by Yong Ting Jin
The formation of Asia-Pacific Women’s Committee in 1984 and inception of Regional Women’s Programme [RWP] in 1985 have their deep roots and foundation dating back to a much longer history in the Federation. Our own history of women in the region albeit brief has to be appropriated within the larger history of the WSCF. The birth, growth and development of the programme have gone beyond geographical boundaries, time and space. Hence it should also be a remembering of our history within the global-historical setting of the Federation. This history has basically 2 levels: the external and internal.
It is important to see and link women’s new consciousness and the progress of regional women’s programme by locating it within the larger women’s movement. At the international scene, a progressive surge of women’s movement was gaining momentum across the globe making an impact across class, race, creed and gender. This general and specific uprising of women’s liberation movement all over the world led to the United Nations declaration that 1975 be marked as the International Year of Women. Followed by this the Women’s Decade [1975-1985] was launched and the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women was established. At the same period, women’s struggle on issues of justice and equality were emerging as a question of liberation within the larger human liberation in the soils of Asia-Pacific. This external influence had a direct challenge to women in the SCMs and an indirect impact on the Federation.
Today we have arrived at yet another historical moment. But we owe this moment to our foremothers and sisters who have gone before us in the 100 years of WSCF history! Women in the Federation have created history for change and transformation since the founding of WSCF. Their participation and leadership have laid a strong foundation on which we build our regional programme. Today we claim and inherit this rich and invaluable tradition of our foremothers.
There were many significant periods and generations of women’s participation and critical involvement in the history of WSCF. However, many her-stories went unrecorded, unheard and perhaps even untold in the past century of WSCF life. It is only in the recent two decades that women realized they have to reclaim, research and re-write that part of herstory, known as history, which had formed an essential and significant part of memory and hope in the Federation.
There are two significant periods that have had a direct impact on the history of the Regional Women’s Project and Programme, first is 1972 to 1976 and 1977 to 1981. Women’s leadership elected in the Federation; 1972 North American women initiated a WSCF Women’s Project; 1976 European women set up a WSCF Women’s Project.
In 1977 to 1981, Women’s leadership increased originating from several regions including Asia and Pacific. 1977 WSCF General Assembly held in Sri Lanka passed a mandate that gender issues and women in the WSCF be focused as one of the priorities. Also decision was made to hold Women’s Pre-Assembly in the subsequent GA in 1981 San Francisco. 1977 EXCO passed a resolution that WSCF established its Inter-Regional Women’s Programme. 1977 Women’s Project was initiated on an inter-regional level. 1978 Asia-Pacific women set up a WSCF Women’s Project. 1981 San Francisco GA and Women’s Pre-Assembly brought about significant programmatic and legislative changes. This led to the formation of the Inter-Regional Women’s Commission.
The 1977 General Assembly was a major decisive moment and turning point that heralded in a series of women’s activities and programmes, particularly in Asia-Pacific. This marked a new era of awakening in the region with a greater leap forward for we have inherited the rich tradition of our foremothers and enjoyed the fruits of their labour and toil. They have sown the seeds and paved the way forward. We note specifically women whose leadership and voices have created a major difference in the two General Assemblies of 1977 [Sri Lanka] and 1981 [San Francisco]. By their vocal, political and critical participation, they spearheaded another era of intensive development of women in the Federation by leaps and bounds.
This is an important remembering on many counts. Because this older generation of our mothers/sisters who created history in the last two decades are still making their voices heard not only in the WSCF but also in the church and society at large!
The birth and development of the RWP were rooted in the soils of Asia and the Pacific where women’s oppression was an experienced reality in the overall social, economic and political realities. Thus our vision, theology, objectives, direction and plan of action were shaped and guided by this perspective. What is that Social Reality in context? And how do we analyze the oppression of women including our own given diverse and pluralistic situation in Asia and Pacific?
One general perspective and common framework of analysis women hold in the region is that patriarchy is a system and ideology that have been the overarching rule over other social systems and ideologies. Women found themselves tied to the chains of patriarchy, its ideology and system which had socially conditioned them for so long from the domestic to social, cultural, economic, political, religious and educational realms of life. The multiple forms and manifestations of discrimination and violence against women were the common stories and experiences of women in the home, social and religious places and communities. This common framework for critical analysis of patriarchy and gender oppression was also adopted based on class, race and gender perspectives.
In the context of our realities in the region, SCM-WSCF women identified themselves in the struggle for change. Our context and involvement at the micro and macro levels have influenced and shaped our perspective and vision, which were to translate into our collective plans of action and strategies for building up women and developing women’s programme over the years.
Therefore the vision for change and transformation was two-fold. Firstly, it is analytical in perspective. The women’s struggle forms an integral part of the total human struggle from all forms of oppression towards liberation and new humanity. As the experience of the reality was more than a double oppression, the ensuing tasks were also more than double. There is a need for solidarity with women in struggle who are most oppressed based on their class, race, and gender background. There is a need to strive for change and liberation in the larger society. There is also a need for change and liberation within SCM-WSCF and the church.
