Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Whatever Works: Feminists of Faith Speak by Trista Hendren

Celeste Gurevich, Whatever Works Contributor

I HAVE A HARD TIME WITH SPEAKING. The mandates of quietness and submissiveness that I grew up with in the church still plague me as a 40-year-old woman. While I can speak, when pushed, and often had to while finishing my MBA, it is still something I find extraordinarily difficult. I could actually go days without saying one word to anyone. Having youngish children doesn’t make that an option for me; nor does the fact that I am desperate to end the patriarchy that has strangled me since birth.

I want a very different life for my daughter.

Writing portions of this book has been a challenge. While writing is not technically speaking, I often read my words aloud to myself as I compose them, to hear and feel how they sound against the realities of the air. I feel inspired and transformed by the pieces that have come in, and yet, I still feel a cringe factor when it comes to Christianity, my faith of origin. Admittedly, there is still a gaping wound there; my (Christian) father and I have not spoken for more than a year. Our differences in opinion regarding faith and feminism play a big part in that.

I grew up with a pamphlet that listed the supposed beliefs of nine other major religions (summarized in a brief paragraph), followed by detailed explanation about why each belief was wrong. My religion was fundamentalist Christianity and I followed it to a T. Looking back, I am embarrassed to say that while I knew people from a variety of cultures and religions, the only reason I ever spoke to them was to convert them.

As a teenager, I read The Book of Mormon and started going to Seminary, again with the intention of saving those poor Mormon kids. The missionaries came to my home in droves, two-by-two in their white dress shirts and ties, where I often puzzled them. No one could answer my never-ending questions.

I suppose the Muslims were the most concerning to me then, although I didn’t read the Qur’an until college, after marrying a Muslim. At that point, I had to read it, because everyone was certain that my savage Arab husband would soon start beating me.

A few years earlier, I had left home to attend a Southern Baptist college with the intention of becoming a minister. It soon dawned on me that the real purpose for girls in that school was to find a husband.

Once I began to study the historical, linguistic, and cultural roots of the Bible in-depth, I felt as though I had been lied to my entire life. I left Florida nine months later an atheist, certain I could never believe in anything again.

Back home, I found feminism and a cute Lebanese guy. Both would change the course of my life forever.

I never had any intention of converting to Islam. My new husband encouraged me to think on my own terms and believe in myself – which was something completely new to me after growing up as a submissive church girl. It was that freedom and the kindness of my new family that prompted me to study Islam. It wasn’t so much the Qur’an itself I was in love with; I still find it a boring and tedious read. What drew me to Islam was actually Ramadan—and the dream of full equality between all people.

One thing that has always stuck with me since my conversion is that the way people viewed me completely changed. I am still the same person I always was, but suddenly I started hearing that I “deserved to die” and was a “sand nigger.” After 9/11, I was also told that all Muslims “should be put into internment camps.”

Every single week, I hear racist, shitty comments about Muslims—often from other feminists.

Many people forget that racism and sexism are brothers.

Approximately a quarter of the world’s population is Muslim – and few, if any, people ever leave their faith of origin. Islamophobia only guarantees that the majority of Muslim women will be isolated, resentful, and suspicious of the Western world.

There is a general feeling in many Western feminist circles that women of faith cannot be feminists. This is particularly true of Muslim Feminists, but I’ve certainly seen it with other groups as well. For example, when Kate Kelly was excommunicated from the Mormon Church last year for speaking out on her views about the treatment of women in that church, I often posted to my Girl God Facebook page about her situation in solidarity. Time and time again, I heard a similar response: “She should just leave that church.”

I do not share that view. The “should” is deeply concerning to me. Certainly there is value in challenging the patriarchal structures from within, too. I would argue that we have no hope of saving the world via feminism if we ignore the belief structures that saturate the planet. 

Faith is often cultural. It involves entire families and communities; hence faith is deeply personal. While I don’t regularly practice Islam anymore, it is hurtful when I hear other feminists make comments about Muslims. My first marriage didn’t work out, but it had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with getting married too young. My Lebanese in-laws are still family and my first husband remains a dear friend. Over the last 20 years, I have maintained friendships with Muslims in my local community, and increasingly, all over the world thanks to social media. I love my extended Ummah.

While there are certainly things that I would challenge about the Muslim faith, it is not helpful to receive such criticisms from those who know little about Islam. I liken this to the dynamic in many families that it is OK to critique your own family members, but when someone outside the family starts shredding the character of a mother or sister, all hell breaks loose.

Religion tends to be divisive and women (especially feminists), cannot afford to be divided anymore. Life is so much harder than the Disney movies many of us grew up watching. It is deeply unfair to women, and particularly unjust to women of color. Nothing prepares most of us for the reality of our daily lives. We need each other now more than ever.

Gerda Lerner wrote that “Men develop ideas and systems of explanation by absorbing past knowledge and critiquing and superseding it. Women, ignorant of their own history [do] not know what women before them had thought and taught. So generation after generation, they [struggle] for insights others had already had before them, [resulting in] the constant inventing of the wheel.” 

I believe a big part of that problem is that women within feminism are fragmented and don’t take the time to listen to each other often enough. There is so much that we can learn from each other to avoid reinventing the wheel every generation. If you tear a blanket up into bits, it no longer functions as a blanket. But if you sew those same pieces back together, you can still keep someone warm.

There are obvious remnants of misogyny in all the world’s religions. Women, still, for the most part are not equal participants in the leadership of most faiths. The expected submission and subordination of women and girls continues to be the norm worldwide. But instead of clustering ourselves neatly into our own faiths, might we not learn from each other? Might Muslim women learn from female Rabbis and Priests? Might Christians and Hindus learn from the women-only mosques springing up throughout the world?

