As part of the ongoing Ladyfest Edinburgh, the Edinburgh Feminist Network hosted a workshop on Faith and Feminism. Women of all faiths and none were invited to come along and talk about their experiences and thoughts. The event was hosted at YWCA Roundabout Centre.
The organisers were careful to make the event a safe space for everyone and sixteen women came along, sitting in a large circle around the room. The session began with everyone introducing themselves and saying a little bit about themselves to give everyone a chance to get to know each other and to get used to talking in a group. There was a good mix of ages from younger students, mothers with families to mature women whose families had already grown up. Among the beliefs represented were Sikhism, Christianity, Islam, Atheism, Humanism and Buddhism. There were prepared speakers for Sikhism, Christianity and Humanism and lots of questions and discussion from those present. I’m going to talk about my experience of the event and some of the interesting points that came up, so this will not be an exhaustive account of the discussion. I am also not giving names because I can’t recall them and in order to respect privacy.
The workshop kicked off with a first generation scottish born Sikh woman talking about the Sikh religion and her experiences. Although the Sikh religion states that women and men are equal, some cultures which practice the Sikh religion do not treat women equally. She explained about how the more she read about the Sikh religion, the more she questioned attitudes in her own community and at their temple. Eventually this led her to start a Sikh womens group, Sikh Sanjog, which provides a community for Sikh women with opportunities to discuss and organise educational and leisure activities as well as other support services. Having organised for many years, she spoke of handing the opportunity over to younger Sikh women in the community. Preparing for a meeting one day, she found herself surrounded by a group of teenage girls offering to come up to the temple with her to help sort things out. It was a really inspiring and awesome note to start on. From being told that she asked too many questions, she chose to create something for herself, for other Sikh women and the whole community on her terms without the sexism that she had experienced elsewhere.
So we found ourselves discussing how much of the sexism associated with religion is found in the culture and is not necessarily inherent in religion. The Muslim women present talked about how the Koran explicitly states that women have the right to divorce and inherit and that women should be treated with respect. Then we heard from the Christian speaker, a student who identified as an Evangelical Christian and feminist. She spoke of how her feminist beliefs were closely intertwined with her Christian beliefs. How, for her, Christianity was about freedom from oppression, through redemption and that this applies to everyone including, of course, women. Growing up in her Christian church, things had been pretty egalitarian and it was only as a teenager that she became aware that some Christians believed that women should not be preachers and leaders in the church. She also spoke about how her faith and her feminism are both ongoing and evolving things and the importance to her of asking questions and thinking about it, even if it means asking the hard questions. Others shared their experiences of strong women in the church, sexism in the church and Bible passages which praise women and which condemn them. It was also noted that the Koran does not ascribe the blame for original sin to Eve, but to Adam and Eve jointly.
We also spoke about Humanism. The Humanist speaker explained how she first discovered Humanism when looking for a marriage ceremony which expressed her beliefs and was flexible to take the form that fit with their wishes. She was not religious and when she started reading about Humanism, she found herself identifying with it. The Humanist stance of equality and compassion fit with her feminist beliefs and her ongoing work with the charity Zero Tolerance which campaigns on the issue of violence against women. She also read a definition of the ideal Humanist given by early Humanist thinker and women’s rights advocate Charles Francis Potter, describing a person of keen intellect and compassion, able to appreciate the wonder of life and smell the roses along the way, and how that was an ideal that she’d like for herself. She also explained that she had little experience of organised Humanism beyond her wedding ceremony. At this point, I added my experiences as a Humanist sharing her interpretation of an egalitarian Humanism which fits with my own feminist stance. However, I also divulged how at one Humanist conference I had found myself mostly in the company of older, white males and that only two out of ten speakers had been female. There was also an unfortunate incident where several female audience members had found their questions dismissed. This led us back to the question of culture and the common place male dominance of institutions.
As well as this, we discussed issues such as what women should do to deal with sexism in religious and other institutions and what approaches we should take to make sure that we have adequate representation and participation in the institutions which hold so much power in our cultures. Also raised was the issue of religious leaders abusing their powers towards those who are vulnerable in their communities, usually women and children. How this was a particularly acute abuse of trust as with doctors or teachers. The issue of how to separate religion from culture came up. How do we criticise religion without inadvertently targeting an ethnic group if the religion is also part of the cultural identity? One woman spoke up about how as a black woman she felt excluded from some of the debate and ideas discussed, such as the Potter definition of a Humanist which she felt expressed a white, middle class ideal. She spoke about how race is ignored and about her work for Shakti Women’s Aid which supports Black and Minority Ethnic groups. The group present consisted of mostly White British women, a black Nigerian woman, two Asian Scottish women, a Black Sottish woman and a woman of part Indian and part Jamaican heritage. Sadly, as this topic arose later in the evening there was not time for much discussion, but this discussion should be continued at the Ladyfest Get Racy event!
All in all, I had a really good time and learned a lot. It was interesting to see the experiences of different women with their faiths or none, and also to see how they had approached any problems or issues. As we had only touched upon some of the possible issues, many felt that they would welcome an opportunity to meet again and continue the discussion and also to open it up to even more women. As for me, I came out with the strong feeling that it is crucial that women (and all other underrepresented groups) continue to insist on and work towards fair representation and participation in their communities be they religious or otherwise. This is not some generous liberal concession, this is equality.