While religion tends to be a hotly debated topic everywhere, it can sometimes feel even more divisive within the feminist community–especially when it seems like we’re in a constant battle with the religious right over issues such as reproductive and LGBTQI rights. Yet there are feminists who have found their niche writing about religion, whether as an observant person themselves or as one who has left the religious fold.
Feminist bloggers who touch on religion and faith come from a variety of backgrounds, but the ones I recently spoke with all share the same care and thoughtfulness. This two-part Femisphere series includes a round-table discussion among a handful of feminist bloggers from different religious backgrounds, brought together to discuss the intersection of feminism and faith.
First, let’s meet the bloggers:
Name: Erika Davis
Blog: Black, Gay and Jewish
When not blogging: Chief of staff for Hazon, a Jewish environmental organization focused on creating sustainable and healthy communities in the Jewish world and beyond.
Find her tweeting: @BlackGayJewish
The Femisphere: How did you get into blogging about religion?
Nahida: Prevalent (mis)understandings of Islam in the sociopolitical sphere and the incorrect assumption that Islam is a patriarchal religion–whether [propagated] by a self-appointed class of scholars or by the hasty approaches of non-Muslims toward Islamic states that have been left with a static law system after colonialism–was a subject that compelled my interest from the very time I was consciously aware of gender inequality. 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, and the movement ensuing after the Revelation of Islam is in fact a feminist movement, both in terms of women’s liberation as well as in considering the patriarchal resistance that met this liberation–directly, immediately and even contemporarily.
This was before 9/11. But while questions about what it means to be a Muslim woman occupied me long before 9/11 tragedy, the disaster itself saved my faith. I had begun to so adamantly resent my community and the patriarchal influence that had penetrated the most intimate and purest expressions of my faith that there was nothing I could think of that connected me to my community. And then, suddenly, I found myself protecting it with all my heart. And you cannot protect something without loving it; it is simply impossible. You realize, when your community is unjustly under attack, that you could not have resented it as much as you believed.
And so, in the balance of these two things, I began to write publicly.
Libby Anne: I was raised in an extremely devout, conservative, evangelical home. I was home-schooled, and my parents were influenced by the Christian patriarchy movement, so I was taught that my role as a woman was to be a wife, mother and homemaker and to tie my value to the number of children I would have, and that even as an adult I would remain under my father’s authority and be required to obey him until marriage (after which point I would be required to obey my husband). I say all of this because it’s important to provide a background for what happened next. I went to college, not to have a career but to have a degree “just in case” my future husband might end up disabled or dead, and I found my views challenged. I began to open up and explore new ideas and question things I’d been taught, and I experienced horrible backlash from my parents to the extent that I would have PTSD symptoms if I would look at my phone and see my parents’ number. I broke away from my parents’ beliefs, but the process was excruciating and I faced the very real possibility of losing my entire family. I now identify as a feminist, a humanist and an atheist.
I started blogging after finding an online community of others who had broken away from situations like mine, and my blog served as an excellent place of healing and processing. The more I thought about the patriarchal religious ideology I was raised on the more I realized just how much it had affected every aspect of who I was, and I hashed all of this out on my blog. Most of what I blog about has to do with my experiences and how they have affected me; my process of healing and forming my own beliefs; and the problems I see with the religious ideology and political community in which I was raised.
Erika: I came out rather “late” in life at 27 and started blogging initially about coming out. At the time, I’d made the decision to try out the three monotheistic religions in the hopes of finding one that fit, and I created Black, Gay and Jewish when writing about religion and Judaism began taking over my other blog. I was raised by a Baptist mother and a Methodist father but attended Catholic schools for over 12 years. I tried earth-based religions and was a practicing Wiccan for several years before being a “lazy atheist.” I was praying in an Episcopal church here in NYC for a year and planned on having a Jewish year followed by a Muslim year, but once I found Judaism I clicked and didn’t take a Muslim year and instead converted to Judaism in August of last year.
The blog initially served as an online journal about the conversion process, and I also write about the intersections of my identity and the complexities of being a Jew of Color and an LGBTQ Jew. I also write about the crazy, ridiculous, blatantly obvious connections between Islam and Judaism, as well as the similarities between Christianity, Judaism and Islam through religious text, dress and food in the hope of helping to bridge the gaps.
