Salesian Retreat House, Hua Hin, Thailand
26-29 August, 2009

By Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, India

We have finally come to the conclusion but not the end, I hope, of ‘Practising Peace: Towards an Asian feminist Theology of Liberation’. During the past three days we listened, shared, reflected, prayed and embraced each other. We opened our sacred spaces to one another and we entered bearing blessings, healing and love.

One of the questions in the evaluation sheet distributed yesterday was “What did you like best in EWA IV?” My answer was: the creativity. Over the years I have attended many meetings of feminist theologians, and invariably I have heard the women ask, “Can we not deliver our presentations differently? Why do we always just read papers like the men do?” This EWA was the first time I have seen women come out of the box imposed by a microphone and podium. Our speakers engaged us not only with their insightful theology, but with their originality. Evocative images and videos were flashed on a screen and a simple caress demonstrated the holiness of our palms, for has not God carved us on the palm of Her hand? (Is. 49:14-15). For the first time I witnessed theology being presented in dance, drama and song, and I was captured, as I am sure you were too, in the rhythm and emotion of Salvador’s daughter as she made her personal pilgrimage in preparation for the ‘Homecoming of the Feminine’. I was struck too by Marini’s passionate exposition of bleeding Sri Lanka, a story told in disturbing artwork, and Intan’s unfolding of the journal of resistance and healing, painstakingly stitched into quilted images by the fingers of Indonesian women.

The variety of the liturgy was also refreshing, from prayers and hymns to healing sessions that needed no words, dances that set our spirits free and psalms that followed us through the day. We brought together our symbols of peace – imaginative, joyful, hurting, hopeful. And we bridged the waters that separate our countries with hands and hearts entwined in the knowing of the Call deep within our beings:
“Woman! Woman!
When will you soar on the wings of your longing
To the blissful heights
Where I await your love?
And if you meet me with all your desire,
I will touch you with my presence divine.” (Mechtild of Magdeburg)

Nothing was left untouched. Even routine formalities took on a feminist hue as our co-ordinators Sharon and Nonie opted for an inclusive welcome address with all the CT members, a reminder that many had laboured to bring EWA 4 to birth.

Situating the gathering, in her opening remarks Nonie referred to the Call for Papers that asked, “What do Asian women have to say about practicing peace?” She explained that the programme was put together keeping in mind the need for women to continue to challenge the Church because it is our community of faith, and to try to shift the paradigm and change the boundaries in the academy too.

There were 28 participants from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, USA and Germany. We missed our sisters from Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and the Netherlands, who were unable to attend due to the changed schedule. We had 15 presentations in all, 5 from the Philippines, 3 from India, 2 each from Indonesia and Sri Lanka, and 1 each from Bangladesh, Malaysia and Taiwan.

PEACE & HERMENEUTICS

The first session opened with Judette’s paper on the Sermon on the Mount which focused on the last two beatitudes: Blessed are the Peacemakers, and Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of righteousness. She distinguished between peacemaking and peacekeeping and pointed out that peace lovers are not necessarily peace makers. She presented two models of women peacemakers in the Bible, Abigail in the Old Testament and Mary in the New Testament. I am sure her ‘palm blessing’ will go down into the living tradition of EWA.

Sophie’s presentation, Like Water on Stone, provoked stimulating images of water as a symbol of resistance. She talked of peace as relationship and of the need to not only transform the world into sacred space, but also to convert traditional sacred spaces themselves as part of practicing peace. She presented the encircling, mutual, embracing set of relationships in the Trinity as a model for peace building.

Margaret came next with her creative re-telling of her story. She spoke of Shalom as God’s gift, a gift that integrates both the feminine and the masculine. In her understanding, Shalom implies a radical shift from fragmentation to wholeness, from isolation to relatedness, from individual to community, from illness in all its forms to holistic well being, from human to all creation. She presented Jesus as the embodiment of Shalom.

PEACE & PRAXIS

Agnes’ Cooking/Stitching Cultures looked at Interculturality as a Christian Feminist Peace Praxis. She explored the concept of Interculturality as an “in-between” space where differences and cultures are negotiated and lead to new signs of identity and innovative sites of collaboration. In this space women seem to exhibit a greater capacity for the work of solidarity. Once again as in Sophie’s paper, it is the Trinitarian God that is recognised as a model of relationship without subordination/domination and where difference is allowed to exist.

Sharon’s exposition, Practising Peace in the Narratives of GLBTQs Towards an Epistemology of the Body, looked at the way these individuals negotiate the tension between living out their sexuality and spirituality in same-sex partnerships. In this context she defined peace either as the absence of conflict i.e. complying with ‘compulsory’ heterosexuality, or peace through conflict i.e. through resisting ‘compulsory’ heterosexuality. Her work was based on interviews with 30 persons, and she shared touching first person accounts that moved the discussion out of the academic into the personal.

Gemma’s presentation, “Interrupting Normal Ways of Thinking: Resistance as a face of Asian Women’s Struggle for Peace in the Context of Liberation”, identified silence as an Asian form of resistance. She cautioned however, that if the silence does not help shape one’s own destiny and define one’s own story, it is not constructive. She also highlighted the power of humour and laughter to destabilise the oppressive status quo, and the strength and courage inherent in stories, songs and dance that mourn and celebrate life’s tragedies and triumphs.

