The word “feminist” is familiar to most people today. It appears in news publications, television programming, popular literature, and even comes up in conversation occasionally. Yet the term, “feminist,” writes Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie in her little book, We Should All Be Feminists, is heavy with stereotypes and negative baggage. “[Y]ou hate men, you hate bras, you hate African culture, you think women should always be in charge, you don’t wear make-up, you don’t shave, you’re always angry, you don’t have a sense of humour, you don’t use deodorant.”
Here is the YouTube video featuring Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk, We Should All Be Feminists:
Many people, including some of my students, recoil from the term “feminist.” At times, a student may use the word apologetically, quite aware of the scorn and derision the word elicits—often palpably present in the classroom, but rarely articulated. It’s easier to speak of women’s humanity with its inherent rights under the broad phrase, human rights. Chimamanda Adichie speaks and writes eloquently about that compromise in the following paragraph:
“Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that? Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general—but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem…[is]…specifically about being a female human.”
To be sure, the subject of feminism (as with any subject) is layered, multi-faceted, and nuanced. Not all women experience the same degree of constraint and exclusion from the social space they inhabit. A white woman married to a CEO of a corporation experiences greater access to her society’s resources than a single woman of color trying to make ends meet in order to support her family. Nevertheless, both women endure structural inequality in a society that often renders them invisible by privileging men. Our institutions, even though always in a state of flux and change, are built on policies and laws that favor men and their experience(s).
The Black Lives Matter movement began in the U.S. (2013) after the acquittal of George Zimmerman who shot and killed an unarmed Black teen, Treyvon Martin. It didn’t take long for the phrase, Black Lives Matter, to morph into the more general and broad rendition: All Lives Matter. The problem, of course, is that the phrase, All Lives Matter, erases the sordid truth that it is specifically Black people’s lives that don’t matter. It ignores the particularity of Black experience.
Showing an analogy between the term “feminist” and the phrase Black Lives Matter has helped my students understand why the more specific term feminism is crucial when studying the lives of women within various religious traditions. For millennia, women have been systematically denied full participation in their faith communities. This, by no means, makes women merely passive observers of a patriarchal faith, but excluding women’s participation from any aspect of their religious tradition does compromise the fullness of their humanity.
Today, there is a gender revolution going on. No longer are many people comfortable identifying themselves on the binary scale of male/female or masculine/feminine. What is the relationship of sex to gender? The general wisdom has been that sex is biology, gender is culture. That is, one is declared male or female (sex) depending on one’s external genitalia. Gender, on the other hand, is a cultural construct. Girls and boys are taught specific ways—feminine or masculine—to align with their given sex. This construct varies cross-culturally, but ways of being feminine and masculine are imposed on people, depending on whether their sex is seen as female or male. We are learning that the subject of sex and gender is much more complex.
Earlier this year (2017), the National Geographic Channel aired the documentary, Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric. Katie Couric speaks with sex and gender experts, college students who identify somewhere on a gender continuum, families who learn to cope with and nurture their trans children, and (my favorite) a married couple who learn to adjust, and eventually celebrate, one spouse’s transition from male to female. The documentary is available on YouTube, but here is the trailer.
We are learning new ways to speak about gender. Some of those terms include: agender, androgynous, genderfluid, gender noncomforming, genderqueer, intersex, nonbinary, queer, and transgender. These terms really do not describe new ways in how people experience their lives, but research into sex and gender has provided terms where people’s experience can find a language with which to express themselves.
One function of society’s institutions is to preserve and conserve cultural traditions. The old way of understanding sex and gender as a binary phenomenon remains firmly embedded in many of our institutions, including those we called religious. The more conservative the tradition, the more likely it is to hold on tenaciously to the “truth” of clearly-delineated definitions of (and behavior for) women and men. The second creation story in Genesis (woman created from Adam’s rib) has shaped our binary understanding of sex and gender, clearly demonstrating the influence of religion on the wider culture.
Viable religious traditions, though, are never static. Many faith communities, though, do drag their feet when it comes to incorporating new knowledge, practice, and people’s experience into the expression of their religion. Traditions that don’t evolve eventually become superfluous, ineffective, and die. Faith communities that insist on holding onto “truths” no longer relevant to the people they supposedly embrace and serve will ultimately be left behind.
I’m curious to see how the gender revolution will play out in the various faith communities. Is it possible for those traditions hostile to seeing gender on a continuum accommodate the needs of a changing people?
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.