September 2, 2008

Naomi Goldenberg - Public Voice

Originally Posted November 2007

Last Thursday, November 8, I chaired a session titled "Challenges of Religion in a Globalized World" at a small conference about "Women, Religion and Development" in Ottawa. The four speakers on the panel were not scholars of religious studies. They were either sociological researchers or professionals in the field of international development. In their presentations, "religion" as a category was not problematized. Each speaker assumed the following: 1. religion is something very good for men, women and children; 2. criticism of any aspect of any religion is either ethnocentric, or disrespectful, or racist, or colonialist, or neo-liberal or all five. 3. any negative qualities attributed to religion originate from "culture" which distorts basic religious goodness; and 5. that "the media" are responsible for much ignorance about religion because what is reported is simplistic and does not sufficiently acknowledge #1. Unfortunately, in my role as chair I had no time to raise any questions about these assumptions. No one in the audience did either.

One panelist mentioned a comment that a woman in Afghanistan made in the context of a discussion about religion. "Don't be so politically correct," the Afghani woman said. "Please don't defend the systems we ourselves want to change." Neither the panelist nor anyone else at the conference referred again to that remark or seemed to notice how it conflicted with the assumptions that grounded their discourse.

I have three hopes for the type of interventions that religious studies scholars could make in public discussions of the sort I am reporting here: 1. that complexities regarding the categories of "religion" and "culture" be pointed out clearly and often; 2. that critical inquiry regarding religious traditions be encouraged and 3. that the common equation of religion with goodness be disturbed. I don't want to disappoint the anonymous woman in Afghanistan whose words I find so meaningful.

1 comment:

Max Dashu said...

Excellent points. I just scribbled down some words from Gloria Steinem (in tribute to Mary Daly) who said that Daly used all her powers "to demolish patriarchy--or any idea that domination is natural-in its most defended place, which is religion."

(Institutional hierarchical religions were what she was talking about, i'm quite sure.)

What i see happening a lot, in addition to the patterns you've described so well, is setting up a polarity between Christianity and Islam (most often) in order to cast one or the other as more patriarchal, colonial, warlike, or whatever.

What gets left out of this completely is all the indigenous religions, where women fare much better, speaking generally of course. Not all are equalitarian, but it's common to find female spiritual leaders, female deities, sodalities, etc.

There are other kinds of fruit than apples and oranges!