(WOMENSENEWS)–In a season of heightened religiosity and global conflict, Women’s eNews approached three women; thinkers, feminists and practitioners of different religions. We asked how their faith made them who they are and how it fits with feminism.
Christianity Offers Feminism Fertile Ground
Today, Christians around the world celebrate Epiphany or what is commonly known as the visitation of the wise men to the child in Bethlehem. As I think about the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, I’m reminded of gifts bestowed by faith and family, especially the opportunity to grow up a Christian feminist.
To some the term may seem an oxymoron. But as told in the story of the women at the well, with whom Jesus engaged in serious conversation regardless of her status, Jesus respected women and their opinion. And after the resurrection it was to women that he first appeared, once again empowering women to carry the gospel message to the community.
As a Christian feminist I follow the example of Jesus rather than certain church traditions–such as the omission of women from leadership roles–which have created tension between Christianity and feminism.
Growing up in my family of seven, with parents committed to raising children who lived out their faith, my soul became fertile ground for faith and feminism. I cannot remember a day when I felt unequal, or when the gospel message of justice and grace did not ring true for me. God’s grace was a critical factor in the development of all my talents, even if those gifts didn’t fit into society’s idea of gender roles. From a young age I was encouraged to use my gifts of leadership and speech within the church. This led, at age 36, to my becoming vice president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and to preaching in churches around the world. Indeed, my entire life’s work emerged from this nexus of faith and feminism.
Too often, however, faith and feminism seem at odds. Too frequently the women’s movement views Christianity as the realm of the religious right, while faith communities experience the women’s movement as closed to people of faith.
This dissonance must be remedied. In her recent book, "Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance," women’s rights activist and author Helen LaKelly Hunt contends that, now more than ever, what she terms the "split" in feminism, between secular feminists and people of faith, is a split we cannot afford.
"When we divide ourselves along social lines," she writes, "we diminish our power. In fact, we do no better than those who stay within the patriarchal mold of separation and competition." Hunt’s illuminating book calls for a dialogue to reconnect faith and feminism, to create a new and powerful coalition.
People of faith and the secular women’s movement should find a way to embrace and welcome each other to the table. Surely there is enough room at the inn to welcome all through the door. As we celebrate the journey of the wise men and the vision they shared, let us as wise women take this opportunity to begin the building of this important bridge.
Christine Grumm is president and CEO of the Women’s Funding Network, an international alliance of women’s and girls’ funds.
Jewish Orthodoxy Mixed With Feminism
Raised in a loving Orthodox family and community in the 1940s and 1950s, I felt no conflict, no tension, no sense of hierarchy or disadvantage at being female.
In fact, being female in a male-oriented community seemed to have its advantages. When the boys in my grade reached 13 and bar-mitzvah with its public rituals, we shy girls watched from the synagogue women’s balcony with a sense of relief, not envy. When boys were obligated in daily prayer and synagogue attendance, we were content to be let off the hook. We did not understand then that the boys rose naturally to the levels of expectation set for them.
Then came the 1970s and secular feminism. "The Feminine Mystique" and other feminist works made clear that gender equality had to be acknowledged as an emergent standard by which all things– laws, relationships, opportunities, language, politics–be newly judged.
Yet, in my own mind Orthodox Judaism remained a separate and immutable system. A full decade passed until I was able to bridge the lessons of feminism to my own community, comfortable as I was inside it.
Girls needed more opportunity for formal religious celebration of life cycle events; women should have equal access to sacred texts; new institutions had to be created to teach them; a wife ought to be able to exit a bad marriage without being dependent on her husband’s unilateral decision to hold her back; Jewish women should be welcomed to roles of religious authority, long denied to them.
While these issues were different from those of secular feminists, many of the overarching values–equal dignity, equal opportunity, equal standing in the eyes of God and humanity–were the same.
Thirty years later, differences remain between secular and religious feminists. Religious women often work within well-defined parameters. Within Orthodoxy, halakha–the core of Jewish law and tradition–is the guiding, uniting force and the process is one of reinterpretation, not abandonment, of tradition.
Secular feminists, by contrast, work in the world at large, with no constraints other than those inherent in their own vision or lack of power.
But there is room for both sets of feminists to help each other.
Orthodox feminists can teach that gender-role distinctions need not in every instance be labeled sexist. We can, for instance, help secular feminism do a better job of celebrating women when they choose traditional and nurturing roles.
Secular feminists, meanwhile, can teach women like myself–who work in insular communities–that we must step outside our boxes and share in repairing global injustices that continue to affect women worldwide. Women’s disproportionate poverty, crimes against women’s bodies, low self esteem of the girl-child and pockets of persistent discrimination can and should be part of our work.
Each of us–whether secular or religious–has been placed on Earth at a special time. We are blessed to work alongside and inform and inspire each other.
Blu Greenberg is founder of the New York-based JewishOrthodox Feminist Alliance.
Prophet Muhammad Was a Feminist
I still remember my first brush with spiritual feminism as if it happened yesterday: I was no more than 9 years old, living in Kashmir, India, and sleeping in the lap of my saintly grandmother when I saw a love filled bright light which I knew was God. Excited, I shook grandma from her slumber and told her of my dream.
Suddenly I saw my contemplative grandma being transformed into a spiritual heavyweight. She summoned the men to organize a religious custom of offering a meal to the poor in my name. I was told I would not receive gifts but instead would show gratitude to God for unveiling himself to me.
In this act of celebration and charity I saw that women are equal before God and that when he bestows his grace upon us we must reciprocate by connecting with those who are less fortunate as they too are equal in God’s eyes.
As a Muslim girl who continued to learn religion from this deeply spiritual woman, feminism and faith continued to reinforce each other. When my grandmother was 50 and I was about 9, I watched her remove her burqa as she adhered to the Islamic ruling that women beyond a marriageable age can give up their covering. I saw my society curb the practice of polygamy and watched as sexual segregation relaxed in homes, in school and in mosques, where men and women would pray side-by-side.
So when I arrived in the United States in 1974, I had no sense of grievance, subjugation or humiliation. But then I began to witness Islam through news reports it seemed I was seeing it through a distorted lens. I saw Iranian women wrapped in black chadors, Saudi women denied the right to vote or drive, African women suffering female genital mutilation, Pakistani women wrongfully accused of adultery, honor killings in Jordan and rights of education being denied to girls in many Muslim lands.
Prophet Muhammad honored his wife Khadijah, gave property rights to women, abolished the pre-Islamic practice of female infanticide, scrupulously helped with chores and sought his wife’s advice on community affairs. But the reality for Muslim women often does not match the ideals set forth by him.
Wherever obstruction has been encountered by Muslim women, it is not Islam the faith but local traditions and customs.
Therefore the work ahead for Muslim women is to restore the God-given rights of personal fulfillment, justice and equity toward Muslim women by removing the limits placed on them under the banner of false Islamic traditions.
Daisy Khan is executive director of the ASMA Society, an organization based in New York that is dedicated to building bridges between Muslims and Americans.
For more information:
Women’s Funding Network:
Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance:
The ASMA Society: