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A New Wave of the Women’s Movement is Acting on Faith

by Kathryn M. Lohre, Guest Contributor *

Action Alert
Action Alert
Image by:Women's Division
Source: Women's Division

A New Wave of the WomenÕs Movement is Acting on Faith Speaking of Faith

"As a part of a pluralistic society, we are all challenged to become part of the whole without sacrificing our individuality."

Dr. Diana L. Eck grew up in a Methodist home in Bozeman, Montana. Today she is Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies and Director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. The Pluralism Project is a research organization dedicated to helping Americans engage with the shifting realities of religious diversity through research, outreach, and the active dissemination of resources. (www.pluralism.org)

"To me there is nothing more religious than justice and equality."

Shamita Das Dasgupta arrived in the United States as a young Hindu woman during the women's and civil rights movements. She and five other South Asian women began to ask questions about the role of women in their immigrant community. Together they founded Manavi, Inc., the first organization in the US to focus on domestic violence in the South Asian community.

"My spiritual practice should be to raise this child."

Mushim Ikeda-Nash grew up in the Cold War era in Ohio. Intense theological questions about God and inhumanity led her into Zen Buddhism. While living in a community in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and later in a monastery in Korea, she experienced the patriarchy of the Buddhist tradition. Giving birth to a son during that time of intense spiritual practice led her back to lay life where she has provided leadership as a community peace activist and diversity facilitator.

"I try to manifest my faith in my actions."

Laila Al-Marayati grew up in Hollywood Hills in a home that wasn't particularly religious. As a teenager, she began to explore Islam more intensely through study and prayer. Her lifelong inclination toward activism became infused with a sense of religious obligation. As a physician, she volunteers at the UMMA Free Clinic in South Central Los Angeles. Questions about the role of Muslim women have been part of her work as past president and spokesperson of Muslim Women's League, an organization dedicated to strengthening the role of Muslim women in society.

Religious Activists?

Acting on Faith: Women's New Religious Activism in America is a documentary film that explores the lives and work of Shamita, Mushim, and Laila -- a Hindu, a Buddhist, and a Muslim for whom faith, activism, and identity are deeply intertwined. The film is produced and directed by Rachel Antell, a research affiliate of the Pluralism Project; it is a resource of the Pluralism Project's multi-religious women's networks, in which United Methodist Women participates. (http://www.pluralism.org/events/women/index.php)

In her opening narration, Dr. Diana L. Eck, director of the Pluralism Project, insists that "no one should have to choose between multiple and vital identities." Shamita, Mushim, and Laila provide examples of how women are combining complex identities rather than choosing between them. They are pioneers of a new religious activism.

Women around the country are defining themselves as both religious and activist, and acting out of that conviction. Dr. Eck notes that, "For these women, and many others, their faith fuels their activism. As they engage with their religions in the American context, they are each becoming pioneers of new identities, new communities, and new movements."

Historically, activists in the US women's movement have both embraced and rejected religion. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the founding mothers of the women's movement in the 1840s, recognized the windfalls of the Christian faith. She said, "The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women's emancipation."

Yet instead of abandoning religion altogether, she claimed that women's rights were divinely ordained. She invested great energy in highlighting women's role in the Christian narrative by working with a community of women to rewrite scripture as The Woman's Bible.

Other pioneers of the women's movement have been less willing to throw their weight behind so-called "patriarchal" religion. To these women, religion is a "stumbling block" which restricts women's rights and responsibilities, while secularism provides a viable alternative.

Many contend that the mainstream women's movement has tended to side with secularism. In feminist communities, the role of faith in activism has often been sidelined or sidestepped. So also have those women activists whose multiple identities -- including race, culture, and religion -- did not fit the mold. Shamita recalls that the co-founders of Manavi, Inc., "were all runaways from the mainstream feminist movement," creating their own streams of feminist activism.

Laila also became frustrated by the feminist movement's insistence on disregarding religion. "What that means is that they're not listening to women themselves. The very women they want to help are women who say, ÔNo, I want to be Catholic, I want to be Muslim, and I want to be an Orthodox Jew, but I want my life to still be better.'" In her work with the Muslim Women's League, she is empowering Muslim women to claim their religion and their rights, to be both feminist and faithful.

Acting on Faith

Recent ripples within the women's movement indicate the emergence of a new wave of feminism: women of faith are claiming their places within activist circles. At a recent conference of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, Christine Grumm of the Women's Funding Network said, "I've lived in both worlds of the secular women's movement and the faith-based movement and found myself quite frustrated at having to hop back and forth when they refused to talk to each other and work together."

Acting on Faith chronicles the hopeful stories of three women who refuse to "hop back and forth." We see Shamita, Mushim, and Laila at work, with their families, and at play. We hear them reflect on their experiences, and tell us, in their own voices, what kinds of identities they seek to build -- for themselves and for their communities. Ultimately, their stories help us consider the compatibility of feminism and religion and the tension of being a voice of critique without alienating one's community or inviting outside prejudice. Their lives are a testimony to the potential for a stronger women's movement -- one that lifts up the voices of women of faith.

About the Film            

More information about the film -- including preview clips, order forms, and the online study guide -- is available at: http://www.pluralism.org/affiliates/antell/index.php DVDs are available for purchase through the Pluralism Project for $40 each, including shipping and handling. Please contact Kathryn Lohre at klohre@fas.harvard.edu or at 617/496-2481 if you have any questions. VHS tapes are available upon request.

  • Think about whether you consider yourself an activist, and if so, what issues you would like to commit yourself to working on this year.
  • Request a loaner DVD and study guide from the Women's Division Washington Office of Public Policy at (202) 488-5660 to stimulate dialogue in your church community or women's group. 
  • Consider organizing a local, multi-faith women's event to screen and discuss the film.
  • Talk with other women of faith about how a multi-faith women's organization, or multi-faith projects could serve your community.
  • Explore your connection to women throughout the world. April 27, 2006 will be the launch of the Global Opportunity for Women Campaign.  Learn about this campaign and the Global Resources and Opportunities for Women to Thrive Act (The GROWTH ACT) by contacting Women's EDGE at (202) 884-8396 or www.womensedge.org

* Kathryn M. Lohre, Guest Contributor Kathryn Lohre is Research Manager at the Pluralism Project at Harvard University.

Date posted: Apr 10, 2006