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Feminist Theology


Asian Women Reshaping Theology: Challenges and Hopes

Pauline Chakkalakal Feminist Theology 2001; 9; 21 DOI: 10.1177/096673500100002703

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[FT 27 (2001)21-35]

Asian Women ReshapingTheology:

Challenges and Hopes

Pauline Chakkalakal


In dealing with the theme, ’Dreams for a New Millennium: Dancing a

Be-Dazzling Future’, I would like to begin with a couple of stories of

women who have emerged powerful and successful through their

struggles, perseverance and commitment. These stories, though speci-

fically Indian, reflect the lived realities of Asian women in general.

Leelavathy, a mother of six children, wakes up at 4 am every day to

collect water at the local tap which often goes dry. She then cooks for

the day, washes clothes and vessels and gets her three children ready

for school. She regrets that her eldest 12-year-old daughter has to stay

at home to look after the two little ones. She is anxious about the

safety of her growing daughter. Her husband is an erratic worker.

Most days he spends what little he earns on drink or gambling. Leela-

vathy goes from one house to another, sweeping, cleaning and wash-

ing clothes until 6 pm when she reaches home exhausted. But none of

those she serves understands her. Everyone wants her to be at work on time. She cannot afford to rest or spend time with her children. To

add to her misery, she is subjected almost daily to abuse and assault

by her drunken husband who insists on his conjugal rights. She

dreads the future

Yet, Leelavathy does not give up hope. The Shakti (feminine force)

in her keeps her going. Her love for, and commitment to, her children

gives her courage to struggle against all odds. With the help of a

locally based womens group (Mahila Mandal), she is finding ways to tackle her drunken husband, and above all to ensure education for all

her children.

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22 Feminist Theology Lalitha, a 25-year-old DalitI woman from North India, was stripped

naked and paraded up to the police station because she questioned

the unjust treatment to which she was subjected by her landlord. At

that point of time, no one from the Dalit community came to her

rescue. However, later on, the Dalit community, along with leaders

and activists came together to struggle for justice. Today Lalitha is a

social activist working for the empowerment of the Dalit sisters. Her

biggest challenges have been fighting feudal attitudes and caste

oppression. She has become a beacon of hope and inspiration to thousands of faceless and voiceless women. The story of Prasanna Kumari is the story of several theologically

educated women in the Church. She says:

Though I studied theology just like men in all sincerity with

commitment to serve God and God’s people, the Church tradition did not encourage me at all. Realising the reality of the Church and

responding to God’s call, I took up the responsibility to educate women

and men to know God’s greater truths and to go beyond human-made

barriers, challengmg and breaking the patriarchal and other systems

that oppress and discriminate against people in the name of God.

Initially I had to face a lot of problems, mockery, anger, insults etc.

But over several years of perseverance, educating people through Bible studies, re-reading the biblical passages that were quoted against

women to silence them, and various other programmes, we opened up

the understanding of people to see the oppression, discrimination and

gender inequalities and the need to redress it. Though it cannot be said

that ’all is well with women m the churches today, it can

confidently be

said that there is openness to listen and to some extent willingness to

change. The doors to ordination are open in several denominations, and

At the

national level justice for women is one of the top priorities of the Indian

structures of decision-making bodies loosened to some extent

Church. It is not an exaggeration

has begun and is well on its way

to say that the movement of women

1. Dalit means broken, crushed, ground down, oppressed, and was first used

in Marathi language. Dalits have been treated as untouchable by so-called caste Hindus. Different names have been given, such as outcaste, untouchable, avarna

(outside the caste system), panchama (fifth caste), harijan (people of God). The

British government used the term Scheduled Castes, a designation continued by

the Government of India after Independence. Dalit is the name chosen by poli-

of these castes. See Lalrinawmi Ralte,et al., Envisioning a

tically conscious members

New Heaven and a New Earth (Delhi. NCCI/ISPCK, 1998), p. 284 (glossary).

2. Prasanna Kumari is the Head of Department of Women’s Studies, Gurukul

Lutheran Theological College, Chennai, India, and Founder/Director of the

Church Women’sCentre The story is taken from her article Womens Partici-

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Chakkalakal Asian Women

Reshaping Theology Women fighting against the dic-


The stories could go on and on

tates of a patriarchal society and Church; women resisting violence in

all its ugly forms (e.g. rape, dowry deaths, prostitution/flesh trade,

female infanticide etc.); women challenging all oppressive, discrimi- natory attitudes and structures; women deconstructing and recon-

structing theology, women envisioning a new heaven and a new


The Context of Theologizing

The context of feminist theologizing in Asia is precisely this para-

doxical situation of frustration and hope, as well as the spirit of soli-

darity that enhances collective struggle and empowerment. Together

we raise our questions:


Where lies our hope as Asian peoples?