Secondly, it is theological. As equally important as a complement to this analytical approach, is the question of making sense of our faith in God: how do we link our faith with our stories and the many stories of women in church and society? Therefore there is the need to re-read and re-interpret the Bible; to encourage and equip women for doing theology from the young women’s experiences and perception.
A Majority of the SCMs is male dominated and patriarchal in terms of structure and organisational set-up. In many ways movement building, leadership style and formation are highly male in perspectives and action, including programme and strategies, planning and implementation. There are questions raised on the types of programme catered to meet the needs of male and female members. What have been the decision-making processes? Where is the place of women in participation and leadership? Do the policy, constitution and by-laws of SCMs and WSCF develop women membership and leadership? Have the programmes integrated women and address the emerging question of women’s oppression and gender inequality?
Therefore in light of the above issues and problems faced by women in the SCMs on all levels, the need for structural changes was urgent. The task ahead was an uphill struggle as women identify, name the problems and tackled them with great care and tactful strategies. It was clear that the call for re-structuring is a holistic issue, which also looked at the question of quantity and quality as two sides of the same coin.
The need to build up and strengthen women for greater participation and leadership at all levels of movement life—local, national and regional was an urgent task and high priority of the region.
Women are giving a new input to the whole concept and model of leadership, including are-definition to bring up a new generation of student and women leaders at all levels. As much of the leadership role model has been shaped by male bias, the concept with its praxis of leadership has to be freed from the highly patriarchal connotations and its subtle entanglements. Critical leadership formation must then work towards collective power-sharing between men and women, students and senior friends; consultative and participatory process in approach; empowering women and students with great sensitivity and tactfulness. Its renewed perspective must be gender and language inclusive too.
Thus, it is believed that such a re-definition and renewed understanding of leadership will also inject a fresh feminist perspective in re-reading the Bible and making faith reflections. This renewed and inclusive perspective should influence its entire structure, movement-building and national programme. The desired outcome and hope was that women’s issues and perspective be fully integrated into the national programme and total life of SCM-WSCF. Underlying this too was the hope that the common social reading of society would gradually incorporate the women’s perspective. The thrust for the above strategies stressed on the quality of development and training.
On the other side of the same coin, the strategy for quantity was to look at how women’s participation and leadership could be improved and increased in numbers through changes and amendments in policy, constitution and by-laws. This is not a shallow number game but a responsible exercise of appropriating power and politics, of asserting/claiming women’s rights and equal place in contributing to the life of the movement and WSCF.
This is gradually taking root and undergoing many reforms and changes in constitutional and policy matters, in all the national and regional structures, in decision-making bodies, leadership formation, movement building and training programmes. As a result, changes in policy and amendments in constitution and by-laws affecting male/female representation to committee meetings and general assemblies, balance in gender representation were adhered to. However this process of implementation was met with various problems. Certain movements chose and continued to ignore the process.
A further important change to ensure women’s empowerment was to institute legislation for women. It was proposed that a whole new section to formalize women’s participation and leadership be written and inserted into the by-laws. At the Regional Committee meeting held in 1989 in Hong Kong, this agenda was raised, worked on and adopted.
However, in order to maintain a balance between the quantity-quality growth, attention must be given to develop women leadership at the local/national levels. But based on several evaluations and observations many SCMs have treated numbers as mere tokenism or window-dressing. In many movements women’s participation at many levels were hampered, discouraged or marginalized. There was a serious neglect in quality training and education for women. This was perceived and experienced as a deliberate political decision and action by male-dominated movements.
It has been a positive tradition and role of the SCM and WSCF to critique the church institution. However, this critique is limited and has its shortcomings. It has failed to address the church as a patriarchal institution where violence against women is a reality in its life and witness. It has been silent on crucial issues that reinforced the negative image of women such as male biblical interpretations, sexist language, church doctrines and Christian traditions.
Plagued by its own problems of leadership, structure, etc, it is unable to go beyond its own captivity to address the whole question of women’s participation and leadership in the church. For as long as the SCMs are male-dominated in character, structure and leadership, women’s struggle for liberation from violence in the church will still be high on the agenda. So how many more “ecumenical decade” will the church and SCM-WSCF need in order to attain full solidarity in commitment and action?
In the beginning women initiated their own caucus back in as early as 1982. But the women’s caucus was a regular activity outside of the structured schedule of several regional programmes, mainly the HRD, Regional Committee and CCA-WSCF Consultation. They had to meet outside of the structured schedule as it either did not consider this as an important part or cater to meet the need of the women participants. Despite the intense programme women had to cope with, they had to meet during break time or odd hours when the male participants enjoyed their rest or break.
As a result over the years, questions were raised and suggestions made that this should be built into the programmes as an important process of creating awareness. Also when the women met, the male participants generally felt insecure or threatened. But for the women they asked why couldn’t the men do something about their problem!
Some men who were more sympathetic and sensitive were about to respond and expressed that they would like to meet in their own caucus. The outcome of this process led to the men’s caucus side by side with the women’s plus the new component of a joint caucus. By this time the various caucuses became a part of the programme proper and were soon integrated into the main structure of all most regional programmes.
