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The New Christian Feminism (And Why No One's Calling It That)
Part 1- "You're a Feminist whether you like it or not."
I remember the exact moment I became a feminist. I was in my first year at Duke Divinity School working toward a Master of Theological Studies. I had a class with Dr. Teresa Berger and I had written a paper on the Christian mystic, Teresa of Avila. After class Dr. Berger complemented me on my paper and told me that I had an "excellent feminist perspective." I responded that I didn't consider myself a feminist and she asked, if I remember correctly, "Well, why the hell not?" I answered that I had always thought of feminists as angry and I didn't consider myself an angry person. I will never forget her response. She said, "Some things are worth getting angry about."
That was it for me. She was exactly right. I still don't consider myself an angry person, but certain things do invoke a fierce anger in me. Most of those things have to do with vulnerable women and children being exploited for someone else's profit or pleasure.
Most likely the reason I had issues with the word "feminist" is because I had grown up in church and gone to a Christian college. Christians aren't crazy about the term, probably because it conjures up images of women who are hostile and have issues with authority. In the past, one didn't associate the stereotypical demure, soft-spoken Christian woman with the word feminist.
Even though the Church isn't calling it feminism, there are many new church and ministry driven initiatives that are feminist to the core. If feminism is all about equality between men and women, then these initiatives fit perfectly into the feminist agenda. While the Church has historically been at odds with the secular world on many women's issues (abortion being the best example), the Church's recent focus on advancing women's interests is a perfect example of how Church and secular people can work together effectively for the common good.
Part 2- Clean Water and Education
Most of these new initiatives center around women in the developing world. Whether as a result of poverty, geographical isolation or both, many women lack access to education, healthcare and clean water. All of these issues are intertwined. When girls have to walk for hours every day to get clean water, they have no time to attend school. If they don't attend school they are more likely to enter into early marriage and be pregnant by the time they are 14 or 15. Very young girls have a much higher risk of obstructed labor, and if they have no access to a doctor, there's a good chance they will die during childbirth.
Clean water doesn't seem like a gender specific issue, but women are disproportionately affected by its lack. In the developing world, collecting water is women's work. When a close source of clean water is opened up, women and girls are able to spend the time they would have spent collecting water on other things, such as education. There is also the issue of safety. Walking hours from home, sometimes alone, makes women vulnerable to rape, kidnapping and human trafficking. Easy access to water keeps girls safe and allows them to spend their time on less mundane tasks. Living Water International (www.water.cc) to date has built 11,266 wells and water projects in 23 countries. They are an expressly Christian organization whose work directly improves the lives of women.
Education also on the surface wouldn't seem like a gender specific issue, but when you look deeper, it certainly is. Cultural bias against women in many countries means that girl children are less likely to be educated than boy children and families are less likely to make sacrifices to educate a girl. Countries under the oppression of the Taliban educate girls at their own peril. The whole world watched as Malala Yousafzai, a twelve year old Pakistani girl, recovered from a gunshot wound to the head. Her crime, according to the Taliban, was blogging about girls' rights to education.
Educating girls benefits entire communities. According to "Half the Sky" by human rights journalist Nicholas Kristof, girls from rural communities who leave to receive an education are more likely to return to their villages than boys. The presence of these educated girls can quite literally transform a community. Imagine a girl who has become a nurse midwife returning to her village where previously no one had any medical training in assisting women in labor. This girl's presence in her village automatically reduces both the infant mortality rate and the rate of women dying in childbirth. Or imagine a girl from a farming village who has been trained in best agricultural practices. She will return home to turn the farmers in her village into better, more efficient farmers, thereby providing a stable food source for their families. When you educate a girl, she passes it on. Her family and her home reap the benefit of her betterment.
Additionally, education for girls improves economic opportunities not just for women but for the next generation as well. According to the 10x10 organization (www.girlrising.com), just one extra year of education brings an additional twenty percent of income for a woman in the developing world. Over the course of her lifetime, this is huge. She is better able to provide for her children and more likely to be able to send them to school. Having an eduation herself, she sees the value in educating her female children. Here is an excellent video by The Girl Effect that shows exactly how education transforms a woman's life and those of her children. Educating girls disrupts the cycle of poverty!
Part 3- Maternal and Child Health
Now let's talk about maternal health. This is clearly a women's issue and many Christian organizations are leading the way in promoting medical care for pregnant women and their children who have little or no access to healthcare. One of the biggest issues within maternal care is obstetric fistula, a medical condition where prolonged obstructed labor causes a woman to tear internally and to leak urine and/or feces continually. She constantly smells and she can do nothing to stop the flow of bodily waste.