What are our sources and resources for liberation, survival

and empowerment as Asian women?


What will be our own paradigm as Asian women?

Asia, the earth’s largest continent, is the home of nearly two-thirds

of the world’s population, with China and India accounting for

almost half the total population of the globe. Asia is also the cradle of

the world’s major religions - Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hindu-

ism. It is the birthplace of many of the spiritual traditions such as

Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Sikhism

and Shintoism. Millions also follow traditional or tribal



varying degrees of structured ritual and formal religious teaching. 3

In Asia today the political panorama is highly complex, displaying

an array of ideologies ranging from democratic forms of government

to theocratic ones, and military dictatorships and atheistic ideologies as well. Too often, people seem helpless to defend themselves against

corrupt politicians, judges, administrators and bureaucrats.4Econom-

ically, Asia is a continent of great disparity between the few who are

rich and the majority who are poor.

Although Asian countries have gained political independence, colonialism and imperialism have been perpetuated by local elites,

pation and Contribution in the Church, in Ralte et al, Envisioning a New Heaven

and a New Earth, pp 47-53 (52).

3. Summarized from John Paul II, ’Ecclesia in Asia, no 6 as cited in World &

Worship 5 (1999), pp. 144-45.

4. John Paul II, ’Ecclesia in Asia, no. 8, p. 148.

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Feminist Theology

who connive with foreign powers to exploit Asia’s cheap labour. A

classical example is the present trend towards globalization, which

has been identified with economic liberalization, industrialization,

modernization, trade liberalization and so on. As Janet Bruin aptly


Instead of spreading wealth around, ’globalisationi and current macro-

economic politics in both North and South are concentrating wealth in

fewer hands. Unemployment and the number of people living in

poverty are increasing in many countries. Workers are being forced into

low paying jobs and women into unsafe workplaces, into the unpro- tected informal economy where social security and other benefits do not apply, or into prostitution. Children are forced to leave school for work

in carpet factories, farms or in the streets to help support their families.

And people are compelled to leave their countries in search of paid

labour elsewhere, provoking an international backlash against immi-

grants as economic and security threats. Both migration and anti-immi-

grant xenophobia are expected to intensify as population pressures,


and economic disparities between countries become

ever more acute. 5

In this situation of escalatingpoverty, female illiteracy and exploita-

tion of people, more recently in the name of development, Asian

women are the worst-hit victims. As an example, let us analyse the

plight of Indian women. Since India is a rural country, 80 per cent of

all working women are agricultural labourers.

from food crops to cash crops for export has led to a decline in

In agriculture, the shift

women’s employment. Women’s contribution in the total labour force

is nearly invisible. 95 per cent of Indian women are working in the

unorganized sector. Women work more than 16 hours a day, both in

and in producing the countrys labour force. 6 Yet


women’s labour is unrecognized, undervalued. Instead they are the

last to be hired and first to be fired’. They suffer not only discri-

mination and subordination, but also experience domestic social vio-

lence. Women are also victims of trafficking in different forms: as



mail-order brides, overseas contract workers, domestic

and entertainers. 7

5. Janet Bruin as quoted in Mary John Mananzan, Jubilee in the Wake of

Globalisation-from an Asian Woman’s Perspective, In God’s Image 19.1 (2000),

pp. 2-14 (4).

6. Margaret Kaliselvi, ’Economic Globalisation and its Impact on Women’, in

Ratte et al., Envisioning a New Heaven and a New Earth, pp. 113-17 (115).

7. Mary-John Mananzan, ’Feminist Theology in Asia: An Overview, in Ofelia Ortega (ed.), Women’s Visions (Geneva: WCC Publications), pp. 29-36 (29).

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Chakkalakal Asian Women

Reshaping Theology


TheologicalReflection All feminist movements are primarily struggling against patriarchy, a

term referring to a male-dominated and man-made value system, cul-

ture and religion. In Asia, patriarchy is not just a matter of male

supremacy and male centredness. It is a social system of control and domination. It includes the domination of colonizers over the colon-

ized, the elite over the masses, the clergy over the laity, humankind

over the rest of creation. As for India, the caste system, the preference for sons, female feticide, infanticide, bride burning and dowry deaths,

not only diminish women in terms of numbers but also deny women,

especially at the grassroots, their full humanity and right to life.

