Program Reports

“Impact of Religion and Culture on Women's Empowerment – An Indian Perspective”


Participants of the National Consultation on "Impact of Religion and Culture on Women's Empowerment – An  Indian Perspective" at Hyderabad, southern India. (Provided photo)

After efforts to persuade the Catholic Church in India to deal with sexual abuse of women by clergy, and upset over the Church's slow progress, a group of Christian women, mostly Catholics, announced steps for addressing the issue on their own.

“We should move outside the Church to seek answers to abuse cases. We should treat this problem as a crime and take recourse to the law,” said Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, a lay woman theologian.

Gajiwala, who heads the women's collective Satyashodak (meaning “seekers of truth”), made these remarks at a recent national seminar that studied the impact of religion and culture on the empowerment of women from an Indian perspective.

About 50 people, including a few men, attended the Sept. 23-26 meeting in Hyderabad, the capital of the southern Indian state of Telangana. The meeting was organized by Streevani (“voice of women”), an NGO managed by the Holy Spirit nuns, along with Satyashodak and three other groups engaged in women's empowerment.

The seminar coincidentally began on the same day the Standing Committee of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India ended a three-day bi-annual meeting at Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), 355 miles south of Hyderabad. There the committee approved a set of guidelines to tackle clergy abuse cases. The guidelines have yet to be released.

But attendees of the Hyderabad seminar aren't waiting.

Gajiwala chaired a session on the last day that drafted a plan of action for the organizers in the year ahead. It decided to form a working group to deal with sexual abuse in the Church.

"We should not wait for the official Church to come up with solutions. We need to draft a policy that is controlled by women and address the problem when it arises," Gajiwala said, urging the group to take definite steps.

The meeting attendees decided to analyze the 1983 Code of Canon Law in the light of the International Bill of Human Rights and Indian civil law.

They also want to facilitate the gender sensitization of men, particularly bishops, priests and seminarians, as proposed by the bishops' 2010 Gender Policy of the Catholic Church of India. Participants stressed the need for developing a campaign to change the overall mindset of men in India.

The women decided to set up a legal subcommittee, to deal with the abuses under the Indian Christian Women's Movement, an ecumenical forum that strives to bring equality for women in their Churches. The subcommittee will study guidelines existing within certain congregations and regions that deal with these cases. The group also will continue to accompany and support victims of sexual abuse.



Participants at the Hyderabad sessions celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, in advance of its Oct. 30 observance. The scarf, painted pot and candles symbolize the cosmos. (Provided photo)

The attendees set up a two-member committee to draft a follow-up on the decisions of the Hyderabad meeting that will encompass measures to prevent and redress sexual abuse, as well as protocols and structures to ensure justice, healing and sensitive treatment of victims. Their deadline for the report is March 8, 2017.

The group wants to collaborate with the Conference of Religious India, the national forum for major superiors of both men and women congregations, in matters of common concern.

Another committee will compile and study abuse cases within the Church reported from various parts of the country and note the church's response to them. It will also provide English translation of the reports that originally have been written in various Indian languages.

Creating a network to track action

The seminar participants suggested formation of a pan-India network to deal exclusively with clergy sexual abuse cases. This solidarity group working under the Christian women's movement will become a pressure group to encourage church authorities to act. It will work on two levels — as an ecumenical forum dealing with cases in all churches, and for Catholics to deal specifically with abuse cases involving women religious.

Some participants remarked that several religious congregations have not even heard about a gender policy the bishops' conference implemented in 2010. They noted that each congregation dealt with abuse cases differently in the absence of a clear policy in the church.

The women also stressed that counseling support be offered to the victims of abuses. They called for unconditional support to the victims and proposed starting a website to disseminate information about the cases among those associated with the Hyderabad meeting, the Christian women's movement, and people working on abuse cases.

Christian women first became concerned after a media expose of the sexual abuse in the Catholic church led to an "unprecedented crisis," Gajiwala said. A group of 24 women under Streevani met in August 2010 and sought to initiate a dialogue with the Indian bishops to provide a safe and secure environment for children and women in church institutions. They recommended a code of professional ethics for pastoral workers, including priests, and a policy to address sexual abuse for every diocese and religious congregation.



