Thursday, January 15, 2015

Led by a Women’s Mosque: Space Of Our Own. By Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente

Imaan is an initiative for the promotion of inter-religious dialogue between Women of Faith in Chile and other countries. A space for meeting, education and networking for those interested in theological, ethical, and ritual work done by women – a space to facilitate the development of critical thinking about the role of religion in regard to human rights, gender equality, freedom of expression, and peace building.

Since 2013, we have conducted workshops, conferences, and ecumenical meetings that have allowed us to connect with other women and form mutually supportive alliances to strengthen and develop our spirituality from a critical perspective on mainstream narratives that put us at a disadvantage for the reason of gender.

One of Imaan’s key activities is developing “A Women’s Mosque” project, an initiative that aims to be a meeting place for women and our spirituality.

A Women’s Mosque
The idea came after a meeting to discuss Islam and encourage inter-faith dialogue between women from different denominations. In a moment, they asked me about sex segregation in mosques, which led us to a broader reflection on the position of women in the religious space (both material and symbolic), and how uncomfortable we were with that.

We realized that, in different ways, places of worship displace women – whether to relegate us to separate rooms, not allow us to speak, or limit our participation to "strictly female" issues such as maternity, caregiving, the role of wife. And, of course, clothing, always from a patriarchal "canonical" perspective.

So we decided to join together to create our own space because:

