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BARAZA! 4 - Faith and Feminism
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Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, feminist activism seeking equal rights and legal reform to redress discrimination against women became gradually more common throughout the world. Women’s movements arose in many countries expressing this universal desire, but in locally distinctive ways.

This new feminism was a modern form of agitation and activism for change – but it was not without roots. Wherever such movements arose they were, at least in part, made possible by the long (but scarcely documented) history of women’s experiences in religion, self-expression, and social participation.

Religion and religious traditions formed a broad part of the early history of feminism: as with ideas of human freedom generally, the emancipation of women first appeared in public consciousness within the context of faith.
Similarly, the rigid, gendered moral codes that persist today are often rooted in interpretations of religious belief and practices that once reflected preponderant social attitudes: women’s exclusion from education and public life, employment restrictions, the denial of universal suffrage, legally sanctioned marital rape and violence, the lack (or denial) of child custody – these were (and in many cases still are) the problems of a very real and unforgiving life often aggravated by cultural and identity politics in plural societies.

Thus in medieval Europe, some of the earliest women to speak out did so within a religious framework and in religious terms, either while secluded in convents or after embarking on long religious pilgrimages (Walters, 2005; Spearing, 2002). However, the medieval attitude towards religious fervour and divine inspiration in women was often uncompromising, and these women were sometimes punished for deviation, madness, or worse – witchcraft.

While feminism has developed from diverse sources and origins, an assessment of the early history of feminism must acknowledge the central importance of women’s religious and literary expressions that sought spiritual equality and deplored women’s unjust subordination. In evaluating this history there has been a strong focus on organised religions – particularly the Abrahamic faiths, as well as Hinduism and Buddhism. This is due not to any “primacy” of these religions but their immense impact on legal, moral, social and or individual decisions throughout the world.

This impact continues to colour, and in many cases dictate, a range of considerations from private conduct to the formulation of government policy. Likewise, modern feminist and other scholarly approaches to gender discrimination must necessarily address religion due to the perspectives of patriarchy and power that frequently underlie and dominate these religions’ organisation.

Furthermore, women’s modern secular self-assertion and their aspirations towards equal status, worth and dignity in the family and society have developed historically from a consciousness and activism grounded ultimately in religious experience – whether in recognition that gender equality was a natural right, or in opposition to those who would deny such a right.

In this issue of BARAZA! women activists and activist-scholars from different religious and cultural backgrounds describe their journeys through faith and feminism and recount how the encounter between religion and feminism influenced the trajectory of the feminist struggles in which they have been involved.

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