The group photo of the Hyderabad meeting. (Provided photo)

A year later, another consultation was organized with 43 men and women to move the effort ahead. They studied structural implications for the church in promoting gender justice, the moral and legal consequences of sexual abuse, and the psycho-sexual paradigm that supports clergy sexual misconduct. They then advocated a code of conduct for church personnel. They drafted a "Policy regarding sexual misconduct, sexual harassment and sexual abuse" and submitted it to the bishops on January 18, 2012, a month ahead of the prelates' biennial plenary. But the bishops ignored the policy, Gajiwala said.

The gang rape, and resultant death, of a 23-year-old woman on December 16, 2012, in New Delhi shocked the Christian women as it did other Indians. They convened another consultation in August 2013, and invited bishops, priests and religious. Participants revised the earlier policy as "Norms for dealing with cases involving sexual abuse by church personnel." The women then presented the norms to the bishops' standing committee that met in September 2013. They requested the bishops take it up at their next plenary in 2014.

The women also noted that the norms would stress the bishops' seriousness about implementing the "zero tolerance" of violence against women as enunciated in their "Gender policy for the Catholic Church of India, 2010."

Gajiwala said the norms would help reduce abuse offenses, bring speedy justice for abuse victims, and act as a deterrent. Publishing them would also clarify the church's intentions to deal with the issue and avoid confusion that would lead to negative publicity, she added. "If the structures are put in place for implementation of these norms, they will provide religious authorities with the support and guidance needed for making difficult decisions," Gajiwala asserted in her foreword to the norms.

However, Gajiwala and Virginia Saldanha, another laywoman theologian, who were part of the team that has assisted the women's council of the bishops' conference to draft the guidelines, said they were not privy to the final draft presented to the bishops in September.

The bishop's conference has not divulged the guidelines. "Though the guidelines have been passed, the CBCI Council for Women has been asked to cross-check them for some technical and legal questions. It will be circulated as soon as the council ascertains certain parts," the conference's Secretary General Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas told Global Sisters Report in early October.



Release of the book, "Women as Equal Disciples: Unfinished Task of the Church. From left to right are Virginia Saldanha, editor of the book; Sr. Julie George, head of Streevani; Kalpana Kannabiran, director of the Council for Social Development, Hyderabad; Brother B Pratap Reddy, Montfort provincial, and Brother Varghese Theckanath, director Montfort Social Institute, Hyderabad. (Provided photo)

Drafting a resolution

Meanwhile the organizers of the Hyderabad meeting released its final statement October 24.

The 1,407-word document challenges the millennia-old perception that men are the "sole recipients and transmitters of divine message," and the women's role is to "passively accept religious teachings as interpreted by men." Such interpretations, Hyderabad participants said, have led to removing power from Indian women, reducing them to second-class citizens.

The women noted that many religions emerged from protests against established exclusionary and oppressive religious structures. "The institutionalization of religious movements with their unchangeable dogmas, however, develops a fissure between the original episteme, or way of understanding these movements, and the way they are practiced," the statement says.

"The challenge is to preserve the voices of prophetic dissent and foster the freedom necessary for change. Women have the most at stake in this process since they are the ones crushed by the life-negating dogmas and conservatism of traditional religions," it adds.

The women also oppose the frequent manipulation of religion to monopolize power through homogenization and ritualization. "Any agenda for change must, therefore, pluralize religious practices to capture the original thrust of the episteme. Thus, spaces must be created in our social imagination to accommodate not just a recovery of the past but also an innovation of new liberating symbols, language and imagery that challenge authorized canons," the Hyderabad statement asserts.

The Hyderabad group also noted that societal views about the nature of a woman's body can obstruct her access to her religion.

"Women in fundamental ways are locked in their bodies, and their exercise of power is at the pleasure of men, whether in the family or in the religious sphere. Thus, religion is not just about spirituality, beliefs and practices alone, but it is also political. These political practices, however, belong to structures of the mind that are not inviolable. They can be broken by recovering the spiritual and humane. It is on this recovery that women's survival and unfolding as humans hangs," the statement says.

The Hyderabad body acknowledged violence to women has become "a disturbing issue" in India. Violence is an expression of hegemonic power and is used to control, dominate and enforce a system of power entrenched in cultural, religious, political and economic spheres, they concluded. "Laws prescribed to protect are often manipulated to inflict violence."

