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.