When contemplating movements that dovetail with religion, you can be forgiven for not immediately thinking of feminism.
And that is exactly why Gina Messina-Dysert, Jennifer Zobair and Philadelphia resident Amy Levin decided to bring that relationship to the forefront.
These three women — a Catholic, a Muslim and a Jew respectively — came together to co-edit the new book, Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay. The book is a compilation of essays from 45 women across those three religions who wrote about the struggles they have faced identifying as religious feminists.
All of the essays relate to one central theme: why each essayist has stayed in her religion despite how unwelcoming they can sometimes be to women.
“I personally define feminism as a movement to end sexism and to uproot all oppressions wherever they exist. It very much applies to religion,” said Messina-Dysert. “When it comes to conversations about feminism and religion, [people] feel like they need take a stand on one side or the other. Feminism talks about, for me, uprooting oppression wherever it exists — and that very much involves religion.”
She co-founded a website in 2011, feminismandreligion.com, that encourages all women to post about — as the website’s description suggests — “exploring the F-word in religion and the intersection between scholarship, activism, and community.”
“One conversation that has continually come up over and over again is how can you be a feminist if you are a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu — whatever it may be,” she said.
“That has really weighed on me,” she continued, “because I feel like it’s such a judgmental question and also a discounting question. I said, there really needs to be a book about this, where women can share their voices to see they’re not alone in this dual identity and recognize different ways we find our own path to live out this identity and how we are strategic in this identity.”
Levin and Zobair have both contributed to feminismandreligion.com, and Messina-Dysert asked them to come on board for the book, which she described as the “best project I’ve ever worked on.”
Amy Levin, a graduate student at Penn pursuing her master’s in social work, grew up in a Jewish household in Columbus, Ohio, and has continued to observe Judaism in Philly by attending services at Kol Tzedek.
“It has been the best project I’ve ever worked on,” she said of editing the book’s section on Judaism.
Her feminist identity sparked from an encounter with a female educator while she was in religious school, an experience she recounted in her essay.
She grew up going to an egalitarian synagogue, but despite its welcoming nature, the clergy were all male, she recalled.
A female rabbi eventually took the job as the education director at her synagogue, which helped Levin get more interested in Judaism as “a personal, religious aspect instead of a social aspect.”
Working with this educator introduced Levin to a new way of looking at the texts, which she details in her essay.
“Through this female rabbi I started — it was my first inkling of Jewish feminism,” she said. “I think that it was the first time I had seen a female rabbi grappling with the texts. We had some wonderful classes about reinterpreting the Jewish texts and talking about abortion and topics I really cared about as a woman. I felt more empowered speaking with her and feeling like I could open up to her.”
It helped her recognize that there was a space for women in Jewish leadership, she added.
“It’s not about having a ‘Jewish male experience’ — it’s not just about learning the Torah and wearing a kipah — it’s about making women’s Jewish experiences just as important as male Jewish experiences, whether that’s going to the mikvah or making challah or lighting candles.”
She was able to read from the Torah at her Bat Mitzvah, which she recognized as something not all women are able to do, and said hearing stories from women who contributed to the book helped her see the progress that has been made thus far.
“Every Jewish woman that wrote recognized that Judaism comes from a patriarchal tradition. Even though they have different struggles, they’re still working within their traditions to change it,” she said, citing Conservative women rabbis perhaps not getting paid the same amount as their male counterparts or balancing family and work in different ways.
But ultimately, Levin said, what she has learned through this project is that “feminism complicates religion for the better” — and that they are not totally separate entities.
“I think this might sound, like, cheesy, but the biggest lesson for me is: Faith and feminism is not irreconcilable,” she said. “That’s the main takeaway of the book.”
Jennifer Zobair was raised Catholic. She grappled with her Catholic feminist identity through her college years. After she met and fell in love with her husband, who is Muslim, she converted to Islam.
Zobair converted for theological reasons rather than gender ones, she said. However, she found herself in a much more conservative Muslim community than she was perhaps expecting.
She recalled in her essay the moment of her conversion, when she discovered a passage in the Quran that seemed to affirm a man’s right to beat his wife, which her imam casually shrugged off as true when she asked him to confirm it.
She had trouble reasoning with this law — “I can’t conceive of a God who would do this, I didn’t really want to convert in that moment,” she said — and reconsidered momentarily if she wanted to be a part of it.
The book is an important project because it brings these voices out of women who are experiencing the same struggles, she said.
“I love the idea of these 45 women of these faiths are seen as being in conflict,” she elaborated. “It’s hopeful and beautiful [that they stand together to share their stories]. There are enough similarities that I think women can get inspiration from reading the essays from any of the three faiths.”
For Messina-Dysert, these stories and voices show that women struggling with their identities as feminists within their religious traditions are not alone.
“The bottom line,” she emphasized, “is that we need to be comfortable within ourselves and be happy with our own identities and have confidence that the ways we are living our lives are valuable to ourselves, our families, our communities.
“We’re not going to see things [change] tomorrow, it’s not going to happen. But our work today is going to count towards the change we will see generations from now.”
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