For Catholic women, the meeting pariticipants found a major discrimination in their exclusion from ordination and other offices. "The maleness of Christ rather than his humanity is emphasized, putting women on a plane lower than men," the statement says.



Participants dance to light music at Hyderabad gathering about gender and abuse. (Provided photo)

 

Published in Matters India on Nov. 10, 2016 by Jose Kavi

Statement from the National Consultation on “Impact of Religion and Culture on Women’s Empowerment - An Indian Perspective” Montfort Social Institute, Hyderabad, 23rd – 26th September, 2016.

Pack nothing. We bring only our determination to serve and our willingness to be free. Do not hesitate to leave your old ways behind - fear, silence and submission. Only surrender is to the need of the time: to do justice and walk humbly with God. Though we set out in the dark, we are confident that God will be present with us in fire and in the cloud to encourage us.

- Alla Renee Bozarth

Down the ages men have been perceived to be the sole recipients and transmitters of divine messages. Women on the other hand, have been socialized by patriarchal religious structures and practices to passively accept religious teachings as interpreted by men. These andocentric and patriarchal interpretations have defined and shaped the social and cultural contexts of Indian women resulting in their disempowerment and second class status. Recognizing the influence of religion and culture on Indian women’s lives, Streevani took the initiative to organize a National Consultation on the theme “Impact of Religion and Culture on Women’s Empowerment – An Indian Perspective” from 23rd to 26th September, 2016 at Hyderabad. The Montfort Social Institute hosted the meeting and were also co-organizers together with the Indian Christian Women’s Movement, The Indian Women Theologians Forum, and Satyashodak. 50 people, religious women and men, lay women and one diocesan priest were present.

A major flaw in the perception of religion is the assumption that it is a given. Religion is in fact a negotiated reality with each individual or community defining its own understanding, one that evolves with time and circumstance. This fluidity needs to be placed at the centre of any discourse on religion along with the recognition that many religions have their origin in protests against established exclusionary and oppressive religious structures. The institutionalization of religious movements with their unchangeable dogmas however develops a fissure between the original episteme or way of understanding these movements, and the way they are practiced. The challenge is to preserve the voices of prophetic dissent and foster the freedom necessary for change. Women have the most at stake in this process since they are the ones crushed by the life-negating dogmas and conservatism of traditional religions.

Religion is frequently manipulated to monopolize power through homogenization and ritualization. Any agenda for change must therefore pluralize religious practices to capture the original thrust of the episteme. Thus spaces must be created in our social imagination to accommodate not just a recovery of the past but also an innovation of new liberating symbols, language and imagery that challenge authorized canons. Using these spaces, women need to stake their claim visibly and powerfully for their rights, and for their perspectives and interpretations to be accepted as part of the core religious canons which also underpin culture. Unless this happens the guardians of existing religious and social structures will not be forced to move to a critical consciousness of their oppressive nature.

The key of women’s involvement with religion is hidden in women’s bodies. Women in fundamental ways are locked in their bodies, and their exercise of power is at the pleasure of men, whether in the family or in the religious sphere. Thus, religion is not just about spirituality, beliefs and practices alone, but it is also political. These political practices however, belong to structures of the mind that are not inviolable. They can be broken by recovering the spiritual and humane. It is on this recovery that women’s survival and unfolding as humans hangs.

The gendering of body and sexuality does great violence to women and LGBTIQ persons. The male is considered as the norm, and scriptures are used to define women as defective, sinful, needing to be controlled even by using violence. LGBTIQ persons and their subjectivities are by and large excluded by authorized canons of religions.

In India violence to women, the marginalized sections of society and minorities is a disturbing issue. It is prevalent in the family, and expands to a woman’s circle of known persons, even those she is taught to revere and confide in such as religious leaders, as well as public spaces. Violence is an expression of power that is hegemonic. It is used to control, dominate and enforce a system of power entrenched in cultural, religious, political and economic spheres. Laws prescribed to protect are often manipulated to inflict violence. The painful sharing by a Dalit woman, who spoke of political and religious violence, and a victim of domestic violence, during our consultations, amply demonstrated the roots of such violence in culture and religion.

