How do women respond to sexism in faith spaces?
Over the last couple of weeks, we've been looking at gender inequality in faith spaces. In this post, we look at four strategies women adopt in the face of this sexism: fight, move, accept, disengage.
In collaboration with Near Neighbours, we recently spoke to 30 or so women in Birmingham to ask them about their experiences of being a woman in a religious space. You can find out more about who we spoke to and how in the full report, which is available here.
In this series of posts, we’re exploring women’s responses in relation to four key questions. The first question was: are religions inherently sexist? The second question was: what’s it like being a woman in a faith space? The third question was: why are faith leaders still mainly men?
The fourth and final question is: faced with a constant drip of explicit and low-level sexism, how do women of faith respond?
The first approach has already been discussed: fight. Many women are championing gender equality in their faith communities by identifying and promoting feminist interpretations of scripture, challenging gender-biased language, and taking up leadership positions (and encouraging others to do so) despite the barriers put in their way. The downside to this has also been discussed: it's exhausting and not actually how most women want to spend their time.
The second approach, adopted by some women, is to leave their church or mosque and join a more open and progressive institution. Many participants had examples of women who had done this: it is particularly common for women frustrated at not being able to achieve leadership positions they deserve (‘a relative of mine was a Bishop and she grew up in the Black Pentecostal Church but never conformed,' one participants recalled. 'She didn't think out of the box - there was no box'). Similarly, some participants – after not receiving moral or practical support – have responded by establishing projects outside the auspices of their church or mosque:
In my own church setting I am not given the responsibility that would allow me to do what God wants me to do. So a lot of what I do now is out in the community. I do chaplaincy work, I do a lot of work with Salvation Army, I am out there in the community. So I have not taken myself out of the church, but the ministry I carry is outside of the church. I still have the same faith but I have just changed my focus.
The third approach is to accept the inequality inherent within the practice of the faith. This was particularly common amongst Pentecostal and non-denominational Christians, many of whom felt that God has a purpose or mission for their lives and didn't allow things to happen without good reason.
The final approach exhibited by some participants was a passivity or refusal to engage with the 'politics' of faith groups. People in this category talked about how they saw – and experienced – inequality and discrimination, but had reached the conclusion that there is little they or anyone else can do about it. Other participants in this category simply felt that this was not a fight for them. As one woman put it: 'I don't challenge discrimination: I don't feel I need to challenge it right now. There are other generations coming up behind me'. This final approach nevertheless differs from the third inasmuch as woman in this category are (deeply) unhappy with the inequality they see and have not been able to spiritually reconcile themselves to it.