Saptawni, a highly respected citizen, was the first woman who managed to break the barriers of male bias and get elected as a church elder in Mizoram. But it was a measure of the strong patriarchal traditions of Mizos that the election was declared null and void, as women ' even those elected by the laity ' were not deemed fit to hold even the humblest positions in a church.
This incident occurred more than 30 years ago. "Nothing has changed and the church is still very much a male bastion," says Rin Diki, a young woman striving for more participation by women in church affairs.
Whether it is the Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic or any other church, there are no women in the organizational set-up. Not even in the lowest rung as departmental committee members.
Reverend Noksangla, one of the first Naga-Ao women to graduate in theology, has since the 1970s been an ardent campaigner for equal treatment for women in all the affairs of the church. She retired recently as Chaplain of a Baptist church in Nagaland. "If she had been a man she would have reached higher up along with her male batch-mates," say her admirers.
Over three decades later, women still have to fight for recognition within the church. Just two years ago 60 delegates of women and men theologians passed resolutions calling for a halt to the "oppressive patriarchal structures and misinterpretations of the scriptures, which perpetuate the
subjugation of women and keep them in an inferior position."
The resolutions noted with "deep hurt" that some of the member churches of the National Council of Churches of India (NCCI) deny even primary church membership and voting rights to women and demanded that concerned churches do away with these unjust and unequal practices. Christian organizations in the country are still grappling with these demands, particularly in the north-eastern states of Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Assam.
The brunt of institutionalized patriarchy is being borne by women in this predominantly Christian region of north-east India where both men and women are inclined to find a career within the church's fold. Church-based organizations have grown by leaps and bounds over the decades and have now entered the international arena through the hundreds of church-based networks, offering quite an attractive vocation. Several women during recent years have opted to study theology to pursue the "calling of God", of course only after the church "allowed" them. There are, for example, over 70 trained women theologians in the north-east. But they find themselves at a dead end because the avenues open to their male counterparts are denied to them.
"Once we finish our studies, we find that we are treated differently. We have the same qualifications as men, but we are treated as lay people, while for the men all the doors are open after the training," says Gloria Patricia Poshna, who graduated two years ago from the Union Biblical Seminary in Pune. The church, in this case the Presbyterian Church of India (PCI), does not ordain women. This means that women cannot gain entry into key positions such as pastors, which in effect leaves them out of all the key decision-making positions, she says. Poshna has to cool her heels at a Women's Desk, created specially for women like her.
Zomuani, one of the senior-most theologians in Mizoram today, is also stuck for the last decade behind a table marked "Coordinator, Women's Empowerment" in the sprawling office of the Mizoram Presbyterian Synod (MPS) at Aizawl. Brilliant, gentle and courteous to a fault, Zomuani is the
last person to tell you that her male classmates have all reached the top echelons of the MPS, while many of them have gone abroad on assignments through various international church networks. The MPS is the second-most powerful institution in the tiny state, next only to the state government.
Zomuani says that women are fighting hard for equality within the church, but it is an uphill task being pitched against the patriarchal forces of Mizo society. "Most laugh at us for seeking equal treatment, but there are some who take us seriously," she says. In fact, last year, the Women's Assembly of the MPS had in principle called upon the MPS to open up all opportunities for trained women theologians in the organization. This, she felt, was a big step forward.
Her counterpart in the Mizo Baptist Church, Dr V L Hnuni, is admired among women activists for her no-holds-barred stands. Dr Hnuni calls the institutionalized discrimination against women as a "great betrayal".
"This absence of women in all the decision-making bodies proves that there is a selection process at work which automatically leaves out the women," says Hnuni. That "automatic process" is the system of ordination, which is a compulsory qualification for any person to be a member of all those committees and reach the top. Most churches - with the exception of some individual churches like the Ao Baptist Church and the Garo Baptist Church - have so far refused to ordain women. So women are not even in the reckoning for all the key positions and committees that rule and regulate the church.
This has created a visible distortion within church organizations, where today women theologians who topped their classes find themselves stuck to the same low non-pastoral "assisting" posts whereas their male classmates have been promoted to top rungs of the church body. As for the Catholic Church, which continues to resist even such reproductive health practices as the use of contraceptives and abortion, the less said the better, feel women activists in the region. "It is a totally male dominated society inside this church," says a nun who left the institution on these grounds to strike out on her own.
Why the male bias? Reverend D C Haia, administrator of the Presbyterian Church of India (PCI), and in charge of women's affairs, says that the prejudice against women is a cultural factor. "There is nothing against ordaining women in the church in the PCI constitution, but this is the practice," he says. In fact, Haia blames public opinion for the anti-women bias. "We are all for it, but ordinary people still will not accept women," he says pointing to the various gender sensitization programs undertaken by his church in recent years.
But change, it seems, is on the anvil. According to Haia, worldwide, the churches in the global arena were responding to the need for gender justice; the north-eastern church, therefore, feels compelled to respond. The PCI is in the process of redrafting its constitution to make it mandatory for equal opportunities for women in the church.