‘The timely, thought-provoking essays of this book provide valuable evidence of the impact of different gender and faith perspectives on practical development issues while also highlighting the complexities and ambiguities of religious influences. Development workers, researchers and social activists will gain from these studies a greater awareness and more critical understanding of how different religious beliefs and practices, whether of Christianity, Buddhism or Islam in the Middle East, Asia, Africa or Latin America, can either be a potential barrier or alternatively a strong incentive for social change.’
Organization and leadership
Throughout most of history, the Christian churches have been run by men, and leadership is still largely in men’s hands. Yet, paradoxically, many churches have also provided the opportunity for women to meet, discuss, Christianity, development, and women’s liberation 69 organize, and learn new skills. Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan revolutionary leader, describes in her autobiography how, at the age of 12, she became a lay preacher, and how the church provided her with the opportunity
to develop leadership qualities and to organize.
However, she criticizes the way in which the priests encouraged her people to remain passive and accept the status quo. Menchu calls for a church of the people, organized by them, and reflecting their experience of hunger and oppression. She sees this church as more than a building or an organizational structure; it is a real change within people. This change should also address the relations between women and men and the ‘machismo’ (male attitude of domination) which she likens to a sickness. Ofelia Ortega from Cuba7 argues that the contribution of Latin American women is essential for the maturity of liberation theology. Its message of good news and deliverance from bondage for the poor must reflect poor women’s experience and needs. In the Christian Base Communities of Latin America, women are represented in significant numbers – the structure of organization is more participatory, and less formal, clerical, and hierarchical than in the traditional church. Here women are free to read and reflect on the Bible from their own perspective and to relate it to their own lives.
Religious orders: an alternative model of community
The convent may at first glance seem an unlikely launch pad for women’s liberation. Yet some women in Europe struggling for the right to vote in the nineteenth century looked back on the convents of the past and claimed that 400 years earlier, these had been communities in which women could develop their potential and serve society. Religious women today suggest that religious communities represent an alternative ‘corporate’ model in social structures which remain dominated by men, and which still position women in family or kinship groups, and identify them as daughters, wives, and mothers.
The church in the marketplace
While the members of religious orders usually make vows of poverty,
Christian religious foundations often hold substantial company shares to provide income. In Britain, Canada and the United States, religious women have played a key role in shareholder action9, challenging transnational corporations (TNCs) to take ethical considerations into account in their operations in countries of the South. This challenge is one form of working in solidarity with those women and men struggling for the liberation of Third World countries. Sharon Ruiz Duremdes from the Philippines, writing in Women in a Changing World, sees this as an important way of ‘doing theology’ for women in the countries of the North.
International networking for change in the churches
The WCC has supported a range of global initiatives focusing on women, of which the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women has been one of the most far-reaching, challenging member churches and providing a voice for women of faith. Theirs is a voice of critical solidarity.
Living Letters makes a series of recommendations to churches. One of them argues that the churches should denounce violence against women, regardless of whether it is culturally sanctioned; another that they should recognize the links between sexism and racism, and combat them at the centre of church life. Another recommendation is that economic injustice against women should be addressed through development programmes and advocacy concerning the root causes of women’s poverty. Economic justice must also be practiced in the way churches are run, through equal opportunities and equal pay. The forms and substance of religious practice need to be re-examined in the light of women’s experience and perspective, and their need for liberation.
The voices of women
What are women themselves saying about religion today? In many social contexts, ‘feminism’ remains a suspect and threatening concept, and many women would reject the title of feminist, while nevertheless following the first principle of feminist theology – being faithful to their own experience. There are a number of positions which I would like to categorize, rather crudely, as follows: re-affirming the faith; reclaiming it; reforming it; and rejecting it.
Re-affirming the faith
Women in the Orthodox churches have argued that it is possible to be faithful to church tradition, and work for change within it. The Living Letters initiative found that, in Russia, the specificity of the roles of women and men means that, in the parishes, the priest has a mostly spiritual role, whereas the administrative decisions are taken by women, who run the parish council.
Women are active in social work and in religious education; they feel that their contribution is recognized and appreciated.
At times of personal or political upheaval, women may choose to reaffirm their religious affiliation. This may be a source of solace, or offer a form of identity; it may be a conservative or a radical move, or it may, paradoxically, contain elements of both. For example, women and men who supported the Catholic Church in Poland in the days of the Cold War were participating in religious practice which presented a radical challenge to the Marxist government of the day, yet the Polish church remained deeply conservative in its attitude to women. ‘Resistance theology’, like ‘resistance politics’, has seldom reflected women’s interests until challenged to do so by women in the movements.