Women and Religions in a Globalized World: Conversations to Advance Gender Equity

An interview with AWID's Lydia Alpizar about the ways in which religious organisations and women's organisations can work together for women's human rights.
The meeting was convened by the International Inter-Religious Peace Council and The Center for Health and Social Policy in Chiang Mai, Thailand and held from February 29 to March 3, 2004.
AWID: What was the objective of the Women, Globalization, and Religion meeting held in Chiang Mai from February 29 to March 5, 2004?

Lydia: The formal objective of the meeting was to reduce barriers to cooperation between women's organizations and faith communities (often perceived as indifferent or even hostile to women's issues).

This was the one of the first meetings of this kind focused on women and religion. When the Peace Council was created in 1995 five major threats to world peace were identified. One of these threats was patriarchy. As a result, women's issues have been on the Council's agenda from the beginning. However, this is the first time that the Council held a meeting dedicated to the issue with the participation of secular women leaders from the women's movement.

[The Peace Council is an international inter-religious organization, with members, both men and women, who are recognized religious leaders within their respective religions. Members come from different parts of the world and they are "committed to working together for the common needs of the whole community of life. Centered in our respective faiths, we wish to manifest the wisdom of the world's spiritual traditions -- our common human heritage. The Peace Council will build bridges among all beings through the message of non-violence, compassion, human rights, and universal responsibility, individual and collective" (http://www.peacecouncil.org/mission.html).]

AWID: With this great diversity in religious background what were they dynamics like at the meeting?

Lydia: There was a lot of respect and openness at the meeting. Although not everyone agreed on everything, there was one common vision. This common vision is that fundamentally, religions can support and should support women's struggle for dignity, wellbeing, and human rights. All members agreed that we should work together to find ways in which to build collaboration and support for this goal. A starting point is the understanding that religions are diverse; and that there is much diversity within each religion. There are different expressions and trends within religions as well as people who are more progressive and open with their understanding, values, and beliefs. Many of these people believe that there is no one way to live your spiritual life and they affirm religious freedom as a basic rights. Although religion is a fundamental part of their life, this does not make them extremist or fundamentalist. They uphold their religious principles but in a way that is committed to social justice and women's empowerment.

This does not mean that there are not difficulties in understanding each other. For instance, I think that in many instances we, as women's organizations, have mixed feelings towards religions or simply reject them. This is because of religions blindness (or the pretending of being blind) towards women's issues, and also because in many instances religion has been used to as a tool to legitimize different forms of violence against women. As feminist, we sometimes have a lot of difficulties engaging in such a dialogue, because of the role institutional religions have played in our oppression historically.

Therefore, a big part of the discussion, debates, and analysis at this meeting was listening, keeping an open mind, and being respectful of each others views, but with a commitment to reach a common ground from which to move forward.

AWID: How can the work that was done at this meeting be brought to the larger women's movement?

Lydia: The first idea is to translate the Chiang Mai Declaration into several languages and to disseminate it through different available networks and e-lists, as a way to make the declaration accessible to women's groups all over the world. This will be done with the idea that women's groups could use it to support their advocacy efforts and, if they consider it useful and appropriate, to engage in dialogue, strengthen connections, and work with progressive religious groups in their communities.

There is also the idea that similar conversations be held at the regional level. Right now there have been talks about organizing one in Latin America and probably one in Northern Africa. We will see how things evolve.

The Peace Council formed a standing committee on Spirituality and Women's Human Rights. This committee will try to encourage more women leaders be part of the council activities and other inter-religious or religious activities organized by its members. At the same time, the council wants to promote the involvement of its members in meetings and conferences organized by women's organizations, as a way to continue the dialogue.

AWID: What are some of the ways that religious groups and women's organizations could work collaboratively to promote human and women's rights?

Lydia: I think, for example, progressive religious people can provide arguments on how religions basics do not promote or justify violence against women. Often, religion is used to justify acts such as so called honour crimes. But the Quoran, for example, does not promote or endorse such an act. Religions could carefully review their interpretations, using and acknowledging the work already being done by feminist theologians from different religions. These theologians have different and more empowering interpretations of the role of women in society and the relation of women in religion.

