In taking the theme "The 21st Century Woman Still Claiming Her Space: Asian Feminist Theological Perspectives" as the focus of its 7th Biennial conference, Ecclesia of Women in Asia (EWA) seems to be moving with the times. Bringing together around 40 participants from different parts of Asia and a representative each from Africa, Europe and the United States, the conference provided space for feminist theologizing against the backdrop of the changing notions of gender in the 21st century, its resistances and possibilities in the context of Asia.
In this conference held at Tagaytay, Philippines from 21-24 January 2016, this question of where 21st century women find themselves today was deliberated from different angles, bringing to relief the many contradictions underlying women’s situation in today’s Church and society. It was observed that while 21st century women have scaled new heights in the socio- political, economic and cultural spheres, their gendered marginalization, silencing and exclusion have not ceased. Though women in general enjoy more freedom and power than ever before, they are still disadvantaged when compared to men, virtually in all aspects of life for the many denials and deprivations they encounter in having access to resources and opportunities.
The keynote addresses by feminist theologians Sr. Mary John Mananzan (Philippines) and Nontando Hadebe (South Africa) focused on women’s efforts to claim their dignity, voice and space in theology and the academia, considering also the concerns of women at the grassroots. In the other presentations, Sharon A. Bong (Malaysia) analyzing the feminist praxis of an organization Talitha Kum in their combat against trafficking of women and children and a joint paper by Virginia Saldanha (India) and Lisa Isherwood (UK) presented by Virginia Saldhana on “Breaking the Deafening Silence for the LGBTIQ Persons in Asia” looked at the issue from the perspective of the sexually exploited and marginalized while Monica Jalandoni Michelle’s reflections on “Anger as Corrective to Filipino Fortitude” named anger as an anti-dote to women’s oppression.
The theme of ‘Women Reclaiming their Space’ was tackled further in relation to religion, theologies, philosophy in the other presentations. Siphim Xavier(Thailand) looked at the socio political liberation of the poor from the perspective of the ‘Mission History of Women in Thailand’, while Dona Sanctis (India) examined Mary’s song of revolution- the “Magnificat” as a pedagogy for women’s empowerment in India”. Helen Romero’s presentation ‘Growing Up the Santo Niño’ looked at the transition from ‘Folk Devotion to Post-colonial Christian Theology’ in the Philippine context, whereas Stephanie Ann Pue and Rachel Sanchez (Philippines) looked at ‘Gender, Inculturation, and the Ecclesiology of Communion in the Philippine Church and Liturgy’ .
From a theological point of view, some of the presentations examined women’s position and their efforts to find their rightful space. Hee Jung Adele Cho(South Korea) looked at the ‘Influence of Confucianism in Women’s Status in the Asian Roman Catholic Theology and Lonergan’s Self-Appropriation’ while Kristine Meneses (Philippines) did a ‘socio-rhetorical analysis and poststructuralist hermeneutics of Matthew 5:39-41’ to show the dynamics of "Creatively Claiming her Space for the “Other”. In addition, from a biblical angle, Pauline Chakkalakal, (India) did a feminist critical appraisal of “Who will Roll away the Stone…?”(Mark 16:3) analyzing women’ struggle to find their rightful place in the Church. Still on an ecclesiological vein, Genny Dumay’s (Philippines) concerns about women’s space in the Church was brought out as a ‘A Letter to Pope John Paul II’ which was termed as a ‘Response to his Mulieris Dignitatem, A Letter to Women: On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.’ Further critical questions on women’s position in the Church was raised by Julia Ong (Singapore) in her reflections on women’s silence and passivity in the Church.
Feminist theological reflections on women reclaiming their bodies and their full humanity was brought out by Metti Amirtham (India) in her paper titled ‘EmPOWERing the Female Embodiment from Within: A Theological Path Ahead’. Presentations by Margaret Gonsalves (India) on ‘Theology of Woman: Cosmic Oneness’ and by Judy Siqueira (India) on ‘21st Century Women Moving the Plot’, brought in a philosophical shade to the women’s question in the 21st century. Reflections on three women’s lives using paintings by Marini de Livera (Sri Lanka) brought more colour to the programme and sharings of the new PhD graduates brought in fresh insights into feminist theologizing in Asia.
While EWA 7 has taken through its paper presentations only a minute glimpse at the complex and extensive issue of women’s situation in today’s world, the conversation that followed the presentations provided scope for a deeper analysis of the issue and awakened further interest in the subject. Even as we realize that there is so much more to look into, it has been an exercise of keeping alive Asian feminist theologizing. Videoconferencing of two papers- ‘Between National and Local Identity: Possibility of Solidarity between Women of Hong Kong and Mainland China’ by Mary Mee-Yin Yuen (HongKong) and‘Spirituality and Psychological Well-being of Women Living with HIV/AIDS’ by Margaret Devadoss (India) connected the East and the West on the women’s question which is a shared concern and the responses to these two papers by Nontando Hadabe further widened the conversations to a global frame.
A very interesting programme of this conference was the field trip to the Amadeo Farm for a dialogue with the social entrepreneur, Pacita Juan of ECHOStore. Meeting this dynamic and visionary woman at her organic farm was indeed a concrete and practical demonstration of our theoretical deliberations on what women can achieve when they claim their space in society. Shibashi sessions animated by Genny Dumay (Philippines) everyday in the beautiful garden overlooking Tal lake offered were relaxing moments to the participants amidst serious reflections on women’s concerns.
A significant feature unique to EWA 7 was a workshop on Multicultural Relations conducted by Chris Burke (Australia) from 19th January evening to 21st January noon for members of EWA. This workshop that combined interpersonal, managerial and biblical reflections helped the members of EWA to understand each other better in the pluri-cultural context of Asia and to be more focused on realizing the vision of EWA in the 21st century.
Dr Kochurani Abraham (India) Coordinator EWA 7.