  • Despite religious differences, we identify ourselves as feminists and /or hold a very critical view of the narratives about the sacred and the feminine from the elites of our religions.
  • We share the conviction that revelations are ossified in a reading of androcentrism and oppression, and they CAN, MUST, and REQUIRE a reading of liberation and this SHOULD and HAVE TO, performed by women across the board of all faiths, from a challenging standpoint to question the religious status quo.
  • The traditional places of worship and adoration do not represent us. In those spaces we are silenced, cornered, and invisible; and we have to adhere to a male-centered narrative to gain some respect. The distribution of space, what we can or can’t do and the behavior that is expected from us, does not express what we want or expect of ourselves as spiritual beings.
  • Patriarchy has taught us to mistrust ourselves, our abilities, and our potential to do so with our sisters. We have to start to trust, believe, support, and recognize the voices, potential, and abilities of other women if we want to tackle patriarchy in religion and open new paths for women in spirituality.
  • Every woman has spiritual concerns that are not always met in traditional worship sites. We recover the idea of the view the Mosque as a place of meeting, reflection, and knowledge-sharing to highlight the significant role that women have had in forming and strengthening their communities in the early days of history – a role that was made invisible by patriarchy extensively and, especially, to challenge the cultural imaginary on women believer and the prevailing androcentrism in religious spaces.
"We wanted a space without hierarchy, to come together and share experiences and learn how other women live their faith," said Maria del Carmen, a Lutheran Christian. "I was sick of hearing that we are important only when it comes to listening; to serve coffee; and decorate the hall for worship" states Roxana, a Baptist Christian. Victoria is agnostic and enthusiastically proclaims, "I have been in three meetings. I am not a practicing any religion, but I believe that spirituality goes beyond that; here I meet and connect with women who are different from me in a relaxed and non-judgmental frame, which in other contexts is very difficult”.
Breaking the Glass Wall
Is this space for women only?
Yes. It will be a space for women only and there are good reasons behind this. I know it's easy for those who have a superficial approach to inequality to accuse this initiative of sexism. 
However, in the struggle for equality in all aspects of life, women have to fight on at least two fronts: One, inequality in relation to men by gender. Second, with a solution I consider essential and #1 priority, is the negative socialization we grow up with as girls. This socialism breeds a lack of confidence and isolates women from each other via the competition that patriarchy inspires.
It is important to understand that when I speak of "androcentrism" or "male narratives" I am not referring to men as individuals. Creating a space of spiritual empowerment for women is not intended against men, but on behalf of women. 
We are educated in this mistrust since childhood. Just pay attention to fairy tales: there are always women fighting or competing against each other for the attention of a man. By considering other women as the enemy, we isolate ourselves and enable the "Culture of Silence" in which women do not talk about our problems; instead, we apologize for our successes and are shamed for being victims of violence.
This competition between women is an extra disadvantage that adds to the existent inequality. Therefore, to fight the inequality in society, we as women, must first recognize the value in ourselves and work to heal the inequality and distrust between us.
The negative socialization among women keeps us living separated by a Glass Wall: We see each other but we don’t hear each other, nor do we connect with each other. We believe we are alone because the glass wall keeps us isolated. Maybe you have heard a woman saying, “I never talked about this before because I thought I was the only one suffering with this”. This is a common expression of the glass wall.
Solving inequality is not giving to all people the same, but is about giving each person what she needs. In a patriarchal civilization like ours (where women are objects), we need to build our own identities to discover our individuality and do it in sisterhood with other women. Together we are stronger, but that “Us” must be cultivated and encouraged. We are never alone. It is good to have a space to remember and socialize this: WE ARE NOT ALONE. It is education for mistrust, the conditioning to mutual competition and the Culture of Silence that keep us self-censored and isolated from each other. 
As women, we must break the glass ceiling that keeps us from moving toward positions of power and decision-making in society. But first, breaking the glass wall is essential to breaking down the walls, cells, and cages that imprison us because of the domestication of Patriarchy.
Breaking the Glass Wall will help us find our voice and make it heard. Speaking for ourselves is like saying "Open Sesame". The words give life. Unexpected things happen when we break the silence: Like discovering a route to our authentic selves.
Why Spirituality?
Everything starts when you believe. Awareness of our situation must come from internal changes that come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the "real world” unless it happens first in the images we carry in our heads and the feeling of our souls.
The misogyny of religious practices not only affects the exercise of our rights as women and our position in society, but also our self-perception and inner life. Every time a woman discovers her intrinsic value and her inherent dignity, her mood changes, her spirit becomes lighter, and her soul gains new strength. 
Spirituality is not exclusively religious. What happened is that religion has limited spirituality. Since religion is controlled by Patriarchy, the Patriarchate is in charge to decide what spirituality is and what is not.
The Women's Mosque project is an attempt to revive spirituality, to instill the idea of “sacred” as a way to be in this life, and to look at other women and recognize us in them. This initiative challenges the patriarchal discourse about the "Divine Truth" as a monolithic issue, one whose meaning is fixed by male narratives and mediatized by hierarchy; one where women only act as silent and submissive recipients, by engaging in a dialectical and collective construction of "Truth" in spirituality from the voices and experiences of women owning their agency.
Patriarchy starts and ends within. In the fight for our freedom and autonomy, conquering our spiritual life is the beginning of our conquest: Religions that are manipulated by androcentrism have not only hijacked our religious rights, but also have silenced us under a narrative of submission, pushing us toward margins in religious spaces, and declaring non-grata our voices and presence. To own the world we must begin by owning ourselves. We must find our voice and give it authority, truth, and value. We must push forward to speak for ourselves
It is better to do this in sorority. Revelations, and all the ideas they generate, are useless if they do not serve the pursuit of social justice and empowerment to improve our roles as individuals in our communities. Sorority has nothing to do with being friends or agreeing on everything. Overcoming negative socialization and creating sorority is not about loving each other for life (even though it is better when this this happens). Instead, it is a strategy to support, promote, and strengthen each other on our individual journeys to spiritual autonomy to develop our talents and abilities. It's as simple and difficult as what the Prophet Muhammad said in a hadith: "Being a true believer is to wish for others what I want for myself". 
The sacred and the spiritual are present in everyday life. Our daily prayer is sacred, but also our outrage at social injustice. Our books are sacred, but no more so than our freedom to decide how we want to live. Spirituality can be found in a mantra and in the sincere advice we share with our friends. Sacred are our cultural traditions – as well as our joy, our memories, and moments of solitude. Spirituality is the connection with our Creator, the finding of our divine feminine, and the multiple possibilities of pleasure our body gives us. 
I believe that “The Sacred” is not exemplified in wooden images or in religious declarations burdened with theological ideologies, but in the open dialogue between people who recognize each other as equal. I think that God is seen less in judgments and labels and more in the shared knowledge and experience we have in our everyday lives. “Holy” are our endeavors in finding the truth, making it transcend our ego, and embracing other truths that we assimilate and deconstruct together.
Only if we break the Glass Wall can we go beyond any “roof” and hold by our own hands the part of heaven that belongs to us all. In this task, Faith has to be a driving force that motivates us to overcome the fear of dissent. Behind all differences, there is something sacred in all women: We are inherently valuable, free, spiritual, and diverse.

By Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente, a selection from the upcoming Girl God anthology, Whatever Works: Feminists of Faith Speak.

Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a Media Analyst, gender journalist, writer and specialist in social development projects. She is a lecturer in Feminism, Islam and Interculturality. Her work focuses in Gender, Identity, Media Representations and Religious Fundamentalism. She has lectured in Universities and International Conventions in México, Equator, Peru, Argentina, France, England, Spain, Brazil and Chile. Pioneer on Islamic Feminism in Latin America. She is the Founder and Director of Imaan: Center for Gender Studies in Religion and Dialogue Islam- Society. You can reach her at

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