Faith & Feminism

Women find equality in religious traditions

Because they say “it’s important to hear women’s voices,” a local group called Feminists in Faith formed to discover how religion enriches feminism-and vice versa.

The group, which meets at the University of St. Thomas’ Luann Dummer Center for Women in St. Paul, has engaged Christian, Jewish and Muslim women trailblazers, including Dr. Corrine Carvalho, Rabbi Amy Eilberg and Dr. Fatma Reda, to lead the discussion.

Touching on everything from the language used to describe God to the ordination of women, they argue that their religions embrace feminism at a basic level, despite the legacy of patriarchy that characterizes each tradition.

One thing the group has set out to do is trace the curvature of feminism, its successes and failures, within each religious community. That line isn’t easily drawn, with prevailing thought being tied to the cultural backdrop that is shifting all the time. “As women assert themselves in all walks of life, it is logical that they take a larger and larger role in the faith tradition that nourishes their spirits,” said Linda Hulbert, an administrator for the St. Thomas libraries who belongs to the group.

Karen Schierman, associate director at the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish Christian Learning at Saint John’s University and St. Thomas, said that part of the group’s value is that it instills a deeper appreciation for each faith tradition, regardless of one’s own beliefs. Additionally, “It’s a place for women to safely express concerns. Within all faith traditions, women seek out women … They talk about issues of the heart, mothers and daughters and sisterhood. It’s important to hear women’s voices,” she said.

Dr. Fatma Reda:
Different and vocal

Dr. Fatma Reda, a physician who has a graduate degree in religious philosophy, said her feminism is supported by her reading of the Islamic Koran, which she said treats men and women equally. It doesn’t condone oppression against women or other minorities. “I’ve found feminism in Islam. Feminism wasn’t new to me. I grew up as a feminist,” she said. For starters, the Koran doesn’t imply that Eve seduced Adam in the Garden of Eden, like the Bible does. The couple sinned together. Jointly, they asked for forgiveness. That means that there’s “no such thing as original sin or women having to pay for [Eve’s sin] … Young women don’t grow up feeling that they’re tainted,” she said.

In the Koran, Reda said, men weren’t given authority over women. No one was assigned to comfort the other, she said. They married for the purpose of propagation. And in practice, Muslim women don’t change their last names when they get married, as [many] do in Christian circles. A wife is able to retain control of her money.

Other portions of the Koran have been misconstrued, such as the notion of polygamy, which is something that is reserved only for extreme circumstances. It came about as a result of war times, when many young men lost their lives, Reda said. That left an overabundance of widows. “There weren’t enough men to go around. Widows with orphans went prostituting.” If a man was worried about the plight of the orphans, he was directed to take another wife. So, widows were taken in. “It was an economic thing … Judaism has a rule that if a man dies, his brother is to marry his widow.”

The Koran instructs women to be modest in their dress because female slaves were sold on the basis of breast size while prostitutes profited by exposing their cleavage. The other references to women’s appearance has to do with the women prophets who wore a veil to set themselves apart from everyone else. Unlike in Christian and Jewish traditions, anyone can be a religious leader in Islam (called an imam). But just as in Christianity or Judaism, there’s a big difference between what the scripture says and how it’s put into practice. Many passages have been taken out of context, while historically women have been barred access to the “sources” that would dispel male domination, Reda said.

Like her peers in Feminists in Faith, Reda believes that women’s rights intersect with larger social justice issues. “As I get older, I challenge people more. In my culture, older women are more respected because they’ve acquired something you can’t get from the public library or the Internet,” she said.

Sometimes her views haven’t been popular, especially in Minnesota, where she says the Muslim feminist community is small. Muslims across the state are largely conservative, which she attributes in part to culture shock. Other places, such as California, are more diverse. For that reason, “I have toyed with the idea of leaving Minnesota. At times it has felt suffocating … it’s insulated in a way. … It’s been a challenge for me, being different and being vocal.”

Rabbi Amy Eilberg:
A gender-neutral direction

When Amy Eilberg, a co-founder of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in California, was ordained a rabbi in 1985, she made history. Eilberg was the first woman ordained as a rabbi in the Jewish Conservative movement.

Since then, the number of female rabbis in the movement has grown to 200, which is outpaced by the involvement of those in the Reform and Reconstruction movements. Recently, the Rabbinical Assembly, an international body of Jewish Conservative rabbis, hit a milestone when it appointed its first female director, Julie Schoenfeld. “Women in leadership roles are growing. To some extent, they don’t have seniority yet. It’s a matter of time,” Eilberg said.

