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Women’s Struggle in the Christian
and Secular Women’s Movement

by Monica J. Melanchthon


In Asia, the patriarchal dictums within the church are far stronger than in the society and hence women within the Church experience many of the problems confronting women in the wider arena of society. The church is in fact far behind the State in granting privileges to women and use scriptural arguments to deny women their rightful place. Many churches today ordain women and allow women to be represented within the decision-making bodies of the church and yet the attitude of most men towards women is far from the ideal. There is still a great amount of suspicion and possibly fear that hinders the church from giving women their rightful place in church and society. But the struggle for equality of women and men within the church will not take root unless it is linked with the wider struggle for empowerment in society. Despite the fact, that the impetus to bring about equal participation of women within the church came from the Secular Women’s movement, the involvement of Christian women in the wider women’s movement is minimal. Those Christian women, who are within the secular movement for change, are unfortunately not able to affect the Church in a significant way. The main reason is the role of religion in each of the movements. Religion does play a dominant role in the lives of women in our traditional cultures whether we are aware of it or not, and influences almost all aspects of our daily life. Hence, serious thought needs to be given to religion and women’s religiosity.

Reasons for the Gap between Church women
and Secular women in the Movement

The gap between the secular women’s movement and the faith-based women’s organisations is far too wide. The reason for this is mainly the role religion play or does not play in the secular movement. The lack of sufficient focus on religious issues or ideals within the secular women’s movement has contributed to the hesitancy of faith-based women’s organisations to join them. The reasons for this may be as follows:

  1. Religion and religious reform has not been a part of the discourse among secular women’s movements. Anyone, who is conversant with the situation in Asia, will realise how important it is to have tolerance, peace and amity among the various religious groups for the all round development and progress of society. Instead, we live in times when religion is politicised and used for the advantage of the dominant group. Most are of the opinion that religion is a hindrance when it comes to women’s emancipation. For religion has been used to justify and sanctify the subordinate positions of women and other minorities. Because religion has contributed to dissention and fragmentation among communities, secular women have shied away from affirming their religious identity and focus instead on the cause of women. A focus on the secular nature of the movement they hoped would save them from the destructive power of religion and make their work more effective.
  2. Many women have themselves been victims of religious orthodoxy and have hence taken on a very antagonistic attitude to religion. And hence statements such as this are made: “it is we who have to stop believing in gods and start believing in ourselves, our inalienable rights to a decent life on this earth. Our rituals have to be taken over by actions, which lead to this. Our God has to be replaced by our love for humanity and our hatred for injustices.”[1] There are not too many examples where institutionalised religion has come to the aid of women suffering from social stigma and violence. Widows, divorced women, battered women and victims of domestic violence, single women, and the like have only found religion to be a deterring factor when it comes to affirmation of their identity. Religion as it is popularly understood and practiced has been detrimental to these women as sought acceptance and support within the faith community.
  3. Also, it is important to acknowledge that women have traditionally not been encouraged to contribute to religious ideological production, which has been under the tight control of men. Creative efforts by women have been sidelined or undermined hindering them from impacting the church and its practice. The question of women’s place in the faith community is a theological and ecclesiological question for it has to do with the very nature of the Community. Despite the feminist critique of mainstream theology and the increase in scholarship, feminist religious discourse is still not taken seriously in our communities. Clearly, in the academy there are a few feminists that are accepted (with a certain degree of cynicism it seems) as significant contributors to the theological debate of our time. But the word “feminist” still arouses suspicion and those whose God-talk is shaped by feminist analysis are not taken seriously.

Churchwomen on the other hand hesitate to participate in the secular women’s movement, precisely because:

  1. Religion and religiosity do not seem to be of concern to the secular women. For women in faith based organisations, religion plays a very important role. It is their faith or religion that provides them with the impetus to work for change and the emancipation of women.
  2. Many churchwomen believe that God or Jesus Christ could not be present in the struggles of secular women. They experience difficulty in trying to decide whether it is appropriate to participate in issues that are political or social. Secular women are political and are often quite vocal of their political leanings, despite not being affiliated to any particular political party. Women in the Church in Asia have by and large been conservative with regard to the relation of Church to State. Such a political stance has been theologically justified by the doctrine of the two kingdoms, improperly understood. Temporal authority has often been looked at as being profane and as being primarily one that is in opposition to the kingdom of God. As Garcia Bachmann says,