BOOK LAUNCH

A fitting close to the day’s proceedings was the release of the third EWA publication, “Re-imagining Marriage and Family in Asia: Asian Christian Women’s Perspectives” by the Editors, Sharon and Pushpa. An apt tribute to EWA III, this slim but weighty volume had 7 EWA contributors who covered diverse issues ranging from the revisiting of the biblical ‘fiery-lady’ Deborah, ‘Mother of Israel’, to finding a middle ground in the pro-life/pro-choice rhetoric that reduces mothers to ‘fleshy incubators’; from the shadow lives of married women that call for demythologizing the family, to the power equations within marriage and the challenges of interfaith families and Catholic families struggling with AIDS.

PEACE & LIBERATION

The papers of Day 2 began with Marini’s grassroots’ experience of making a real change in war-torn Sri Lanka. “Every woman in this country is a Marian shrine,” she said. She recognised Jesus and Mary as activists and expressed the need for networking since women’s individual efforts at peace making are either suppressed or silenced. “The women in Sri Lanka need to feel that they are not alone”, was her cry.

Nunuk’s paper was based on the lived reality in Indonesia. She shared the natural laws she learnt from her grandmother: 1) the law of unity 2) the law of rhythm and 3) the law of love of the dance. She also made the point that women do not use reason alone in doing theology; they use their body, soul and life. As part of her peace strategy she advocated sometimes entering through men’s doors but only to bring them out through women’s doors.

Shalini’s paper addressed the domestic space of Dalit women in South India. These women are triply oppressed because of their caste, class and gender. “How do they maintain their tranquillity amidst the turmoil of their lives?” she asked. One answer she postulated is through their rituals such as those surrounding rites of passage, and the other is through religious practices such as prayer.

Ushani’s paper complemented Marini’s presentation as she put the spotlight on the internally displaced people (IDP) of Sri Lanka who are caged in inhuman camps. “For how long will they stay in these camps and who will wipe their tears?” she asked. She used Miriam of the Old Testament as a model leader who can inspire Sri Lankan women to lead their people in a song of reconciliation and hope. For her the brightest ray of hope has been the permission given to religious congregations to visit the IDP camps.

PEACE & GENDER

Metti retrieved mothers as emissaries of peace and resolving conflicts. She proposed that it was in the home that peaceful attitudes were nurtured. She analysed interpretations of motherhood in Christian tradition and theology, and made concrete suggestions to impart “motherhood” qualities and to use the family as a starting point for peace with women in their capacities both as “socialiser” and “socialised” taking a major role. She urged that we go beyond the idea that motherhood is related to gender.

Andrea’s paper, “No mother is for sale”, described a practice of ecofeminist theology based on the activities and challenges of lay women leaders in the coalition to save Mount Kanlaon. She made the point that without women and men undertaking faith-life reflections and challenging the Church to pursue its prophetic and pastoral missions the engagement for justice will be reduced to mere activism.

In her paper on “Peace Building and the Role of Women”, Rosaline dwelt on the role of justice in building sustainable peace. She gave numerous examples of women exercising their special charism as peace builders.

Teresa spoke on “Beyond Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice: An Active Non-violent Approach in Taiwan”. She drew from her experience with SPROUT and their involvement as a religious group in the amendment of legislation regarding abortion. She narrated SPROUT’s non-violent approach in dealing with groups holding strongly opposing views in the pro-choice vs. pro-life debate. Thus while SPROUT emphasized that pro-choice should not be equated with pro-abortion and that being pro-choice is not automatically an either/or decision for abortion, it chose a third position – to be in dialogue with the pro-choice and pro-life groups separately.

CULTURAL NIGHT

The cultural night had all of us stepping out in our colourful, traditional best. Who would have thought we had amongst us such talented dancers, not to mention ‘lip-synch’ playback singers! As we improvised and pushed each other into performances we never imagined possible, laughed and exchanged gifts, and welcomed our sisters who worked tirelessly behind the scenes, Sr. Mary Walter, Sr. Francis Xavier, Kannika and Sr. Bon, our sisterhood was plain to see. I do believe it is this spirit that will keep the Ecclesia of Women in Asia going.

DIALOGUE WITH BUDDHISM

EWA IV culminated in the dialogue with Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, the first female monk of Thailand in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, who in 2001 received ordination in Sri Lanka because she could not be ordained in her own country. A married women with three grown children and abbot of Songdhammakalyani Monastery, the only monastery for bhikkhunis in Thailand, she was a tantalizing religious woman who broke the sexual stereotypes common to society and religion. In her discourse she said that woman’s ability to give and nurture life was the foundation of peace, making women better embodiments of peace than men. She also pointed out that while Buddhism prescribes 46 mental techniques for a peaceful mind, the peaceful mind must move from the sitting hours to the active hours. “How can Buddhist monks not come out in protest when the people who put rice in their bowls have tears in their eyes?” she asked. True peace can never be long lasting if it is meant only for the individual, she said. It must be inclusive – of all three sexes, animals and nature.

CLOSING THE CIRCLE

As we leave Hua Hin (a few pounds heavier after all that delicious food!) and go back to what we have left behind (articulated in our session conducted by Andrea), I hope we will take with us strategies for Practicing Peace that we have learnt at EWA IV. And while we do this let us keep the faith, remembering the words of Habakkuk (2:2, 3) whom Nonie quoted in her opening remarks:
“Write the vision down,
inscribe it on tablets
to be easily read.
For the vision is for its appointed time,
It hastens towards its end and it will not lie;
Although it may take some time, wait for it,
For come it certainly will before too long.”

Shalom.
Peace be with you.
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.