Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Reflexions on women in religions and feminist theology

This speech was given on June 28, 2013 by Spanish theologian Juan José Tamayo at the inauguration of the School of Feminist Theology, organized by Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir de El Salvador. It is available in its original Spanish on Adital and we bring it to you here in English -- RG

I wish to express my thanks to Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir in El Salvador for having invited me to give this speech on the inauguration of the School of Feminist Theology which will take place from July to December 2013 with a program structured around the three basic cores: History of Feminist Theology, Human Rights of Women -- an Ethical and Theological Commitment, and  Sexuality and Corporeality. The invitation is an honor and a challenge for me. An honor, since it implies having the privilege to assist in placing the first stone of one of the most promising theological experiences -- the birth of the first School of Feminist Theology in El Salvador, which will undoubtedly enrich Latin American liberation theology with new contributions from the gender perspective. A challenge, because this speech, introductory in nature, critically analyzes the attitude of religions towards women and lays the base for a feminist liberation theology developed from the categories of feminist theory -- gender, patriarchy, autonomy, subjectivity, pact between women, gender violence, etc...

I'm going to develop five ideas systematically in this speech:

1. Religions have never gotten along well with women -- not today either -- who are the eternally forgotten ones and the big losers.

2. Religions have exerted every kind of violence against women -- physical, psychological, religious and symbolic.

3. However, women are the most faithful followers of religious precepts, the best teachers in the different faiths and those who, as paradoxical as it may seem, best reproduce the patriarchal structure of religions.

4. But more and more women are rebelling against the religious denominations, without abandoning religion. They are organizing themselves autonomously, departing from the moral guidelines imposed by the religious patriarchy and living out religious experience from their own subjectivity without having to go through the mediation of men.

5. From that rebellion, a new way of thinking and reformulating religious beliefs and practices has emerged in all religions -- feminist theology.

1. Women are the big forgotten ones and losers in religions

a) Women in religions aren't recognized as moral subjects -- they are thought of as minors who need male spiritual guides to lead them along the path of morality, tell them what's good and what's bad, what they can or can't do, especially in matters of sexuality, couple relationships and the education of their children. The moral norms to be fulfilled by women -- far from, if not contrary most of the time to, the egalitarian guidelines of the founders -- are dictated by men, who impose them as mandatory.

In the patriarchal religious imagination, influenced by clerics, imams, rabbis, lamas, gurus, pastors and spiritual guides, women are considered temptresses, behaving lightly, amoral, etc... That image has been developed from certain texts of some sacred books written in patriarchal language, considered valid for all time and every place, and read through fundamentalist eyes and a misogynist mentality.

b) Women are almost never recognized as religious subjects. In many religions, divinity is usually male and tends to be represented only by men. From which Mary Daly concluded, rightly I think, "if God is male, the male is God." Thus, men feel divinely entitled to impose their all-embracing will on women, and religious patriarchy -- God, in short -- legitimizes patriarchy in society. Precisely because only men can represent God, only men can enter the realm of the sacred, the divine world, come into the sanctum sanctorum, go up to the altar, offer the sacrifice, lead community prayer in the mosque, preside at the religious service in the synagogues (with some exceptions).

Only men can be priests in the Catholic Church, imams in Islam and rabbis in Orthodox Judaism, without there being any holy text whatsoever that excludes women. In the Catholic Church, women's ordination is considered a grave delict on the same level as pederasty, heresy, apostasy, and it's punished more severely than pederasty -- with excommunication. Friday communal prayer led by women is described as profanation of the sacred. In the Catholic Church, women can consecrate their lives to God but, because of their sex, they can't represent God. In the mosques, women are usually separated from men -- so as not to contaminate them? -- they are put in the upper part behind a jalousie, and sometimes they even have to come in through a different door than the men.

c) Women are hardly recognized as theological subjects. Religious institutions often put all kinds of obstacles to women studying and teaching theology, interpreting sacred texts, reflecting on faith, etc.. And when they decide or dare to think about faith and do theology from their experiences of suffering and struggle, and interpret the texts of their religions from their subjectivity, from their life experiences, they're usually accused of entering a land that is not theirs and falling into subjectivism. As if men weren't, in their readings and interpretations! In most religions, theology is written in masculine letters.

d) The organization of religions is mostly patriarchally configured -- all Catholic priests and all imams are men, the Dalai Lama is a man, most of the rabbis and the lamas are men. Therefore, religions can be defined as perfect patriarchies. There are, however, notable exceptions in the Protestant churches, which ordain women pastors, priests, and bishops. A practice that should be generalized to end gender discrimination in access to the ordained ministries.

e) It's hard for women to reach positions of responsibility in religious communities. Power is usually held by men. The job of women is to take orders. Which tends to be justified by the androcentric argument of religions, appealing to divine will -- it's God who entrusts power and authority to men. In the case of Christianity, Jesus is appealed to in shutting women out of priestly ordination. The [previous] Pope just said it in the book-interview with journalist Peter Seewald: It's not that we don't want to ordain women priests, not that we don't like it. It's that we can't, because that's how it was established by Christ, who gave the Church shape with the Twelve and then in succession with them, with the bishops and presbyters (priests). In other words, who only ordained men as priests. Pure hard chauvinism and an androcentric reading of the Bible to legitimize the patriarchal organization of the Church!

