Shamita Das Dasgupta uses strong female figures in Hindu myth to encourage battered women to leave abusive husbands. Laila Al-Marayati shows how the Muslim principle of 'zakat' (alms-giving to people in need) served as the inspiration for the first free clinic in south central Los Angeles. Mushim Ikeda-Nash integrates the uniquely relational experiences of women into American Buddhist practice. A new documentary film by Rachel Antell, 'Acting on Faith: Women and New Religious Activism in America', an exploration of the compatibility of feminism and religion, intimately examines the lives of these three women.
Religious activism appears to be on the rise everywhere across the spectrum of faiths and beliefs. For women, this activism is often complex, personal and life-altering.
Melanie Harris, a doctoral candidate in religious ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, was a journalist before pursuing her commitment to religious ethics. An African American who applies a 'womanist lens' to her life and work, Harris noticed that the story of one victim of the Columbine High School shooting in the US (April 1999) was not highlighted, presumably because he was black. Eventually Harris combined her interest in ethics with her church work counselling youth. "I switched my objective lens as a journalist, which was not useful in helping kids, to a more compassionate view." That was the beginning of her ministry.
Women, she says, have always been spiritual beings, especially in times of war and violence when "all of society is in the closet of fear". That spirituality emerges in times of crisis and helps women to "come into their full being". Women, she says, "give us hope to reconsider. God could be a woman!"
For Shayna Finman, 28, an Orthodox Jew and Programme Coordinator for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), religion is inseparable from daily life. "God created us equal. Many things in the Torah (Jewish Bible) and Jewish mysticism support that. It was patriarchal society co-opting the word of God that changed things," she says.
Born into an ultra-Orthodox family, Finman was not particularly religious during college but became Orthodox again because "I missed God in my life". She wanted to become a rabbi, but when she accepted that she couldn't do that in the Orthodox tradition, she studied for over four years at Drisha, a women's Yeshiva (a school for talmudic study). At Drisha, she undertook advanced Torah study, including Talmud and Jewish Law, areas of study traditionally reserved for men.
"God is above sexism. God wants us all to live up to the full potential we were created with. My role is to uncover what God really wants in the world, instead of allowing my religion to remain in the hands of a patriarchy. Orthodox Judaism is dynamic and sensitive enough to include me," she says.
Finman's belief that religion and daily life are inseparable is shared by Patricia Ikeda-Nash, a third generation Japanese American who has studied Zen Buddhism since 1982. Now a lay leader and mother of a teenage son, she spent a good deal of time in monastic practice. She is also a self-avowed feminist, having been influenced by the women's movement while in college. Ikeda-Nash sees raising her son as major spiritual work. She says ensuring his spiritual training while he is a child will help him become a decent adult.
"Traditionally, children have been seen as a distraction from monastic practice, but 10 hours of child care can be just as important as 10 hours of monastic prayer. We can restore and add women's ability to be good in relationships, to be good caretakers, to the practice of Buddhism. It is vital and beautiful."
She also brings her spiritual beliefs into her work on race and ethnic diversity in the San Francisco area. Ikeda-Nash quotes Nakao Sensei, her mentor: "The spiritual attainment and practice of females have flowed in a continuous yet hidden stream to the present." Zen practice, Ikeda-Nash says, connected her to that hidden stream of the feminine principle in Buddhism.
"In forging an American Buddhism, we bring our national characteristics of energy and idealism, our values of equity and democracy, to Buddhist teachings and practices that have come to us from ancient cultures. Many American women bring the questions and affirmations, the naming of the previously unnamed, from feminism and the women's movement, to their Buddhist practice," Ikeda-Nash says.
Frances Kissling of the Washington DC-based Catholics for a Free Choice says that at the personal level there is nothing antithetical to feminism and faith. "As a believer, I feel I can make an argument that Jesus Christ intended equality. But there is overwhelming evidence that our leaders don't see it that way," says the political activist and self-defined scourge and scold. "Is that their problem or is there something wrong with the text?"
Kissling sees these as interesting times in the US. "There is enormous emphasis on morality. Progressive religious ideas need to counter some of the neoconservative rhetoric. But I'm not interested in crafting a mission that is reactive to rightwing ideologues. My goal as a woman of faith is to work for social justice. And I don't need to wear religion on my sleeve to justify the work for a common good."
Feminism and faith inform and complement each other, she feels. "What's important is democracy and freedom, whether it's about religion, politics, or women. Secularism is a fundamental freedom and we're all striving for freedom of the human person. It's corny, but let freedom ring!"
Feminism may well have "started out with the supposition that religion is inimical to women's interests", as Tamar Ross, a visiting professor of Judaic Studies at Yale University puts it. But the dichotomy between male and female ways of living a spiritual life seem to be closing, she points out. "Women as well as men have great stakes in their religious traditions.
We all require theology in order to allow this elemental cultural and social resource to continue to inform our individual and collective identities."
Ross, an observant Jew who studies Judaism and Jewish philosophy, says, "In today's conservative, fundamentalist political climate, it's important to leave all educational options open for women because literacy is the key to power. It is also important to develop appreciation for a multitude of spiritual models for women - not only those that allow women to mimic the roles of men."
She emphasizes, "The making of law is not the exclusive preserve of the establishment. It is also determined by the narratives that women choose to weave around it. Do not underestimate the force of women's newly found voices in this Endeavour. In providing religious norms with fresh contexts, the future of religion is moving more and more to their hands. Traditional 'keepers of the gate' must listen to feminist claims and be willing to learn from them. Such attentiveness will enrich the religious experience of men and women alike."