The story of Ecclesia of Women in Asia (EWA) begins in a conference organized by the Asian Federation of Catholic BishopsConference (AFCBC). Greatly outnumbered by men, the four women theologians present wondered among themselves, “Where are the women theologians? Are there more women in Asia who are doing theology that is culled from women’s experiences?” These questions spurred the event that EWA’s website describes as “a historic attempt at making Asian Catholic women seen and heard.” 55 women theologians from all over Asia gathered in Bangkok, Thailand, from November 24 to 29, 2002 for the conference entitled “Ecclesia of Women in Asia: Gathering the Voices of the Silenced”. Thirty papers were presented on various themes: Women and Violence, Women and Spirituality, Women and Church Structures, Eco-feminism and Theological Method, Women and the Bible, and Women and World Religions.“Ecclesia” was re-imagined as the “democratic assembly of free citizens.”
In 2013 in Bangalore, India, 36 participants from 10 countries attended the 6th EWA conference on the theme,“Liberating Power: Asian Feminist Theological Perspectives.”
“Power in feminist literature, is a contested word that leans too much toward the idea that women are helpless victims of patriarchy, which has completely, thoroughly and totally oppressed them. Following this train of thought, what is meant to be resistance to total and oppressive power may still be acquiescence to this power.
Reflecting on the history of women’sstruggles in the world yields this important lesson, however: power is always confronted by resistance, and resistance is a manifestation of power. One characteristic of power is that it extends its influence by making the disciplinary technologies as pleasurable as possible. For instance, cooperation with institutions is deemed acceptable, if not desirable, as it brings about pleasure. There is no coercion here. On the other hand, when people are put in situations where choice is impossible, where resistance is futile, and only cooperation stands between life and death, powerlessness is manifested in mindless cooperation, a state of being that is not pleasurable.
Power is also manifested in space-clearing. If women can carve out space for themselves through subversion, non-cooperation, defiance, dissent and resistance, then women have, and can have, power. To continue clinging to the idea that women are forever victims of patriarchy is therefore to underestimate women.
EWA’s notion of power necessitates not just a reclaiming of contested space, but also space-clearing. EWA clears a space, and in its liminality, this space which is neither geographical nor physical, is a site for radical resistance.
This volume of papers from the 6th EWA conference articulates Asian women’s raised critical awareness of theirsituation. The Catholic women feminist theologians rise to the challenge of thetransformative and liberative dimension of theology—that, which is revealed inits two-fold task: first, to name it and call by its true name whatever afflicts the human condition, however painful or lonely the process of naming is; and second, to advocate a different model of knowing, of doing, and of feeling that is essentially compassionate and tolerant. And this effort, which takes into account the nuances with which we resist and negotiate for power in spaces where the network of relations of power will allow us, translates into a theologizing that is mindful of differences in, and among, women in the world.
The book is divided into three sections,namely: “Power as Transformative Force,” “Power as Resistance,” and “Power from Within.”
In the section, “Power as Transformative Force,” the authors offer a new way of regarding power, focusing on its positive results on those who have discovered its liberating dimension.
“The Power Of Transformation And TransformingPower: A Malaysian Female-To-Male Transgender Person’s Narrative” by SharonBong (Malaysia), foregrounds the narrative of a Malaysian female-to-male (FTM) transgender person, whose story serves as a prism through which the notions of ‘power’ and ‘transformation’ are acted out. Bong posits that the transformative aspect of power is captured in the multiple transformations that the subject had to undertake in his quest for self-acceptance. By drawing a parallel between the subject’s transformation and Jesus’ own experiences of transformations—transfigurations—the author suggests that the subject’s transformation as he journeyed into wholeness is likewise sacred.
In “Feminist Power: Living the Gospel Outside Patriarchal Structures,”Virginia Saldanha (India) begins with illustrations of how patriarchal power is crushing, not just women, but whole groups of people and also the environment, thereby threatening life itself. Within our Church, patriarchal authority renders Catholic women powerless to question andexpress our thoughts and experience of God in ways that are different from the norm accepted by the male dominated institution. Women who question are told,‘Stay and follow instructions or leave’. Saldanha proposes that ideals of equality and justice as taught by Jesus, of power being used to serve instead of to lord it over others, are necessary to make the reign of God on earth a reality. The transformation is in fact happening, not within the patriarchal institutional Church and state, but in the margins, as peoples movements worldwide are emerging to correct the path of destruction wrought by patriarchy, and a feminist consciousness is working to bring about a new world that lives the gospel in the margins, outside patriarchal structures.
“Power of Paul’s Liberative Vision: A Feminist Reading of Galatians 3:28” by Pauline Chakkalakal(India) explores the implications of St. Paul’s liberating vision, “There is no longer . . . male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Although Paul remains a contentious figure in feminist Theology and Biblical Studies, this verse changes the situation of early Christian women from marginalization to inclusion in a community that is defined by faith. Where the circumcision requirement excluded woman in the old covenant, through baptism, she is a full-fledged member of God’s family in the new. The formula, “no male and female” does not, however, mean abolition of sex differences in the biological sense; it pointsto the quality of the “new creation”(Gal 5:6) and oneness of all in Christ (Gal 3:28d). This concept excludes all forms of domination-subordination and fosters mutuality and co-responsibility.
“Power as Resistance” is the theme for the second section. The view of power as resistance is highlighted in the research on the lived realities of Indonesian women, Indian women, and the members of the Church in China.
