The very basis of my feminism is deeply rooted in my faith. To expect me to divorce one from the other is to ask me to be neither. This journey of reconciling faith and feminism is many things – back breaking, onerous, and often gut-wrenching – but it is never impossible.
In the church I grew up in, unmarried women, both young and old, would be summoned to the altar by having their names called out in front of the entire congregation. They are made to face the church members as a way to acknowledge their sin of engaging in pre-marital sex and, ultimately, falling pregnant and having a baby. This is called kotlo, which can be loosely translated to mean ‘punishment’. It is a form of excommunication that unwed women go through before the church elders allow them to baptise their children.
Growing up, I had witnessed this procedure many times and it had become part of the banality of my church experience. That is, until a popular young man in the congregation announced that he, as well as the unwed mother of his child, would undergo kotlo – she did not fall pregnant on her own, after all.
As insignificant as that moment was for me then, it was only at 19 years old – after I consciously devoted myself to Christ – that I realised that this was my first feminist experience in that church.
I have been a feminist for a long time, even before I had the lexicon to express it. My feminism expressed itself in everything from arguing with my older brother about equally sharing our after school cleaning duties, to my unquestioning confidence as head girl of my school – a leader just as vocal as the head boys.
But even with my renewed love and energy for church, it was difficult to relate to the church’s teachings about women from the Bible. In many cases, the sermons talk about what great wives they were to their husbands, and thereby these women have shown a commitment to God. Many times, I left these sermons thinking: What about who these women are outside of their relationship with their husbands? Can they not serve God without being married?
There is also great obsession with being a ‘Proverbs 31’ woman. This identity has been such an aspiration for young Christian women that many declare their ‘Proverb 31’ status on their Twitter bios and Instagram posts. Paraphrasing some of these Biblical verses, a Proverbs 31 woman is one of noble character, who wakes up early in the morning to prepare food for her husband.
I must admit, there was a time that I proclaimed that I was a Proverbs 31 woman – that is, until a conversation with my mother. I realised the extent that the scripture is centred around marriage. What if I don’t get married? This question led me on a quest to find scripture about women that does not involve marriage. I was sad to discover that these are few and far in between.
Malebo Golo also identifies as a Christian feminist and she shares many of the anxieties and contentions I have with my religious beliefs. “Once I left the church, I found it easier to reconcile my feminism with my faith. My spiritual relationship with Jesus matters more than being in church,” she says. She has shared several experiences of how Biblical scripture was used to silence her when she challenged sexist traditions in the church. “Christian men have said things like, ‘You need to be submissive – you will never find a husband if you behave like this.’ They would refer to the scriptures about how men should lead women and I will always challenge them back with scriptures,” she says.
It is important that we are mindful of the time and cultural context in which the Bible was written – a time when women were not even allowed to sit at the feet of a Rabbi for teachings. And that is why some of the things the Bible stipulates about women are oppressive. But scriptures about how Mary sat at the feet of Jesus while he taught have given me much needed assurance and it led me to believe that Jesus Christ – the cornerstone of Christianity – was an unapologetic feminist.
Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus challenges the patriarchy of his culture by having women at the forefront of his own ministry. It is through women like Mary Magdalene – who was slut-shamed by Jesus’s disciples and called out by him for such – that his ministry grew.
And yet, even with my conviction of Jesus as a feminist, it would be naïve for me to ignore the fact that women have been oppressed and abused because of religion, including my own. Perhaps paradoxically, this is one of the reasons I remain. I believe in actively working towards dismantling the patriarchy within the church, just as I work to dismantle it outside of the church. How can this happen if I, and the many other women who share my views, opt out of our faith? Patriarchy must fall in all spaces – including the church.
I often feel marginalised by both my faith and feminism. I have been particularly defensive of my faith to feminists, because that is easier than having to object to my beliefs. But I am learning to embrace the discomfort the two worlds have to offer. I am also learning that my faith and my feminism do not have to look like someone else’s in order to be acceptable.
So, I choose to stay because my personal relationship with God is a real and tangible. I stay because it is my faith that fuels my views on gender equality and justice. It is in the midst of this tug of war that I have loved Jesus more – and because of that, I am a feminist.