Women remain 70% of those living in poverty. Those with the least often cling t
o religion the hardest. So when we tear apart the blanket that religion offers to many of our sisters living in poverty, we are literally taking away one of the few things that is still keeping them warm.

This begs the question: what sort of feminism do we want? One that supports the vision of a few privileged white women and leaves the rest of the world behind? Or, a feminism that liberates everybody?

I would love to see the definition of “feminist” widened if for no other reason that many of my closest friends don’t label themselves as such when their actions say otherwise. If there is a wounding with that particular word, perhaps we need a new word to define our work. Perhaps we need to come back to women’s circles and meet each other face-to-face, where we are. We each need an opportunity to speak our stories, our wounds and our triumphs. All women must be welcome.

Whatever Works is meant to widen the circle and inspire listening and reflection. Within each faith tradition there are certainly both wounding and healing attributes. My hope is to find whatever works for each of us so that we can find solutions to the horrific problems plaguing women around the world. We must come together if we are ever to end patriarchy.

Carol P. Christ wrote that, “Even people who no longer ‘believe in God’ or participate in the institutional structure of patriarchal religion still may not be free of the power of the symbolism of God the Father. A symbol's effect does not depend on rational assent, for a symbol also functions on levels of the psyche other than the rational. Symbol systems cannot simply be rejected; they must be replaced. Where there is no replacement, the mind will revert to familiar structures at times of crisis, bafflement, or defeat.” 

This is true of all the patriarchal world religions, although the specific wording may differ. The way I grew up, I listened to the (mostly) male pastors speak and their words were Gospel. I was terrified of being wrong, so I studied the Bible and other books written by men for hours every day to make sure I was geared up with the “right” information. Audre Lorde once said that “our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.” I find these words hopeful as I embark on a new way of sorting out what I believe. Years after leaving behind the image of God the Father, I still struggle to acknowledge my truth over what male spiritual leaders define as “The Truth”.

Whatever Works is a collection of writing by feminists of faith from around the world. This anthology contains personal essays, poems and academic musings with the goal of sparking a conversation among women of all faith backgrounds. Religion plays one of the biggest roles in creating and maintaining value systems, and yet it is often disregarded within feminism itself as if we could simply walk away and forget about it.

All of us are limited by our cultural and religious perspectives. As we were finishing this book, I realized I wanted to cover menstruation specifically, as it became clear to me that it was one of the biggest hurdles to full equality within most faith traditions.

I queried the other contributors on our working Facebook group to see if anyone could suggest authors. Rabbi Dahlia Marx suggested
Zoharah Noy-meir, who I had asked upfront for a contribution many months ago, but whose schedule at that time had not allowed her to participate. She suggested I try again, and I did. I asked Dahlia to “cross her fingers” that Zoharah would join us.

She immediately replied that Jews did not do that. All these years, even growing up with family-like Jewish neighbors across the street and years of Interfaith work, I had no idea that crossing fingers was even a Christian reference.

When you think about all the songs we grow up singing and the stories we learn about, our lives are saturated in the religion of our culture, whether we practice that religion or not.

When I read Patricia Lynn Reilly’s A God Who Looks Like Me, I wished that there was a similar book for Muslim women, but I didn’t know of any. When I wrote The Girl God, I wasn’t sure I’d find the divine feminine within Islam at all. I was pleasantly surprised to find Her everywhere. 

My spirituality has changed drastically many times over the years as my life has coursed through three husbands, two birthed children, gained two stepsons and made many other radical changes. I have moved far away from a male God and shifted toward the divine feminine. Whatever Works includes selections from women who identify with Her and those who do not.

My mother, Pat Daly, has joined me in editing this project. When I asked her to partner with me, she seemed baffled. She has written two books and thousands of professional resumes over the past 30 years, but a book about feminism?

While my mother still does not fully identify as a feminist, she certainly behaves like one. Years ago, when I was left with nearly nothing after my second divorce, it was her actions and generosity that allowed my children and me to survive. In the U.S., there are not many provisions for single mothers who may or may not receive a pittance of child support. I couldn’t go back to my previous work and I needed to be near my children so that they could get the support and nurturing they needed to heal. All I had to go on was a dream: to write books that would change the world.

Nearly everyone thought I was completely insane.

My mother has been one of the few people who actually believed in me and supported me in word and deed.

The foundations of The Girl God have been built with the help of many people, however, I could not have completed any of my projects without the help of my dear mother. And so, it seemed fitting to invite her here to edit our cherished words with her caring touch.

Each of the selections in this anthology has moved something in me—sometimes even a lost part that I wasn’t sure was still around anymore. I hope that it will spark a conversation among and between women of all faith—and even those of no faith.

Feminism is also a faith—a faith that someday, somehow, things will improve for at least our daughters and granddaughters. My dream is that life will change for the better for us, too.

Many of us are still learning to speak in our own words. We must be patient with ourselves and with each other as those words come out.

May the speaking, the listening, the dialogue, and the
radical change begin!

-Trista Hendren

A selection from the upcoming Girl God Anthology -  Whatever Works: Feminists of Faith Speak.

Whatever Works is a unique collection of writing by feminists of diverse faiths from around the world. This anthology combines personal essays, poems and academic musings with the goal of sparking conversations among women of all faith backgrounds. Religion plays a key role in defining and maintaining value systems, and yet it is often disregarded within feminism itself. This book shares the stories of highly diverse women with the hope that we can find collective solutions to the global problems that plague women and girls living under patriarchy.
Available late March - pre-order here.

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