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On the Corner of Faith and Feminism: An Inclusive Alternative to Femen’s Goals

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Originally, this piece appeared as an essay for a Women’s and Gender Studies class. The content has been modified slightly to better fit an online format for a broader audience.

Janet Soskice opens Feminism and Theology with the observation that “it is no secret that some feminists regard the term ‘feminist theology’ as an oxymoron.” Soskice acknowledges in her introduction that Judaism and Christianity “are cast as prime villains in the Western history of the subordination and oppression of women. Their ideologies, their symbolism, and, above all, their established institutions stand accused of putting a stranglehold on women’s aspirations.”  Soskice notes Gloria Steinem’s telling response to the question of whether feminism had been a success – that forty years could not erase the 5000 of “racism, sexism, nationalism and monotheism!”

Despite Marxist predictions that religions would be relegated to “the scrap heap of history,” they have proven their staying power, obviously not “so easy to discard.”  Judaism and Christianity (as well as Islam) have not only “continued to exist and to exert their historical influence, but women have become ever more actively involved with them.”  Soskice cautions, “It is all too easy in the West to forget that three billion of the world’s people belong to one of the major faith traditions.”  In light of the increasingly large population of people (women, in particular) who find themselves drawn to a religious affiliation, Soskice compels her audience that “feminists must surely be willing to concern themselves with the curious interaction of women, theology, and God.”  In Transforming the Faiths of Our Fathers, Ann Braude echoes this sentiment, arguing that “if feminism is in fact incompatible with religion, it can never have the far-reaching impact for which its proponents hope.”

My motivation in addressing this topic may have been initially a self-interested one, but if the personal is political, it is crucial to reconcile–rather than further dichotomize–faith and feminism.  I personally have taken a faith journey similar to that of many of the women I have researched, initially rejecting my faith (or, more accurately, putting it on the backburner) in favor of feminism, then re-adopting my religion when I realized that it need not conflict with my feminist beliefs.  I simultaneously found myself drawn to the Episcopal Church because of the radical inclusion I have experienced within this tradition.  I have found love, community, and healing through this faith community during my time spent as a student at Sewanee: The University of the South, a school with ties to the Episcopalian tradition.  Having experienced the darker sides of religious traditions as well, I am comforted and inspired by those working towards greater inclusivity.  Just two weeks before the Easter Vigil and my confirmation in the Episcopal Church, I watched in horror as Femen chain-sawed a cross, cringing and hoping someone would stop them, while most of my classmates and fellow feminists called them “badass.”

Femen derives their goal to dismantle all religions from the fallacy that religion inherently oppresses women.  Keeping in mind their cultural context, one can hardly blame them for this grim outlook.  The fact remains, however, that many women find empowerment, strength, and healing through faith.  On a practical level, it is simply a more realistic goal to reframe a religion in a inclusive way than to end all of them.  Feminist women of faith have been doing just that within their various religious traditions since the time of the second wave.  Rather than marginalizing them within the feminist movement, feminists should support them in their efforts to bring feminists concerns to religious institutions.  As Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are three major world religions that have received perhaps the greatest amount of feminist criticism, this paper will focus specifically on women in these faith traditions who have fought at the intersection of feminism and faith and celebrate the impacts they have made as they continue to strive for greater visibility and equality.

When addressing the issue of women’s marginalization within Christianity, one should first note that this has not always been the case historically.  Karen Jo Torjesen’s When Women Were Priests demonstrates that women were not always excluded from church leadership.  The early Christian church originated in the private sphere with meetings taking place in homes behind closed doors.  During this period of Christian history, women were the central leaders of the faith.  When the church moved into the public sphere, however, women did not move with it, relegated to the home and thus becoming excluded.  Torjesen’s research importantly demonstrates that the exclusion of women from church leadership is a cultural – rather than biblical – norm.

