Response to Nicholas Kristof on Religion and Women

Everyone likes to see their favorite issue on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. So Nicholas D. Kristof’s January 10, 2010 piece “Religion and Women” brought delight to the eyes of many feminists in religion and opened the eyes of others for whom the issues were new. Let me add several critical reflections to build on this foundation.

First, coming as it did in the octave of the death of feminist theologian and philosopher Mary Daly, there was a sense of déjà vu to the piece. A major critique of Daly since her foundational work in the 1970s was that she held an essentialist view of women (not an entirely justifiable charge in my view, but I leave that for another time). So much water has flowed over the theological dam since then that large claims about huge groups of women have been replaced by far more nuanced understandings of particular women of different racial, ethnic, class, national, age, and sexual backgrounds. I would have preferred to see this twenty-first century approach reflected in Mr. Kristof’s article.

This does not change the fundamental insight that Kristof, Jimmy Carter, and the Elders brought together by Nelson Mandela are promoting, namely that the major world religions have been complicit in the oppression of women and girls. We in the field are delighted that they are on board. Scholars are busy around the globe developing far more precise analysis. Womanists (African American), mujeristas (Latina), post colonialists, indigenous, Queer, Asian feminists, and others are engaged in theological reflections that make unique and important contributions to the work. We do not all agree on everything. But taken together, we offer a rich and variegated gestalt that is reshaping the religious landscape from the names of the divine to ethical claims, from new readings of sacred texts to new forms of religious leadership.

Second, either there was a typo in the article or else Mr. Kristof might want to rethink something. Describing the context of women’s second class citizenship he writes:

That’s a context that religions have helped shape, and not pushed hard to change.

The “not” is misplaced. It is more accurate to say:

That’s a context that religions have helped shape, and pushed hard NOT to change.

Otherwise, one misses the fact that many religions, Catholicism for example (my own tradition, though as a woman I have no decision-making power), have been tireless in their efforts to keep women subordinate. One passes over the long and arduous work for religious equality that continues to the present: Orthodox Jewish women still struggle with the matter of divorce; Roman Catholic women still cannot be ordained in that institution; Muslim women still face barriers to their full personhood.

The rise of religious fundamentalism throughout the world has played out on the backs of poor and young women. Some religious organizations—again I cite Catholicism among others—put their weight behind legal efforts to restrict women’s reproductive justice. Religious feminists have rehearsed this material countless times but it bears repeating now that major media are apparently paying attention. One has only to look at the U.S. health care debate to see the role of conservative religionists in strategies to limit abortion coverage.

Third, I wonder what the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians would think of Mr. Kristof’s claim that Pentecostal Christian churches on that continent have been a significant force in the empowerment of women. I’m not suggesting they have not been, and I suspect that the competition was not keen among other institutions. But I think these colleagues might have some other insights into what has been helpful to women. They might point to indigenous religions that colonizers destroyed as useful sources that need to be resurrected. In any case, they would name their own reality which is the most important achievement of feminist work in religion. It is past time to ask them, quote them, and lift them up as the experts they are on their own situation.

I look forward to major media coverage that incorporates the commitment of the Elders and Mr. Kristof to assure women’s human rights, including the human right to be religious. I especially look forward to reading the words of women themselves. I will be on the lookout for new faces and new voices in public conversation about religion that will signal that a wider audience understands the changes afoot.

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