Does Christianity Open a New Space for Cambodian Women? By Katie Schubert

The following is a guest post written by Katie Schubert, a Ph.D. student in the Theology, Ethics, and Culture program at Claremont Graduate University.  Her academic interests include feminist ethics, postcolonial feminism, human rights and religion, and Southeast Asian Studies focusing on Cambodia.  Her work explores Cambodian women’s experience of empowerment through religion. 

Christianity has often been blasted (and understandably so) for its patriarchal character, for justifying violence, and for its instrumental use of power throughout its long history.  In transnational feminist literature the work of missionaries is often referred to as the epitome of problematic transnational work, automatically assumed to be evil, likely because of the history of missionaries’ collusion with violent invasion and attempted erasure of previously existing systems.

But can Christianity also be freeing, a vehicle for change, even a vehicle for feminism?

In the Methodist Missions in Cambodia, Christianity seems to be doing just that.  In this 90-95% Theravada Buddhist country, in which Buddhism is the religion of the state, the small, growing group of Protestant Christians seem to see a type of freedom in the foreign religion.

In my work with Cambodian Christian women pastors, I see women offered a new spiritual framework, who are empowered by this, taking up leadership roles that were simply not available to them before.  For instance, in predominant Theravada Buddhism, the line of women’s ordination has been lost, and so women can only become unordained “nuns” or donji, not inhabiting an equivalent field of merit to fully ordained monks.

Christian women pastors who inhabit positions of leadership speak of equality between women and men, claiming this is endowed by God.  They enjoy more etibol (power from within) and are afforded greater respect from people inside and outside of the Christian community.

Christian women pastors challenge the effects of patriarchy, although they may not name patriarchy in the way second wave Western feminism has.  For Cambodian Methodist pastors, Christianity does provide opportunities to challenge male bias and increase possibilities for Cambodian women.

The manifestation of feminism within Cambodian Methodist Christianity brings forth difficult questions.  Is the spread and nurture of Protestant Christianity in Cambodia a re-emergence of imperialism or a source of empowerment or both?  Christianity introduces new ways of thinking about the world.  The material effects of spreading Christian ideas must be questioned and yet Christianity inspires new challenges of patriarchies and inspires new forms of feminism to emerge.



Categories: Christianity, Feminist Theology, Women and Ministry

Tags: , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Thank you for this post, you raised really important questions about missions, imperialism, and gender equality. As you mentioned, the spread of “western feminism” to other parts of the world is fraught with other implications, and I think these issues are at the heart of transnational feminism. I think my main concern would be, what is at stake for these women when they take on these new roles – is it empowerment, or are there cultural implications that we’re not seeing?

    However, given that many of us are aware of the serious problems in assuming that western feminism is “good” for all women, I think the question, can mission work be good for women (in particular, Cambodian women), is well taken. In my current seminar on missions, we tend to avoid the question, “are missions good” and instead ask “what do missions do.” I think, then, we can begin to get a sense of how women are negotiating these new transformations. In Birgit Meyer’s ethnography of mission work in Ghana, she argues that the traditional Ewe religion syncretised with Christianity, bringing about new forms of enchantment. In much of the global south today, Pentacostoal churches are extremely popular, and many of them privilege roles for women. I think, ultimately, we will forever have to play the agency game, paying close attention to how women describe and understand their own experiences as meaningful and real while at the same time condemning what seems to be universally unjust.

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  2. If Christianity keeps on growing and being relevant in the South, in spite of colonialism, it is because none of such -isms could muffle the liberating voice of the gospel. Women leadership plays a key role in advancing such agenda of liberation and empowerment. Imperalism could re-emerge, for sure, and mostly so if Christianity-fuelled women’s liberation is portrayed as a good fruit of the West, but at the same time the gospel carries the seeds to counteract the emergence of new editions of oppresive agendas.

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