The politics that have emerged in the discussion of the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in India indicate how the law is being manipulated to demonize one minority religion while ignoring the gender injustice in other personal laws. Women from religious minorities in favour of retaining their personal laws with the necessary amendments to ensure gender justice, view the creation of a UCC as a move to undermine their rights. As societies across nations evolve and become more plural, we realize that we need equality of rights and not equality of the law, so that equality as an outcome for women is a priority rather than equal laws for all regardless of religious and ethnic differences.

For Catholic women governed by the Code of Canon Law the major discrimination based on gender is their exclusion from ordination and all the offices contained therein. The maleness of Christ rather than his humanity is emphasized putting women on a plane lower than men. Even within the category of the non-ordained, women and men do not enjoy equal rights. Only men, including married men, can be ordained deacons and be installed as lectors. Many of the rights given to both men and women are assigned only in the absence of a priest and at the behest of the parish priest or bishop.

Church teaching while professing the equality of women also promotes the notion of complementarity that assigns fixed roles to women and men, with women usually in passive and subservient positions. With regard to sexuality procreation is viewed as the norm, ignoring love, equality, respect and mutuality that contribute towards strengthening the marriage relationship. This has led to the active/passive paradigm that legitimates violence such as marital rape, but also emotional, psychological and financial violence that covertly controls women’s sexuality. Church leadership remains silent on the issues of domestic violence and dowry but stresses the morality that condemns abortion and contraceptives, and glorifies fidelity in marriage and motherhood no matter the circumstances. There is scant recognition that “separation becomes inevitable, at times even morally necessary when it is a matter of removing the more vulnerable spouse or young children from serious injury due to abuse and violence, from humiliation and exploitation, and from disregard and indifference” (Amoris Laetitia # 241).

When seen through a Christian lens, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the later additions such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), have a trinitarian dimension of equal but different. Further, woman and man created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27), the Trinity, forms the basis of all human rights. However, in the Catholic Church the ontologically different character attained by men at ordination becomes a source of power that is sacramental and hierarchal and creates unequal people. This becomes an impediment to the realization of human rights in the Church which are a reflection of Jesus’ call to be a community that believes and lives the “Kin-dom” values of love, justice, equality, peace, reconciliation and communion.

In the light of the above we will endeavour to:

  • Do an analysis of the 1983 Code of Canon Law in the light of the International Bill of Human Rights and National laws.
  • Facilitate the gender sensitisation of men, particularly bishops, priests, and seminarians as proposed by the CBCI Gender Policy of the Catholic Church of India.
  • Continue to accompany and support victims of sexual abuse
  • Follow up on a Policy that will encompass measures to prevent and redress sexual abuse, as well as protocols and structures to ensure justice, healing and sensitive accompaniment of victims.
  • Engage in collaboration with the CRI in matters of common concern.
  • Strengthen the Indian Christian Women’s Movement.
Celebration of International Women’s day - 2015

Streevani, celebrated the International Women’s Day by anticipating it for 3rd March 2015. It was a day of great joy for all women domestic workers. In line with the theme of the International Women’s Day “Together We Make it Happen”, our women came together to learn, celebrate and display their talents. The program began by paying homage to Savitribai Phule, the woman educationist of Maharashtra while singing her praises, followed by lamp lighting by the dignitaries and guests of the day. The Chief Guest was Mr. Sampagi Kakade Asst. Deputy Commissioner of Labour, Pune, and the guest speaker was Ms. Lata Bhise, an eminent Social worker and activist, from Pune.

Release of the First Marathi Magazine:
This celebration marked the event of publishing and release of 1st issue of Magazine in Marathi named as Amchi Unch Bharari, (We Fly High). This magazine comes forth as a collection of articles, personal stories, poems, experiences and unspoken voices of domestic workers and women victims of violence. It also brings out legal knowledge and information on Government schemes and benefits for women. The children of domestic workers have supplemented their poems and art to the magazines. Besides this, the annual activities of Streevani has added colour to the magazine by portraying them through photographs.

Women and children put up meaningful, entertaining and thought provoking cultural items to add colour and festivity to the occasion. They brought out creativity and variety and generated the atmosphere of joy. An action song was played by the women domestic workers depicting the life of a well known social activist Late Govind Pansare, who was murdered few days ago, and gave a message for collectively seeking justice for him. Through the role plays women portrayed the violence against women/girls and the battle for justice in our society.

There were around 2000 women domestic workers gathered to celebrate this day. The program ended with a delicious friendship lunch together.