As a Jewish feminist, her efforts were once threatening to the establishment. But since that time, hers and others’ views about embracing women in leadership roles in the religious community have entered the mainstream. Often, people don’t make the connection between her work on healing, spirituality and peace and feminism, but they do “tend to notice that just as I helped break ground for women [in her religious community], I am also exploring new dimensions of Jewish life in other ways.”

While much of her work isn’t as controversial as it once was, some still see her as a radical. Others call her a pioneer. No matter what, “Being a feminist is integrally connected to my spiritual life because being a woman is how I observe the world,” Eilberg said. Eilberg said the feminist community within her religion isn’t as apparent as it was in the ’70s and ’80s, when she frequently sat on panels dealing with the subject, but that women rabbis continue to get together. Additionally, there are forums for Jewish feminist writing, while many synagogues host women’s programs. In general, “As the years have passed, the threshold work has been done … in theology, it happens more in writing, in what people talk about and teach,” she said.

For example, new prayer books and other religious texts that acknowledge the female experience have come out in the last decade. Rituals that speak to key moments in women’s lives, such as pregnancy, have been developed. Additionally, evocative imagery is moving in a gender-neutral direction. “We’re backing away from the use of the word ‘lord’ and other hierarchical language that evokes that men are above and women are below,” such as ‘father,’ meaning God. At one time, “Only men’s voices were heard. Now women’s voices can add a commentary.” Likewise, she thought some Christian women “are being encouraged to dare to imagine that God looks like them. God’s love and acceptance for them is as complete [as it is for men] and they speak to God in their own unique voice.”

Nevertheless, women continue to be underrepresented in Jewish organizations. They have a harder time securing prestigious positions, and are cast in certain roles, with an emphasis on the “primacy of relationships, cooperation among people, nurturing the needs of others … there’s transformation because more women are stepping into it with that orientation of heart,” Eilberg said.

Whether it’s Judaism, Christianity or Islam, Eilberg believes the issues remain the same, although she admittedly has less of a handle on the issues facing Muslims. “Social justice activists work to counteract people’s resistance to change, challenging sexism, which means getting “equal pay for equal work, insisting on full respect for women clergy.”

Dr. Corrine Carvalho:
The dirty word

Dr. Corrine Carvalho, an associate professor in the theology department at St. Thomas who also heads the Luann Dummer Center, said feminism is “part of the Christian vocation, true to scripture.” Years after the feminist movement of the ’70s, however, it’s still a point of contention: “I’m shocked at how many people are asking, can you be a feminist and a Christian? It happens less among theologians and many ordained people, but it’s not getting to the pew. I don’t know if that’s the case just in Christianity or not. It’s part and parcel of feminism becoming a dirty word,” she said.

Her students don’t want to be labeled feminists, something that’s tied to the argument that feminism goes against Christianity, Carvalho said. “Certainly there have been feminists who view Christianity as so inherently patriarchal that it should be rejected or completely reconfigured,” she said.

Those who define feminism that way “naturally conclude that I must be hostile to Christianity.” Beyond that, however, “it is difficult for me to say how I’m viewed by ‘my religious community’ since even the question of how my community is would be variable. Do you mean religious authority figures within my particular denomination? Do you mean a general cultural view of people in my denomination? Do you mean Christian women? Christian men? It would be hard for me to say.”

In so far as her faith and feminism goes, “I couldn’t leave either aside. Both are essential components of my identity,” said Carvalho, a lifelong feminist. “I can’t imagine a God for whom women would be unequal to men. There’s no room for superiority or inferiority. If there were no God, it would be easier to argue that men are better. You throw in universal justice and it’s harder to make that argument.”

Within Catholicism, there are those who agree with Carvalho and those who don’t. Some advocate for women priests while others who fight for women’s rights don’t consider themselves feminists. One ongoing debate centers on the question of whether there’s an essential feminist nature, with camps on both sides. “It’s a gender issue,” she said.

Online resources
Christians for Biblical Equity, a nonprofit organization that supports gender equity: www.cbeinter national.org/new/index.shtml.

Mount Saint Agnes, a theological center for women that promotes equality for women in churches: www.mountsaintagnes.org/home.aspx. Women Priests, which works for the ordination of female priests: www.womenpriests.org/index.asp.

Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER), a feminist educational and advocacy center: www.his.com/~mhunt/.

Jewish Women’s Archive, which documents Jewish women’s lives in North America: jwa.org.

On Being a Jewish Feminist edited by Susannah Heschel
Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones, Volume 1, edited by Rabbi Debra Orenstein
Texts of Terror by Phyllis Trible
Liberating Tradition by Kristina LaCelle-Peterson
Feminism and Islam by Mai Yamani
The Veil and the Male Elite by Fatima Mernissie