by Andrea L. Si
"God is not male," I said. "I will have to think about that again," the female doctor replied. "If you think about it again, will you agree that God is not male?" I asked. "No," the doctor answered. "If you think about this 5 times, do you think you'll be able to agree?" I persisted. "No, I cannot see God as anything but male," she said.
That was May 6, 2005 in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma), the first morning of the seminar workshop intended as an echo of the Ecclesia of Women Conferences held in Bangkok (2002) and Yogyakarta (2004). All in all, about 14 women religious, 14 women lay associates, and 2 brothers responded to the invitation from the Catholic Religious Conference of Myanmar's EWA Myanmar Committee. I was there because the organizers wanted me to speak about EWA and provide a tangible connection with the main group.
Breaking the Ice
The night before, the participants had gotten to know each other through games and creative introductions. Many of the sisters and the two brothers had studied outside the country hence were no strangers to feminist theology. Even then the Church in Myanmar is Vatican I in many ways. Most priests still refuse to give communion in the hand, women still wear a veil to Church, and it is a very rare Myanmar Catholic who questions the hierarchical structure of the Church or why women, who do most of the work in the parishes and dioceses, are excluded from decision making processes. Naturally, I was filled with uncertainty about how EWA's feminist ideas would be received.
The Mass, Meditation on Bondage and Dreams
My talk was preceded by a mass in which everything was in English except for the songs and the sermon. Of course I did not allow Fr. Victor to go without eliciting from him the meaning of the long sermon that he'd preached. Sent as representative of the good Bishop Charles Bo, he returned my curiosity with a friendly interrogation on this strange animal, Ecclesia of Women in Asia.
After the mass and my guarded exchange with the priest, Grace Chia (EWA I) led the group through a symbolic experience of bondage, and made us think of the ways in which we are in bondage as well as the ways in which we cause others to be in bondage. Following this meditation, we wrote or drew on folded flower cut-outs, our dreams or commitments for the ecclesia of women in Myanmar. Reminiscent of the first EWA conference, the flowers opened up as we floated them around lighted candles in basins of water.
When it was finally my time to speak, knowing that what I had to say wasn't exactly aligned with what the priest had said during the mass, also knowing how much I dislike foreign lecturers who sound like they know everything, I said, "The women in EWA believe in many things and we do not all believe in the same things. It is up to you to decide what is good and true for you in Myanmar. All I can do is share with you what other Catholic women in Asia are thinking and saying." Then I told them about how EWA began as a dream in 2001, the themes of the first conference in 2002 and of the 2004 conference, the mission, vision, programs, and people who comprise EWA. As deconstruction and reconstruction are essential in feminist theologizing, in the little time left, I explained as well as I could the Dance of Liberation and Transformation that Prof. Lieve Troch taught us during the first EWA in Bangkok. To end I stressed "We do not want to be like many western feminists. We do not want to become man haters or to compete with men. We just want equality and partnership and this is what EWA hopes to achieve in the development of a theology that is feminist and truly Asian."
Surfacing of Issues
After that talk, there was an initial surfacing of issues in small group discussions. The problem of violence against women was acknowledged and several participants admitted that men and boys do get preferential treatment in most families and in Myanmar society as a whole. Aside from these issues, during the open forum, the women asked how women theologians and feminist theology can develop in Myanmar, when the women have so little exposure and such limited resources.
Myanmar Catholic Women and Their Struggles
In the afternoon, Sr. Patricia (EWA I) presented her paper "Myanmar Catholic Women and their Struggles." Patricia held her audience in rapt attention as she spoke in a mix of English and Burmese of realities that the women well knew but had never thought of questioning. Although I had a translator, I did not need translation to see and feel how much of an impact Patricia's words caused. Sharing in small groups followed and with this were signs of growing realization that after all, women in Myanmar society are not as equal as they had believed.
The Role of Myanmar Women in Society and in Religion
The next day, Sr. Ann presented her EWA II paper, "The Role of Myanmar Women in Society and in Religion." After every segment of the paper, the participants were guided by questions that made them consider their stand on certain issues. Had they ever felt that as women they were inferior to men? Could they honestly say that instead of being nuisances, menstruation and child-bearing are special privileges of women. Is God male or female? Did they always think of God as male, Father? If God is male, where did the female come from? Did they find the structure of the Church to be a pyramid? Were they aware that Vatican II has changed that model to a Communio? Did they still wish to cling to the pyramid model? Could they, as women accept themselves as being relational, like the Trinity? Are women appreciated for the services that they render or are they taken for granted? Are they considered as less important than the priests? Did they agree that women religious are more up-to-date in spirituality and theology (than the priests?)?
