Global Perspective

October 19, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 25

global perspective
Janina Gomes is a freelance writer and works for chambers of commerce and other business organizations. She also contributes regularly to the "Speaking Tree", a column of philosophy and religion in the national daily, The Times of India.



"I am inclined to think that there is a big gap between the way we live spirituality and experience God in our day-to-day living and the manner in which the official church functions. Those in leadership in the church do not often understand our everyday experiences of loss, powerlessness and struggle."
-- Maria, a single parent

Women theologians in India are reclaiming space

By Janina Gomes

Editor's Note: This is the second of a new series of articles on Global Perspective, Journeys in Theology: Women's Stories. Join us for the next six weeks as we hear women describe their experiences of doing theology in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

MUMBAI, India -- Women theologians in India are reclaiming space for themselves in a discipline that has been the prerogative of males for almost 2000 years. They have discovered that traditional theology, which mirrors male experiences, images and ideas, follows rational thought, while feminist theology is experiential.

They are also conscious that feminist theologies in Europe and America do not always reflect Asian concerns and often fail to provide tools to examine colonialism, cultural imperialism, religious pluralism and the horizontal violence of women against women.

Thus, feminist theologians in India are giving fresh expression to their faith in the Indian context.

While expressing their struggles in finding acceptance, they are positive about what they profess and struggle for.

Sr. Pauline Chakkalakal
Sr. Pauline Chakkalakal of the Daughters of St. Paul, who holds a doctorate in biblical theology, has recently written a book called Discipleship: A Space for Women's Leadership, and is active in women's empowerment groups. She is very positive about her experiences as a woman theologian.

Read More
         Learn more about this new series starting on Global Perspective: Journeys in Theology: Women's Stories.
         Part One: Theologians issue call to 'to fulfill the vision of Jesus' and create 'a discipleship of equals.
         Part Two: Women theologians in India are reclaiming space.
         Part Three: Forty years of theology in Latin America.
         Part Four: Eventually everybody adjusted to who I was: My experience as a woman theologian in Africa.
         Part Five: From the option for the poor: A personal journey.
         Part six: Faith seeking empowering understanding.
She acknowledges the oppressive nature of the androcentric, hierarchical and bureaucratic structure of church and church institutions, but she says that being a feminist, which she equates with being holistic and a humanist, and being a theologian in a praxis oriented way is a bold and confident venture.

Chakkalakal says: "I find myself in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, the official church teachings project a liberative view of women's empowerment and participation in the church's apostolate. On the other, women have to constantly claim their dignity and rights from the church and civil authorities.

"As I am committed to developing a life-affirming, struggle-centered and change-oriented theology, rooted in the experiences of suffering and conflict, hopes and aspirations of the silenced and silent women (and the marginalized in general) in church and society, nothing can deflate my relentless quest for the truth that sets us free.

"In order to make the religious and spiritual experiences of women central to biblical interpretation and theological reflection, without which we cannot evolve a holistic theology, spirituality or liturgy, I will continue my prophetic ministry of re-reading the Bible from a feminist perspective", she adds.

Sr. Evelyn Monteiro
Sr. Evelyn Monteiro of the Sisters of the Cross of Chavanod is on the faculty of one of India's largest theologates, Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth in Pune. She describes her struggles as a woman theologian: "It was some male theologians who first initiated me into theology, awakened in me an awareness of gender discrimination in the church and even encouraged me to do theology from a woman's perspective.

"However, over the years I have come to realize a dispiriting reality. It is one thing for men to initiate, awaken and encourage women to do theology but it is quite another to initiate, awaken and persuade men to reflect with women and work in partnership in reconstructing structures for an alternative mode of being church and fashioning a new human community.

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"The greatest challenge that I encounter as a woman theologian is to change the male-mindset from gender-biased attitudes and viewpoints to gender equality and to wean women from the traditional myths of stereotyped gender roles and status."

Monteiro says, "I have also come to accept that the church cannot change its traditions, structure and theology overnight. I have been greatly encouraged by church leaders and theologians who have felt the pain of women's exclusion in the life of the church. But I have also been distressed when inequitable opinions on women's participation in the life of the church are expressed, when concerns of women are ignored and when there is a tendency to make those who do speak up appear ill-informed, rebellious or revolutionary.

"Drawing on my experience as a women theologian, I believe that feminist theology can make visible the wisdom and vision of women and contribute in re-shaping theological concepts and discourses on vital questions of salvation, authority, mission and ministry and celebration of the sacraments," Monteiro says.

