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The evils that women endure and inflict

by Ivone Gebara
Augsburg Fortress Press, 211 pages, $20


Ivone Gebara’s study of the mystery of evil and redemption in the experience of women is a work of great imagination that sheds new light on the mystery of God and expands the conventional boundaries of theology in a manner that is both intriguing and insightful. This is feminist theology at its best, where the political and the personal are woven together into a creative interplay between tradition and contemporary experience. The experience in this case is drawn from the lives of poor Latin American women.

The mystery of God and the mystery of evil have been described in classical theology in overwhelmingly transcendent terms. Gebara prefers to analyze the concrete reality of evil in the lives of women: “For men, evil is an act one can undo. But for women, evil is in their very being.” Women, furthermore, are never wholly redeemed from evil. From the myth of Eve onwards, they have been invoked as the cause of evil, and the source of both individual and societal temptation. Gebara speaks in terms of a “geography of evil” that characterizes the lives of women, especially poor women. The maps of women’s lives are drawn within set boundaries, circumscribed by their lack of ownership, lack of power, lack of education and lack of worth.

Allowing us a rare glimpse into her personal life, Gebara shares the lifelong distress of being born female, and the knowledge that from birth she was a disappointment to her parents, who wanted a baby boy. She recalls painful memories of her struggles as a girl child to prove her value, to find her true self, and the accusations of “insubordination” that were leveled at her as a result. “My desire for freedom has produced a guilt that has left its own deep traces in me.” Traces of the feeling of insubordination have followed her into the professional realm, where her feminism has been derogatorily labeled as “wayward” by male liberation theologians.

A feminist analysis of women’s experience of evil might well be expected to concentrate on the evil done to women. But Gebara surprises the reader with a chapter analyzing “The Evil Women Do.” Such evil is most often confined to the domestic realm. Gebara cites the jealousies and cruelties inflicted by women on each other, and mothers who teach their children to internalize patriarchy. “In so doing, they stifle the autonomy of their children and become themselves propagators of an authoritarian and intolerant society.”

How, then, do women experience salvation? The sufferings endured by women are usually passed over in silence as not worthy of public consideration. The cross has been laid upon women as a means of ensuring their passive submission to the status quo at home and in the church. “Women’s submission to male authority has been presented as a duty based on obedience to Jesus, who was obedient to his Father even unto death.”

To counter this, Gebara argues, women must draw strength from the women who accompanied Jesus through his passion, and whose presence at the crucifixion was a sign of resistance to his death. These same women were the witnesses to his resurrection. Their accompaniment of Jesus on the journey from death to life has forever transformed his suffering into a sign of hope.

Salvation is experienced by women not as a one-time event, but rather a constantly evolving process from death to resurrection. Salvation is not a once-for-all transcendent, eschatological event, but occurs here and now within our corporal condition. For poor women, good and evil, sin and salvation are all intertwined within the everyday realities of life. Salvation breaks through suffering within concrete situations. “Salvation is a baby long awaited, or a love letter that brings us back to life. … Salvation is a get-together, an event, a sentiment, a kiss, a piece of bread, a happy old woman. It is everything that nourishes love, our body, our life.”

In her final chapter, “God for women,” Gebara writes movingly of the God experienced in the daily life of poverty. This is a God who can work to empower prostitutes to survive the dangers of the red light district, or to strengthen the determination of a Sor Juana de la Cruz to rise above her silencing. God is found in “many paths of tenderness and mercy.” The male ethos of redemption falls short of expressing the full message of Jesus, who spoke of salvation in the concrete world of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.

By publicly naming the “evil embedded in families, homes, brothels, convents, churches and theologies … as the evils women endure,” Gebara sets out to “open a breach in the universalizing discourse of our theologies.”

In this accessible work of critical feminist theology, she succeeds admirably in her avowed aim to “bring certain treasures of our tradition in a new light, to do justice to the mystery of God that is beyond maternal and paternal images, and also do justice to women often excluded from divine symbolism.”

Joanna Manning is a teacher, broadcaster and social activist who runs outreach programs for street people in Toronto where she lives. Her latest book is Take Back the Truth: Confronting Papal Power and the Religious Right (Crossroad).

National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002