While feminist theology began in the 1960’s with the second wave feminist movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton compiled The Women’s Bible in 1890’s which served as a precedent for biblical feminist interpretation.  Many Christian feminist scholars have made progress through biblical interpretation.  Even within the context of Christian feminism, however, there has been disagreement on this issue.  Some “believe that the Bible – not progressive revelation or traditions as they developed through communities or were constructed through philosophy – is God’s revealed truth.”  By returning to the original Hebrew or Greek rather than the imprecise and misleading translations, feminist biblical scholars have reframed passages which have been long misappropriated.  For example, as Ellen Davis illustrates in Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, many translations of Proverbs 31 use a subheading such as “A Good Wife” or “The Ideal Woman.”  However there is nothing in the original manuscripts which would compel this interpretation.  In fact, the passage personifies wisdom as a female, illustrating traits of a wise person of any gender.  Other Christian feminists have employed “a more limited definition of inerrancy” when interpreting the Bible, acknowledging the time and place where it was written as relevant to its interpretation.  Feminist theologians have also drawn attention to frequently overlooked passages which advocate for equality and inclusivity, such as Galatians 3:26-8:

For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Lois Miriam Wilson, first woman moderator of the United Church of Canada and later the President of the World Council of Churches, began her identity as a Christian feminist in 1965 when she read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.  Though successfully ordained, Wilson encountered a great deal of sexism in the church at this time, not being trusted to officiate weddings and funerals, for instance.  Since Wilson’s ordination in 1965, however, a great deal has changed within the Christian church as a whole.  Of course, some branches of Christianity have progressed more quickly than others.  Catholicism, for instance, has lagged behind other Christian traditions in terms of the feminist movement, though it seems that reform is on the horizon.  Catholic feminists continue to push at the edges of their faith, such as Sister Elizabeth Johnson.  Johnson’s book The Quest for the Living God received condemnation from the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for its feminist themes, such as the argument for inclusive language (i.e. referring to God with female as well as male pronouns).  Of her struggle, Johnson says, “If you feel deeply enough, you stay.  Not because you’re a masochist, but because it’s worth it.  You’re struggling for the soul of something.”  Johnson keeps a photo on her desk, taken when she lived in South Africa during apartheid, of wall graffiti that read “Hang Mandela.”  Upon further inspection, however, one sees that someone has added “a small, but mighty preposition, transforming the graffiti to read ‘Hang On Mandela.”  Its significance, for Johnson, is paramount:  “Someone took and turned that message in the darkest of days…That picture has become my answer to why I stay in the church.”

In her contribution to Ann Braude’s Transforming the Faith of Our Fathers, co-founder of Ms.magazine Letty Cottin Pogrebin writes of her experience as a Jewish feminist.  Pogrebin “left organized religion because of female exclusion, male supremacy, and a host of sexist indignities and inequalities” but ultimately returned because of anti-Semitism within the feminist movement.  

Pogrebin writes of Deborah and Golda, Jewish women who come to serve as metaphors for what she sees as separate parts of herself:  spiritual and political, respectively.  Deborah’s story in Judges is the “story of Judaism’s most independent woman, the prophet, judge, and military commander whose life has become a metaphor for feminists of faith.”  The Golda to whom she refers is Golda Meir, the woman prime minister of Israel, who served “not only a consummate champion of Jewish nationhood but a rare symbol of female autonomy and power.”  She became Pogrebin’s “trope for the political aspect of my journey, the struggle to assert oneself as a Jew in secular society and as a woman in the Jewish world.”  Pogrebin claims that Jewish feminists must “embrace both Deborah and Golda, the agendas of Judaism and feminism, the people in our faith community and the family of women – while reserving the right to name their errors and resolve their contradictions.”

Pogrebin joined a Reform temple with America’s first woman rabbi Sally Preisand but ultimately “missed the spirit of the Conservative liturgy” of her childhood.  For Pogrebin, leaving the tradition in which she felt most at home would be an exercise in throwing out the baby with the bath water.  She then joined B’nai Jeshurun, an old Conservative congregation “being rejuvenated by an activist rabbi.” Here he “established an inclusive, egalitarian congregation – women, men, straight, gay, singles as well as couples, disabled people, young and old – and a Judaism that found its expression not just in prayer and study but in song, dance, and social action” where she “found [her] spiritual home.”

