Why stay? A new book looks at feminists who refuse to give up on faith

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 1, 2015

(RNS) In the moments before Jennifer Zobair converted to Islam, she had one pressing question for the imam, about a verse in the Quran that seemed to give husbands permission to beat their wives.

Is that really what it means, asked the New York corporate lawyer, who was engaged to a Muslim man and confident the imam would reassure her that Islam would never sanction violence against a wife.

“Yes,” responded the imam matter-of-factly. “In some parts of the world women are like children and need to be dealt with accordingly.”

Zobair, who takes comfort in Islam’s “insistence that no one intercedes with God on a believer’s behalf,” recounts her conversion story in “Faithfully Feminist,” a soon-to-be-released book of essays by 45 women — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — on the conflict between their feminism and their religion.

The question each of the 15 authors from each of the Abrahamic faiths agreed to ponder: “Why do you stay?”

Why stay when a woman can’t be ordained as a priest? When Jewish men in their daily prayers thank God they were not born a woman? When a woman with uncovered hair is considered a bad Muslim?

Many in this diverse group of essayists — including Mormons, immigrants, rabbis, ministers, lawyers and nurses — confess to having seriously considered chucking faith, or at least their own religious tradition. Some of them actually did leave, only to return.

Within not only their faiths but also their feminism, these women often feel marginalized. As Mormon feminist blogger Caroline Kline writes, she is “too feminist for Mormons and too Mormon for feminists.”

So what to do when deeply rooted religion pushes up against deeply held feminist ideals?

Drawn to religion despite the misogyny they encounter in its holy texts, rituals and commonplace all-male leadership, most of the essayists in “Faithfully Feminist” describe times when they have tried to subdue the feminist rebellion within themselves.  

But to stay, they also had to understand their religions as ultimately compatible with feminism.

“The traditions themselves are not oppressive. It’s the interpretations that are,” said Gina Messina-Dysert, who conceived the idea for “Faithfully Feminist,” published by White Cloud Press, and served as its Christian editor — alongside Muslim editor Zobair and Jewish editor Amy Levin.

Still, Messina-Dysert, a dean at a Catholic women’s college, said she doesn’t doubt that her Roman Catholic Church may sometimes work to undermine the feminist sensibilities she’s trying to instill in her 6-year-old daughter, whom she sends to Catholic school.  

Messina-Dysert’s own contribution to the book, in an essay titled “Confessions,” includes the following:

“I confess that it brings me joy to see my daughter make the sign of the cross.
I confess that it brings me sadness to see my daughter make the sign of the cross.
I confess that when my daughter talks about God ‘He’ I correct her and tell her that it is God ‘She.’
I confess that I still imagine God as male.” 

As hurtful as it has been to be treated coolly by priests who know she favors women’s ordination, or by a relative who asks why she doesn’t become an Episcopalian, Messina-Dysert said the sting from the faithful who reject her feminism doesn’t feel as sharp as the barbs from feminists who dismiss her faith as hopelessly patriarchal.

“Feminism is about community and collaboration and working together to end oppression wherever it exists, and that includes religion,” she said. “So to be critiqued so harshly by feminists feels more damaging.”

Levin, who also contributes an essay, at first seems the lucky feminist of the 45 authors. No religious authority in her world would defend a husband’s right to hit his wife or argue that women shouldn’t be rabbis.

But even within the sphere of liberal American Judaism, Levin points to obstacles that don’t seem to stand in a man’s way. She looks back on her teenage years, and writes:


“I didn’t realize it at the time, but my inability to feel like I fully belonged spiritually arose from a quiet belief that my male friends, and all Jewish men, had a kind of access to holiness I didn’t possess.”

Why would she feel this way growing up in a progressive suburban synagogue?

It was the subtle things, she writes, such as the expectation that men wear a prayer shawl, a garment few women had adopted for themselves. She remembers stealing glimpses of the men in services and “craving the comfort they must have felt wrapped in God’s holy blanket.”

Often the journey involves discovering other women who have struggled to see their faith through feminist eyes. Many of the writers conclude that these two nonnegotiable aspects of themselves need not compete: Faith and feminism can nurture each other.

Growing up, contributor Emily Maynard writes, she accepted the teachings of her evangelical Christian parents, who believed that wives should submit to their husbands and that women who worked outside the home deserved pity. After college, Maynard rejected these ideas, and her faith. But then she began to read Christian feminists who convinced her there was more than one way to experience womanhood and be a Christian.

“I grew to celebrate Christianity as an incredibly complex, mysterious, and beautiful pursuit, instead of a series of rules and recitations,” Maynard writes.

“It’s funny,” she concludes. “Now, when I think about how much I fought against it, that it was actually feminism that saved my faith.”