My Religion and My Feminism Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

If there is one thing I truly hate about liberal intelligentsia in the United States, it’s this: it has become too easy to paint liberal ideas and religious sensibilities as diametrically opposed, and too easy to write off religion as something stupid, meaningless, or ultimately bad for society.

As a collegiate debater, I encountered this rhetoric all the time, though it is hardly limited to the debate community.  I can’t count the number of times I have heard religion referred to as “oppressive”, “manipulative”, or “coercive”, even though religion’s survival in modern times would indicate that rather than serving as a force of full-on indoctrination, religions actually have something to offer such that they can still compete in a marketplace of ideas that has become increasingly skewed towards pure rationalism.  I can’t count the number of people who have looked at me like I was crazy when I said that I believe in G-d, even though I’ll let you in on a not-so-secret: you may be right that we lack proof that G-d exists, but we also lack concrete proof that G-d does not.  I tend to keep religion out of my political discussions because when we talk about religion in America, we almost always talk about it in one of two ways: in terms of Islamic fundamentalists, or in terms of the Religious Right.

So let’s get a few things straight here: religion can be a force for good or for bad, depending on who is controlling the narrative.  It can be used to inspire people or to punish them, to comfort people or to tear them down, and it all comes down to interpretation and application.  When the Christian Right in the United States uses their religious beliefs to say that women shouldn’t have rights or that it infringes on their civil liberties to have to interact with the LGBTQ population, that’s a poor application of religious belief (and of the idea of religious freedom, for that matter, but I’m coming to that).  When anyone uses their religion to justify acts of violence against others-~-whether we are talking about the 9/11 attacks or bombings of women’s health facilities in the United States or, for that matter, violent acts that early Zionists committed in the name of their cause-~-that’s a poor application of religion, and we should be critical of these acts and of the ways in which religion is used to justify these acts.  We shouldn’t just blindly accept things “because religion”, that would be silly.

But we also cannot pretend that religion was never or is not a force for good in this world, because that simply is not true either.  So much of the education, healthcare, human rights and other development work being done in the developing world, particularly in rural areas, is being done by religious organizations, in part because no one else is willing to do it.  In the United States, there is valuable work being done to fight poverty, work with immigrants, and combat violence and drug usage in inner cities by faith-based institutions, and they are, again, sometimes the only organizations doing this work. On top of that, recent research suggests that problems like drug addiction don’t necessarily come from the presence of drugs-~-they come from the absence of meaningful relationships and social and intellectual fulfillment, which means religious organizations may play an even bigger role in helping to reduce problems like drug addiction by providing increased access points for a supportive community.  Here’s a list of faith-based initiatives undertaken in partnership with the United States Dept of Health and Human Services: notice that a lot of important behavioral health services are being provided through these organizations.

When we allow ourselves to engage in religion-bashing-~-or worse, we allow our movements to engage in religion-bashing-~-we make it that much harder to accomplish our goals.  It’s easy to paint, say, the American South or Midwest as hyper-religious and intolerant, but that’s painting with way too broad a brush, and it alienates people who might otherwise want to speak out.  Religion-bashing also makes it harder for religious individuals to feel safe engaging with social justice activists and organizations, when they’re made to feel that because they hold religious beliefs, because religion is important to them in their daily lives, they will not fit in, and may well be painted as The Enemy.

On top of that, from an intersectional perspective, we need to include the voices of individuals who do identify as religious to talk about the ways in which religion may actually be harmful or helpful.  I’m not talking about passing a Western judgment on religions the way that France did when it banned the burka-~-that goes way too far, and fails to take into account the real lived experiences and opinions of Muslim women living in France.  If feminism wants to claim it is about giving women-~-or even just giving people-~-choices, they we need to be open to what these other voices have to say, and support a freedom of religion that lets people actualize through their faith if they so choose.

As a Jewish woman growing up in the United States, I can’t speak to the experiences of women of other faiths, or even Orthodox women in America, or Jewish women living abroad; but I can tell you that there are feminist issues that exist within my community.  Women of the Wall is an organization which for years has pushed for Jewish women to be able to wear prayer shawls while praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a practice that is currently illegal in Israel.  In the US and elsewhere, Orthodox women sometimes struggle to get divorced because their husbands demand too many concessions before giving them their get (religious divorce document); without this, even if they succeed in getting a legal divorce through secular courts, their community will not accept their marriage as terminated, and they can’t get on with their lives.  There are Jewish institutions that will not accept a bar/bat mitzvah as real if it is performed by a woman rabbi, because parts of the religion still do not accept that women can be rabbis.  These are issues within my community that concern me, as a feminist and as a Jew, and I should very well be able to combine those perspectives to address them.

But on top of that, any movement that claims to be working towards freedom from oppression has to recognize this simple fact: backlash against religious people because they are religious, or because of the religion they practice, is a form of oppression in and of itself.  We deserve to live in a world that is free not just from sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism, but one that is free from anti-Semetism, Islamaphobia, and any other religious persecution.  When we allow religion-bashing to work its way into our rhetoric and our approach to the issues, we lose ground in fighting against these evils as well, and the fight for religious freedom is still a fight worth winning.


~ by Randi Saunders on March 29, 2015.

One Response to “My Religion and My Feminism Aren’t Mutually Exclusive”

  1. Randi,

    Hello, I am a recent college graduate with a degree in engineering. I’m not giving my name because I would rather share that privately. I have been reading your blog for two years now since I started self-educating myself on feminism and women’s rights. Your work has been consistently intelligent and thoughtful and I find myself returning to your previous writings. There are only a few blogs I follow due to their high-quality and yours is one of them.

    I want to commend you on the views you expressed on religion in this article. I am deeply skeptical of all organized religions that allocate power to some individuals and not others (i.e. are political), from the smallest tribe to the biggest civilization, but I don’t believe individuals exercising superstitions or rituals is a problem. I believe the fundamental problem is institutions, and people, not questioning themselves and the dogmatic, pseudo-logic that results when they try to justify their failures.

    For your notes, here is my personal data:

    Male Age: 18-25 White Middle Class U.S. Jewish (mostly secular, but identifies strongly with the culture and heritage)

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