A Reflection on Feminist Theology and the Real Woman by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente


 Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente. Feminism and TheologyThe XVII Conference of Latin American Religious Alternatives is being held this week in Porto Alegre, Brazil. This event will bring together scholars and researchers from across the continent to talk together about religion, integration, and identity. I will be presenting three papers, all about Islamic feminism. I am pleased to have such a space to discuss new ways of understanding the phenomenon of religion in Latin America and the role of feminism in Latin American religion.  I want to share some of my personal reflections regarding gender, feminism and religion with you today.   

It is true that today all so-called ‘major’ religions—Islam, too—are patriarchal and male minded. It would be a fall into denial to say that abuses in the name of religion do not have a concrete impact on the lives of many women around the world. While it is possible to differentiate between what the Qur’an says and the discourse of patriarchy on Islam, the reality is that it is this patriarchy that dominates our understanding of religion

The revealed messages have been used to reinforce gender oppression in bans on “women’s issues” from therapeutic abortion to driving a car. But we know these bans do not come from the holy books themselves, as the revealed messages can support a reading of oppression or liberation. The problems are the historical authority of sexist readings as criteria of truth and the incorporation of androcentrism as the axis in relation to the divine. Sexist readings and androcentrism both give rise to oppression and violence in the name of God.

Feminists have denounced these abuses over and over again. Many feminists say religions are patriarchal, so let’s leave them without feminist intervention. I think this is not enough. We need to recognize that the religious world is patriarchal. We must name and draw attention to women and their contributions to the development of religion. We must also remove the legitimacy and authority of the androcentric understandings of the spiritual, which have caused much damage throughout history. Feminism in religion is essential.

It is often said that feminists want to undermine the foundations of the faith. Who says this? The same people who justify the exploitation of human beings, the degradation of women, and wars in the name of a God whose message is peace, mercy and social justice. But I ask—is it so dangerous that women and groups historically segregated from society want to own their spiritual experiences and live them autonomously?

What kind of God is adored by those who oppose our approaching the Divine from a feminist point of view? Just listening to their diatribes is to know that it is misogyny and not piety that motivates their messages. Misogyny also lies behind the violence against women. And behind the violence lurks the fear.

Beyond the Female Believer

Patriarchy has silenced its fear and built an “ideal believer” to legitimize the control of women in religion. But feminists no longer want to remain silent and obedient. We are seek to respond by creating our own theologies.

However, even in feminist theology, heteronormativity is still present. It is a bias that still sees gays, lesbians, trans and queer people as “abnormal” outsiders. This approach validates the patriarchal ideas of “minority” and “marginality” regarding the male-female heteronormative assumptions that dominate the religious world.

Dismantling the patriarchy in religion is not only about making the feminine more visible in the mystical, historical, and experiential approaches to religion. We must also demystify and dismantle the axis of androcentrism and heteronormativity and the hold it has in the academy and the “mainstream”.

For example, more than once, sisters who call themselves feminists, have called me “whore,” “deviant,” and “immoral” for my queer understanding of gender roles and my critique of marriage as “half the Deen” [the Islamic idea that for women marriage completes their faith, which in Arabic is ‘Deen’], a replica of the romantic patriarchal discourse of the “other half” that is so damaging to the autonomy and the self-esteem of women in the real world.

This is a problem. Feminism in religion is not landing in the everyday lives of women. Feminist theology still speaks to a woman who is cis-gendered and heterosexual, who wants to marry and have children. Feminist theology is still quoting patriarchy.

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house

The reality is that not all women in religious communities are heterosexual, not all heterosexuals wish to get married, and not all married woman understand their position in marriage as subordinate and complementary to the male.

Along with eliminating the patriarchal “revelations,” feminists who theorize regarding faith must be decolonized from the need to build another “perfect believer.” We should not assume an archetype of woman, as this exercise gives authority to patriarchy’s model of the female believer that imprisons women in destructive and limited dimensions with labels like saint, mother, and whore.

I think we must remove from women the roles that are supposed to make them proper “believers.” In fact, I think we have to destroy once and for all both the concept of “believer” itself and the category of “woman” as we know it in religion. Assessing the degree of spiritual development and the agency of the religious woman according to the degree of her functionality as a “Model” is NOT emancipatory, but is both limited and sexist. If there are “role models,” someone will always be outside the norm.

