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Regional Programme

Report on Women Doing Theology 2004

Women in the Bible: Women of Struggle, Courage, Hope and Action

October 1 to 9, 2004
Sri Lanka

Women Doing Theology (WDT) 2004 was held in Sri Lanka on 1-9 October 2004, in the Lasallian Centre. 20 young women and men students from the National Movements of India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh participated in this programme.

The aim of WDT 2004 is to empower both women and men students in the South Asian Student Christian Movements to draw examples from the many women in the Bible who had not only struggled with courage, hope and determination but had acted in resolution to resist the patriarchal ideologies and systems that had oppressed them, thus motivating a platform to learn the true meaning of a faith that is inclusive and to perceive the Bible with new eyes and to participate in society as young Christian women and men who are empowered to reflect and take action to transform their life to a courageous, hopeful and community spirit.

Hence, the programme consists of sessions on a Social & Cultural Analysis on Gender in South Asian Context, Bible Studies from Women’s Perspectives, and a study on Feminist Hermeneutics in Biblical Text Interpretations. Besides these major sessions, 2 other important sessions to start off the programme were the Exposure Programme and Her-Story & His-Story—a sharing of each participant on hers and his journey as a woman and a man experiencing different forms of patriarchal oppression. Below is a short report on WDT 2004.

Sharing of Her-story & His-Story

The programme started off with the sharing of Her-Story and His-Story. In many previous women’s programmes, the participants’ sharing of Her-Story has been proved to be useful and helpful before formal sessions begin in a programme as the sharing usually prompt reflections on the participant’s own journey as a woman. This inner reflection would crystalise their thoughts and socialisation, oppression and discrimination, strengths and weaknesses as they live and relate in this society. The sharing of Her-story and His-Story in this WDT raised many issues of gender discrimination and oppression experienced by the participants whether they are apparent or subtle. The participants were then divided into small groups to present their sharing in an activity that is called Sculpture Exercise where the participants sculpted one of the patriarchal oppressions they have experienced. With these shared experiences, the participants have a better understanding of each other and it helped everyone to support and care for each other during the programme.

Exposure

The exposure programme was to facilitate the participants to understand the real and concrete situations of the marginalised women in Sri Lanka. The participants were divided into 2 groups for the 2-day exposure programme. The 2 exposure issues studied were the Women in Tea Plantations and Women in Free Trade Zones.

Women in Tea Plantations

The participants in this exposure group went to Hatton, a central province of Sri Lanka. The major income of the people in this area comes from Tea Trade and its related jobs working in the tea factories and tea plantations. Most of the people in this area are Tamilians whose ancestors came from South India, as such the culture is most related to the South Indian culture and some of them are not documented as Sri Lankan citizens either. Majority of them did not receive much formal education and most women are doing the tea plucking as a job and the men do minor jobs in the tea factories. Because of the poverty, many children do not attend school or they stop their education half way through. Health situations in the area are not ideal as well, and the chilly temperature in the area adds on to the burdens of ill-health. The women received very little salary for their long hours of tea-plucking. The participants experienced the real difficulties that the women face because of the work exploitations by the tea plantations’ owners as well as their husbands who are mostly addicted to alcohol and do not help to provide for the family.

Women in Free Trade Zone (FTZ)

This area which 90% of the export income of Sri Lanka comes from and 75% of the factories situated in the FTZ is related to the garment industry. A majority of the workers here are women, particularly young women from the villages. They work for a very lower wage and most of the women even have to turn to the sex trade to earn extra income. In 2005, the Sri Lankan garment industry will be in a major crisis as the quota from USA will be cancelled. As a result most of the factories are closing down at this moment and many women are losing their jobs. At present, there is an estimation of 5000 workers who have lost their jobs, and it is expected that more than 10000 people will lose their jobs in 2005. While the women not only face the possibility of losing their jobs, they also experience discriminations and harassments from the men in the living quarters and factories. Even when they send money back to their villages, their families would not totally believe that the money sent is earned through hard work but from sex trade. Hence the participants were exposed to various discrimination and exploitation issues faced by the women workers in this exposure programme.