Luther’s concept of the two kingdoms has been used to justify violence, injustice, totalitarian regimes etc., because it taught that the church should not interfere in politics. God’s work was seen as opposite to his people’s work. God’s salvation in personal terms was regarded as the only possible work, making void any human effort towards justice, love and peace.[2]

  1. We can see the reluctance of the Church to take gender seriously mirrored in the distressing gender imbalance at decision-making levels. In practical terms, this gender imbalance translates into unequal access to economic resources and information. Women are once again rendered politically, not just socially unequal. Power remains squarely in the hands of men. Sometimes there is no attempt even at token accommodation, let alone allowing women actual participation. Women’s political voices have been successfully marginalised and ignored in the bureaucracy of the Church and society. Men have colonised the language of political, social and theological debate. In some Churches, men are called to tell women’s side of the story. This colonisation of the political, economic and theological arena partly explains why there has been a corresponding deafness in the Churches to the concerns of women. The lack of a high profile women’s movement means that the Church can get away with this discrimination indefinitely. It also means that the women within the Church do not feel sufficiently equipped to participate in the wider movement for emancipation of women. It is essential that the women’s movement within the Church be strengthened and made far more visible and effective than it currently is.

The Contribution of Faith to the women’s movement

The real challenge for women in the wake of emergent global culture is the fragmentation of women and the increasing individualisation of religion. Religion is seldom the common voice inviting all, but as a system tends to be diminished and relegated to the margins. But considering the role that religion plays in the lives of people, particularly in Asia, it is essential that religious resources also be mobilised to counteract the ill effects of sexism and gender violence. Approaching the problem of gender discrimination and analysing it with the tools of social analysis will help us understand the problem but will offer no grounds for hope or the articulation of goals. Analysis alone does not produce hope. Only a religious experience or religion would give grounds for hope and envisioning the goal of overcoming a system that is oppressive and painful. Only a movement that is rooted in religion or faith will have the required stamina, energy and motivation to keep going despite pitfalls and setbacks in the fight for women. Faith enables and equips the movement to see the goal even before it is realised, it provides hope, a hope that something good will come. In times of peace hope gives way to thanks and expects further good. In times of grief and distress, hope still directed towards God, longs for deliverance.[3] This hope is not a lulling opiate but a radical hope that is a critical and creative power for the transformation of the world in its personal, social and cosmic dimensions. It is hope that is rooted in a faith that will not allow you to die in the wilderness.

Religious reflection is not the exclusive prerogative of the clergy or the seminary faculty. All of us make choices and act in certain ways because of the way we think theologically. In other words, our actions are guided by our understandings of God, Humanity, the community and so on. To think theologically is to appropriate the resources of our faith in reflecting on real-life dilemmas and situations. Realising that some people think their way into new ways of acting, while possibly more act their way into new ways of thinking, it remains essential that theology develop in response to empirical or actual situations and this is possible only through involvement in the wider struggle for women’s emancipation.

Traditionally it is religion, which mediates the link between personal life and wider political concern. Religion spells out a way of life as well as a world-view. It is true that religious affiliation has contributed to the distortion of economic and political issues. The result has therefore been socially and politically reactionary. But where efforts have been made to utilise an enlightened and moderate approach, secular approach, and appeals have been made to overcome caste, communalism, and oppression of women it has not resulted in the transformation of personal life and social relations, since it was devoid of religious reform. What do we mean by religious reform?

I really like Dietrich’s definition of religious reform. She defines religious reform “as such a reform which enables individuals and groups to participate in secular, political processes which are struggling for equality of all citizens and against economic, political and cultural exploitation, without being forced to abandon the faith dimension of their religious identity.”[4] It is the possibility of identifying and emphasising the humanitarian content within the religion, the humanist content, which any individual irrespective of religion can relate and adhere to. This latter dimension is an indispensable part of creating a rich secular culture. Christian involvement for the cause of women calls for engagement for the promotion of religious harmony. This feminist concern and perspective, in its turn, will also add a new dimension to inter-religious understanding and dialogue.