While at this point Pogrebin identified as a feminist who happened to be Jewish, in the mid-1970s emerged “Jews who happened to be feminists,” working towards “the eradication of male supremacy and gender inequality.”  Pogrebin gives an account of some of the changes during this movement:

Poets and liturgists degendered God language and prayer books.  Educators created nonsexist, female-inclusive Hebrew school curricula.  Feminist scholars drew on the sages and sources to prove women’s entitlement to wear phylacteries or tallit, to serve in the pulpit, have an aliyah, read from the Torah, and count in the minyan.  Some fought for equity in Jewish academia and seminaries.  Others took aim at gender bias in the allocation of community resources and demanded attention be paid to issues like homophobia, reproductive rights, or child care.  Still others advocated for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, problems rarely acknowledged within the community because of the shonde (shame) factor.

The anti-Israel and anti-Semitism in the United Nations International Women’s conferences in 1975 and 1980 led Pogrebin to subsequent research on anti-Semitism in the feminist movement, which ultimately “persuaded [her] to go public as a Jew”:

I could no longer claim my religious identity was ‘irrelevant to my life in the women’s movement or anywhere else.  I could no longer divide myself in half, ignoring Deborah while in Golda’s territory or Golda when on Deborah’s terrain.  As a woman and a Jew, a writer and an activist, it was incumbent on me to behave in the world as representative of both constituencies and to carry the interests of each group into the purview of the other.

Quoting Esther Broner, Pogrebin illustrates the irony of women’s oppression and exclusion within Judaism: “We were told that we were brought out of Egypt from the house of bondage, but we were still our fathers’ daughters, obedient wives, and servers of our children, and were not yet ourselves.”  This history of ethnic oppression, however, provides a solid ground for Jewish feminism; Pogrebin poignantly notes that these “libratory impulses might have originated in our upbringing or in Judaism itself, whose fundamental ethos – intolerance for injustice, empathy with the oppressed, belief in the collective – dovetailed with the feminist struggle.”

Islam, similarly, is rooted in a history of oppression and marginalization, thus providing its own “libratory impulses.”  Azizah Al-Hibri was raised as a devout Muslimah with an excellent education.  When her mother died, her father became overbearing but “used the religious argument to justify his actions.”  Feeling suffocated by him and – by extension – Islam, Al-Hibri turned to Marxism and feminism instead of her faith.  In her own words, “I never totally gave up my religious beliefs – these beliefs were very deeply entrenched – they were just submerged for a while” (48).  

In law school, influenced by a talk Letty Cottin Pogrebin gave on superstition, Al-Hibri prayed for the first time since becoming Marxist and “felt a peace [she] had not felt before” and a sense that she “was doing what [she] was supposed to do” (51).  She returned to her faith “on [her] own terms” this time:  “I had a special relationship with God.  I did not need anybody to teach me the Qur’an because I have done that, I can read it on my own, I can think on my own.”  Like Christian and Jewish feminists, Al-Hibri carefully disrupts the misconception that Islam is an inherently oppressive religion:

It became clear to me that my grandfather had chosen me for leadership in the religious arena.  This might be difficult to understand in light of what we see today.  But no patriarch in this world who is a Muslim can stand in front of me and tell me that Islam would prevent me from doing what I am doing.  There is absolutely no religious backing for such a position, and I know that because I have studied the religion.  This is the power I have.