Exposure Sharing

The participants shared about their experiences and reflections on their exposure visits creatively, using dramas, freeze acts and oral presentations. This sharing session helped one group of participants to share and understand the other’s exposure experience, and to also sum up the reflections and feelings of their interaction with the people they have met during the exposure.

Session I – Social & Cultural Analysis of Gender in South Asian Context

Ms. Sivamohan Sumadhi, a lecturer in Social Studies in the University of Peradeniya (Kandy, Sri Lanka), gave the first input on Social & Cultural Analysis of Gender in the South Asian context.

Her analysis reflects on the theory of “the other” where women are often categorised as ‘the other’ in the oppressive structures and ideology of patriarchy that emphasize on the male superiority and ‘right’ to domination. By being categorised as ‘the other’ by male domination, women’s role, image, identity are often deemed inferior and excluded from the oppressive structures of patriarchy often deemed superior based on social and cultural constructions of the gender which begins in the family, to cultures/traditions, to educational institutions, to mass media, to religious institutions etc. The patriarchal oppressions on women and men also run deep into the basis of class, caste, religion, ethnicity in the South Asian context where these issues are causing apparent divisions of superiority and inferiority, giving full meaning to the concept of ‘the other’ where the women usually would be on the last ranking level. Ms. Sumadhi used the examples in the Exposure programme as the referral point in this analysis whereby women workers either in the Tea Plantations or Free Trade Zones experienced multiple oppressions as ‘the other’ based on their gender, class, caste, religion and ethnicity.

Session II – Bible Study from Feminist Perspective

Rev. Malini Devananda, a deaconess of the Anglican Church in Sri Lanka, was the resource person for this session on Bible Study. She challenged the participants to reflect on the biblical scriptures which were written and recorded for men by men from the perspectives of men as women were not allowed to read the bible in early church history. Hence, biblical scriptures are androcentric and have major overtones of patriarchy. At many times, the scriptures silenced women, ignored women and kept them secluded, thus, the scriptures are not written in ways of inclusiveness, sharing and community, but they divide the spirit of humanity and promotes patriarchal structures and domination. Women therefore in this present time who have the space and knowledge to read the bible, need to re-read the bible with new eyes and critique the various levels of patriarchal oppression that could be detected in the scriptures so as to seek the true liberation from oppression and domination as what has always been the central message of God. With the 4 bible studies, Rev. Malini invited the participants to critique the biblical scriptures, discern the core essentials of God and challenged the oppressive patriarchal structures that bound women as well as men.

The 4 bible studies Rev. Malini included were:

  1. Exodus 1:15-20, 1:22-2:10
  2. 2 Samuel 21:1-14
  3. Luke 13:10-17
  4. Comparative study of the 4 gospels on the Annointing of Jesus

The usual reading of the Exodus story would focus on Moses who was deemed as the main actor in the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt. However, Rev. Malini challenged the participants to re-read the Exodus story based on Exodus 1:15-20 and 1:22-2:10 that focused on the story of the mid-wives, Shiprah and Puah as well as Jochobed and young Miriam. Without the intelligence, wit, strategic planning, bravery of these women, Moses would have little chance to survive the edict given by the Pharaoh to kill every Hebrew male child. Shiprah, Puah, Jochobed and young Miriam through their clever work, saved and preserved life instead of taking life, and in preserving life, it indicates a work of partnership with God. However, the recordings in the bible have never indicated the full story of fear and resolution that happened with these important women in their acts of strategy, bravery and life-risking.

In 2 Samuel 21: 1-14, the story of Rizpah, a woman who had no status gathered a movement of women community and solidarity to help her guard the bodies of Saul’s descendants while challenging David to give them a decent burial which is considered justice to the dead in Hebrew culture. David would not have been challenged if there had been no persistent and reasonable cries of demands for justice from Rizpah, and she would not have achieved justice if there had been no support and help from the women in her community.