Undoubtedly, the roots of patriarchy also lie within our Asian reli- gious and cultural traditions: in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and

Confucianism, and in our feudal cultures that were further reinforced

by Western colonialism. Christianity is no exception to this. Using

androcentric translations, readings and interpretation of biblical texts

including the teachings of Jesus, the Church has supported, perpetua-

ted, legitimized such trends, and participated in the continuous

violation of women. The Statement of the Ecumenical Association of

Third World Theologians (EATWOT) Asian Women’s Consultation

(1994) is worth quoting here:

Patriarchy gives more value to man than to woman. A man’s name, his line, his honour is to be preserved even at the expense of woman’ss

body, her resources, and her very life. It is not surprising, therefore, to

have female infanticide, surrogate motherhood, dowry system, arranged

marriages, bride sale or mail-order brides, polygyny, infidelity, rape,

incest, wife-battering, and other forms of violence against women

becoming rampant in Asian countries. These acts of violence against

women all serve to support male importance and dominance and to

downgrade woman’s worth. What is shocking and painful to us is the

participation of women in their own violence. Patriarchal culture has alienated woman from herself by the mternalization of oppression and

guilt, and the suppression of anger and hatred. Patriarchy has turned

woman against herself, her

daughters, her daughters-in-law, her sisters,

her mother and her mother-in-law.8 8

The realization of women’s equality with men in leadership roles is a distant dream. Bina Jang aptly sums up the situation in her article entitled, ’Battle to Make the Sexes More Equal. Referring to a United

8. EATWOT Asian Women’s Consultation, Spirituality for Life: Women

Struggling Against Violence’ (Philippines: EATWOT,1994), pp. 15-27 (20).

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Feminist Theology

Nations study, the article begins with the glaring prediction that

’women have to wait until the 25th century-2490 to be precise- before they can achieve parity with men in the top echelons of cor- porate power. The article notes that women hold less than 2 per cent

of senior management positions worldwide, with only 1 per cent in

Asia. In government, female ministers account for 4 per cent in Asia

compared to 11 per cent in the West. However, the article also notes

how the family and social connections tend to provide the few Asian

women a push to the top. Achieving equality in business, in govern-

ment and in society will therefore continue to be a big struggle for

women. And

while some Asian governments have set up policies that

promote women’s participation (e.g. seat quotas in Chinese parlia-

ment, in Taiwan’s local government, in India’s local councils, and in Pakistan’s municipal councils), much more needs to be done to break

down deep

social barriers to women’s full participation. 9

The Emerging Power of Asian Women

Despite such death-dealing factors, there are also life-enhancing reali-

ties in Asia: people’s organizations, women’s movements, and eco-

logy, peace and justice forums, aimed at raising people’s awareness

and mobilizing them towards collective struggle for their rights and

for a more humane society. Women’s movements have undertaken

the additional task of fighting against the evils of a patriarchal culture that has made women invisible.

To put theology at the service of women, and not keep it merely for

scholarly discourse, requires involvement in the women’s move-

ments. Emerging from the limited sphere of the family into the larger

society, women take up action collectively to challenge the inefficient, hostile government machinery and to be collectively involved in

securing basic needs for them. Further, they take up action on behalf of gender, caste and class issues as we noted in the stories given

above. Thus women have challenged situations of rape, incest, dowry

deaths, ill treatment by drunken husbands, caste authorities, and so

on. What is central to this struggle is women’s claim to their rightful

place in the family and society. Economic liberation alone does not ensure a better status for women in society or truly empower them. The power that comes from women’s solidarity is in fact women’s

greatest strength, says Astrid Lobo Gajiwala. According to her,

9. Bma Jang as cited in Hope S Antone, Women Challenging Globalisation

and Celebrating the Jubilee’, In God’s Image 19.1 (2000), p 1 (editorial).

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Chakkalakal Asian Women

Reshaping Theology


womens empowerment involves both a struggle for power and a struggle with power. Once freed from their shackles, their very posi-

tion of disadvantage equips them to challenge the relationships and

structures that imprison their power.1o

Women’s empowerment entails the development of an alternative

paradigm over and against the life-affecting process of patriarchy,

capitalism and First World-oriented maldevelopment. Womens para-

digm of new society is based on wholeness of life. It has to do with and

it sustains all forms of life. It is a spiritual quest to regain our identity,

that we are born of the earth and are partners with creation. Women’s

movements have thus emerged to respond to global as well as local

needs. These movements manifest a new way of exercising power

through collective dialogue and participatory action. Team leadership and creative ways of expressing our life through liturgy and celebra-

tion are manifestations of the alternative paradigm that needs to be fostered. Women have taken action on behalf of the community, securing

assets and reclaiming land ownership. They have fearlessly and suc- cessfully launched agitation against mega projects such as dams,

quarrying the earth, deforestation, pollution of water and air, nuclear

power plants, and so on. An example would be the extraordinarily

organization to help Bhopal Gas

large participation

of women in the

Victims.l1 Women extend their action against multinational and

government factories for better working conditions, for revision of pay scales, and against retrenchment.

