process is first of all the issue of participation – who comes to the discussions. How do we ensure that the pluralism of our North American culture is present for the dialogue. Secondly, who names the issues, who determines the agenda. Methods have to be found to be sure that the dominant group within a culture, or the dominant culture among other cultures, does not name the agenda and name the issues. We have to learn how to gracefully forego control, to begin to share power, to share in the process, not to control and dominate the process.

Thirdly, the use of case studies is important in the global feminist process because when women tell their stories you get the context. Telling stories allows people to bring us into their lives in very non-threatening ways. But beyond the stories is the question of what is the meaning of the story. Why did you tell that story? Why is that story important in this context? What is it that you're saying by telling that story? It is the parable method that Jesus used in teaching.

The fourth thing is the creative use of conflict to realize we do disagree and we have to find ways to disagree without falling into ethnic wars, or into any other kind of wars, or having the dialogue break down completely, and picking up our toys and going home which we see too much in global negotiations.

One of the classic examples I have sat through is the conflict of choosing to be nonviolent or accepting the inevitability of violence. It was in dialogue with people in Central America. What it boiled down to is that when you're sitting in the north and you're pretty safe, you can opt for nonviolence, but when you are living in an incredibly oppressive regime, violence may be the only way to destabilize the status quo.

Women are glib in talking about women's experience, yet women of the south challenged us by asking which women's experience are we talking about. Are we talking about the women's experience primarily of educated middle-class women in the north? Are we talking about women's experience of so-called minority women in the north? Are we talking about the women's experience in the Amazonian region of Brazil, or in Peru, or Zambia, or India; or the black women's experience in South Africa as they struggle against Apartheid? Which women's experience are we talking about, because they are not the same. Yet only in recognizing our differences can we uncover our commonalities, because sometimes our differences hit us faster than our commonalities.

For this reason African-American women in the United States do not call themselves feminists anymore, they call themselves womanists. Which is basically African-American liberation theology that includes gender, race, and class because there is not an African-American that can talk about inequities in any kind of relationship without also bringing in the inequities of race relationships. We have a growing movement particularly among Mexican-American women to identify themselves as muheristas, bringing in the question of ethnicity and in some cases race, but also the question of class and culture.

Within the women's movement we are becoming much more distinctive in how we talk about each other. For example for the women of the south the primary agenda is survival – how to feed their children. It's not disagreement so much as emphasis. The other primary agenda for women of the countries to the south is the demand for women's dignity. And that's different for different cultures. In some of the Southeast Asian cultures, the sex trade and sex tourism is one of their biggest agendas. There are different parts of the world where the agenda is defined differently. But primarily survival and women's dignity are the bottom line issues.

Within the global feminist process there must be a more creative use of conflict, a commitment to try to keep working through our differences until we can find a common ground with respect for our differences. I think the global women's movement is struggling to learn how to have cross-religious and cross-cultural dialogue in a way that is creative and liberating for all of us.

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