Being a process of empowerment the caucuses were aimed at increasing gender awareness and education of both men and women participants. Furthermore, this has resulted positively in realizing the need to provide male facilitator(s) for the men caucus.
It is a major milestone in the region for attaining the employment of a full-time Regional Women’s Coordinator. The idea was prompted by a constant felt-need as early as 1987 voiced at the then Regional Women’s Committee. Since then the felt-need was recognized and affirmed repeatedly which resulted in working towards the goal. It was finally realized in January 1993. This marked the beginning of a further stage of women’s development in the life of the SCMs and WSCF in Asia-Pacific.
Just as the development of the Women’s Programme is historic, so too is the resistance of men in the SCMs and WSCF. In fact, the whole encounter and confrontation at each given period during programmes, committee meetings at various levels have been a very painful process which needed a lot of care, sensitivity and tactfulness.
What did the men think and say about/against the women? The women were told that: a women’s issues and movement were western and liberal; their liberation would come when the national struggle for liberation was achieved; they were perceived as emotional, inferior, less capable than men in almost every field of work except the domestic chores; their place was naturally in the home rather than church and the larger society.
What did women think and tell the men? They were told that: they were male chauvinists, ego-centric, sexist, exclusive, oppressive, etc; more mind than heart; without much feeling; they were perceived to have thought of themselves as superior than women; their place and position was in the church and society, etc.
Women were hurt and angered while men felt insecure and threatened for very varied personal and cultural reasons. Yet amidst anger, frustrations and pains, the growing awareness and openness of more enlightened men became a positive sign. Through formal and informal debates and exchanges, through the separate and joint caucuses, there were steps taken by a good number of men who suggested for the re-education of men in the SCMs and WSCF. The underlying challenge here is that men too need to be freed from the patriarchal web of enslavement.
The outcome of this good intention was expressed in two written reports submitted by men. The first was a report by the men’s caucus during the 1989 Regional Committee Meeting. It was a significant report on a special encounter between men and women with minimum tension and conflict. It is also significant to note that it was at this same meeting that an equal number of women and men were nominated and assigned to work on amendments of the Regional Bye-Laws, including the draft of the entire new chapter on the Regional Women’s Committee. This was written for revision and adoption in the next two years by the Regional Women’s Committee and the 1991 Regional Committee.
The second report was meant to be some kind of a follow up from the 1989’s intentions and plans. This was made at the men’s caucus in New Delhi Regional Committee meeting in 1995 prior to WSCF General Assembly in Ivory Coast.
However, except for some ongoing initiative carried out by exceptional local/national movements, much of what were intended/discussed in the two reports have remained in the shelves. The big question “why?” still remains!
The idea of partnership implies an “open-ended” discovery of life together with new dimensions and dynamics. Since women’s problems are men’s problems, women’s struggle for liberation should be equally men’s struggle for liberation. This of course demanded a more intentional and affirmative response from the men through discussion and study together. In 1992, the Student Empowerment for Transformation [SET] programme was planned as an attempt to search for meaningful partnership in their personal/individual lives and their collective life as SCM/WSCF.
In the earliest initial promotion of the Women’s Project and Programme, it was thought and envisioned that only women needed liberation from all forms of gender oppression and violence against them. Women who struggled for their rights, for justice and freedom have only to work and strive for themselves and for other women. Progressive and enlightened men were expected to assume their role and participation in terms of giving support and solidarity. But gradually more and more women began to realize that men too needed their own liberation from the claws of patriarchy.
The liberation of men is distinct from that of women. The former is perceived from the viewpoint of being the beneficiaries of the patriarchal ideology and system while the latter is one of an oppressed and discriminated position in the systemic patriarchy and its ideology. But like women, men have to be freed from the personal, social, cultural and structural levels. Such a process is visible only among a small minority of SCM men. Only one or two SCMs have a formal/regular men’s group/caucus. But the thought of men’s need for liberation is neither a widespread notion nor recognition by men themselves. There is still ample lip service paid for the recognition of women’s rights while it has become more like a populist rhetoric. The initiative along with the process had to spring from a personal conviction, experience and repentance. Without this process, true and genuine, equal and responsible partnership will not come about. And most of all there will not be total human liberation from all forms of bondage and oppression.
In making a self critical assessment of our own programme at this juncture, one could appraise that we have assumed a distinct role particularly in the political life of the Federation at varying degrees in the movements and region. Indeed, the role we have played has called into question the history, structure, movement building, leadership, theology and overall praxis of the global fellowship. These critical and new questions are demanding for new and different answers. By our passion and action we have demonstrated ourselves a visible and vocal political force in the life of the Federation.
From our storytelling to analyzing and evaluating our history, we are giving a fresh women’s approach to write or re-construct our histories. Stories are viewed as expressions of experience. But if they told only of male experience they have not spoken for you and me and women in the SCM-WSCF. Therefore women need to tell and interpret herstory because history is remembering one’s past, one’s identity, one’s story and one’s experience. So let us continue to create history as we march towards the millennium as well as into the second century of WSCFhistory!