Chow Ping’s note: We welcome guest blogger Melanie to share her thoughts on feminism and the church. Melanie has a Masters in Divinity, focusing on contextual theology. She is passionate about social justice and views life through a feminist lens. When she isn’t advocating for Progressive Christianity in Malaysia, she scrolls through Instagram for cat pictures.
I am a feminist. And I am a Christian.
I am who I am today because of the many women and men that came before me. They believed in a vision and I stand on the shoulders of giants.
Present day, male pastors vastly outnumber female pastors, as do male seminarians over their female counterparts.
This is problematic. Is it really?
The Importance of Female Representation (in Malaysia, in leadership, and in religion)
Allow me to quote an old Forbes article: “Empathy is an essential leadership skill”. “Empathy” is defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings and experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”.
The ability to relate to one’s underlings is vital to effective leadership. A good leader must be in touch with the reality of their subordinates. Lest we forget the tale of Queen Marie Antoinette, who upon learning that her peasants had no bread, said “let them eat cake”, punctuating how grossly out of touch she was with the suffering of her subjects.
That is why communities are best led by one of their own, because only their own would truly appreciate the everyday challenges of the community. (With this in mind, we note that 50% of Malaysians are women. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect 50% of our politicians to be women, so as to better represent the interest of the different demographics in Malaysia.)
Women understand what it means to be women in a way that only women can. Although men can be passionate allies of the women experience, it is just not the same. Therefore, for the interest of women to be truly represented, leadership must comprise of women.
Likewise, religion needs more than just female participation. Religion needs female leadership. This is because God is God to women in just the same way that God is God to men. Therefore, a male mediator is not logical.
The Case for Feminism to the Average Woman
There is a misconception by some educated women who hold jobs and live within the middle class that feminism is obsolete. In their worldview, we have progressed from the time of our mothers. We have more freedom, access to education, and life is comfortable as it is. Feminism will only rock the boat, they remark, shaking their heads.
Unequal opportunities, domestic violence, sexual assaults- a bulk of these injustice stem from imbalanced power, power that are intrinsically tied to complicated gender dynamics: the patriarchy. The patriarchy is a masculine method of imposing order on the world. Men are encouraged to suppress emotion, seek power, and resort to anger and violence as acceptable forms of behaviour.
Some privileged women may escape aspects of the patriarchy. But ultimately, we are all victims of the patriarchy.
The antithesis to the patriarchy is feminism. I quote bell hooks as paraphrased by Writing on Glass, “Feminism is an alternative social system, defined as the movement to end sexism. Instead of an ethos of violence and domination, feminism promotes an ethos of love and mutuality.” Feminism is not anti-male. Feminism is not pro-female. Feminism is not looking to exalt women over men. Feminism does not seek to sideline men.
Feminism is not about giving women power within the patriarchal system. Nope. Feminism is about dismantling the patriarchy altogether, so that both women and men are free to express emotions. So that both women and men may embrace their gifts, which may or may not involve leadership. So that both women and men understand that violence is never an acceptable form of behaviour.
So, EVEN IF a woman has lived a happy, peaceful, and contented life, devoid of gender injustice or infringement of her safety, it is not enough that she only thinks of herself. Oblivion to the struggle of others doesn’t negate the necessity of feminism.
Life may be comfortable now but we live precariously. I spent the last few months volunteering at a domestic abuse shelter. It is a place where no women would dream of ending up, much less expect to find themselves in. This is where I learned. Race, education level, family background, income group, beauty, and charm does not immunise one to physical, sexual, and emotional assault. Domestic abuse may happen to anyone, anytime.
Why Faith Need Women
A peek at the church pews today will reveal that majority of the occupants are women and children. I don’t blame the men. Church can be a messy cauldron of mushy sermons and corny music, and men tend to internalise against all that hoohah (another result of the patriarchy).
Since the congregation consist largely of women, shouldn’t we also see more women helming the pulpit? If more women are reading the bible, shouldn’t this be reflected by the influence of female theologians?
Instead, women are handed gender-desensitised faith- theology that assume women experience life as men do. But women do not experience life as men do. Women are more prone to random acts of violence. In the court of public opinion, women’s viewpoints carry less weight than men’s, and women often do not have access to the same resources that men do.
Gender-desentised faith ignores the reality of a woman’s life. Gender-desentised faith is telling women to “eat cake”.
In all honesty, how does this version of faith find relevance in the lived reality of a woman?
The first time I heard of female theologians, I thought, yea, academia should be gender-neutral and fair game. But as time passed, I realised that although women write and publish just as much as men do, it’s the male voices that are “trusted”. Women writers tend to be respected in areas of emotional and mental wellbeing. Male writers are read because they “know their stuff”, whereas women “feel” their way around. Male voices are deemed more “respectable”.
And as far as feminist theology is concerned, the perception is that feminist theology is only relevant to women, that only women benefit from feminist theology.
Feminist theology is also considered a lesser form of theology because it doesn’t deal with the “bigger and more serious” doctrinal questions.
Besides, how many male theologians and influential figures can we name at the top of our heads? Augustine, Karl Barth, Billy Graham, St Francis; their figures adorn the cathedrals that continue to draw crowds of women and men.
Can the same be said of the faithful women of the church? A well known Christian Theology textbook reveals that women make up barely 1% of influential christian personnels. Because some of the names in the textbook are ambiguously gendered names, I googled them, only to be disappointed by picture after picture of men. Don’t get me wrong, I admire and respect the male Christians that have fought to further the Kingdom of God, but this blatant lack of female influence is gravely troubling.
Christianity has rarely been appreciative of its most devout members. If there is any scant mention of women, it is under Feminism or Sexuality subtopics. And when the rare female name does crop up, not all are theologians. Some are politicians. The more famous ones are philosophers of the 20th century. Most, if not all are from the Western world. Yet, even if I were to mention these women, would the average seminarian recognise names like Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Kwok Pui Lan?
Some would argue that there exist women outside this textbook. But if these women are excluded from even the “most internationally-acclaimed and popular Christian theology textbook in use today”, then this serves as a litmus test for the status of women in Christianity.
Christianity badly need women voices. And that’s why I am a Christian feminist.