It is amazing to note how women’s organizations in Asia have

awakened to the negative effects of globalization on the poor of the

world. An example of such an organization is GABRIELA,12 a federa-

10. Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, Power Struggles’, In Gods Image 19.1 (2000), pp. 51-

57 (53)

11. Following the tragic explosion of MIC gas from the Union Carbide plant in

Bhopal in 1984, the one organization of gas victims that emerged as strong and

sustained was the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathana (Bhopal Gas- Affected Women Workers’ Organisation) Though the organization is not feminist

(indeed it is headed by a man), a number of feminist groups work with it, and it is

linked to the women’smovement See Radha Kumar, From Chipko to Sati The Contemporary Indian Women’s Movement, in Amrita Basu (ed.), The Challenge of Local Feminisnis: Women’s Movements in Global Perspective (New Delhi: Kali for

Women, 1995), pp. 58-86 (83)

12. I am indebted to Mary John Mananzan for information about GABRIELA

Cf. Mary John Mananzan, Jubilee in the Wake of Globalisation-from an Asian

Woman’s Perspective’, In God’s Image 191 (2000),

pp 2-14 (8)

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Feminist Theology

tion of about 200 womens organizations in the Philippines, founded

in 1984, with about 50,000 members. We can see from the strategies,

campaigns and activities of the organization the extent of its com- mitted struggle against the policies and projects of globalization in the


What emerges predominantly in these movements is the bonding

among women and their experience of solidarity and sisterhood. The

collective search for viable alternatives further binds us in creative

solutions by way of organizing, mobilizations and campaigns, educa- tions and alternative projects, to name a few of the activities. At the Church level, Asian women, drawing inspiration from their sisters in other parts of the world, have begun to make their presence

felt. They have been challenging religious patriarchy in its varied

forms and the hierarchical patterns of decision-making in the Church. Asian women’s critique of the ’Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Soli-

darity with Women’ (1988-98) gives us an insight into their journey as

Christian women. Their anguish, hopes and aspirations are summed

up thus:

Although their hopes for the Ecumenical Decade have not been

remams a theme. It is no longer hope in the institutional

churches. It is hope experienced on the margins, or outside the walls

m womensown strength and vision and in their solidarity with each

realized hope

other. It is hope m the future

and patriarchal


and hope in God, a God beyond patriarchy

One of the significant contributions of Asian women to patriarchal

as well as feminist theology is their quest for developing an Asian feminist theology. Western feminist scholars, who have inspired Asian feminists, have shown that traditional biblical interpretations

cannot be value free of objective and depend on prejudices and pre-

suppositions of those who translate or exegete them.14 While acknow- ledging the pioneering work of our sisters in the West, there is a

questioning as to ’whether the hermeneutic principles Western femin-

ists offer are adequate to reflect on the complexity of structures of

13. Janet Crawford, ’Of Women and Women’s Hopes, In God’s Image 17.4

(1998), pp 24-30 (26). There are autonomous women’s organizations in the Catho- lic Church which are engaged in ongoing theological reflection from feminist


14 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, ’Women in the Early Christian Movement, in

Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow (eds), Womanspirit Rising (San Francisco: Harper

& Row, 1979), p. 86

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Chakkalakal Asian Women

Reshaping Theology


oppression within which we as Third World/Indian women live’.15

What is distinctive about Asian feminism or Asian feminist theology?

How shall we face this challenge?

Challengesfor Asian Feminist Theology

While there is a strong consciousness that Asian feminist theology

should not be viewed as an extension of Western feminist theology,

there are no easy solutions to the problem. One major difficulty is the absence of a common language among Asians, except the colonial language English. 16 Another is the lack of resources. As Ranjini

Rebera rightly observes,

While there is growing pool of academic analysis taking place, it is still

limited in its influence outside its own national boundaries

To write

and publish is a luxury that many of them cannot afford mainly due to a

lack of financial resources. There is also the awareness of the need for



resources to be able to reach women who form the

bulk of non-literate persons in all Asian countries.

In spite of these limitations, Asian feminists are engaged in an

ongoing search for a new methodology out of their own experience to

augment the theological contributions of women. To cite a few


Asian Women’s Resource Centre for Culture and Theology (AWRC): An

Asia-wide organization of feminist clergy, theologically trained

women, and women doing theology from various related Asian con-

ferences in Singapore in 1987, AWRC has since then gathered groups

of women for educational workshops and published Asian women’s

writings in its quarterly theological journal, In God’s Image. Apart

from AWRC, there are various national women’s organizations that

are also providing feminist critiques in Asia, most of them older than

AWRC. AWRCs significance is