Don’t Treat Religious Women Like Second Class Feminists by Gina Messina, Jennifer Zobair, and Amy Levin

ff-editors-001It seems like every few weeks another young, female celebrity proudly and publicly declares she is not a feminist: Shailene Woodley. Katy Perry. Kelly Clarkson. Kendall Jenner. These women often justify their refusal to claim feminism by explaining they do not hate men—speaking to the most intractable and yawn-worthy of the mischaracterizations of feminism—or by insisting they do not personally face inequality.

Nevermind that compelling movie roles for women dry up decades before those for men, or that recently 37-year-old Maggie Gyllenhaal was deemed “too old” to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man. (Thank you, Amy Schumer, for the Last F**kable Day Skit!). Even if we accept these young stars’ claims that they don’t face any discrimination, feminists wonder where the concern is for other, less privileged women.

This question is both frustrating and justifiable. On the one hand, who cares what a reality television star thinks of feminism? On the other, these women tremendous power to influence young women. For them to dismissively say, “I have rights, so who needs feminism,” both dishonors the sacrifices of our foremothers and ignores the reality that women’s rights are still in play.

They are still in play for women seeking equal pay for equal work, for those who want paid maternity leave, and for those who seek access to reproductive health. They are still in play for women of color and for LGBT women.

And they are still in play for women of faith.

Gender continues to be a serious issue in patriarchal religious traditions, and women continue to be denied particular roles because of their genitalia and/or gender expression. However, while mainstream feminists practically beg young celebrities to adopt the “feminist” label, women of faith are mocked for actually claiming a feminist identity and working within our traditions to combat sexism. While mainstream feminism seems desperate to have in its fold a 19-year-old reality television star who is famous in no small part because her older sister’s sex tape went viral, mainstream feminism rejects empowered women of faith.

So why have we become second-class feminists?

We understand the appearance of a disconnect between our faith and our feminism. We acknowledge that our religious traditions suffer from sexist interpretations. We understand why some feminists leave our faiths, and we have been tempted to do the same. But even if every Jewish, Christian and Muslim feminist abandoned her tradition, there would still be many women who stay, women for whom that decision has religious jurisprudential consequences. They will still be subject to Halakhah, Canon law and fatwas. They will still face exclusion from leadership roles. They will still endure pressure from community members who accept women’s lesser status based on the teachings of unenlightened rabbis, priests, and imams.

We acknowledge and concern ourselves with these real world impacts of our faiths. But we also recognize our faiths’ foundational messages for what they are and the ways they’ve been misconstrued. In other words, we refuse to let our traditions be defined by sexist interpretations.

This refusal takes many forms. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim feminist scholars are working within the framework of existing translations of the Torah, Bible, and Qur’an, producing new translations of those texts, and, in some cases, questioning the authenticity and divinity of verses that appear irredeemably sexist. At the same time, female activists are committing radical acts of worship that address longstanding sexism. Anat Hoffman was arrested and strip searched for her activism seeking legal recognition for Jewish women to pray out loud with traditionally male religious garb at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Kate Kelly was excommunicated after founding the movement Ordain Women and calling for women to take on leadership roles within the Mormon Church. Amina Wadud endured international condemnations and threats of violence when she became the first woman to lead a mixed-gender Muslim prayer in the U.S.

These are dedicated, tenacious women who refuse to abdicate their religions to sexist interpretations. This is what courage looks like. This is what feminism looks like.

And yet, while mainstream feminists pine for young stars to pay lip service to feminism, women of faith who are actually doing brave and difficult work are routinely told they cannot be “true” feminists.

We recognize that many people think it is only a feminist act to leave patriarchal traditions. We contend that it can also be a feminist act to stay, and we look forward to the day when doing so puts neither our faith nor our feminism in question.

final-cover-faithfully-feministThis piece was co-authored by Jennifer Zobair, Gina-Messina-Dysert, and Amy Levin, the co-editors of Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay.

The Politics of Being a Woman in a “Christian Nation” by Gina Messina-Dysert, Jennifer Zobair and Amy Levin

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The far right is pitting God against women. Mike Huckabee’s support for the decision to deny a 10-year-old rape victim an abortion is just another example in a long history that continues this election season.