In “Journey to Freedom: Struggle Of Indonesian Women In Diaspora,” Iswanti (Indonesia) writes about the internal diaspora and modern day migration in the Indonesian context. This journey is a double-edged sword, not merely because of the feminization of poverty and feminization of migration, but because the woman in diaspora has to contend with discriminatory structures and attitudes in two locations, her homeland, and the host-land. How shall theology respond? In the Indonesian context, the author’s response is a Teologi Perempuan Rantau (TPR), literally, the “theology of wandering women.”Despite the problems and challenges, migration and diaspora offer Indonesian women new opportunities to be liberated and transformed. Power is manifested in the resolute way in which some of the women embarked on the journey.
In “Freeing Power for Powering Freedom,” Kochurani Abraham (India) writes about the problematic tension between the ideals of feminism and the actual politics of female leadership. Patriarchy rears its ugly head when women are pitted against one another, and female leaders seem to collude with forces undermining the empowerment of other women. For Abraham, what the world today needs more than ever are women who are genuinely emancipated from the shackles of patriarchy, incarnating Wisdom/Sophia, with the courage and freedom of Jesusof Nazareth who breathed on the “dry bones”till they came to life…making Wisdom “justified by Her deeds”(Mt 11:19).
ReginaWentzelWolfe’s(USA) article, “The Church in China: The Power of Witness and Resistance in the Face of State Regulation” presents the Catholic Church in China as an example of the strength of the human spirit when confronted with State power that infringes on religious freedom and human rights. In the faceof this power, the Church asserts its own power – the power of witness. Wolfe examines power dynamics between the Church and State and the roles of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, the Catholic Patriotic Association, and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China, responses to which agencies can vary greatly from acquiescence to passive resistance and, in some cases, to active resistance. Also discussed is the relationship of the“underground” Church and the open, or registered, Church, a relationship that can, but which does not always, pit Catholic against Catholic. The paper highlights the power of witness, pointing to the work of the Church in social services, emergency assistance, and health care. In China where practices of religion are heavily regulated by the state, the Catholic Church is amanifestation of liberating power.
The last section, “Power from Within,” explores the font or source of power, which emanates from the deepest recesses of a person’s being. In the re-telling of stories, either personal or otherwise, the authors forward a notion of power that is generated from within. The richness of a person’s inner life can enable the individual who is otherwise severely constrained by a horrible experience or by being differently abled to be genuinely empowered. Inner resources can enable the people of God to re-claim the original impetus of the “Word made Flesh and dwells among us” (John 1:14). Such impetus creates the earth, world, community, and self as the font of the sacred.
“Unleashing the Power Within to Address Clergy Abuse,” is Genoveva Dumay’s (Philippines) living revelatory text testifying to the truth and reality of violence against women and girls in the Catholic Church. The paper highlights the ugly face of clergy sexual abuse, the wisdom and strength drawn from awareness of gender issues and commitment to stoppng the abuses (the power of knowing), the support of women, colleagues and some institutions (the power of sisterhood and solidarity), and the insights and lessons learned in bringing the abuser to accountability in spite of denial, cover-up, indifference, and arrogance of the Church hierarchy. The author also writes about her experience of God while going through the abuse and in the process of obtaining justice (the power of accompaniment and contemplative connectedness with a compassionate God of liberation). That it is possibleto experience God and a sense of justice and power over an evil like clergy abuse gives others who are similarly situated, a reason to hope. The paper should be a catalyst that will initiate and sustain women’s search for concrete ways to address this issue in Asia.
KristineMeneses (Philippines), in her article, “Deafness and Deafhood in Mark 7.31-37: Seeing/sign World of Filipino d/Deaf and their Narratives of Dismemberment and Empowerment in this Hearing/word World” re-reads the healing narrative of Mark 7.31-37 using a convergenceof narrative and socio-rhetorical analysis. The selected pericope is about the healing of a deaf man at the urging of those who brought him to Jesus. The narrative seems to imply that hearing is essential for the well-being of a person. But is deafness a physical defect that ought to be corrected? Should a Deaf adult opt to hear so as to be empowered? Through a dialogue between the experience of Filipino d/Deaf in the“hearing/word world” and Mark 7.31-37, the author postulates a possible interpretation that challenges commonly held notions about d/Deaf, deafness and Deafhood.
FrancoiseBosteel’s “The Dolls Speak”is included in the appendix because the dolls did speak during the opening liturgies at the beginning of the 6thconference. The dolls tell us of the hardship of daily life,express what it means to lose dignity, identity, land, livelihood, humanity. They also tell us that people are still resourceful, still hold on to values of sharing and compassion, still experience beauty and love despite the ordinariness of their lives. The dolls help people recall their history of resistance and their struggle for life and dignity. The dolls invite us to join hands across the world in dissent against further destruction of all living things and of Mother Earth herself.
The eight articles in this volume are our modest contribution to the growing literature in feminist theology, which draws from the rich experiences of Asian people, particularly women. Together with Bosteels’ dolls, these articles construe and reimagine power in diverse ways and reject the idea that a universal women’s experience is that of victimization and powerlessness. On the contrary, the articles celebrate the many ways women (and men) harness power despite constraints and tremendous odds.
Theologically, questions like, “How would a newer and clearer theology on power assist people’s lives? What deeper theological examination or pastoral action or strategizing can each one personally undertake in relation to power?” were offered, either explicitly or implicitly. Whether power is harnessed individually or collectively, the goal is genuine emancipation from the forces that undermine women’s full potential. In so doing, women, in solidarity with other groups, can defeat systemic violence,which is manifested in sexism, fundamentalism, racism, ethnocentrism, and trans-phobia, once and for all.
By Jeane Peracullo and Andrea L. Si, Editors of Liberating Power: Asian Feminist Theological Perspectives