Sunday, March 13, 2011

Hannah Mudge's Faith and feminism: my manifesto

Every year I am just one of thousands of women who descend on London for the Million Women Rise march, which protests violence against women worldwide. Photo from here.

Like many of you, I had a lot of strong feelings about Courtney's post on feminism earlier last year. I was one of the women who was straight in there, hammering out my concerns into that comment box and worrying about the implications that someone saying they don't believe in equality could have. When Courtney wrote 'equality has never done any good for me' I have to admit my heart sank. I thought about it for pretty much the rest of the day. I blogged about the problematic nature of the privileged saying that they don't believe in equality. I ended up clicking back to that blog post over and over to check how the comment thread was progressing, what my fellow C Jane readers were discussing.
I am a Christian woman and I believe in gender equality. I use the word 'feminist' to define myself and it's a word that is incredibly important to me. We all know that it's a word which has many negative connotations associated with it - connotations often promoted by the very people and systems of power that feminists have fought for an end to. And it's a complicated word, not just for those who are anti-feminist, but also for those who believe in equality but claim identities such as 'womanist' instead. Or for those who see the varying factions of the women's movement and worry that they can't work together for the common good. Just this year, for example, the 'conservative feminism' of Sarah Palin and her 'mama grizzlies' has hit a raw nerve with many a blogger, journalist and activist. The numerous articles speak for themselves.

Since that post I've actually really enjoyed Courtney's other writings on the subject. I loved what she had to say about the power and potential of women, the importance of sisterhood and the diversity of femininity in what was effectively her follow-up post (because femininity for every woman is not makeup and shoes and cupcakes and this is important). And I enjoyed her more recent post of musings on Mormon women and feminism because I really do agree that conversations on gender issues are something that is so vital - and I affirm what she said about gender roles at home. So much so, in fact, that she asked me if I'd like to write a guest post about religious women and feminism - and why the movement means a lot to some of us.

Now I only speak for myself in this post, but I know a fair few religious feminists of varying faiths. We blend our politics and our belief systems even though a lot of people don't like it. Part of the backlash against feminism and the way society sees the movement means that my fellow Christians are often more than slightly uncomfortable with my political views. Very often they think of all the old stereotypes of 'man haters' and 'women who want to destroy the family' and 'women who want to rule over men'. It's telling that 'women who want to dominate men' is such a worry, yet men receiving preferential treatment is so ingrained that many people don't care about it, even though both are quite clearly described in Genesis as a negative effect of the Fall, which skewed God's plan for men and women.

It sometimes comes as a surprise to the religious people I know when I talk to them about the fact that the majority of feminists have nothing against men and children. I don't know any feminists who look down on stay-at-home mothers or women who have large families. I don't know any who want to make men subservient and obsolete. Where's the equality in that? Again, it's a case of unpleasant old stereotypes maintaining a hold on peoples' perceptions. It's much closer to the truth to say that we simply want women to be able to exercise choice over these sorts of decisions about their lives and that women should not have to look a certain way, dress a certain way or lead a certain sort of life in order to feel validated as a female. Freedom to have a job, or not. To have five children - or no children. To do whatever they want with gender roles in their relationships and their household. All with support and respect. Many of the old stereotypes came out of the feminism of the 1960s and 70s and it's important to remember here just why the activists back then were so angry - often, they did not have those choices and the impact it had on their wellbeing was devastating. The movement has always had its flaws, but I hold the women who have gone before me and made a difference to my life today in such high esteem.

I've been blogging for two years now and have written numerous posts about my faith and my feminism and how the two come together. For me, part of this is about dispelling the myths for many of my acquaintances who exist on one side or the other; the feminists and the Christians, existing separately and suspiciously. When I started out trying to reconcile my faith with my feminism, I hit some difficult times along the way, because I knew how I felt about equality and the rights of women but I worried that my religion didn't support this. Everywhere I looked I saw conservative religious anti-feminist blogs and books about submitting to my husband's headship and arguments about whether women could take on leadership positions in the church (more often than not, the answer was "no"). I struggled for a long time because I loved God but at the same time my heart ached for women the world over who are treated as lesser beings because of their gender and denied respect, rights and fairness. I didn't feel called to lead a church or start a ministry but I wanted those women who do to have their gifts accepted as amazing and God-given rather than a sign of a 'rebellious spirit'.