At Fox News’ Republican Presidential debate in Cleveland, Jeb Bush boasted that, informed by his faith, he “defunded planned parenthood and created a culture of life in my state.” When Megyn Kelly asked Scott Walker if he would “really let a mother die rather than have an abortion,” he refused to temper his position that there should be no exceptions to his “pro-life” position.

Ted Cruz professed “God speaks to me every day through the scriptures and this informs my position on religious liberty, life, and marriage.” And Marco Rubio argued that even in the case of rape, women should not have the ability to make choices about their pregnancies. Sadly, such proclamations ignore individual rights, freedom of religion, and the fact that faith as a guiding principle can be dangerous when the foundational teachings of social justice are ignored. Continue reading “The Politics of Being a Woman in a “Christian Nation” by Gina Messina-Dysert, Jennifer Zobair and Amy Levin”

The Next Liberal Prophet: What Will She Look Like? By Amy Levin


This past Martin Luther King, Jr. day, I was privileged enough to attend the 57th presidential inauguration at the U.S. Capitol.  Spirits were high and it seemed as if we were breathing recycled air infused with the hope of four years past.  As the President approached the stage, he appeared with the confidence of a second term sage, and yet there was a newer, fresher quality about him – purified and politically born-again. As he began to speak, the religious undertones leaped out into the pews.  Beautifully crafted in diction, rhetoric, and reference, Obama pleased and inspired his dedicated supporters. Guiding us historically through Seneca, Selma, and Stonewall, we understood the meaningful tributes toward women, African Americans, and the LGBT communities. But there was an excess – another constituent represented – God had entered the stage.

Continue reading “The Next Liberal Prophet: What Will She Look Like? By Amy Levin”

We Are All Earthings: Speciesism and Feminist Responsibility Toward Animals by Amy Levin

Amy2“earth’ling: n. One who inhabits the earth.” – Earthlings, 2006

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creatures through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion.” -Henry Beston, The Outermost House

I was passing out leaflets at Columbia University a couple weeks back, when a passerby who took a pamphlet on veganism and the cruel uses of animals turned back around to approach me. He said, “I am a vegetarian, so I understand not eating meat. But what is wrong with some of the uses of these animals? What is wrong with seeing eye dogs?”  A valid question indeed, and one I had to pause for a moment to answer. I mustered up something along the lines of the ways that many of the seeing eye dogs in the industry are unfairly treated or neglected. “Oh, he said.” He seemed content with an answer he could relate to – suffering. In my experience leafleting and participating in animal rights advocacy, I receive a number of questions, many of them wanting to know the same thing, what is WRONG with the horse-drawn carriages at Central Park? And each time I (and I presume many other activists) offer similar answers, the suffering answer. But there is another layer, beyond the quick, violent spark of imagination that connects physical pain with empathy. And it has to do with power and structural inequality, and the use of one group for the benefit of another. And it has everything to do with feminism. Continue reading “We Are All Earthings: Speciesism and Feminist Responsibility Toward Animals by Amy Levin”

Blessed Are The Organized, by Amy Levin

It was a humid yet windy day in Broward County, South Florida. My long pants and sleeves were becoming hostile towards me as I proceeded to slip off my shoes, don my borrowed headscarf, and set up shop just outside the modest mosque in Pembroke Pines.  I waited patiently for prayers to end, hoping that my “Register to Vote” sign was placed in optimal eyesight of the female worshippers as they exited the prayer hall. All of my hope to expand the Florida electorate to help re-elect President Barack Obama was bundled in my mix of clipboards, voter registration forms, pens, and volunteer sign-up sheets.  Just moments after the Imam wrapped up the Friday afternoon prayers, two young women wearing full hijab sauntered out. “Oh, I’ve been meaning to register to vote,” one of them said. “Perfect.” Continue reading “Blessed Are The Organized, by Amy Levin”

Happiness is a Warm Space: Enchantment as Feminist Virtue by Amy Levin

Art can provide a balm for the modern soul – Claude Monet

Living in New York has its vices, and anxiety-triggering space is one of many. Though the city offers ailments just the same, whether they are in the form of meditation or medication, I’m beginning to believe the statistics delineating just how much more anxious us city-dwellers have become. But once in a while you catch a break.

