With the recent excommunication of Kate Kelly, and the many criticisms made of Ordain Women, I wanted to take a wide look at advocacy and activism for and by women of faith in other religious groups and also to point out the interests expressed by wider society in such activity. We all ought to be aware that Ordain Women is not the only such organisation, and that advocacy and activism for greater inclusion of women’s voices is to be found in other faiths too. Those groups I mention are not meant to form an exhaustive list. Feel free to introduce others in the comments.

Roman Catholic women have several such groups, WOW (Women’s Ordination Worldwide) whose website aims to include a short course to “systematically explore the important theological concepts that underlie the debate on women priests” and a discussion guide on “John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in which he attempted to officially ban discussion about the ordination of women” including a letter writing campaign to Pope Francis (deadline May15 this year). National groups such as CWO (Catholic Women’s Ordination) in the UK are affiliated with WOW. In the US there’s the WOC (Women’s Ordination Conference) who “advocate for the ordination of women as priests, deacons and bishops into an inclusive and accountable Roman Catholic Church.” Ordination of RC women has been performed by some rogue RC clerics; most notably 7 women on the Danube river in 2002. They are supported by RCWP (Roman Catholic Womenpriests) and are not recognised by the RC church.

Muslim women also participate in activism, from the activism in Saudi Arabia fighting for greater day to day freedoms for women to holding events in the West in which female Imams lead prayer for a mixed sex group of worshippers. There are groups such as the Inclusive Mosque Initiative whose mosques aim to “value gender expression and gender justice as an integral manifestation of Islamic practice” and WISE (Women’s islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality) whose website includes an advocacy toolkit covering a whole gamut of areas of interest including but far from limited to religious education and leadership, but on that topic stating: “Muslim women are demanding their full rights to full participation in the public and religious sphere. Patriarchal customs are being rejected and laws are being revised.

Whilst Episcopal members of the Anglican Communion in the US now have ordained women Bishops, in the UK WATCH (Women and the Church) organised in the Church of England are still campaigning in favour of ordaining women Bishops. Voting takes place next month. WATCH replaced MOW (Movement for the Ordination of Women) which had campaigned for women’s ordination in the Church of England since 1977, until the first women priests were ordained. Anglican women in Australia also have their own organisation MOWatch which, amongst other things, “seeks to move all dioceses in the Anglican Church of Australia to admit women to the ordained ministries of the Church” and “supports those women already ordained”.

For Jewish women, there is the progressive Jewish women’s activist group “Women of the Wall” (also WOW) whose aim is “to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.” Women have been arrested whilst praying at the wall. Then there’s JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) who advocate “for increased opportunities for women to: function as religious, spiritual and halakhic leaders in synagogues and communities; assume professional and lay leadership roles in all spheres of communal life. Leadership positions available to Orthodox women should include presidents of Orthodox synagogues, heads of day schools and heads of Orthodox organizations. In addition, JOFA seeks to place more women as Talmud and halakha teachers in institutions of higher learning.

In the context of the above, the actions of Ordain Women appear to be neither particularly out of the ordinary, nor especially extreme.

It is not only within the religions themselves that debates are to be had about the roles and rights of women in participation. We perhaps ought also to be aware of the views held in secular society.

Human Rights Watch pay particular attention to the situation for women and others in rather theocratic middle east nations, where human rights are increasingly leading to political activism, particularly regarding the position of women – one activist quoted in Aljazeera said: “There’s a human rights culture growing in Saudi society. People are waking up from the extremist-induced slumber of the past 40 years.

Just this week a case of a woman wearing the niqab (full face veil) in France reached its conclusion in the European Court of Human Rights. The court dismissed French government arguments based upon respect for gender equality and human dignity, but did find that (from the court press release):

“the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face in public could undermine the notion of “living together”. In that connection, it indicated that it took into account the State’s submission that the face played a significant role in social interaction. The Court was also able to understand the view that individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships, which, by virtue of an established consensus, formed an indispensable element of community life within the society in question. The Court was therefore able to accept that the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face was perceived by the respondent State as breaching the right of others to live in a space of socialisation which made living together easier.”

Consequently the French law banning face coverings has been upheld.

In carrying out research for the post I stumbled across a paper examining “the role of patriarchal religion and culture in the subordination of women”. The paper argues against the tolerance of secular governments for the subordination of women on grounds of religious freedom, points out that the laws governing nations often have their roots in patriarchal religion, and that such practices continue to affect women today both inside and outside of religious organisations due to cultural influences:

“Today liberal states, such as the United States, do not outright exclude women from shaping culture. Nevertheless, they actively and no less successfully, assist in perpetuating the hegemony of patriarchy by protecting the right of powerful patriarchal religions and other patriarchal communities to exclude women from positions of power. The result is that women have no voice in the shaping of the internal cultures of many communities within the state and consequently have much less than an equal say in the shaping of the overall culture of the state. By tolerating discrimination and protecting the religious, cultural, and associational rights of the leaders of patriarchal religious and cultural groups, and by refusing to assist dissenters within those groups to shape the group’s cultural product, the state legitimates the continued existence of overt patriarchy and protects patriarchy’s power base from any external and even internal challenge.” Gila Stopler; “A Rank Usurpation of Power”–The Role of Patriarchal Religion and Culture in the Subordination of Women, Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, 15, pp365-397, (2008)

The issues in the US over birth control provision and abortion, and the influence of the religious right, get some discussion in the paper. Stopler suggests that a just society ought to assist those who struggle for equality within their religious communities because:

“The liberal suggestion that the appropriate remedy for discrimination within the group is for the oppressed to exit and establish their own group does not provide any real solution for the oppressed, both because it is impracticable and because exit only entrenches and legitimates the differences of power instead of mitigating them. As for impracticability, it is questionable that the oppressed have the practical and psychological ability or the desire, to leave the community. … the reliance on the option of exit protects patriarchal power from the need to answer calls for change within the community and delegitimizes those who seek such change from within.”

The ECHR ruling would suggest, reasons of gender equality as a wider community value are not deemed sufficient argument for interfering with religious practice.

Stopler is correct, that not all women choose to leave:

“While some women have responded to this disparity [between religion’s moral imperatives for justice and women’s lower status in religious ritual, doctrine and organisational structure] by abandoning religious institutions, others have worked from within to reform and restructure their religious traditions.” Catherine A. Faver, To Run and Not be Weary: Spirituality and Women’s Activism, Review of Religious Research, 42:1 pp. 61-78 (2000)

As we have seen in the number of advocacy and activist groups that exist within the different religious traditions.

  • Are you aware of any other advocacy or activist groups?
  • Do you see a disparity between the moral imperatives of a religion and the status of women within that religion?
  • What are your own views on the place of advocacy and activism within religion?
  • What do you make of Stopler’s idea of state intervention?