So what changed? Well, I heard some life-changing talks by some amazing women at a conference I attended. I joined a church which takes an egalitarian approach to gender. I completed a theology course about men and women in the Bible, learning a great deal along the way. I had a lot of talks with my husband and I came away feeling more affirmed, more at peace, more secure. I'd once felt that I had to fit into a restrictive little box in order to be a Christian woman, one which didn't have room for my gifts and my personality. This was no longer the case. A couple of months ago I presented a short talk on a favourite Bible verse to a group of young adults at my church - and that verse was one which affirms the equality of all in the eyes of God - no matter what their background, race and gender.

But despite this, I still feel there is great need for feminism - and the work done by feminists - in our world. I know that at the heart of God's plan in creation and the message of Jesus, men and women are equal partners and all able to exercise their gifts. But Jesus's teachings were first put into practice in a patriarchal society and patriarchal societies have twisted God's truths for centuries in order to maintain the rule of men. We see this in teachings of the early church which blamed women for all sin and branded them disgusting and unholy. We see this today when some religious groups teach that women should not attend college or have a job, or can only hear God through their father or husband.

Both inside and outside church communities we see the effect that misogyny has on society. Domestic violence, sexual abuse, workplace discrimination, lack of access to education, female infanticide, rape as a weapon of war, women bearing the brunt of poverty. It's easy for some to exist inside their middle-class, privileged bubbles and think "Things are good here. My husband loves and respects me; I got an education, I have a decent job. Feminism's achieved its aims. What more do we need?"

Except it hasn't achieved its aims and it hasn't gone far enough. We're only really somewhere near the beginning. Aims achieved for those who were already fortunate, while everyone else has a long way to go - and yes, this applies to women in the church. I am not just a blogger but also an activist and this has really brought it home. I see this when I attend Reclaim the Night marches, which demonstrate against rape and assault and unsafe streets. I see this when I attend the annual Million Women Rise march in London, which raises awareness of worldwide violence against women. I see it when I attend conferences and listen to the horrendous experiences of my sisters who have yet to experience what equality is. They're not content with the hand life has dealt them so far and neither am I because I believe God is full of anger for injustice, for abuse and for the broken. He loves His children but this does not excuse the acts of abuse, control and violence perpetrated by men of God - against women and children of God.

As a woman of faith feminism is also important to me because it affirms that women are created very differently, with different strengths, interests and outlooks on life. I do feel that some religious teachings can make women feel as if they're in a very restricted little box, one where there's only room for women who look and act a certain way. Those who don't 'fit the mold' are sometimes subject to condemnation, particularly by more conservative or extremist groups. And it's not just women who fall victim to this. Restrictive teachings on gender roles hurt men too - and every time I think about this I'm reminded of the well-known poem by Nancy R Smith, entitled 'For Every Woman'. It ends:

"For every woman who takes a step toward her own liberation, there is a man who finds the way to freedom has been made a little easier."

For me this is a really important part of my feminism and I know it is for many other religious women - men and women able to live just as God has made them, not having to adhere to certain gender stereotypes and perform certain 'roles' in life in order to live out God's plan for them. Feminism serves an important purpose in showing that the man who wants to be a stay-at-home dad, the woman who is happy to be single and the girl who loves sports and spaceships over pink and princesses should be free to be the person they were created to be. Courtney has touched on this in a few posts, if I remember rightly, both through talking about her own life and about life in general.

That's why it's important to me and to many other women who call themselves feminists, that conversations and activism surrounding gender issues have a place in religion. To me it's okay if not every woman wants to be an activist or read the books or lobby politicians. But it is important for all of us to build each other up rather than bring each other down, support diversity rather than fear it and believe that being on an equal footing - socially, spiritually, politically and economically - is our right. Jesus believed in equality but sadly, His followers don't always follow His example. His heart was for the last, the least and the lost - and to me that includes women who are still, over two thousand years later, being treated as lesser beings because they were born female.

Hannah Mudge is a 26-year-old woman living in the east of England. She is a practising Christian, a blogger and an activist passionate about feminism, left-wing politics and critiquing the media. Hannah trained as a newspaper journalist and worked as a reporter for a while but now works in publishing. She has been married to Luke, who is actually her high school boyfriend, since 2007. In what little spare time she has, she enjoys reading, cooking, running, learning new things, travel and procrastinating online. You can read her blog, We Mixed Our Drinks or follow her as @boudledidge on Twitter.