The 7th conference of Ecclesia of Women in Asia (EWA) held at Maryridge,Tagaytay, Manila, from 19-24 January 2016 deliberated on the theme “21st Century woman still claiming her space: Asian feminist theological perspectives”.
The introductory session, the video-conferencing, the key-note addresses, paper presentations by the different participants, the critical discussions following each presentation, visit to an organic farm, the different experiences of spiritual connect and other occasions of creative interactions by the participants -all these became significant moments for drawing from our resources in order to contribute to the construction of an Asian feminist theology. The conference brought together 42 women theologians from India, Srilanka, Myanmar, Philippines, S.Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Hongkong, China, Germany, United States of America and South Africa.
The Inaugural Session. Setting the Tone
The question of where 21st century women find themselves today was deliberated from different angles, bringing to relief the many contradictions underlying women’s situation in today’s Church and society. In the introductory session on 21 January, narrating the history of feminist theologizing by EWA in Asia, Dr. Kochurani Abraham, the coordinator of EWA VII, invited the participants to engage actively in contributing to this process of furthering the cause of feminist theology. Situating the theme of the conference against the backdrop of 21st century Asia, the Church and the world of today, she drew their attention to take note of the reality of Asian women who on the one hand are beginning to find their space in knowledge making, political leadership and economic productivity, while on the other hand are being constrained by the persistence of the different expressions of gender discrimination and violence that they are subject to in their particular socio-cultural and economic contexts. The participants were invited to gather their positive energies and voices to make this encounter of Ecclesia of Women in Asia a liberative and transforming experience.
Paper Presentations and Group Work
The first objective of the conference that focused on exploring the positioning of women within the socio-political, economic and cultural context of Asia, was dealt by five papers. Sharon Bong in her case study of Talitha Kum, a global network of consecrated women dedicated to combating trafficking in persons (TIP) examined how it occupies the in-between private, sacred spaces as well as global and secular spaces, within the intersections of feminist, theological and anti-trafficking discourses. Interrogating the faith and praxis of women of Talitha Kum Southeast Asia, she showed how the vision, mission, motivations, goals and strategies of these women offered a more holistic – as not only a rights-based (feminist) but also faith-based activism – hence an effective strategy in empowering girls and boys, women and men who are trafficked.
The paper on “Breaking The Deafening Silence for LGBTIQ Persons in Asia” jointly written by Virginia Saldanha and Lisa Isherwood looked critically at the reality of LGBTQI persons in South Asia and explored the cultural and religious factors that continue to keep them a persecuted group. Examining the influence of religion, culture and politics on life in Asia, it pointed to the suffering, rejection and alienation experienced by LGBTQI persons in the Asian society that is largely traditional. Applying feminist theological principles, the paper showed how Jesus initiates a rethinking on the established norms of sexual morality and it called on Christian feminists to work towards educating the masses and for convincing the State to change the law against homosexual relationships.
Judith Siqueira’s paper on “21st century women moving the plot” looked into the linkages between Cosmology and the Women’s Movement. Founded on the premise that ‘awakening of consciousness is the next evolutionary step for humankind’, she recognized a link between cosmogenesis and epigenesis in the women’s movement.
The two papers selected for videoconferencing – ‘Between National and Local Identity: Possibility of Solidarity between Women of Hong Kong and Mainland China’ by Mary Mee-Yin Yuen of Hong Kong and‘Spirituality and Psychological Well-being of Women Living with HIV/ AIDS’ by Margaret Devadoss of India looked at the reality of 21st century Asian women from different angles. While Mary Mee- Yin Yuen looked into the situation of migrant women from Mainland China and their relationship with native Hong Kong people, Devadoss examined the hard reality of women affected by HIV/AIDS in India, focusing on the on the role of spiritual beliefs and practices in post-diagnosis care of women living with HIV/AIDS.
The second objective about task of discerning the feminist ethical, theological and pastoral challenges that women encounter in the 21st Century was dealt with mainly by the two key note speakers and the other paper presenters. The first key note speaker Sr. Mary John Mananzan from the Philippines addressed the issue taking the case of the emergence of Asian Feminist theology within the framework of the Ecumenical Association of Their World Theology (EATWOT). In her opinion, women’s concerns emerged in EATWOT with the initiation of down-up analysis with structural analysis and when they began to look at scripture and religious practices from a woman’s perspective, bringing women’s struggle to the forefront in theologizing. The second key note speaker Nantando Hadebe from South Africa spoke of women reclaiming their space from an African perspective. She opined that a twofold approach which takes analysis of culture and analysis of religion are necessary to take feminist theology forward. In this task, it is important to address the gender blindness of men engaged in liberation activities and to take to the grassroots the theologies emerging in the national and international forums.
