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A Faith Reflection on the Theme:

Women Reclaiming the Power of Voice and Speech

by Dr. Evangeline Anderson-Rajkumar

Evangeline is very supportive senior friend of SCM India as well as WSCF AP. She is an Associate Professor of the Women Studies Department at the UTC in Bangalore, India, and also the President of the Association of Theologically Trained Women of India.

‘Speech is silver, silence is gold’. This is a proverb that was often quoted by my teacher when I was in primary school. She would continue: A ‘good girl’ does not laugh or talk aloud, one who is seen and not heard…Silence was thus projected as a value and mark of a virtuous woman. What we need to realise is that silence is not just projected as a value and a virtue but it is a condition imposed on a woman by denying her the power of speech, by devaluing her speech, discrediting her voice even before she has spoken, restricting the validity of her speech to a specific space and time and defining what is Voice and Speech by ascribing differential authority to that voice.

In a patriarchal society, we find different manifestations of power and control over a woman’s voice. A woman’s witness is counted as only half a witness of that of a man according to Islamic laws. Women have no voting right in many churches. One of the aspects of denying woman the right to ordained ministry is to say that women have no power to utter the words of institution. Nothing “changes” when a woman utters a word!? Many women in Indian context would not refer to their husbands by name out of respect, because of tradition and culture, because it is also indicated as dangerous. A Hindu woman is told that each time she utters the name of her husband, his life span would reduce by a day! Since her identity in society as an auspicious married woman is dependent on her marital status, the woman continues to call her husband as “Ennanga” (which is literally an attempt to draw the attention of a person and not a special name!!!). Proverbs, jokes, stories are prevalent in every culture to devalue the voice and speech of the woman as chatter and gossip. The few occasions when a woman’s voice is credited with authority and power is when she is possessed by a “spirit.” At that time, the people accept whatever she says as “God” speaking through the woman.

In the Bible too, we read of instances/references where the woman’s voice and speech is discredited, disallowed, denied and devalued. In Numbers 30, we read of how a vow is rendered valid or invalid depending on whether it is a man or a woman who makes the vow. In Numbers 12, we read how Miriam and Aaron question Moses’ authority saying: “Did God speak only through you Moses?” and Miriam alone gets punished with leprosy for challenging authority. In the New Testament too, we read how the message of resurrection is put into the mouth of Peter (I Cor. 15:3-5) instead of Mary Magdalene (according to the Gospels). While Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ is followed by awards, rewards and praises galore, we do not read of such an overwhelming acknowledgment when Martha confesses that Jesus is the Messiah in John ch. 11. While God seems to hear the anguished silence of Abraham while preparing to sacrifice Isaac and opened Abraham’s eyes to see a goat as substitute, God seems not to have heard the anguished innocent silence of Jephthah’s daughter! Stories of violence, silence and discrimination pass off as normal narration of history. It is within such a context that we are called to look at the Bible and raise critical questions that challenge our faith, reason and understanding. 

I have chosen the text of Numbers 27:1-11 which is the story of the daughters of Zelophead. It is indeed remarkable that the five daughters’ names are remembered, given the reality of the patriarchal context where the identity of many women are described as someone’s mother, daughter, daughter-in-law, wife, concubine, sister and so on. We may raise some preliminary questions like: Would the daughters have gone seeking for a portion of land for themselves if they had a brother or if their father was not dead? How can we look at Numbers 27 and Numbers 36 together with regard to what Moses commands the daughters? In Numb. 27, Moses directly asks/challenges God before the people, whereas in Num. 36, Moses does not seek God’s opinion whether the daughters have to marry within their own tribe, but orders them to do so following a private conversation with the men of the tribe of Manasseh.

