When I tell people that I teach courses on Women and Religion, many say “that must be depressing,” seeing religions as inevitable purveyors of patriarchy and misogyny. But then I’m happy to give them the good news: the field of Feminist Theology has led many world religions to be more inclusive of women in rituals, liturgy, and participation, and to discernibly emphasize the value of women. Most people have never heard of Feminist Theology, but since I became aware of it several years ago, it has fascinated and inspired me. It’s also a theoretical perspective that will inform many of my blog posts to come, so here’s a short explanation:
Feminist Theology is an academic field and activist movement begun in the 1970’s. (Not to say feminist critique of religion only started in the ‘70’s. Works by Matilda Gage in 1893 and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1895 are seminal feminist texts questioning the Judeo-Christian view of women). Feminist theologists seek to accomplish both a negative and positive task: the negative task is the critique of and struggle against the oppression of women due to religion, whereas the positive task is one of reform and reconstruction. These religious scholars analyze whether women have been treated appropriately in religions of the past or present, and suggest correctives that would make the religions more just and equitable.
There is a wide range of attitudes regarding what the most useful response to the feminist analysis of religion should be: there are those like Mary Daly, who after years of scrutinizing Christianity, concluded that there can be no Christianity that is healthy for woman because of the entrenched notion of a male God who is used to legitimate the oppression of women. Ayan Hirsi Ali came to a similar conclusion about Islam and women.
Then, there are those who believe reform within existing religions is both possible and effective in improving women’s religious experiences. Examples of these feminist theologists include Judith Plaskow and Blu Greenberg (Jewish), Rosemary Radford Ruether and Delores Williams (Christian), and Amina Wadud, and Leila Ahmed (Muslim). (There are many feminist theologists who focus on Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, indigenous religions, etc., but I’ve chosen to specialize in the three monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, because well, there’s only so many religions I can learn about, and I had a head start being raised Catholic and converting to Judaism as an adult. I wish I had a bigger brain, but it is what it is).
Jewish, Christian, and Muslim feminist theologists who strive to reform their religions may have different agendas and theological perspectives, however, they use many of the same strategies:
Ideology created by the dominant voices in a society tends to be heard as if the status quo is the natural, appropriate way of life. People whose life choices are limited by patriarchy internalize what is taught by those in power. Educating women in alternative ways to relate to God can be revelatory. I remember when I was studying to convert to Reconstructionist Judaism, and found out that part of Jewish worship includes recognizing the feminine aspect of God known as the Shekhina. I was overwhelmed. It was a deep spiritual experience to think that God could be like me, and I could be like God.
2. Asserting that male dominance is not a necessary practice of the tradition.
The idea is that when a religious tradition is “cleansed” of its male dominance, it is actually truer to its core teachings and core vision. For example, when you remove the influence of culture and custom, many Muslim Feminists believe this reveals the Prophet Mohammed’s intention for women and men to be considered of equal value and status. Or when you look at only the words of Jesus rather than those of later developers of Christian dogma, you see a more egalitarian view of Christianity.
3. Examining sacred texts in their original languages.
Certain passages of sacred texts have been used as permission for male dominance and poor treatment of women. Often these interpretations have become so familiar that congregants cannot imagine any other way of reading the text. For feminist scholars to engage intelligently in interpretation, they must be educated in languages like Hebrew and Arabic, as were the multitudes of male religious scholars who came before them. This opens up the possibility to identify mistranslations, and allows for the identification of multiple meanings of words that can lead to very different translations.
So this is just a quick introduction into an exciting academic and activist field. Since the 1970’s, hundreds of books have been written on these topics, and substantial changes have been instituted in the ways many people practice their religions. In future posts, I’ll be talking about the specific ways this change has occurred in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And believe me, there is a lot to talk about.