Danielle: I started blogging about five months before I graduated from undergrad and six months before I got married. At that point in my life, I was asking questions that my peers were not ready, able or comfortable discussing. It was frustrating to try to talk about topics like whether or not to change your last name upon marriage, gender roles in relationships, expectations for balancing a career and a family, sexuality and pregnancy, how to be feminist in a Christian marriage and so on. And when I reached out to older Christian women (and men) about these questions, they confidently asserted that “a godly woman submits to her husband and takes his name,” “women are more nurturing so they should stay home with children” and so on. On more than one occasion, my faith in Christ was questioned since I dared to identify as a feminist, even though I tried to explain that I am a feminist precisely because I am a Christian.
Blogging served as a way to process these questions and fears as a Christian, feminist and soon-to-be-wife. It also enabled me to analyze the pros and cons of both my Catholic and evangelical Christian upbringings. I write about faith because it is a core part of who I am, even if I’m consistently angered and disappointed by the rampant sexism and abuse in religion.
What misconceptions have you run into as a feminist who writes about religion/faith?
Danielle: The most prevalent misconception is that I cannot be a feminist and a Christian at the same time. Among Christians, the logic is something like this: Feminists are liberal heathens, so if you identify as a feminist your salvation is in question since all “real” Christians are/should be conservative. Among feminists, there are some who believe that all religions, especially forms of Christianity like Catholicism, are patriarchal tools, and therefore we can’t use these tools to dismantle patriarchy. It’s an arduous process, but the best way I’ve handled and dispelled these misconceptions is by living out my faith, which calls for a commitment to social justice, respect for all people and laying down our privilege and taking up our cross.
Nahida: Like Danielle I’ve also encountered the misconception that feminists can’t be religious, from both the feminist community and the Islamic community. The frustrating consequence of this attitude is that exegesis derived from religious texts that liberate women are dismissed by feminists as “strawman” examples of pro-woman religion (which is in itself a strawman) to inadvertently reinforce the more institutionalized power of self-appointed Muslim clergy. Likewise the same exegesis, when sound and incontrovertible, is credited to the patriarchal institutions that measure its validity rather than the woman who drew it, based on the patriarchal and prevalent feminist impression that religion is patriarchal at the foundation. As a result, adherents of patriarchy are able to claim that there is no need of feminism in Islam because Islam has liberated women, and to allege that the feminist who drew the exegesis achieved this liberation through the patriarchal process itself.
Libby Anne: While I write about religion and faith, I personally don’t adhere to any religion or faith, so my hat’s off to those who do personally combine religion/faith and feminism, because the misconceptions you all face are like nothing I see. I get commenters on my blog assuming that I’m only a feminist because I’m an atheist, and that religion/faith are incompatible. I even received an email specifically stating that feminism was an atheist [movement], as if it were a given, before going on to pose a question I want to say to them “no, my feminism came first.” And then I want to point them in the way of the many feminist Christian bloggers I follow. In a country as religious as this one, I operate under no delusion that secular feminists like myself can ever achieve full equality and the breakdown of patriarchal aspects of our culture on our own. Religion is too ubiquitous, and that makes alliances with religious feminists critical. I stand by my religious sisters in arguing that religion does not have to be patriarchal, and that feminism and religion are more than compatible. I was raised in a patriarchal religious culture. I want more than anything to be able to tell those I left behind that they can embrace the freedom and fresh air of equality without having to give up their deeply held religious beliefs. This is critically important, because until they know this there will be many women held in the bonds of patriarchal religious traditions because they believe that their faith, on the one hand, and equality and freedom on the other, are incompatible, and when facing the choice between the two they choose their faith over equality and freedom. I want this to be a choice they don’t have to make.
Erika: This is a hard one for me, because it’s been my experience that you can be Jewish and a feminist. I’m clearly speaking as a liberal Jew with no community ties to Orthodox Judaism, yet the Orthodox Jewish women I know I would consider to be fairly feminist in their thinking.
There have been a slew of feminist-leaning, pro-female voices within the liberal sects of Judaism. Both Conservative and Reform movements ordain women as rabbis. The Amidah, Judaism’s central prayer, honors the matriarchs as well as the patriarchs in the synagogues I pray in. Most of the opposition I get is because of my sexual orientation or race rather than my gender or my views about women’s roles in Judaism.
Stay tuned for part 2.
Photo collage, left to right: Danielle Vermeer, Erika Davis, Nahida Nisa, via bloggers’ websites. Photo of Libby Anne is not available.