Thursday, August 19, 2004

Woman, religion and spirituality

Every woman who cares about the future of the women of this world and other planets should read this book. So should every caring man. And the befuddled, benighted ones—may they stumble upon this book in the most unlikely climes, at the most unlikely times, may someone care enough to shove it into their path or gift them with it, beautifully wrapped and scented, so that they may look upon it with curiosity and awe, and having read it, be filled with enormous regret that could turn into tremendous resolve to change things for the better.

The good news is that ``Woman, Religion and Spirituality in Asia’’ (Anvil) by Sr. Mary John Mananzan OSB was launched last Sunday at the National Book Fair. Mananzan, president of St. Scholastica’s College for six years, was recently elected Prioress of the Missionary Benedictine Sisters in the Philippines.

The better news is that there is no better time than now for this book to come out. It comes in the aftermath of the tempest caused by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter on women which caused women (hmm, like me) to answer back.

And the best news? The book is easy to read. Surprisingly simple but engrossing, I would say, coming as it does from a scholar and activist nun whose doctoral dissertation at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome (where almost all the popes studied) was pompously titled ``The Language Game of Confessing One’s Belief: A Wittgensteinian-Austinian Approach to the Linguistic Analysis of Creedal Statements.’’ A journalist would write, tongue in cheek, ``Ways of Saying `I Believe’’’. But I digress.

As her latest opus shows, Mananzan has come a long way from there to here. No heavy exegetical discussions here. She also gives us a peek into her own evolution.

The role of religion in the socialization of women has fascinated Mananzan for a long time. What was the impact of institutional religions in Asia on women? And so she embarked on a research that led her to various places in Asia.

Mananzan delves into the world religions such as Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, and the non-world religions (indigenous, folk and new religions, Confucianism) as well. How have the scriptures and written works in these religions portrayed women?

But first, the author makes sure the reader understands the difference between religion/religiosity and spirituality. She also gives a historical perspective of the Asian feminist theology of liberation whose task is twofold--to deconstruct whatever is oppressive and to reconstruct whatever is liberating.

Having said that, she then walks the reader through the ancient and the contemporary. She gives the short history and basic teachings of each religion and offers concrete examples of how women have been regarded and treated/mistreated owing in part to scriptures and religious traditions. Which elements in these religions can be oppressive, which ones can be liberating?

Quite effective is Mananzan’s use of vignettes and portraits of goddesses and historical women of yore who are considered icons. So are the are her one-on-one interviews with contemporary women who are making breakthroughs in their respective religions now.

Women in Christianity making bold steps have their counterparts in other faiths. Mananzan has herself made ground-breaking moves in the women’s front—the Institute for Women’s Studies, Women Ecology and Wholeness Farm, the Women Crisis Center, to name a few.

The chapter on Christianity is the shortest. Maybe because a lot has been written on this? The chapters on Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam are fuller. For nervous Christians, here are some reassuring lines, if you don’t know this already. ``Amid the appalling oppressive elements in Christianity, there are liberating factors. The most liberating aspect of Christianity is Christ himself who went against the traditions and customs of his time to single out women in the fulfillment of his mission… In spite of the repressive elements in church history, some women rose to great heights…’’ Sadly, many church fathers forget.

The book presents excerpts from Hindu scriptures that are positive/ambivalent and blatantly misogynist (anti-woman). These must have contributed to Hindu society’s toleration of gruesome crimes (bride burning, dowry deaths) against women. The brief portrait of the Hindu goddess (Kali-Durga), an account on the life of poet-mystic (Mirabai), as well as the experiences of a victim and a Hindu feminist provide the reader varied woman images from this mystifying and most ancient religion.

Developments in Buddhism are, surprisingly, quite intriguing. The growing movement pushing for bikkhunis (ordained female monks, not nuns)is worth watching. There is, in Sri Lanka, a move to restore this. In Thailand, where it was never a practice, a couple of women got themselves ordained and caused a stir. To think that we associate Buddhism with serenity and pacifism.

``Any discussion of the status of women in Islam,’’ Mananzan warns, ``is fraught with the dangers of overgeneralization and oversimplification.’’ Do you know that pre-islamic women had no rights? Islam raised the status of women. Noted Muslim women scholars are now re-interpreting the Qur’an, the Hadith and other Muslim writings from the perspective of women.

Read about the cruel practice of female circumcision, ``honor deaths’’ (e.g., execution of a rape victim), injustice in unproven rape, to name a few. Celebrate the life of Aisha, Mohammed’s child-bride and favorite wife who later became one of the greatest scholars in Islamic history.

I have run out of space. I hope you get that book and read it.