The participants were challenged to re-write these 2 stories from the women’s perception and to reflect the story and its happening from the feminist perspective that is inclusive, sharing and in community with one another especially in critical times experienced by the mid-wives, Jochobed, young Miriam, Rizpah and the women in the community.

In the story of the Bent Woman in Luke 13:10-17, Rev. Malini invited the participants to an exercise where they were to bent their backs to walk around, talk to each other and to reach up the writing board to write a sentence. Rev. Malini then referred this exercise to the story of the Bent Woman and Jesus’ radical challenge to the Jewish customs of the Sabbath and the touching of women particularly the ostracised and marginalised. This radical challenge was a reminder of the oppressive patriarchal and hierarchical structures that serve to maintain the status quo of the privileged and that do not allow justice, freedom and equality. Rev. Malini then invited the participants to draw and depict the women in their countries who are ‘bent’ owing to the burdens and oppressions they carry.

The participants were then invited to make a comparative study on the story of the Annointing of Jesus by a Woman in the gospel of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, to see what are the changes that have been made throughout the first gospel recorded by Mark to the last one by John. The changes in this story graduated with heavier and heavier dosage of maintaining the patriarchal structures and ideology that serve to maintain the interests of the early church and male Christian theologians and historians. A good example of this change could be seen in the woman anointing the head of Jesus with her expensive perfume in the gospel of Mark and Matthew to the anointing of Jesus’ feet in the gospel of Luke and John that could denote reminding the readers of the status of the woman and the ‘right’ of her to make this action to Jesus, in spite of the central message of the Jesus’ movement and ministry that labouriously tried to tell.

Session III: Feminist Hermeneutics in Biblical Text Interpretations

Dr. Evangeline Anderson-Rajkumar, Associate Professor of the Women’s Studies Department at the United Theological College in Bangalore, India, was the resource person for this session on Feminist Hermeneutics in Biblical Text Interpretations.

Evangeline started the session in a continuation from Rev. Malini’s challenge to the participants to re-read the scriptures and discern the bible and words of God. She pointed out that we often use a conscious or un-conscious selection medium of moral values when reading the bible or when we perceive the world. Hence a selection and reasoning process takes place in our heads that derive from the following concept that Evangeline introduced to the participants, CE4:

  1. Culture
  2. Education (formal or informal, that includes language)
  3. Environment
  4. Experience
  5. Expectations

It is this process that builds up our socialisation and construction that shape our values and worldview. In addition to the CE4, social locations such as class, caste, race, ethnicity, religion, language, sex, urban/rural, country and so on, are also an important factor in influencing the meanings for us. Hence, the process of CE4 with the addition of our social locations which we are brought up with, controls and conditions the meanings and worldviews that emerged for us. We therefore could find our bias and interests in our worldviews. The CE4 and social locations determine how we see the world. We take the society and world with us when we read or interpret the scriptures or texts. Hence, if the process of our CE4 experience is patriarchal, we will read or interpret the biblical scriptures or texts in that particular manner.

In discerning the biblical scriptures, there is thus detection that the stories of women in the bible are included only in so far as they help to understand the male history of Israel and not because the women are important. The word of God has to be liberated for the bible in order that it becomes the liberating word of God. Evangeline shared on the 5 Principles of Interpretation:

  1. What we see depends on where we are standing
  2. When others tell us what they see, you must know that they have a standing just as you have
  3. No matter how much anyone sees, nobody sees it all
  4. What we see is always subject to correction
  5. What do we then do with the text

Hermeneutics connotes the science of interpretation, and Feminist Hermeneutics connotes interpretations wearing lenses of inclusiveness and communitarian spirit of humanity while discerning the oppressive patriarchal structures entrenched in the scriptures that are unjust or ignored the people who had played important roles in biblical history, particularly the women.