Ultimately Al-Hibri used her law degree to form Karamah (meaning “dignity”), an organization to protect Muslim women “from the onslaught of my western feminist sisters.”  From this perspective, Al-Hibri gives insight into appropriate and productive avenues for affecting change:

We develop feminist jurisprudence…We do not invent things.  We do not reject tradition.  We just show how patriarchal men have distorted that tradition.  I have taken my message to no less than fourteen Muslim countries where I sat with legislators, I sat with mullahs, I sat with women lawyers and grassroots women…In every place I was well received…But what I am trying to say is that in the Muslim world, if you come to a problem from a faith-based approach, Muslims are more like to listen to you than if you come to them saying “You still believe in religion?  Why don’t you modernize and become secular?”  That goes nowhere.

Certainly this appears to be true in light of the media surrounding Femen. Responding to Jeffrey Tayler’s “Topless Jihad:  Why Femen Is Right,“ Uzma Kolsy’s “Put Your Shirts Back On: Why Femen Is Wrong” discredits Tayler’s claim that Femen ignited “a much-needed discussion on human rights violations against women in the Muslim world.”  Kolsy demonstrates that while Femen achieved the goal of gaining worldwide media attention for Amina, Muslim women saw that Femen’s “motivations and methods reeked of a pervading and deep-rooted ignorance of Islam itself.”  Kolsy adds that “any group with a similarly disengaged and seasonal interest in ‘saving’ Muslim women from their personal beliefs would also be met with a collective groan of frustration.”

This “collective groan” has taken form through a variety of social media outlets. “Muslim Women Against FEMEN” has a group on Facebook, posting photos holding signs in protest of FEMEN’s offensive actions.  Androphilia, a Tumblr blog, features a compilation of some poignant examples:  “I’m a Muslim feminist…Femen does not speak for Muslims or feminists,” “Islam is my liberation…My source of empowerment…My equality,” “Femen can’t tell me what I can and can’t wear! #muslimahpride,” and “I am a proud muslimah.  I don’t need ‘liberating.’  I don’t appreciate being used to reinforce Western Imperialism.  You do not represent me! #muslimahpride.”  Other Muslim women have taken to the Twittersphere, many responding to Femen with #lifeofamuslimfeminist.  Some of these tweets suggest that groups such as Femen may even be stalling the progress that Muslim feminists are making:  “Being silenced by your community about your experiences because it will apparently justify islamophobia #lifeofamuslimfeminist.”

Rather than working with and listening to Muslim feminists, Femen paternalistically and chauvinistically ignores the very women they claim to want to help.  Femen’s leader Inna Shevchenko responded to Muslim women’s protests saying, “They write on their posters that they don’t need liberation but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me.’” Kolsy highlights the irony that these “supposed trailblazers in initiating a discussion on women and religion” refused to listen when Muslim women attempted to engage in the conversation.  

Like Al-Hibri, Kolsy corrects the “flawed presumption that Muslim women are oppressed because Islam is inherently oppressive.”  She writes that “contrary to what Femen would have you believe, it is possible to practice Islam and champion women’s rights at the same time,” adding that “Muslim feminists would tell you as much,” were they not being “drowned out” by Femen.

Even more importantly, Kolsy addresses the dangerous impact of Femen “in the post-9/11 world.”  Groups like Femen “feed the already raging flames of Islamophobia.”  In a time when many people believe that “Islam guides its adherents to commit atrocities,” people must be careful not to “associate violence perpetrated in the name of Islam with an emblem of faith.”  Interestingly, Kolsy points out that although “Femen has deemed [the hijab] a symbol of oppression,” many women actually wear it “against the will of their husbands and fathers who, ironically, fear for their safety in an increasingly Islamophobic climate.”

Jewish and Muslim women in particular belong to a double consciousness, oppressed as women but also as part of an ethnic and religious heritage of marginalization.  Just like African American women often feel torn between their gender and their race, women in these faith traditions feel a pressure to choose between identities as feminists and as women of faith.  When groups like Femen attack the religion itself rather than those who use it as a justification to oppress women, they further marginalize the women they should be empowering.  If we are to advocate for a true choice feminism, women should not feel “the need to defend their faith and their right to choose how they practice it” to feminists.

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