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Asian women theologians make voices heard

Bangkok, Thailand

Asian Catholic women theologians gathered here for the first time in late November for a five-day conference titled “Ecclesia of Women in Asia: Gathering the Voices of the Silenced.” The gathering allowed the women to build new bonds by sharing their stories and hopes for a more inclusive church.

The conference drew 60 women from 18 Asian nations: China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, East Timor, Thailand, Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Australia.

The conference also had an ecumenical tone with Protestant representatives participating from the Christian Conference of Asia and the Asian Women’s Resource Center.

Sr. Evelyn Monteiro, a keynote speaker, said the conference aimed to provide “space” for Catholic women theologians to have their “voices heard and their thoughts and reflections articulated.” According to Monteiro, a professor of systematic theology at Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth Pontifical Institute of Philosophy and Religion in Pune, India, “Women theologians are asking, ‘What is my experience of the Divine in Asian realities in my life as a woman?’ ”

In her address, Monteiro outlined the aims of the conference, which were to:

  • Bring together Catholic women doing theology in Asia, academic theologians as well as women promoting theology in grassroots situations;
  • Provide space for Catholic women to have their voices heard and their thoughts and reflections articulated;
  • Invite Catholic women theologians -- in their power and potential -- to evolve a theology from the perspective of Catholic Asian women;
  • Encourage Asian Catholic women to engage in theological research, reflection and writing;
  • Create networks with different Asian feminist grassroots/theological movements and global feminist grassroots/theological movements that are Catholic, ecumenical and interfaith.

Networking a priority

After her address Monteiro said that participants had decided that networking among themselves was a top priority. She said the women hope to set up their own Web site so they can continue to have a forum for their reflections, poems and songs.

The idea for the meeting surfaced more than a year ago at a theological conference in Pune, India. One of the specific aims of the conference was to provide women’s response to the papal document on the 1998 Asian Synod. In the eyes of many women, the papal response, issued in 1999 in New Delhi, India, did not adequately represent their experiences.

In that context, the word went out from India and organization for the gathering began. It eventually found sponsorship from the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development in Paris, the Institute of Missiology Missio in Aachen, Germany, and the Swiss Lenten Campaign Fund.

A growing concern among Asian women, Monteiro said, is the escalating violence against them because of fundamentalism, including “Christian fundamentalism.” She said that Asian women continue to be viewed as objects and their space restricted to the home. “Though many women in Asia today are educated and working, they have to be silent because of these [fundamentalist] attitudes,” she said.

Prior to the conference, 30 papers had been posted on the Internet. Most participants had read the papers belonging to their subgroup. The six subgroups included: Women and Violence, Women and Spirituality, Women and Church Structures, Eco-feminism and Theological Method, Women and the Bible, and Women and World Religions

Paper flowers

The first day was given shape by morning and evening worship services prepared by women from Malaysia. They dramatized through ethnic music and dance the hardships of Asian women and how transformation in their lives could be achieved. During the opening worship a collage in the form of a flower was created from pieces of indigenous cloth that each participant brought from her homeland as the women sang and prayed in their own language.

In the evening liturgy participants wrote on paper flowers their dreams for Asian women. They folded the flowers and floated them in pools of water where the flowers unfolded and seemed to bloom.

Participants’ interests ranged from battered women to interfaith dialogue, from biblical hermeneutics to globalization and environmental concerns.

Liturgies were allotted to regional groups, so that even before the conference began, sharing had begun on how to combine approaches and cultures in prayer.

On the second day, regional groups studied the various papers, hearing short synopses from the authors. They attempted to discern common and divergent themes as well as underlying theological issues.

The diversity of issues, priorities and approaches was apparent. However, there was no competition or confrontation. The women engaged in an open process that was intended to lead to creative tensions but with a sense of respect for differences.

In the process, the conviction grew that women doing theology at the grassroots and in academia must collaborate.

Dr. Lieve Troch, professor of systematic theology in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, led the third day. Troch, who has worked in Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia and Brazil, looked behind the various themes and issues, seeking a broader context. How, she asked, do Catholic Asian women doing theology wish to identify themselves? What is the importance of their status as parts of minority communities among Buddhist, Muslim, Confucian and Hindu communities? How can the voices of silenced women be heard not only within the church, but also in the broader society?

“The aim of theology done by women in Asia is to transform ourselves, society and the church into an ekklesia -- a democratic gathering of free citizens who share in the life and the equality of the reign of God,” suggested Troch.

However, this aim is often not understood, more so if one speaks as a feminist theologian. In fact, the word feminist is looked upon with disdain in many circles and consequently women’s voices continue to be silenced.

Reclaiming Christian memory

“Why do women allow this reality of silence in their lives?” Troch asked. She called the group to accountability for this silence. Her analysis of the role of religion in women’s lives opened doors to further discussions of reclaiming the Christian memory -- the memory of Jesus and all the crucified women and men of Asia and what it means to redefine Christology and Mariology within the Asian context.

The movement out of a classical model into the methodology of a liberation/feminist theology led to a wide discussion, at times punctuated by disagreement and conflicting views. Through it all, the conference was characterized by a sense of joy in being together as Catholic women theologians and the honesty of being able to disagree harmoniously.

Troch invited the Asian women theologians to move from a surface naming of issues to a process of analysis, critique and theological reconstruction. She challenged them to look at how the church and women in the church continue to be shaped by classical theology.

The conference’s fourth day addressed the question, “Where do we go from here?” Participants offered many suggestions. Networking and providing each other mutual support were high on the women’s lists. One idea that emerged is to have Catholic Asian women make themselves more visible, and in special ways link up with other major theological associations worldwide.

Still another suggestion is to develop Asian women’s perspectives on contextual theology, perhaps offering short theology courses for women and men in remote areas.

The meeting concluded with a liturgy. By the accounts of the participants, the gathering was seen as a major step forward for Asian Catholic women. The women left saying they would stay committed to keeping the new Asian women’s networks alive.

Gemma Cruz, lecturer of religion at Assumption College, Manila, Philippines, is doing graduate studies in feminist theology at Nijmegen University in the Netherlands.

Blessed Virgin Mary Sr. Christine Burke, professor at Catholic Theological College in Adelaide, Australia, is a member of the Australian Catholic Theological Association’s task force working with the bishops’ Commission for Australian Catholic Women.

UCA News also contributed to this article. For further information on the Ecclesia of Women in Asia conference, contact Sr. Pushpa Joseph at raipush@hotmail.com or Sr. Evelyn Monteiro at evelynm@vsnl.net

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 2002