Also, promoting respect for diversity and the active engagement of women at different levels within religious institutions themselves. We cannot deny that thousands of women around the world are strongly religious and religion and spirituality is a big part of their lives. But their participation within the institution of religion is marginalized and in many cases, oppressive. Women religious leaders, who were at the meeting, made a claim for their right to fully participate in their religious communities. This too, is a site for collaboration.

However, I think that it is important not to oversee the differences and difficulties that still exist. For instance, many progressive men and women theologians call for a revision of the basic scriptures (in those religions based on sacred texts). But, some religious leaders state that the sacred texts are 'perfect' and should not be touched. Of course there are some contentious issues that will need to be further debated. But the important thing is to sit down and dialogue in order to understand each other visions, from a respectful position. This is an important step forward. I do not want to portray a total ideal or romantic vision of this process, although, I see this particular process, as a very positive step. I see it as one step further into a conversation or dialogue that is necessary and should continue.

AWID: Do you think that there is any potential to reach the more extremist factions of religion?

Lydia: I doubt it because in order for anybody to be engaged in a dialogue you have to acknowledge the other as a subject, as a person, as someone you respect. For religious extremists there is no other truth than the one they believe in, the one they affirm their religion teaches. This is a very difficult position from which to enter into a dialogue. Perhaps some of the arguments and statements included in the Chiang Mai Declaration might reach some religious extremists, and maybe provoke them to question their own views and beliefs. This seems unlikely. However, within each religion there are people who are more open minded and who could be willing to engage and support ideas and actions within their religions communities that are empowering for women.

Another important point is that most religious leaders who participated in the meeting have already taken clear stands in favor of women's rights. In many cases they are struggling with these issues within their own religions.

For example, Venerable Dhammananda, our host, is the only ordained Thai Buddhist nun in Thailand. Her mother (who was also a nun) and her have worked to re-start the lineage of Buddhists nuns in Thailand, that was lost after 700 years! Ven. Dhammananda has been threaten with death, just for the very fact of doing this, even though the Buddha himself ordered nuns and there are Buddhist nuns in other countries. Regardless of the death threats, Dhammananda has somehow re-established the nun lineage in Thailand and she works in favor of women's rights. She might differ on some issues, but she is supportive of women's empowerment and has that commitment in her work.

AWID: How effective can these people, who are challenging women's rights, be within their religions when they are somewhat on the margins themselves?

Lydia: Most peace councilors are well respected within their communities and are making change. However, change does not happen from one day to another. If we think about religious institutions themselves, we are talking about millenary institutions. Therefore change does not happen easily. But the fact there are people inside different religions that uphold values and practices committed to social justice, dignity, and women's human rights is very positive. And I see this as part of the current process of change we have seen over the last decades, in terms of women's status in society.

AWID: Do you think the women's movement has a responsibility to be more welcoming of religious debate within the movement?

Lydia: Yes, I believe that we need to stop seeing religions as homogeneous and as all bad. We need to reflect on how we might open up spaces to dialogue and collaborate with progressive religious communities with whom we might have affinity. It is understandable why we are so resistant to engage in the debate, since historically most religious institutions are patriarchal. In many cases, just getting more women in the hierarchy does not necessarily change their patriarchal fundaments, it is clear that it is more complex than that. But I also think, we need to stop seeing religions as all the same and all evil.

During some discussions I was part of last November, different women from the movement were trying to identify some of the major obstacles and challenges we are currently facing in advancing the women's human rights agenda. We also tried to identify alternatives to the challenges we described. One of the current main obstacles identified was Fundamentalism/Religious Extremism. But we did not have a clear answer in terms of the alternative to it. Someone came up with the idea of Women's Spirituality. But still, people did not feel quite satisfied with that idea.

Perhaps, dialogue with progressive women and men from religious groups could give us some ideas of alternatives to religious extremism that we could promote.

Although the declaration is far from perfect, it is a very positive step. It has put something on paper that allows people to start to discuss the issues. The idea is to catalyze similar conversations and reflection both inside women's movements as well as inside religious communities. Hopefully, it will promote the opening of some spaces where the two could come together to continue this timely conversation.

Visit the websites of the Peace Council and the Center for Health and Social Policy.

Read the Chiang Mai Declaration: "Women and Religion: An Agenda for Change".