I wonder, are the Christian churches -- more and more numerous -- that ordain women and acknowledge their priestly and episcopal roles, violating Christ's mandate or are they applying the democratic gospel principle of equality between men and women in their communities?

With the Christian Bible in hand and from a gender hermeneutic, it must be said: a) that what Jesus of Nazareth started wasn't a hierarchical-patriarchal Church like the current one, but an egalitarian movement of men and women; b) that Jesus didn't ordain either men or women priests. On the contrary, he directly and expressly excluded the priesthood from the new religion and eliminated the temple as place of worship, proposing as an alternative worshiping "in spirit and in truth." Christianity, as Díez-Alegría used to say lucidly, is an ethical-prophetic, not an ontological-cultural religion. With the history of the Church in hand and archaeological research, we can state that for various centuries women exercised priestly and episcopal functions. Isn't history, according to the Church, the "teacher of life"?

f) Religions legitimize in many ways the exclusion of women from the public sphere, political life, intellectual activity, the scientific field, and they limit their functions to the domestic arena, the private sphere, the education of their sons and daughters, attending to their husbands, caring for the sick and the elderly, etc...Any type of women's presence in political or social activity is considered alien to "feminine identity" (?) and an abandonment of their true sphere of operations which is the home, with subsequent culpabilization. At most they argue that women can fulfill themselves in the home and at work, which isn't applied to men.

g) Most religions deny women recognition of and exercise of sexual and reproductive rights:

* Women are not masters of their own bodies, which are controlled by their confessors, spiritual directors, husbands, etc.

* Women are not allowed to plan their families -- they must have the sons and daughters that God wants, that God sends them, not the ones they freely choose.

* They can't exercise their sexuality outside of the limits imposed by religion (marriage, heterosexuality). The practice of sexuality outside of marriage or with people of a different sex is prohibited and expressly condemned.

* They are considered impure because of menstruation.

* If they choose to terminate a pregnancy, even in accordance with the law, they're accused of being sinners and criminals and there are even calls for them to be jailed. The religious leaders of Catholicism and Islam, for example, agree on the condemnation and criminalization of abortion.

* Women can't use contraceptive methods because this implies putting obstacles to life.

2. Religions have historically exerted -- and continue to exert today -- various types of violence against women: physical, symbolic and religious

The sacred texts are proof of that. They justify beating women, stoning them, offering them in sacrifice to fulfill a pledge and to appease the wrath of the gods, leaving them locked in the house until they die, imposing silence on them, not recognizing their authority, not valuing their testimony as equal to that of men, etc.. Religious practices come to ratify it. Women aren't granted the presumption of innocence, but are presumed guilty until proven otherwise. They're the ones who fall into temptation and tempt men, and therefore deserve punishment.

Some of the Church Fathers consider them the "gate to Satan" and the "cause of all evil." A theologian as influential in Christianity as Augustine of Hippo comes to state that the inferiority of women belongs to the natural order. Another theologian as decisive in Christian theology as Thomas Aquinas defines woman as an "imperfect man." Luther speaks of women as inferior in mind and body because of having fallen into temptation and states that women weren't created for any other purpose but to serve men and be their helpmates.

The violence of the men of the Church against women, including saints like Augustine of Hippo, is described in all its crudity and realism in a scene from Jostein Gaarder's novel Vita Brevis which includes the letter addressed by Floria Aemilia to Aurelius Augustinus, with whom she had lived as a concubine for twelve years:

"One afternoon you turned to me in a sudden rage, it was after we had shared the gifts of Venus again. Then you hit me. Do you remember how you hit me? who were once a respected teacher of rhetoric, you beat me almost senseless because you had allowed yourself to be tempted by my tenderness. So it was I who had to bear the blame for your lust...You hit me and screamed, Bishop, because now I posed a threat again to the salvation of your soul. Then you seized a stick and beat me again. I wondered if you might want to beat the life out of me, for that might serve the same purpose as if you had castrated yourself. I was not so afraid for my own skin, I was just so broken, so disappointed and so ashamed of [you] that I clearly and distinctly remember wishing that you would do away with me now once and for all." (1)

After telling of the assault in minute detail, Floria comments that she wasn't the one Augustine was beating but Eve -- woman -- and she reminds him, citing Publius Syrius, that whoever behaves unjustly towards one person, threatens many people. At the end of the letter she confesses to the bishop of Hippo with justifiable drama: "I shudder because I fear a time is coming when women will be killed by men of the Church of Rome." (2) And she goes on to raise a chilling question: "But why would they have to be killed, honorable bishop? Because they remind you that you have renounced your own soul and attributes. Think about it. And for whom? For a God, you say, for Him who created the heavens that cover you and the earth on which the women who give birth to you live."(3)

Augustine's former companion is saying to the men of the Church that, if God exists, He will judge them for the pleasures to which they turned their backs and for denying love between men and women. Floria Aemilia ends the letter by informing the bishop that if he was the one who took care of sending her his Confessions so that she would get baptized, she wasn't going to give him that satisfaction.