Many times obstetric fistula results in the baby dying as well because the labor takes so long and never progresses. So a woman not only loses her baby, but she is also left with a medical condition that makes her repulsive to her husband, family and community. Women with obstetric fistulas are commonly ostracized from their villages to live in a hut, alone and with very little human contact. Any older children they have usually do not live with them. Many women believe that lying still will cure them, so they lie for months and even years until eventually their leg muscles atrophy and they can no longer walk. Their former life gets ripped away suddenly. As you can imagine, this is a miserable existence, and the worst part is that it is totally preventable.
Obstetric fistula has been virtually wiped out in the West. It is easily fixed so, when it happens in the U.S. or Europe, the woman undergoes a simple operation and she's good as new. But for women with no access to healthcare, obstetric fistula is practically a death sentence. It quite literally ruins their lives.
One woman, Dr. Catherine Hamlin, along with her husband Reginald, wanted to change that for the women of Ethiopia. In 1974 this couple opened the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in the capitol of Ethiopia; it is the only hospital in the world dedicated to the repair of obstetric fistula. All patients are treated free of charge and they see around 4,000 cases per year. There are roughly 6,000 to 7,000 cases per year in Ethiopia alone, so there is still much work to be done.
Reginald Hamlin has passed away and Dr. Catherine is in her 80's, but she still actively promotes the work of the hospital. Many people don't know that Dr. Hamlin is a Christian and her work is a natural outpouring of her faith. She doesn't use the hospital as a means of converting Ethiopian women and she doesn't advertise her religious beliefs. In 2004 Dr. Hamlin was invited onto The Oprah Winfrey Show. As a result of her appearance, viewers donated over $3 million to the hospital. Eventually, as a result of Oprah's media presence, enough money poured in to expand the hospital facility to allow for the treatment of more women. Dr. Hamlin is an excellent example of a Christian partnering with the secular world to do tremendous good. The Fistula Hospital is something we can all get behind, regardless of religion.
Part 4- Human Trafficking
Probably the best example of the Church embracing a movement in the interest of women is the new focus on ending human trafficking, specifically sex slavery. Human trafficking is estimated to be the second most lucrative illegal activity in the world, second only to the drug trade. Profits are hard to pinpoint, but are estimated to be as high as billions of dollars worldwide. Women are disproportionately represented in the number of people trafficked for labor and sex worldwide; they make up 80% of the world's slaves. Human trafficking is one of the most horrific issues facing women today.
There are several initiatives to end human trafficking driven by evangelical Christians. First, the End It Movement (www.enditmovement.com) exists to draw attention to the plight of modern day slaves and mobilize people to action. The Passion Conference, put on by Pastor Louis Giglio at Passion City Church in Atlanta, is one of the largest Christian youth gatherings in the U.S. For two years in a row the focus of the conference has been on ending modern slavery.
International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org) is a faith based NGO that uses legal means as a way to end trafficking. They partner with local police to coordinate brothel raids, prosecute traffickers and prevent trafficking by making the penalties severe. Love146 (www.love146.org) offers restorative aftercare for girls taken out of the sex trade in the Phillipines. In the U.S. they host educational events at high schools and teach girls how to recognize the signs that a pimp is trying to trick or coerce them into the trade. While not expressly faith based, Love146 does have a faith based coordinator to partner with churches or interested Christians who are spurred into the abolition movement because of their faith. Whether acting as a result of Christian belief or not, these groups see the benefit of diverse partnerships to expand the network of people moved to do something about modern day slavery.
Many Christians consider themselves modern day abolitionists. In the 1800's the push to end the African slave trade was largely accomplished by Christians who found their consciences pricked and were unable to ignore the extraordinary suffering they saw. Rather than chalk it up to a necessary evil or a flaw of their culture, these men and women used every means available to turn the tide of human conscience from apathy to compassionate action. Similarly, in many ways Christians are leading the charge to end modern slavery. It's not about evangelizing, proselytizing or preaching. It's about justice. The Church has ushered in a renewed focus on the Bible's many passages about securing justice, and if freeing people from slavery means putting aside differences and working with secular organizations, then so be it.
This may be one of those (sadly) few instances where the whole Church bands together to accomplish something extraordinary. Whether they want to call it a feminist movement or not, it's good for women. It's also good for the Church to cross denominational lines and work together, and maybe even better to partner with those outside of the Church. If Christians can educate girls, build wells, repair fistulas and restore women coming out of sexual slavery, whether the secular world agrees with our belief system or not will become irrelevant. This is good work, no matter what beliefs motivate us.