The theological and pastoral challenges that women encounter in Asia was brought out by six papers. Three papers looked at the issue from a biblical perspective. The paper of Dona Sanctis from India titled“Magnificat-Mary’s Song of Revolution: Pedagogy for Women’s Empowerment in India”, reflected on the significance of Magnificat not just from a spiritual perspective but in contemporary times from the perspective of liberation and transformation to find meaning and relevance for human aspiration. Through this song, she revisited the life of Indian women with the belief that Mary in her Magnificat would support women in India to gain autonomy over their own resources, and they will be able to contribute courageously in the service of the church and society. Pauline Chakkalakal, also from India, in her paper titled “Who will Roll away the Stone…?”(Mark 16:3) – A Feminist Critical Appraisal”, unraveled the significance of Jesus’ women disciples at the tomb and their message for today’s women struggling to roll away the stone of patriarchy and sexism, coupled with widespread violence and inequality based on caste-class-gender divides. In her opinion, this biblical-theological critique rooted in our Asian context exposes various factors contributing to women’s invisibility and proposes a liberative action plan to ensure a gender-just church and society.
The paper of Kristine Meneses from Philippines titled “A Socio-rhetorical Analysis and Poststructuralist Hermeneutics of Matthew 5:39-41: Creatively Claiming her Space for the “Other”offered a triad dialogue with the biblical text, with ethics and Asian women context. Deploying the socio-rhetorical analysis in re-reading the text, she presented an alternative understanding of this text. The presentations by Siphim Xavier from Thailand on “Mission History of Women in Thailand: Socio Political Liberation of the Poor” and by Julia Ong on women’s struggle to find their space and voice in the Church in Singapore, signaled to the negotiations by 21st century women to claim their rightful place in the ecclesiastical space.
The ecclesiastical dimension was further addressed by Genny Dumay from Philippines in her paper titled “A Letter to Pope John Paul II as a Response to His Mulieris Dignitatem, A Letter to Women: On the Dignity and Vocation of Women” that discussed the struggle of women in the restricted spaces allotted to them by an ecclesiastical patriarchy where their roles are conditioned by gender stereotypes and stressed on the need for women to awaken to a new consciousness of their identity, so they can make right contributions in the Church. More on a pastoral note, a combined presentation by Stephanie Ann Pue and Rachel Sanchez from the Philippines looked into the question of “Gender, Inculturation, and the Ecclesiology of Communion in the Philippine Church and Liturgy”
On a theological note, five papers reflected critically on 21st century women’s experiences, which include the papers of Helen Romero from Philippines on”Growing Up the Santo Niño: from Folk Devotion to Post-colonial Christian Theology”; Metti Amirtham from India on “EmPOWERing the Female Embodiment from Within: A Theological Path Ahead”; Margaret Gonsalves from India looking at “Theology of Woman: Cosmic Oneness – A Rejuvenating Symphony of Hope ; Hee Jung Adele Cho of South Korea on “Voice of the Voiceless: Influence of Confucianism in Women’s Status in the Asian Roman Catholic Theology and Lonergan’s Self-Appropriation” and Monica Jalandoni Michelle’s reflections on “Anger as Corrective to Filipino Fortitude”. Reflections on three women’s lives using paintings by Marini de Livera of Sri Lanka, brought more colour to the programme and sharings of the new PhD graduates brought in fresh insights into feminist theologizing in Asia.
The conversations that followed the presentations provided scope for a deeper analysis of the issue and awakened further interest in the subject. Even as we realized that there is so much more to look into, it has been an exercise of keeping alive Asian feminist theologizing. Taichi sessions everyday animated by Genny Dumay of Philippines in the beautiful garden overlooking Tal lake, were relaxing moments to the participants amidst serious reflections on women’s concerns.
The third objective of the conference on providing opportunities for expanding our awareness of issues from other Asian countries, through presentations, discussion, prayer and networking was addressed through all the papers and the other interactive sessions. The fourth objective of stimulating interfaith exchange through interaction with women invitees from other churches and religions was not addressed well as there was only one person from a non-catholic Church. The fifth objective of publishing theological reflections and experiences on the theme would be done on an individual capacity by each participant and the conferences in which EWA members participate. With regard to the sixth objective which is about launching the book containing papers from EWA VII, two members of EWA have accepted to be editors of the book and it will be will be published in due time.
Fulfilling the 7th objective, business meeting was conducted in two sessions in order to look into the organizational matters and other questions related to EWA. Regularizing EWA membership, discussions on creating national forums of feminist theologians in the different Asian countries and the election of the new Co-ordinating Team for 2016-2018 who will continue the projects of EWA have been the main agendas of this business meeting.
A field trip to ECHOStore of Amadeo Farm and the time spend there in dialogue with a Social Entrepreneur, Pacita Juan, the founder of this store, who is committed to women’s empowerment and organic farming was also a live demonstration of 21st century women claiming their space. The morning that the group spend at this farm was indeed a refreshing time that provided space for gaining fresh insights into women entrepreneurship, and the question of women exercising economic agency, but with a deep commitment to ecological sustainability
A significant feature unique to EWA 7 was a workshop on Multicultural Relations conducted by Chris Burke of Australia from 19th January evening to 21st January noon for members of EWA.
This workshop that combined interpersonal, managerial and biblical reflections helped the members of EWA to understand each other better in the pluri-cultural context of Asia and to be more focused on realizing the vision of EWA in the 21st century.
Time set aside for spiritual connect and relaxing encounters meant moments of integration and bonding.
EWA 7 ended on a note of renewed commitment and great hope as the members pledged to work through the academia and grassroots engagements in order to take the task of feminist theologizing forward.