3. However, women are the most faithful followers of religions

There are those who say that women's orientation towards religion is innate, even genetic, that women are naturally more credulous and, therefore, more assiduous in religious activities. No genetics research demonstrates it. It's a stereotype whose objective is subjecting women to restrictive and repressive religious guidelines. Those who think like that forget that it's been women traditionally in whom religious sentiment has been most instilled. It is, therefore, an induced process which responds to specific education and training.

Women are the best transmitters of religious teachings to their children in the family and to boys and girls in religious places through religious education. They are also the ones who best reproduce the patriarchal organization and androcentric ideology and the ones who most practice religions.

4. The revolt of the women

In the last few decades, we have seen a real rebellion of women in the field of religion, both personally and collectively, both within religions and in society.

a) At the personal level, consciously violating the rules and guidelines in matters of sexuality, couple relationships, family planning, political options, etc...

b) Within religions, creating women's movements and associations that exercise their freedom of organization and function autonomously apart from men and even in conflict with religious authorities.

c) In society, participating actively in feminist movements and social organizations as an expression of the convergence in the struggles for the emancipation of women and as a way of committing themselves to the most vulnerable sectors of society.

d) Women's rebellion within religions is one of the greatest and most significant events in the history of the religious phenomenon, one that has important political and social repercussions. It implies an advance in the struggle for women's emancipation and for the liberation of the marginalized and excluded. Therefore, the feminist rebellion of women believers should receive the support of religious individuals and collectives, but also that of all citizens who are committed to the struggle for the emancipation of people who are subjected to diverse forms of oppression.

The indignation of women believers is their response to the situation of indignity in which they've been placed within most belief systems, religions and spiritual movements.

5. Feminist theology

As a result of this rebellion, there has emerged a new way of living out and thinking about religious faith from women's own subjectivity in the various religions, cultivated especially by women -- feminist theology, which:

a) Starts from women's experiences of suffering, struggle and resistance against patriarchy and its different manifestations.

b) Restores the memory of the foremothers who worked to move history forward towards freedom of the oppressed and for the emancipation of women from all types of discrimination.

c) Is rewriting the history of religions from the gender perspective, giving a voice and leadership role to women who have been silenced by religious patriarchy.

d) Uses the categories of gender theory to critically analyze patriarchal structures and androcentric arguments by the religious denominations, and proposes an alternative theology that contributes to the emancipation of women in all spheres of their existence.

Feminist theology isn't a regional theology that thematically addresses issues related to women, nor one that only matters to women and is being developed by women. It's a theology that is:

a) fundamental, that tries to give reason for faith in God that is not subjected to the patriarchal divine model, and in following Jesus according to the egalitarian movement of men and women who decided to follow him;

b) one of liberation, that seeks to contribute to the salvation of all the oppressed and the transformation of religious structures from male domination;

c) critical, that uses historical-critical methods and feminist theory and uses a hermeneutic of suspicion to interpret the founding texts of the religions from the gender perspective. A hermeneutic of suspicion that also extends to translations and interpretations, which are mostly done from andro-anthropocentric presuppositions;

d) one that acknowledges women as religious, moral, and theological subjects, as direct interlocutors with God without the mediation of men, and as bearers of grace and salvation. Feminist theologies are being developed in most religions.

To the feminist revolution, the first pacifist one in history, the patriarchy is responding with gender violence. To gender-inclusive theology, many religions are responding by excluding women.


* In the 19th century, the religious denominations lost the working class because they stood on the side of the bosses who were exploiting them and condemned the social revolutions that fought for a more just society and for solidarity. The workers turned their backs on the religions because they felt betrayed by them, having become alienated, most of the time, from the egalitarian message of solidarity of their origins.

* In the 20th century, the religious denominations lost the young and the intellectuals because of their fundamentalist philosophical and cultural positions, far from the new climate of modernity.

* If they continue along the patriarchal path on which they're now going, in the 21st century, the religious denominations will lose women, who up to now have been their best and most faithful followers.

Without the working class, without young people, without intellectuals and without women, the religious denominations will have reached their end. And they won't be able to blame anyone for their failure. They themselves will have committed suicide.

(For an elaboration of these ideas, see Juan José Tamayo, Otra teología es posible. Pluralismo religioso, interculturalidad y feminismo, Herder, Barcelona, 2012, 2nd ed., particularly the chapter "Revolución feminista en la teología, pp. 213-265). Notas:

(1) Jostein Gaarder, Vita brevis. La carta de Floria Emilia a Aurelio Agustín, Siruela, Madrid, 1997, pp. 112-113. [Translator's note: An English translation of part of the letter can be found here.]

(2) Ibid., 126.

(3) Ibid, 126-127.