This past Friday, for me, it was the free admission to the Museum of Modern Art. My favorite exhibition room of the MoMA is neither original nor surprising – Monet’s water lilies. The cool hues of greens, blues, and purples that spread across the triptych canvases so effortlessly interrupt the chaotic bodies roaming about the room, evoking a calm, liberating energy. My lungs expand, my shoulders relax. It is my opinion that more people sit down in this room more than any other in the museum.  These ameliorating spaces, which, using Monet’s words, provide a “balm for the modern soul,” not only lift us emotionally and physically, but they offer us something a bit more. . .metaphysical. The water lilies are just one example of the way that art can offer us a sort of spiritual uplift in, what most of us would consider, a secular space. Continue reading “Happiness is a Warm Space: Enchantment as Feminist Virtue by Amy Levin”

Through Body and Space: A Glimpse into Women Worshippers of Aadhi Parashakthi by Amy Levin

Once what happened was after people started believing someone around also started believing in this temple and one person kept a statue on their steps. Her Aunty she believed and she is very much interested in small things. So she started decorating it up. And what happened was the statue starting getting bleeding, like monthly monthly. And the dress which the statue wore during those periods was stained with red bleeding. So they asked Guruji about what is this and he said that the shakti has come into the statue. So if you keep this in the home it will turn into a temple so go and leave it outside. This was followed by entry of snakes, king cobras, so what they did was they went and left it in the sea, after which her grandmother had a dream that you have left me in the water but still I am with you. I am the temple opposite here,  put a lamp everyday at that place. So they started putting it out there, and now there is an earthen Kali which as come up in that place by nature.  –Interview with Premila, March 18, 2008 Continue reading “Through Body and Space: A Glimpse into Women Worshippers of Aadhi Parashakthi by Amy Levin”

Deepa Mehta’s “​Water” and Homegrown Indian Feminism by Amy Levin

In the first scene of the Deepa Mehta’s 2005 Indian film Water, a father tells his eight year old daughter, Chuyia, “Child. Do you remember getting married? Your husband is dead. You’re a widow now.”  These are some of the last words Chuyia hears from anyone familiar to her, as her condition abandons her in an ashram for Hindu widows to spend the rest of her life in renunciation. Chuyia, failing to realize her condition upon arrival, enters the ashram innocent and naive, as the elderly widows surround her and one proceeds shave her soft head.  Watching Chuyia begin to understand her circumstance as she terrifyingly runs for escape screaming for her family, one can only feel a tragic catharsis watching an eight year old being sentenced to life in prison for a “crime” she did not commit. The ideas and criticisms that come to one’s mind are undoubtedly what writer and director, Deepa Mehta, aimed to evoke – injustice, patriarchy, and oppression by way of religion.  Continue reading “Deepa Mehta’s “​Water” and Homegrown Indian Feminism by Amy Levin”

Jewish Weddings: Identity, Desire, and Anxiety by Amy Levin

As a Jewish feminist, I’m often critical of marriage. And, as a 26-year old (this month) who attended Jewish camp, leadership/environmental programs in Israel, and was active in Jewish youth groups growing up, I’ve been frequenting my fair share of Jewish weddings lately. These occasions bring me joy, nostalgia, and an overall reminder in the beautiful power of ritual and ceremony. But they also bring me a piercing sense of anxiety – one that I’m sure I am not alone in experiencing. I see marriage as a heteronormative and ideologically oppressive institution that promotes a hierarchy of relationships – being married as the most desirable form of a relationship, and remaining single as a failure of the female, much like not having children is seen as a failure of womanhood. I see the seventy billion dollar (or more) American wedding industry as representative of the capitalist impulse involved in the planning of weddings, bachelorette parties, and honeymoons, not to mention the violence involved in the so-called “blood diamonds” of so many engagement rings. Continue reading “Jewish Weddings: Identity, Desire, and Anxiety by Amy Levin”