Instead, let us take over the theologies and feminisms, regain power over ourselves, and raise awareness in communities that feminism is not only a field of study and analysis but also an outlook on life. We can legitimize the authority of the feminist perspectives of religion, and commit sacrilege against the exemplary women and models that are imposed on us.  Let us not talk anymore about “Muslim women” or “Christian women” or “Jewish women,” but about ourselves as women.

Above all, and essentially, we must act on behalf of women of everyday, on behalf of those women who do not want to be “perfect believers,” but who want to be happy and fulfill their goals in a world that belittles them in many ways on a daily basis. Reasonable, imperfect, diverse and ‘under-construction’ women were created by God to be in this world as an expression of life and humanity.

Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a Writer, Mentor and Community Educator in Capacity Building for Grass Roots Female Leaders and Advocates. A Muslim Feminist who is an Independent Researcher of Gender and Islam in Latin America on Feminist Hermeneutics, Muslim Women Representations, Queer Identities and Movement Building. She blogs in Spanish at Mezquita de Mujeres, a site dedicated to explore the links between Gender, Religion and Feminism as well to Women from the Global South as Change Makers in their communities.

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Categories: Feminism, Feminist Theology, Gender, Gender and Sexuality, Islam, Patriarchy

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23 replies

  1. Breathtakingly beautiful. Thank you so much for this inspiring message.

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      • Dear Vanessa i am a feminist from Turkey…In Turkey the headscarf in the public institues was banned for years,i think that’s why it is nearly impossible to hear a queer understanding of gender roles,a criticism about familiy and heteronormativity. with a very few exceptions, because they were always have to spend their energy to fight with this ban. So it is really good to hear all of these from you.. sincerely. gulnur

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  2. To think feminists have an emissary to raise awareness at that conference is so wonderful. Great post!

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  3. A friend very excited about your mission: hope you’ll post a follow-up? I pray for your success. Thanks, B.W.

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  4. As a lesbian, I just don’t want to go to those hetero places of worship, I’m done with it all. Women waste so much time dealing with these institutions, if we put all that effort into building a true woman friendly masque or temple or church or goddess grove, but we just cling to all that childhood indoctrination, which is all organized religion really is. The men can have it, they need it. It is basically childhood abuse for girls to grow up in any of those “faith traditions.”

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    • Hi dear. I understand your position and is something I have reflected on too: On the one hand there is the idea that energy is used more effectively by creating our own spaces instead of claiming a space to Patriarchy, which never assign fairly and without a huge waste of time and arguments. However there is the other part, and is not based on gender or feminist discussion, but on the divine revelation itself: These spaces occupied today by Patriarchy, belong to us as well and has been usurpated, so is fair and a duty make the effort to recover them because in this attempt we not also claim our rights for women as spiritual subjects also we claim the delivering of the revelation in its pure sense.

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      • I am interested in what you mean by “the delivering of revelation in its pure sense.” Let me admit my standpoint. I believe all revelation comes to finite embodied persons with social and historical standpoints.

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  5. So much good here, Vanessa, thank you. One part struck me particularly because I struggle with the idea of “feminisms” when that feminism, self-defined, sounds a lot like soft patriarchy. Muslim women calling themselves feminists have called you a whore among other things for having a queer sense of gender/sexuality and critiquing the validity of marriage. I guess most of us are whores then! I just don’t know how to deal with women who call themselves feminists because they think it means “pro-women” but they are also “pro-patriarchy.” I have seen such women move from soft-patriarchy/gender-equity to gender-equality, so I don’t want to shut them out. I also want to support women in creating their own narratives of liberation even when I disagree. But the fact of the matter is that many Muslim women who call themselves feminist are extremely uncomfortable with queer realities. I have seen Muslim feminists purposefully exclude the role El-Farouk Khaki played in organizing early woman-led prayers in the 90’s because he is gay. His history is erased because he does not fit. The marriage issue is the same. Thanks for all this. Excellent piece.