"I am also hopeful. For if we take seriously the 'commitment to the epistemological privilege of the poor and the oppressed,' then women and men will have to respond to the Good News of justice as existential truth in order to fashion a new creation and reconstruct structures for a new way of being 'ekklesia.' "

Sr. Pushpa Joseph
Sr. Pushpa Joseph of the Fransican Missionaries of Mary teaches in the Department of Christian Studies in the University of Madras, where she is a post doctoral fellow. She describes her experiences as a woman theologian as a six-fold journey.

The first journey was into self, in which she discovered and enjoyed exploring the forgotten and hidden self; the resourcefulness of the female, often projected as the other, the non-entity, the lower self.

The second journey was into other selves, where by encountering other women she discovered the charisma of other women, who often belonged to the lower rungs of society, who despite being impoverished and subjected to immense cruelty and poverty had immense power in them. A power capable of creating new theologies and life generating spiritualities.

For example, Maria, a single parent, inspired her with her productively critical views of the sterile spirituality of the institutionalized church. She quotes Maria: "I am inclined to think that there is a big gap between the way we live spirituality and experience God in our day-to-day living and the manner in which the official church functions. Those in leadership in the church do not often understand our everyday experiences of loss, powerlessness and struggle."

Sr. Pushpa's third journey was into culture, in which she challenged, by sharpening her critical lenses, the passivity with which her culture had constructed shame and guilt in her.

The fourth journey was into religion, which connected her locally and globally with other women who are in the same quest. The fifth journey was with those who suspected feminism. She tells about a whole class of seminarians who felt she was exaggerating when she spoke about the inhuman conditions in which women live.

The sixth journey was into transformation, in which she realized that we all have to rid ourselves of the internalizations of our cultures and she describes how she experienced "feminine consciousness."

Sr. Shalini Mulackal
Sr. Shalini Mulackal, a sister of the Presentation of The Blessed Virgin Mary, is on the faculty of Vidyajyoti, a prestigious Jesuit theologate in New Delhi. She believes in theologizing from the margins. She talks about her experiences in the context of not only the hierarchical church but also the communitarian church.

She feels accepted by her male colleagues and students in Vidayjyoti. She says it was the Catholic Bishops Conference of India's Commission for Women that took the initiative to bring women theologians in India together as a group and invited women theologians to participate in meetings organized by different commissions of the CBCI. Last November when she participated in the bishops-theologians colloquium organized by the doctrinal commission, she found most of the bishops present open to the views expressed by women.

But Mulackal is aware that feminist theology is in its initial stages in India and the test will come when women theologians start expressing themselves freely in public, in articles and in books.

Sr. Kochurani Abraham
Sr. Kochurani Abraham, Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and coordinator of a project of Streevani ( a women's center in Pune) for the empowerment of religious found it a long struggle when she enrolled at a theological college for men in India. "She says: "Entering the male domain of theology in this particular college at a time when the woman in me was awakening to a new consciousness of being woman, led me to greater realization of women's subjugated position in society and the church."

Growing in the realization of how destructive an androcentric theology can be on women ,she says: "more and more women need to articulate their understanding and experience of God in order to make theology relevant for our times and for humanity as a whole"

Sr. Kochurani believes the process of consciousness raising is very slow. It took 27 years from the Indian Theological Association to take women's concerns as a topic for reflection at their annual meet. Very few major catholic theologates have feminist theology even as an optional subject. But one sign of hope she sees is the formation of the Indian Women Theologians Forum, an independent body that meets once a year to reflect on issues related to women.

Sr. Philomena D'Souza
Sr. Philomena D'Souza is a Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians and has been a member of the Indian Theological Association since 1994. She says she finds signs of hope in India. She has found a lot of interest and willingness on the part of male theologians to listen and learn from women and that her experiences with the Indian Theological Association have been quite positive.

But she says she has also witnessed the concern for safeguarding the orthodoxy of theology overtaking the urgency to address women's concerns. When it came to biblical hermeneutics, quite a few seemed to be convinced of the superiority of the historical critical method over the "fertile imagination" feminist interpretation of scripture, she says.

One reason for the difference in perception, D'Souza says is that that many of the women participants at the theologians' association meetings are from the field and involved with women's groups at the grassroots level, while most of the men theologians are professors teaching at seminaries.

Indian women theologians, like their counterparts in other parts of the world, have had inevitably to struggle against patriarchal structures and an androcentric understanding of the church. But what they all have in common is the ability to rise above their struggles and to see their experiences and journeys with all their frustrations in a positive light.

Next week, Ana Flora reflects on 40 years of teaching scripture to seminarians and small Christian communities in São Paulo, Brazil
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