Faith and Feminism at Go Feminist!

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Yesterday I was privileged to attend the very first Go Feminist! conference in London. Go Feminist! was birthed out of a desire to see a conference that would inspire activism and connect women with a view to working from a completely intersectional platform, recognising the role that interlocking oppressions play in affecting the world around us. As the conference's organisers told The F Word last month:

"We do this as a response to feminism's most sustained critique: that it is not for all women. Although women from all backgrounds and communities identify with feminist beliefs, the movement still does not completely take into account their needs and realities. Too often in our feminist spaces, the voices of a few are privileged. Race is inadequately dealt with. Our spaces, both physical and virtual, are inaccessible to women living with disabilities. Trans women's involvement is actively discouraged."

What resulted was a brilliant day of equipping, debate and discussion, which felt immensely positive and helpful to all who attended. Something that has been raised at other conferences in the past is the lack of discussion about faith issues, which are important to many women and also affect things outside the personal sphere, such as the role of faith in public life, fundamentalism, and the intersection of religious and race issues. Therefore I knew that plenty of people were looking forward to the afternoon workshop on "Faith and Feminism", which I was involved in facilitating.

The workshop took the form of four group discussions, which delegates could move between and contribute to as they wished. I facilitated the discussions entitled "Common ground can be found" (between belief systems and gender equality) while other groups focused on discussion of faith in public life, and the idea that religion is inherently misogynist. Despite a huge variety of opinions and plenty of disagreement, the atmosphere in the workshop remained really positive and I would have liked to have listened in on what was going on within the other groups so am relying on others to tell me all about it. Afterwards when we came together to share things that had particularly impacted us about the session, it was obvious that running it had not been a waste of time.

I noted down some of the main "action points" that came out of our session (we had plenty of time to get stuck in with an hour of discussion time built in). All are points I've found personally helpful, and points I put to good use when exploring the idea that "common ground" really can be found.

1) Separate your belief system's power structures and culture from its actual teachings

Cultural influences and decisions made by religious leaders through the ages have a tendency to stick around and become "the way things have always been done". This isn't always helpful if they actually represent a departure from original teachings or are "add-ons" that people tend to take as "gospel" (sorry) anyway. One example raised in our discussion that's also one I use a lot is the way "traditional" gender roles as we see them taught today within Christianity are less "how things have always been" and more an idolisation of Victorian, and then post-war, Western family life which have no relation to other cultures and pre-19th century life in general. This has been hijacked in a more extreme way by the patriarchy movements that have sprung up in the USA since the 1970s, but of course is also present in a lot of mainstream teaching and resources. We need to make sure people are aware of the differences between original teaching and institutional ways of doing things.

2) Use positive examples from history

When we talk to people about finding common ground, it's interesting and really helpful to draw on examples from history to illustrate the outworking of our beliefs. History has so much to tell us about influential women as figures in leadership, thinkers, writers, and people who played an important role in religious life. Many of these women are no longer widely spoken about - and many have had their stories sanitized or changed in order to fit a particular ideal. Some people yesterday spoke about being greatly inspired by the stories of women of the past and what they tell us about our role in religious life.

3) Emphasise humanity and the fact we all deserve respect

Within faith groups, there is often little respect shown to people who don't "fit the mold" and conform to expectations. Within feminism, the same thing can happen. There is so much wrong with this, and it needs to be discouraged at all costs. Yesterday's conference was a wonderful example of how things can work for good when everyone believes that all should be respected and included. It makes for much more productive debate and enables us to learn from people whose viewpoints we might not previously have been aware of or understanding of. Within my own faith, part of this is remembering that as humans we are all made in God's image and that "God so loved the world...". How should this affect our behaviour towards people? A problem I sometimes see is that gender equality is not considered an issue for Christians to be bothered about, and that being passionate about it can be regarded with suspicion and a sense of "what's the point?". Even if it's an issue you don't feel personally called to tackle on a wider scale it needs to be respected.

4) Combat fear of the unknown by starting good conversations about gender equality

This is so important. As many people mentioned yesterday, there is so much confusion around what feminism is and what it means for men and for women. Parallels were drawn between the way the media tends to focus on religion only when it can be portrayed in terms of extremism/fundamentalism or as a bit of a joke, and its similar sentiments about feminism. What's vital here is starting conversations that help to bust myths, develop understanding, and educate. A point raised several times during our discussion was a lack of understanding and tolerance of feminism from family members or close friends in the faith community, something that can be difficult to deal with. Often this lack of tolerance will come from having swallowed all the myths and the scaremongering from the powers that be, the media, and the anti-feminists. Talking through this, if people are amenable, really helps people to see things in a new light.

5) Create the communities you want to see

As the saying goes, "Be the change you want to see in the world". Can you get together with likeminded people, in your neighbourhood, at your place of worship or online through social media and blogging? Can you meet to discuss beliefs and activism, or form fresh expressions of your faith such as prayer groups, services or other get-togethers which affirm inclusivity and gender equality? Some people offered examples of places they know where this is happening. I know I've really benefited from communities I've formed online and that this has led to real-life meetings, people supporting each other, a lot of great discussion, people getting together for meetings and conferences, and above all, the knowledge that we're not alone. I think this is vital in creating change from within.

Go here to check out videos of plenary sessions and voxpops conducted throughout the day at Go Feminist! (including one featuring me), or check out the #gofem hashtag on Twitter.

On a related note, I wanted to share the link to this post from Rachel Held Evans, which talks about planting "tangible, practical seeds" to challenge, combat and call out misogyny in the church, while building up and supporting other women. I like Rachel's suggestions and want to put some of my own into practice this year.

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