Sr. Ann Shwe's Challenge
Seeking directions for the future of the Church of Women in Myanmar, Sr. Ann ended her presentation by challenging the participants with even more question. Culture and tradition are beautiful but if they are found to be oppressive, can we still regard them as beautiful? Do you agree that the allocation of work should be according to talent and aptitude and not hindered by custom and tradition? Are we allowing potentials incarnated in female bodies to go to waste? Can you say that women are given a place in the decision making bodies of the Church? The Church is made up of male and female and do you not think that the female should be represented? Can we honestly say that we belong to the New Covenant or are we still clinging to Jewish customs? God is love. Do we feel that we, women are the image of the loving God? The body expresses the spirit. The breasts, the womb and the vagina, do they not express the life giving spirit of the woman? On the contrary, how are they considered and treated?
Most of the answers might seem obvious but each question called for the admission of a hitherto unseen or unacknowledged reality or the abandonment of a dearly held position in favor of a better one. Transformation did not happen in an instant, neither did it occur at the same level for all. But all throughout, the proceedings were marked by openness and an earnest hunger for truth and new knowledge. The women impressed me with their articulateness and readiness to speak out. Even among the young lay women, I did not detect hesitance or shyness. The brothers were also happily integrated and were truly, as they said about themselves, "Blessed among women." This they showed most convincingly in the numbers that they presented during the cultural and fellowship night.
Give me Life in my Womb
The last day's liturgy was Sr. Ann's version of the meditative walk through the uterus. Not having the original words, Sr. Ann composed a beautiful chant about the blood being life-giving, being sacred, being cleansing, etc. After the walk, the women and the two men (yes, they joined the walk through the uterus) passed around a tray with aromatic healing herbs as each prayed for healing and wholeness. As in the 2nd EWA, the liturgy ended with the song, "Give me Joy in my heart, keep me loving. . . give me life in my womb, keep me giving. . . ."
Forum on Women's Issues in Myanmar
Sharing by women representing different concerns then followed. First, a young feminist who leads an NGO that raises gender awareness, organizes women, and helps them with livelihood skills. Then a Sister who runs a home for persons with HIV AIDS and the children orphaned by the dread disease which is rampant is Myanmar. The third speaker told about her work against trafficking of women and children. The fourth gave a Buddhist woman leader's perspective of woman. Given the magnitude of the challenge before them, the participants listened with great interest to the fifth panelist's orientation on obtaining grants from the German embassy.
That last afternoon, May 8, the participants were asked to share their thoughts on what touched them the most, in what ways their thinking had been changed, what they were prepared to do after the seminar. The doctor who could not at first conceive of God as other than male, could now see God as Father/Mother. A sister said she'd never thought of the Trinity as being relational or of women being relational, like the Trinity but this was an idea that she appreciated very much. Participants confessed to seeing that there are cultural practices that are unjust and need to be changed. Women said they had begun to see their bodies and the reproductive cycle in a new light at the same time that they became aware of how childbearing can be a burden. The men saw that although they could not be birth mothers, they could give life to others in social, spiritual, or other senses. While admitting that change could not be expected to happen quickly, many saw that women should be part of the decision making process in parishes and dioceses. Most agreed that they want their parishes and religious communities to realize what they'd come to realize in the past three days.
Continuing the Work
To ensure that the dance of liberation and transformation continues, that afternoon, two lay women were elected to join the original 4 member EWA Myanmar Committee of the Catholic Religious Conference of Myanmar. This month, the Religious Conference, the association of all male and female religious orders in Myanmar, will have Asian feminist theology in its agenda. The Bishop has promised his full support and to show that he means business, he advanced part of the expenses for the May 5-8 EWA echo. Myanmar appears to lag behind other Asian countries in many ways, but in no other country have the religious orders rallied behind EWA's vision and mission as our Myanmar brothers and sisters have done. Indeed, EWA's advocates in Myanmar deserve every commendation for their pioneering initiative and for showing the rest of us, possibilities for countries that most need to hear the message that EWA brings.
For the organizers whose names I wish I could mention, the EWA echo began as the wildest of dreams. That the dream became reality can only be because -
The Lord God said, I myself will dream a dream within you. . .
My dreams seem impossible, not too practical,
Not for the cautious man or woman,
a little risky sometimes, a trifle brash perhaps. . .
But for those who share my dreams, I ask a little patience,
A little humor, some small courage and a listening heart.
I will do the rest.
Then they will rise and wonder at their daring,
Run and marvel at their speed,
Build and stand in awe at the beauty of their building. . .
So come, be content.
This is my dream you dream.
It is my house you build,
my caring you witness,
my love you share.
And this is the heart of the matter
(The Heart of the Matter, by Charles Peguy)