Twenty young women leaders from the national SCMs of Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Korea, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, participated in the said workshop. The workshop was intent to bring the young women leaders together and provide a space to articulate their life experiences as woman in their own context and facilitate to develop critical feminist analysis framework of women’s oppression, to understand the significance of feminist theology for women’s liberation and transformation, to develop hermeneutical frameworks and methods to enable the participants to re read the Bible together from critical feminist perspectives.
The whole workshop was facilitated by women theologians from Asia – Monica Melanchthon (OT professor at the Gurukul theological College, India), Lizette Tapia (Lecturer at the Union Theological Seminary, Philippines), Moumita Biswas (Ex. Secretary for the Women’s Concerns, CCA). The facilitators conducted Bible studies on the following texts: Judges 11 – (Taking Jephthah to Court), II Kings 5 – (Naaman’s slave girl playing a significant role), Esther 1 – (Vashti’s resistance to power), Genesis 19 – (Lot’s daughters), John 4 – (The Samaritan Woman) by using different methodologies and hermeneutical principles such as: Hermeneutics of Suspicion, Hermeneutics of Critical Evaluation, Hermeneutics of Creative Imagination, Hermeneutics of Remembering and, Hermeneutics of Transformative Action for Change Hermeneutics of Life; Hermeneutics of Wisdom; Hermeneutics of Crying out, Resistance, Asserting and Celebrating.
The participants reflected that the whole process of the workshop was an eye opening, informative, liberating and transformative experiences for them. The participants were equipped with methodologies and they prepared 3 Bible studies using some of the methodologies. The young women leaders are intending to share their knowledge, experiences and resources in their local context by organizing national/local Women Doing Theology workshops. We are also planning to come up with a guide book by compiling the resource materials of the workshop to help the women leaders in facilitating their own WDT workshops for women’s liberation and transformation.
“Attending this workshop has been a blessing for me. It is so inspiring to see so many young women coming together to find new ways and meaning so that the interpretation and the message of the Bible will be more relevant for the readers. Women as young as 17 years attended this workshop and it is such an inspiration to see these women dedicating themselves to work for the women in their own country. Every woman has their own stories and experiences according to their own context and situation but our commonalities lies in our willingness to free ourselves from the oppressive structure and from the oppressive forces that hinders us to move forward in life.
The exposure trip to Pat Pong the biggest red light district in Bangkok is an unforgettable experience. No normal human being in their sense would take pleasure in seeing the performance by the women in those clubs. They were treated as if they are some circus animals. One cannot stop crying looking at them in their eyes. They conceal their pain and humiliation with a smile, just for the sake of survival. And the sad part is that people pay
huge amount of money and take pleasure through these performances, which are meant to add to the titillation of the audiences there. What is more painful is the fact that there are women and mothers who take delight from these shows. And it makes me wonder what if these girls are one of them or one of their daughters. The questions in my mind which I cannot answer are “Who is going to rescue them? What will happen to them when they become old? What happens to their unwanted pregnancy?” The question is endless.
The one thing I really liked about this Workshop is for the fact that all the participants as well as the Resource Persons are women which created a comfort level among the participants. Participants could share whatever we want which otherwise is not possible in the presence of men. The way the Resource persons present and interpret the text is unique. During the Sessions on Hermeneutical Framework for Re-reading the Bible, we made use of some Asian women hermeneutics which make the text very relevant for the Asian women readers. I have never read and experience the way we read and interpret the Biblical texts during this workshop. It is a very new experience which I intend to continue throughout my life. The group discussions and interactions were interesting as we were able to share our own country experiences during this time.”
Woman representatives from a number of Asian countries (plus me from Australia) gathered in Bangkok, Thailand, to give voice to the many unnamed women of the Bible. This article is an awkward attempt to make sense of an unsettling experience that brought the experience of biblical women into the stark relief of modern day reality.
In applying a hermeneutics of lamentation to the story of Esther we imagined the untold stories of the virgins who filled the harem of King Xerxes. These young women had been rounded up from throughout the empire in an attempt to locate a suitable replacement for Queen Vashti who had had the audacity to stand up to the king’s lecherous request for her to parade in front of his drinking buddies at his lavish banquet, and who had consequently been banished from his presence. They were teenagers with no choice in the matter, though we can imagine that their parents may have tried to hide them. Once in the harem they were held for twelve months, given beauty treatments in order to have their opportunity to impress the king in a one night stand; the king rated each virgin and decided her fate. And what of life in the harem? One can only imagine the fear and uncertainty, the longing for home and family, the competitiveness and hurtful gossip, the rejection and degradation. This is royally sanctioned human trafficking.