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    • Dear Laury, thanks for your comments. I am sorry to hear about Farouk , but is a sample of what I am saying: That still those we want to push the boundaries, find limitations that, at this level of the things, it supposed to be overcomed. For me, to make feminism really matters in Islam and everywhere, we have to get rid of boundaries and the fear to make someone angry. Sometimes I feel some feminists are playing the role of “sweetheart” of daddy, that mischeavous girl who challenges him but never question his authority. And yes, I was called a whore because I questioned the discourse of marriage as a core element in the definition of the “muslim woman”. I have been completely excluded from the groups of debate, targeted as problematic and “unapproved”: Since I am not gay, my perspective is seen as a deliberate attempt to “fitna”

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  6. Salaam!

    Very interesting observations :)

    I just have one quick q – you say:
    “and my critique of marriage as “half the Deen” [the Islamic idea that for women marriage completes their faith, which in Arabic is ‘Deen’]”

    I’m not sure about what groups you’re referring to, but as someone who comes from an extremely conservative background, the hadith of marriage being “half your Deen” is strongly applied to men as well as women (and the second part of the same hadith states “so fear Allah regarding the other half”).

    From a more spiritual/ holistic perspective, this hadith is used as an example of ways that certain behaviours/ actions are emphasized in Arabic language – for example, there is another hadith that says “modesty is half of faith,” “cleanliness is half of faith,” and so on. Similarly, there are other hadith which, when discussing the virtues of certain surahs, say: “Surah al-Zilzal is half the Qur’an,” “surah al-Ikhlaas is a third of the Qur’an,” and “Surah al-Kaafiroon is a quarter of the Qur’an.”

    Thus, can you really use the “marriage is half of faith” hadith to only apply to women (which, as a conservative, I’ve never heard done)?

    Also, in discussing women who call themselves feminists but are actually pro-patriarchy, who defines what ‘true’ feminism is, and what counts as pro-patriarchy?

    I don’t consider myself as pro-patriarchy at all, but my views regarding the relationship between men and women in Islam (which is that they’re two parts of a whole, that they should be cooperating as khulafaa’ on this earth, and so on), could potentially be criticized as being pro-patriarchy by someone who doesn’t agree with my personal definition of feminism either.
    Is that by itself not an act of anti-feminism? By telling women that their personal beliefs regarding the role of men in society and religion aren’t as valid as other self-defined feminists?

    Just thinking out loud here :)

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    • However, the pressure to get married as a part of being a good believer is always on women. Is a condition on which men don’t receive pressure. That’s my point

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      • Hmmmm, that’s interesting. In my experience, the pressure is the same. There are more young conservative men seeking marriage as “completion of their Deen” than there are equally young, equally conservative women seeking to do so.

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      • Not in my experience. Here in Latin america islam is 99% wahabi and the rest is not wahabi but has imported all the Patriarchal cultural practices, that are added to the already very macho culture here, including that one of “Hide the Bride” until the day of marriage. Being Latin a very social and warm culture, the results is very weird and just end in hatred from one people to other and exclusion when converted don’t want to become “arabs”.

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  7. “…the relationship between men and women in Islam (which is that they’re two parts of a whole, that they should be cooperating as khulafaa’ on this earth, and so on),…”

    I agree with this—and would add that all humanity (in all its diversity) is part of a “whole” as well—the Quranic concept of equality is highly balanced and nuanced.

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    • If only the reality was so sweet, we wouldn’t be discussing here :) Sadly what Quran says is the last thing happening in most of muslims communities, specially regarding the position of women. What it seems more shameful to me is how comfortable some muslims are with this: Most of them, faced with the real facts answer: “But Quran says…” and this is like a permission they give to themselves for doing nothing to change the situation and keep quiet. The same than the other cliché “One thing is Islam, others the muslims” could be, but religion is what people make of it.

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  8. Wow, that’s really interesting! Would love to learn more about Islam and the dynamics of the Muslim community in Latin America/ communities… as I’m most familiar with the Canadian and American (Salafi) communities.

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    • I would be glad to exchange impressions with you. You can follow me in twitter @DivinaFeminista and we can arrange maybe a skype meeting.. My Id is nasreen.amina. I think we could learn a lot from each other. I extend also this invitation to all the community of feminist and religion.

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  9. Salaam wa laikum,

    Do Western feminists ever question how they come to specific ideas of gender, “patriarchy” etc. The way these terms are bandied about it’s as if they are ABSOLUTE UNIVERSAL TRUTHS and any non-Western non-Enlightenment society is the “abnormal” outsider. I just find that many feminists in the west are just following a type of imperialist logic when it comes to these concepts.

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