The present bible is a bible that comes very much after the time of Jesus (only in the 4th century) and after it has been cannonised by “biblical scholars” who sat and discussed what are the books to be included in the bible. Hence we could detect a His-story in the bible but Her-story is either obviously missing or being interpreted by the male scholars whose values and worldview derived from the patriarchal structures and ideology. The history in the bible is therefore a ‘remembered history’, not actual history, and history is always about “winners’ history”, not “losers’ history”. Thus, there is a need to go beyond the bible because we have bound the word of God within the book (bible) but God is beyond the bible. However it does not mean that the bible has no authority but there is always a need to critique of authority that comes from where, who and for what purpose. Feminist Hermeneutics is hence not for, by of the women but for every human being. There will be no liberation for humanity until all human beings are liberated to live a life of justice, fullness, and equality. When using the frameworks of Feminist Hermeneutics, we are re-reading the bible with new eyes and to be able to search through the bible the people, particularly the women who are forgotten, oppressed and marginalised so that they could be brought to the surface. There is this thing that is called un-negotiable principle in Feminist Hermeneutics—the principle that affirms the life and promotes full human dignity. If there is anything in the structure or in the bible that robs a human of his/her the full potential of being human, that is not the word of God. Feminist Hermeneutics is to use the lenses to see how the word of God can help to promote a human to be created and grow in the image of God. Hence, if there are examples that a scripture are entrenched with overtones of patriarchal structures that strip people of their rights and their potentials, this is therefore not the word of God and not the justice to God, but the patriarchal system that is afraid to be challenged of its power, status, identity and authority.

There are 4 important points to Feminist Hermeneutics (raised by Feminist Theologian, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza) that affirm the women or people whose presence in the bible is obscured by the powers of the patriarchal system, and the roles and work done by the them, particularly the women whose status are usually at the lowest end of the structure:

  1. Hermeneutics of Suspicion
  2. Hermeneutics of Remembrance
  3. Hermeneutics of Proclamation
  4. Hermeneutics of Creative Imagination

In conclusion, Feminist perspective is a constant eye-glass to be worn always. It cannot be removed because it is used to discern the reality and the structures that deny human dignity and that promote oppression. It has to become almost the 2nd self so that when we know we are or become a part of the oppressive system and we are silent in times of injustice, it should make us uncomfortable. It is therefore a new faith mandate for people who professed to be God’s creation and followers of Jesus.

Session IV: Action Plan

In this last session, the participants outlined their own individual action plan to be actualised when they return to their home countries. On the individual Level, one of the very concrete action plan the participants pledged was to use gender sensitive languages in their daily conversations and church worships, while promoting these languages to their friends in the universities as well as churches. On the SCM Level, SCM such as Sri Lanka planned to continue the study on re-reading the Bible from Feminist Perspective with the resource person, Rev. Malini Devanada, while SCM Bangladesh and India planned to bring these experiences back to their own women’s committees for implementation. On the Sub-Regional level, there are tentative plans for another Sub-Regional women’s programme to be organised by the women’s committees in these South Asian SCMs. On the Regional Level, the participants encouraged WSCF AP to continue its motivation of gender justice to the women and men SCMers.

Conclusion

Initially there were huge reservations to include male participants in the Women Doing Theology programme for the worry of compromising an empowerment programme for women students. However, this first experience created many exposures on women’s discrimination and issues in the society of patriarchy and hierarchy thus impacted many deep reflections onto the male participants. Many of these male participants are theological students and many of them planned to serve their local churches when they finish their studies. Therefore, there is a lot of positiveness in their involvement in women’s empowerment in the church and society. Nevertheless, the participants suggested that Women Doing Theology will never be compromised in its tradition contents of re-reading the Bible from Women’s Perspective, understanding women’s discriminations and oppressions and the studies on Feminist Theories and Theologies. It is ideal then to develop another programme of understanding Feminist Theologies and Women’s Issues that will include women and men participants while giving Women Doing Theology the important space to women students and youth.