An important element of the program was an exposure, outing to assist participants to understand issues affecting the people of the host country. Before the trip, I had in mind that a local person would show us sites in the red light district and we would observe„ them in the sanitised manner of western tourism. A few hours before we were due to go I learnt that the exposure would involve attending a show in the famous red light district of Patpong Road. Not just the bikini-clad women dancing on tables that I had seen the previous night whilst wandering through the night markets, but a “pussy show”, a well-known (to everyone except me it seems) Bangkok institution that involves watching women manipulate objects with their vaginas. I was immediately sickened and disgusted at this notion and resolved that I would not attend as I did not want to be yet another western tourist objectifying the women. However I was in two minds after our Thai guide Jane (a lawyer who has advocated for trafficked women and guided people into these shows for the past fifteen years) suggested that it might be possible to buy the women a drink and have a conversation with them, and after one of the lecturers suggested that this would be a life transforming activity. With great trepidation I decided to go.
And so we set out for the red light district, passing through streets that would not have been out of place in Tokyo featuring vertically hanging neon advertising signs on every shop front. Jane informed us that this particular area has evolved to cater for Korean and Japanese men who prefer pale skinned women. Outside every building were loitering women, a number of them clearly transgender, wearing miniskirts and high heels. We were cautioned that every establishment here was a front for offering sex; karaoke bars and restaurants were not what they seemed. Patpong Road was originally a banana plantation; the land had been owned by the Patpong family and was put to use as a rest and recreation area for American soldiers during the Vietnam War.
We then came to the other streets and lanes that make up the area, with more women and transgender people hanging around the outside of buildings and bars, milling with the hundreds of people starting out on their night of fun in the pleasant tropical evening. Here again were the night markets bordering onto clubs blaring loud music, where just inside the doorway one could see women dancing on tabletops in bikinis. This wasn’t dancing in the true sense though; it was not carefree and enjoyable in the way of normal dancing but a work routine that lacked any spontaneity or enjoyment.
As our eyes adjusted to the scene before us I felt a visceral lurching in my stomach as I realised that sitting across from us was a middle-aged white woman out with some friends, gregariously laughing and enjoying the show as she sipped a beer. Near them were a few young white couples. I had expected to see sad men hanging around for sex, which was also the case, but not tourists behaving as those this was a stripper at a hens’ night.
On stage were two women wearing black bikinis doing pole dancing, whilst three other women wearing white bikinis took turns to remove their bikini bottoms and perform tricks using their vaginas. At one stage the woman offered us a bat that was to be used to try to hit the ping-pong balls she was about to propel in our direction. We declined and shifted our gaze. However, the happy tourists threw themselves into the challenge with much mirth, even knocking some of the balls back. As the emperor looked on from his portrait on the wall we endured about half an hour of this macabre freak show before stumbling back out onto the street and into the stalls selling cheap t-shirts and knick knacks. It occurred to me then that this was all about consumption: people come to Bangkok to exploit bodies – female bodies – for sexual gratification, for cheap labour. How much did we pay to see these women demean their bodies? Just 150 baht, the equivalent of $5, which included a drink, and which was three times the price we had been quoted for other similar establishments on the street. What price dignity? Jane had attempted to talk to one of the women when she came asking for tips, but the woman would not be drawn into conversation and so the voices of the women remained unknown to us. I fought back tears as we returned to the hostel and had a restless sleep that night, shocked at what I had seen. Should I have gone on the exposure trip? Part of me still agrees with my gut instinct to stay away; another part of me recognises that nothing else could ever have revealed to me the depth of shame and disgust I felt at seeing white tourists delighting in such degrading acts.
When we looked into the faces of the women at the club we saw tired, bored women who had contempt for those who had come to see them. They had likely been forced into this “work”, probably trafficked from a remote village of Thailand. We mourned the loss of freedom and innocence of these women of Patpong Road just as we mourned for Esther’s sisters who were used and then discarded by the powerful people of their day. We attempted for a short while to enter into the experience of these women and share their sorrow, to imagine what life might be like for those who, because of their beauty and their poverty, are vulnerable within the patriarchy which controls them. The goal of the workshop was to go beyond merely reading the text to consider how women can be liberated and transformed by the Bible. As we lament and pray with our Thai sisters, we in the west can consider how our choices about consumption impact poor Asian women and how our objectification of women’s bodies has spawned an industry that reduces women to their bodily functions and holds men captive to their basest instincts. We can recall that Jesus broke the social taboos of his day by forming relationships with women and giving them active roles in the Jesus movement. We can restore women to their equal place in the Kingdom of Heaven, resisting the assumptions and pervasiveness of patriarchy, and giving priority to the most vulnerable of voiceless women, including Esther’s sisters and the women of Patpong Road. (Jen’s reflection is published in – On The Road entitled as “Mourning Esther’s Sisters on Patpong Road” – Journal of the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand No. 51, December 2011)