Spiritual Feminism

I had posted a series on cyberharassment including potent quotes from women bloggers, activists, and feminist law professors. Careful readers may have noticed that some people referred only to women’s rights, while others referred to the rights of women and racial minorities. Hardly any referenced the rights of religious or spiritual minorities. Why is this? It seems unfortunate. After all, most cyberharassers are equal opportunity harassers, employing roughly the same tactics whether going after women, racial minorities, or religious/spiritual minorities.

There can be various reasons for the omission. Perhaps the political taxonomy is such that feminists identify themselves primarily with the left, don’t see religion as relevant to their lives, or harbor persistent stereotypes of religion which arise from their dealings with right-wing Christian groups who oppose freedom of choice for women. In Recognising Religious Women as Feminist Subjects, Louisa Acciari writes:

“The position of white Western feminists regarding religious women, and more specifically Muslim women, is increasingly contested. In Western discourses, religious women are considered either too oppressed to speak for themselves or too dominated to express a real ‘free choice.’ By locking them in this subjugated position, feminist theory denies religious women agency and capacity to be part of the feminist movement. Though not religious myself, the exclusion of religious women — or of any woman — from feminist theory and practice seems very problematic to me. I find it crucial to rethink common assumptions about religion, secularity and feminism, and to question how part of the feminist movement has become so intolerant of the religious ‘other.'” [References omitted.]

American and European feminists may tend to see themselves as both “modern” and “Western,” while viewing religion as “primitive” and “patriarchal.” The feminist movement is predominantly secular, and may therefore fall victim to familiar secular disdain for the religious or spiritual. The balkanization of movements of liberation may imply that religious minorities had best fend for themselves.

Feminism tends to include both liberating concepts as well as normative values suggesting limits on behavior. If feminism is part of the larger category of (predominantly) left-wing politics, its normative values may include self-reliance rather than reliance on any God or spiritual authority. To expand the liberating concepts of feminism to include and even embrace religion and spirituality seems relatively easy. It may be more difficult to question normative values which place feminism and religion in altogether different bins.

Put more simply: in some feminist circles, religion is dreadfully unfashionable. To the extent that mainstream feminism has developed its own social codes, overt expressions of religious faith may be somewhat taboo. What’s paradoxical here is that this seems to deny women support for making any choices other than politically correct ones. While my own politics are liberal left, I define left-wing politics in terms of personal freedom. I want the freedom to choose whatever brings me wisdom and happiness. If I can’t pray, you can keep your revolution! But of course, the subtler point is that left-wing politics shouldn’t be about conforming to an agenda or social code. It should celebrate choice in all areas of life. True diversity includes not only political, ethnic and gender diversity, but spiritual diversity as well. No one should be forced to choose between religion and feminism. Feminism could ideally expand to include a variety of religious and spiritual choices, not just Neopagan ones.

To understand how this is possible, we need a mind which is free from preconceptions and is able to embrace paradox, e.g. the paradox that a person could be fiercely independent in their political thinking and yet also submissive (dangerous word!) to the will of God. It’s easy to find articles which laud Muslim women for increased political activism, but hard to find articles which address the latter paradox.

Scratch beneath the surface of left-leaning articles on religious women and feminism and you may see signs of condescension, e.g.: Despite being horribly oppressed and deluded, these women are nonetheless taking their first nascent steps toward something resembling feminism. They may not be welcome at the finest New York cocktail parties, but we should at least tip our urban sombreros to their efforts.

To my mind, that’s not a good way to view things. One should rather consider that spiritual feminists may be tuned in to a whole different reality. They may be politically aware and spiritually aware, and may have found their own personal pathway through the contradictions by working hard, persistently asking tough questions, and daring to believe that their own spiritual experiences are real.

If you believe in an inclusive and equalitarian society, then don’t exclude or grudgingly accept spiritual feminists–embrace them!

Earlier I stated (perhaps somewhat enigmatically) that to expand the liberating concepts of feminism to include and even embrace religion and spirituality seems relatively easy. I see three immediate pathways to this.

The first is to recognize that what many feminists are struggling for is a world governed by compassion and empathy. These qualities are in short supply in the material world, but are found in abundant measure in the spiritual world. To discover that the spiritual world is brimming with the qualities needed to achieve feminist ideals is to recognize the spiritual world as a valuable feminist resource.

The second pathway entails sweeping away stereotypes. One of the features of feminism is a personal search for what is true, apart from limited attitudes inherited from the past. Feminists often go on their own type of vision quest to discover who they are as individuals, beyond phenotypes acquired from family life, educational institutions, fashion mags, and even political tracts. Whenever the question Who am I? is asked deeply and with persistence, it leads naturally to the spiritual realm. The deep realization that I am a spiritual being, and I am an integral being is a feminist realization, or at least a realization not hostile to feminism.

The third pathway — related to the other two — is to recognize that the spiritual realm itself is already equalitarian. There the feminine principle is not relegated to second-class status, but is extremely powerful, active, dynamic, and in no way inferior to the masculine. To discover that the spiritual realm — far from being a hostile, male-dominated region — is in fact a kind of feminist paradise, is to again affirm its value as a resource and model.

If one defines feminism as a predominantly secular, intellectual, and political movement, then this may leave little room for personal discoveries of a spiritual nature — or such discoveries may be cordoned off from feminism and relegated to the private self, seen as unfit for polite conversation. But if one views feminism as a process of personal liberation and discovery with no preset limits, then to become spiritually aware and spiritually empowered no longer seems like an irrelevant preoccupation, but rather a central puzzle piece in the whole question of identity. The realization I am a spiritual being, and I am an integral being implies a holistic approach to feminism which does not exclude or cordon off the spiritual.

To embrace spiritual feminism, one is (in a sense) forced to challenge the pervasive view that modernity equals secularism equals individualism equals intellectualism equals rejection of religion. This may ultimately reduce to a conflict between the mind and the heart.

The message of spiritual liberation is more easily discovered in the heart than in the mind. In the personal struggle for liberation, to listen to one’s own heart in a mind-obsessed society is itself a radical act!

The various heart-based spiritual movements which people often join are nonconformist in relation to the secular/intellectual mainstream. So even if you’re not religious, consider that women (and men) who define themselves as explicitly spiritual and participate in minority religions have rights worth defending. Don’t limit discussion of cyberharassment to women and racial minorities. Please also include religious/spiritual minorities, since they too are targets of such harassment, and are often at a particular disadvantage to defend themselves.

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