I would like to look at the text Numbers 27:1-11 as basically a text that challenges the patriarchal structures of that time. Here below are the few challenges that I see:

Challenge of Space

Genderising space is one of the characteristic elements of a patriarchal society. A kitchen, for example, is often marked as a “woman’s” space within the home. Home itself is a private space as compared to the outer world—the public space, and woman is often confined to the home, in the name of tradition, culture, protection, safety and security. In the text, we see that the five daughters challenge the genderisation of space and come of the home to the tent of meeting which is a “banned space” for a woman. The ideology of ‘purity-pollution’ plays a major role in legitimising the banning of women from the “sacred” space.

Challenge of Authority

The five sisters perhaps had heard of the “punishment” given to Miriam for challenging the authority of Moses (Num. 12), but this apparently did not deter them from challenging Moses, the symbol of highest authority next to God. I believe that it was not for the love of defying the law but taking the experience—of feeling discriminated, denied and alienated—seriously, as something that should be challenged. Authority that is used to keep people bound within structures of oppression is often imagined to be a permanent bond but it is precisely such abusive authority that is to be critically challenged. The five sisters do engage in the task of challenging authority. 

Challenge of Silence

Silence is not a virtue for the women, especially when it confines them to limited social roles, defines their subjectivity and identity, spells out the social expectations and values that mark the women as gullible, forgiving, patient, enduring, sacrificing and so on. The women did not stay indoors but came out into the open and broke their silence. In fact, they brought to public discourse what they had started as private conversation of sharing stories and experiences of pain, alienation and denial. This is once again a lesson for us to realise that sisterhood, networking and being part of movements is very important to carry further the questions that challenge injustice. Radical change will not occur if there is an imposed culturally conditioned silence. Breaking forth into speech, hearing our own voice, sharing with one another—all these are marked stages in the process of gender awareness and Leadership training.

Challenge of Laws

The five sisters follow a strategy in challenging the law that was given by God through Moses. Even though we can raise a question as to whether the five sisters would have come to Moses to plead for equal right of inheriting property if their father had been alive or if they had a brother, what I see is a clear motive for justice. It is important to note that laws and rules are made by the powerful to keep the powerless dependent and subordinate. The quest for liberation begins when we see the link between power, control and identity. When God has created woman and man in God’s own image, why should the social structures and powers deny the woman of her right to voice and speech? How can laws be reframed within a new inclusive non-patriarchal framework? How can empowerment of human beings become a reality if there was no possibility to challenge the authority of Laws?

Challenge of the mode of communication

Moses perhaps was shocked when the five sisters demanded that they be also given a share in the land. Perhaps Moses believed that patriarchy was a ‘divine normative pattern’ in the society. Moses immediately turns to God with the question of land for the daughters and he is surprised by God’s answer naming that what the daughters asked was right. This message/mandate is yet to become a reality in our society. We see that Moses who was keen on putting the question of the five daughters of Zelophead to God does not follow the same pattern when men of the tribe come and complain privately to Moses about giving the women a share in the land. (Num. 36) They demand that the women should choose their husbands from within the tribe itself so that the property does not disappear. There are no questions raised as to why the land should be assumed to go away to other tribes if women had their own identity and right to own land in their own names? Thus the women, the five daughters of Zelophead challenge also the mode of communication. They are not satisfied with private conversations within the home concerning their experience of depravity and injustice and followed strategies to pursue their goal of justice. 

We have stories/texts like Numbers 27 which capture for us, those strands of voices for justice and equality. Women need to reclaim the power of their voice and speech. First of all, they need to unlearn some myths that silence is a virtue for women. We have lived in the culture of silence for ages and it is difficult to come out of it, overnight. Jesus stands at the center of our Christian faith and shows how he affirmed women, their faith and their ministry. The pattern of relationship between women and men in Jesus’ community was an egalitarian one. That Mary was chosen to be the apostle to apostles to proclaim the message of resurrection underlines the fact that Jesus affirmed the voice and speech of women. We need to reclaim and restore the power of voice and speech, that which was given by God as a gift to humanity. AMEN. 

Questions for group discussion

  1. How do we challenge abusive authority in our church and society?
  2. How do we envision the future of our church and society in terms of equal participation of women and men?
  3. How shall we plan our strategies together to build equal partnership between women and men?