Considering the very important role religion plays in determining the status and roles of women in society, efforts to reform religion are as essential as social reform. In fact, I would place a greater emphasis on the former since the former does have impact on women in the social sphere. Closer cooperation and joint efforts would result in being advantageous to both movements and benefit the wider struggle for emancipation and liberation of women. Hence, among other things, far more needs to be done in forging closer cooperation among women within the church and women in the secular women’s movement.

A Call to women in the Church to be involved in the wider women’s movement

Whether we are liberal or conservative or somewhere in between, asking ourselves some basic questions may reveal how we think or act theologically, for example. Do our thoughts about God hinder or help us in loving other persons? Does the way we read the Bible obscure or open our vision of God’s truth? Do the traditions and teaching of our church freeze us in the past or free us for the future? Does our Christian faith contradict or correspond to what we experience in life? Does our theology limit or liberate us in the way we respond to people and the kind of world in which we live? Do our beliefs create barriers or draw us closer to other children of God? Realising that some people think their way into new ways of acting, while possibly more act their way into new ways of thinking, it remains essential that theology develop in response to empirical or actual situations.

God in fact rules over both the secular and the spiritual world. It is said, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). This means that God is in charge of both human conscience and human action.

The Kingdom of God, contrary to what many Christians think, does not signify something that is purely spiritual or outside this world. It is the totality of this material world, spiritual and human that is now introduced into God’s order.[5]

This of course calls for the recognition of the fact that God’s rule is here transforming the consciences of individuals for the establishment of the reign of God through Word and Sacrament and preparing them for the service of the World to counteract forces of evil and to bring about justice, peace and order. God uses individuals, men and women, as God’s instruments for change in both of the realms. The praxis of those who belong to the Reign of God is the evidence of being saved by Jesus Christ and being in relationship with the liberating Christ and instruments of liberation in the world.

Human beings do not live in isolation from the social, economic and political realities of their time. “It is therefore wrong for them to accept existing conditions as given and unchangeable. While struggling for the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth, it must also stand uncompromisingly against every kind of injustice and tyranny.”[6] Christian Women in Asia have for long sought assuage and meaning through works of charity and kindness in response to suffering caused by dehumanising socio-economic and political conditions that are prevalent in the world. But they are expected to proclaim the will of God for all human relationships in the world. In other words, they are to stand against tyranny and injustice. “Saving their souls” or working towards a change in the faith stance of women, educating them and responding to their economic needs through charity, development and welfare programs has never been an issue. But when it comes to the holistic liberation of women[7], women of the official church and majority of its membership is full of ambiguities.[8] It is time that we overcame our fears and allows our faith in the liberating God who identifies with the weak and the oppressed to strengthen us in order to follow on until the goal of women’s freedom and liberation has been reached.

  1. As cited by Gabriele Dietrich in Women’s Movement in India: Conceptual and Religious Reflections (Bangalore: Breakthrough Publications, 1988) 131.
  2. Mercedes Garcia Bachmann, “The Difficult Path from Justification to Justice,” in Viggo Mortensen (ed.), Justice and Justification (Geneva: LWF, 1992) 22. I would not use the word “justify,” but rather “ignore” or “be passive” to describe the response of the church to socio-economic evils.
  3. Elizabeth A. Johnson, Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints, (London: SCM, 1998) 203.
  4. Gabriele Dietrich, Women’s Movement in India: Conceptual and Religious Reflection, 131.
  5. L. Boff and C. Boff, Salvation and Liberation (New York: Orbis, 1979) 56.
  6. Anza Lema, “The Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms: Its Socio-Economic Implications in Our Societies,” in The Gospel and Asian Traditions an APATS Luther Studies Workshop: A Report (Geneva: LWF, 1979) 41.
  7. That is working towards the complete eradication of sexism and its negative implications for women so that they are no longer considered inferior, impure or polluting, and are not discriminated against for jobs, education or survival.
  8. Abraham Ayrookuzhiel, ‘“Dalits’ Challenges to Religious Systems – A people Ignored by Church History,” Indian Church history Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 2 (Dec. 1989): 115-131.