I grew up in a religious-less home. My father is a scientist and does not see a space for a religion in understanding the world. My mother is a feminist who long-ago rejected the Catholic Church that told her she was less important because of her gender. So I was on my own in finding a spiritual home. In my own quest for faith, I attended services and interviewed Islamic, Catholic, Christian, Humanist, Buddhist, and Jewish faith leaders at my school. In this process I found a common thread: they were all activists. They all believed that every living being on the planet is connected and we have a responsibility to care for each other. Ideas I previously associated with social justice, not with religion. Yet despite these findings, I continually hear politicians cite religion as a justification for a conservative ideology and I hear anti-women rhetoric come from patriarchal faith leaders across the country. The most recent incident involving president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Paige Patterson.
This week Patterson was removed from his position as president of the major evangelical congregation, after a petition signed by 3,000 women from the church. The petition explained how Patterson repeatedly advised sexual abuse victims to “pray for their abusive partners” and told women to NOT report abusive partners to law enforcement. Following his resignation hashtags like #ChurchToo and #SBCToo flooded the internet reopening dialogue around sexual violence in religious spaces.
While hearing this news was disheartening and repulsive, I was not surprised. Growing up I developed an association between organized religion and an anti-women agenda. A reputation of which it has certainly earned. Across all major traditional religions in the United States there is a lack of women in positions of religious authority and many faith practices exclude women from important ceremonies. In addition, there seems to be an increasing alliance between male religious leaders and the conservative political agenda. I have heard male faith leaders and conservative politicians alike cite religious morality to argue for controlling women’s reproductive freedom and to justify confining women to the domestic sphere. And in the most extreme cases, religion is used to justify physical violence against women. Extremist political movements across the globe have instrumentalized religion to strengthen their patriarchal structures and legitimize discrimination and violence against women and girls.
That being said, faith and feminism have not always been at odds. During the early women’s suffrage movement in the mid 1800s women drew from scripture to argue against sexism. Abolitionist and Women’s rights activist Lucretia Mott said “it is not Christianity but priestcraft that has subjected women.” Many suffragists found strength and made convincing arguments on the basis of religion. The trend of social justice and faith is evidenced by the work of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others activists. I believe there is a reason why these movements included faith. Religion can be powerful, moving, uniting, transcending, and inspiring. These are elements that womanist, feminist, and all social justice movements need. And this historical tie of faith and justice has not disappeared.
“This historical tie of faith and justice has not disappeared.”
Today, women all over the world are generating feminist readings of their sacred texts and countering fundamentalist interpretations of religion. While these leaders come from very different backgrounds, religious women’s rights advocates are all united in their idea that religious traditions themselves are not oppressive, rather its the patriarchal interpretations that are.
Nahida Nisa, a Muslim activist and blogger writes, “My primary purpose in writing about Islamic feminism is to demonstrate that not only is the Qur’an blatantly anti-patriarchal, it is an actively feminist text.” For example, Qur’an, 3: 195 translates to “I never fail to reward any worker among you for any work you do, be you male or female – you are equal to one another.” Jewish writer and activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin said “I grew up in a home where advancing social justice was as integral to Judaism as lighting Shabbat candles.” The Dean of Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School, Emilie Townes, states, “As a Christian, womanism underscores the power of the gospel working in our lives to set us all free from stereotypes based on gender, sexuality, race, class, physical ability, and all of the ways in which we are humans in God’s creation.” And although I personally do not identify with a religion, I believe these voices are critical to include in the conversation for justice.
Faith matters to many—if not most—of the people in the world. Religion is everywhere and it is not going away. And while religion is continually manipulated and interpreted as anti-woman, anti-queer, anti-foreign born and anti-POC, these interpretations do not necessarily speak to any inherent motivation of religion. While rejecting a faith tradition is an important source of liberation for many people, I also want to recognize that reclaiming a feminist faith can be empowering as well. As feminists, we can be critical of how faiths are practiced while still using them to find empowerment, justice, and love.
Evie Bellew is a rising senior majoring in American Studies and Political Science at Tufts University. She is involved with the Tufts Prison Initiative, Strong Women Strong Girls, and campus activism groups. As a part-time student at the SMFA she loves making art and is the podcast director on the Tufts Observer. In her free time, you will find her interviewing strangers, exploring the outdoors, cooking vegetarian meals, and speaking out against injustice.