Natalie Collins blogs about facilitating a workshop entitled ‘Religion, Faith and Feminist Activism’ at UK Feminista’s Summer School last weekend.
As a Christian it is often a struggle to feel fully part of the feminist movement. With many feminists stating that religion is a patriarchal construct, and having personally having been told by a feminist organisation I worked for that it would never be appropriate for me to mention my faith during my work, it is difficult to feel part of the sisterhood. Similarly in the church, I often feel like an anomaly as I bring a feminist perspective to sermons, songs and home groups, to the point where I often avoid small groups as I know I’m unlikely to fit in.
So it was great to be able to be involved in running a workshop at UK Feminista’s Summer School in Birmingham. The weekend-long event had a rich and varied programme, a wonderfully inclusive atmosphere and lots and lots of wonderful feminists. I was originally asked to participate in a panel with feminists from different faith and religious communities, as a representative of the Christian Feminist Network, however I ended up facilitating the session, with two Muslim women, Maria and Ujoor, sharing their experiences alongside me sharing mine.
The session was wonderful. We had over fifty people attend, with individuals self-identifying as Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, Wiccan, spiritual, exploring faith and atheist. Some people felt committed to their faith, whereas others felt that their faith was something they had inherited and in that way was a part of their identity.
The dialogue was open and respectful. The Summer School organisers had shared with me that some issues of Islamophobia had been raised in other sessions, and so we ensured the session was introduced as a space for respectful dialogue. People shared their views and experiences of being people of faith, and how for some, feminism was an extension and complemented their faith identity. Some people couldn’t understand why feminism seems to be seen as an atheist movement, which allowed those who self-identify as atheist to share their views.
One woman commented on how women who wear very little clothing are seen by society as “sluts”, whereas women who wear the hijab are seen as being oppressed. She said she felt it would be wonderful if, in the same way as feminists had started “slutwalks” to declare that women should be able to wear little or no clothing and not be victimised, feminists could also stop seeing women who choose to cover their heads or bodies as oppressed.
It was wonderful to hear Maria and Ujoor’s stories of being Muslim activists, and Maria discussed how we shouldn’t blame Islam for oppressing women, focusing instead on the fact that it is those who choose to use Islam as an excuse to oppress and abuse women. Maria and Ujoor shared how they felt frustrated when people think that Muslim women are a homogenous group, when each woman and their individual communities have very different experiences and values.
We discussed our various experiences of being feminists of faith, and those within the group who were atheists listened and heard our views. The session finished with me sharing some of my story, of how I grew up in a Christian home and how Christian teaching had disabled me from making good choices, leading to me experiencing abuse, but also how it was through my faith in God that I was able to make it through the most difficult period in my life. I shared of working within the feminist world and the challenges I had faced and also the Christian leader who had told me she had to have the “spirit of feminism” cast out of her.
I concluded by talking about the similarities of faith communities and the feminist community. Each is full of flawed people, with a shared set of values and principles, which are perceived differently by every individual, a community of people trying to be on the same page, though with different priorities, perceptions and life experiences. My observation is that the feminist dialogue about trans* people looks very similar to the Christian dialogue regarding the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people.
After I finished, we separated into groups of people with the same faith and had some time sharing and discussing. Some of us swapped details and hope to stay in contact. Many shared with me how useful the workshop had been and how much they appreciated the space, both people of faith and those without.
A big thank you must be given to UK Feminista for being intentional in creating a space for people of faith and as we continue to have respectful and open dialogue I hope and pray, as do all those at the Christian Feminist Network, that we might get to a place where people of faith truly know we fit within feminism and are more equipped to challenge misconceptions within our faith communities.