16 Dec 2018

A panel discussion explores the complicated relationship between faith, culture and feminism

From Contemporary Feminism, 4:06 pm on 16 December 2018
New Yorker cover cartoon with women in niqab, bikini and nun's habit

Photo: The New Yorker

Contemporary feminism and faith

Rev. Jean Malcom finds no conflict between her religious belief and the idea of being a feminist. She is one now, and was one when she was a Franciscan nun. “I was a feminist when I was five years old.” She ascribes this to growing up in a family where equality was important. “I was a teenager in the '70s. 1968 was when women’s lib breaks in on the scene.”

Christian nun, heavily veiled, seen in profile

Photo: Flickr / Przemko Stachowski

But being a nun? “I think nuns were the original feminists,” she responds. “Over the hundreds of years of religious women’s communities it was the one place you could be a woman, and do stuff. You could be a doctor in the Middle Ages when you were a nun. You couldn’t if you were a layperson.”

Kim Hill, Rev. Jean Malcolm, Lilia Tarawa

Kim Hill, Rev. Jean Malcolm, Lilia Tarawa Photo: Mark Tantrum

Lilia Tarawa, who was born in the exclusive Gloriavale Christian community, lived there until she was 18. Despite having left nearly ten years ago, in part due to her questioning of the role women were forced to submit to, she doesn’t think of herself as being a feminist.

Why not? “Because I feel like it’s misconstrued in some circles,” she replies. That is despite the fact that speaking onstage at the City Gallery could be considered to be an act of feminism. It certainly contravenes the teachings of culture in which she was raised. At Glorivale, it was clear that women should not speak in public.

The rationale for this was scriptural. The men in charge quoted the bible and its injunction that women are not to usurp the authority of men. “Standing on stage and teaching men is forbidden," Tarawa says. "So me doing this now is an act of empowering myself as a female in direct rebellion to the way I was raised.”

Mothers and children from the West Coast Christian community Gloriavale.

Mothers and children from the West Coast Christian community Gloriavale. Photo: TVNZ screenshot

Cultural influences informed Saziah Bashir’s choice not to wear the hijab, despite her mother and other family members doing so. She made that personal decision because she didn't feel that modesty required her to, but she defends the right of others to choose differently. And she has never associated the hijab with disempowerment or male control. “I grew up around such strong women,” she says, “That it never occurred to me to think of them as oppressed.”

Among Muslim women of her generation, many are choosing to turn to the hijab as a symbol of identity and self-assertion. She doesn’t feel that it’s a black-and-white issue.

Indeed, when Bashir looks at Linda Sarsour, one of the organisers of the women’s march in America, she finds it inconceivable that anyone would consider this leading rights activist not to be a feminist, even though she wears the hijab.

Linda Sarsour

Linda Sarsour Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Festival of Faith

“It’s a complex symbol,” she adds. “If you look at the history of colonialism, you had women wearing it to resist. And then you had colonisers taking it off to demonstrate liberty and the success of the colonial conquest. I think choice is the key thing. If you’re ever in an environment where you don’t have the choice, I think that’s when it’s a problem."

In response to hearing of an outspoken feminist who says “You don’t have to wear that,” to everyone she greets who is wearing a hijab,  Bashir imagines how one of her conservative aunties might behave if she similarly forced her views on others. “If she was to go onto the beach and say to every woman in a bikini, you don’t have to wear that – how would people feel about that? Because it’s the same thing.”

For biblical scholar Dr Caroline Blyth, it’s clear that traditional readings of scripture – sometimes buttressed by popular culture – misrepresent the women whose stories it actually tells. The tale of Delilah, the seductress whose ensnaring of Samson leads to his downfall, is one such instance.

“The Bible tells us next to nothing about Delilah,” says Blyth, “Other than that she accepts a huge amount of money to betray a man who loves her. We’re not told that she’s a temptress, we’re not told that she seduces him, or is even having a relationship with him. We don’t really know why she betrays him. Maybe she was poverty-stricken? Maybe she was scared of Samson because he was very violent and volatile. He had murdered thousands of soldiers with his bare hands.”

Samson and Delilah by Matthias Stom, 1630 - 1639.

Samson and Delilah by Matthias Stom, 1630 - 1639. Photo: Flickr / pixelsniper

Despite Delilah always being represented in contemporary imagination as a temptress who seduces the hero, the story as it appears in the Bible is a sketchy one, full of gaps and ambiguities. That it has historically been framed in a certain way perpetuates the idea of the “dangerous woman” representing a threat to masculine virtue.

Blyth believes this reading tells us more about the attitudes of the reader than what’s actually found in the Biblical record.

More about the speakers

Kim Hill, Rev. Jean Malcolm, Saziah Bashir, Lilia Tarawa, Dr Caroline Blyth

Kim Hill, Rev. Jean Malcolm, Saziah Bashir, Lilia Tarawa, Dr Caroline Blyth Photo: Mark Tantrum

Saziah Bashir is a freelance journalist commenting on issues of social justice, race, and gender.

Dr Caroline Blyth lectures in Religious Studies at the University of Auckland. She researches the complicated relationships between religion, gender, and culture.

Reverend Jean Malcolm is Co-Vicar of St Peter’s on Willis Anglican Church, Wellington.

Lilia Tarawa was born into the infamous Gloriavale cult and broke free from the religious community when she was 18. Now she is a best-selling writer and keynote speaker on how to love yourself and build healthy self-esteem.

In association with City Gallery Wellington’s Suffrage 125 exhibition Arwa Alneami: Never Never Land.