The Land of the (Not Quite) Free: Women and Religion Behind Bars by Amy Levin

The sun was setting on an early Friday evening in October 2008 as I pulled into the parking lot of the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women, a maximum level security prison housing nearly 700 inmates. Though the serene drive on Iowa’s main highway lasted a mere 40 minutes from Grinnell to Mitchellville, my co-teacher and I felt worlds away from our tiny utopian bubble of books and booze. As we gathered our teaching materials for a course we designed called “Feminist Playwriting,” we made sure not to bring in any contraband, one of the many precautions given during our orientation for students participating in Grinnell Liberal Arts in Prison, a program created in 2003 that allows students to design liberal arts courses in either a men or women’s Iowa prison. My experience interacting with an incredible roomful of women, some who would suffer behind bars for the rest of their lives, was needless to say a life changing experience. That semester ignited a fire in me for prison rights, which recently has manifested in a concern for the nexus of religion and prison. Continue reading “The Land of the (Not Quite) Free: Women and Religion Behind Bars by Amy Levin”

Women, Religion and Consumption By Amy Levin

While my last post focused on the similarities between the social and collective experience (perhaps qua Durkheim?) of the occupy movement and the feminist movement in religion, I’d like to continue thinking about themes by taking a different path towards the more direct relationship between religion, women, and capitalism. There are two contemporary studies that are just as useful as they are fascinating on this triadic dynamic: Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free-Enterprise, and Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. Both of these authors pay attention to the nuanced ways in which patriarchy, capitalism, and religion can reinforce each other, and that women are at once victims and creative agents of these processes.

Though Wal-Mart currently stands as world’s largest multi-national corporation, it began in the mind of Sam Walton in a small Ozark town of the Sunbelt. Bethany Moreton’s book calls attention to the particular rural, Southern, agrarian, and Christian family values that helped construct the spirit of free enterprise so representative of Wal-Mart, and women had a particular role to play in the rise of this capital, helping to negotiate and construct Wal-Mart as an icon of good Christian family values. Conflating the store and the family served to bolster both the virtuous ideals of Wal-Mart culture, as well as calm anxieties of men who were threatened by female workers and the potential emasculation of working in the service economy. In this gendered economy, women – mainly white, middle-class, middle- aged mothers – helped structure a unique dynamic in the Wal-Mart industry, helping to restore Protestant family ideals in the workplace. While women held the majority of jobs, chain managers received decision-making power and sturdy salaries. Moreover, through an ethos of service and virtuous buying, women produced a “. . .victory of sanctifying capitalism and consumption under Christianity.” Wal-Mart acted as an agent of mass consumption by making mass service work an honorable endeavor.   Continue reading “Women, Religion and Consumption By Amy Levin”

Feminist Imaginings in the Contemporary Kabbalah Movement By Amy Levin

Amy Levin is a graduate student in Religious Studies at New York University with an interdisciplinary focus on American religion, gender and queer theory, secularization, spirituality, and consumption. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer and a practicing feminist.

If Kabbalah has frequented the media’s gaze in the past decade, the name Madonna has most likely infused the headlines, along with perhaps Mick Jagger, Britney Spears, and “A-Rod,” among others. Unsurprisingly, most of the media coverage on Kabbalah and its famed celebrities tends to conceal its central teachings, focusing on only one contemporary Kabbalah movement: The Kabbalah Centre. Valorized as one of the most financially successful movements of its day, The Kabbalah Centre began in the early 1970s by Rabbi Philip Berg and his wife Karen Berg. The movement exists alongside many of the contemporary groups that seek to renew and reinvigorate an ancient Jewish tradition.

Kabbalah, which literally means, “to receive,” is an umbrella term for a particular set of ancient Jewish mystical practices and ideas, dating as far back as 13th century Spain, and possibly even farther. It is commonly noted that Kabbalah was an esoteric, and thus exclusive practice, studied by only highly educated Jewish men over the age of forty. Like most religious categories, the limits and boundaries of its definition of Kabbalah differ in the various historical and geographical contexts in which it flourished. Jody Myers, author of Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America, notes that one of the central tenants of the Kabbalah Centre is that while Kabbalah is useful for anyone and everyone, one should not be coerced into belief or practice, and it is solely up to the individual to choose it as his or her personal path. Another tenant in Berg’s teachings is a central belief that God is a form of energy, called “the Light.” This loving and spiritual light fills infinite space, and seeks to share its positive energy with anyone who desires it.  Berg’s noncoercive model is part of an overarching egalitarian structure that posits religion as authoritarian and conformist, and spirituality as individual and liberating. Continue reading “Feminist Imaginings in the Contemporary Kabbalah Movement By Amy Levin”

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