Sociopolitical Contexts of Feminist Theology in the South

In Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, Kumari Jayawardena (1986) documented the history of women's participation in anti-imperialist movements in Asia and the Middle East since the 1880s. The emergence of feminist consciousness in the third world took place in the wider political climate of national struggles, the fight against economic exploitation, and the quest for cultural self-definition. The rapidly changing social and political circumstances and the mobilization of the masses enabled women to step outside their domestic spheres and experiment with new roles traditionally denied them. The nature of feminist politics in the South does not narrowly focus on gender inequality and on the freedom and liberation of women. Instead, feminist struggles are generally seen as a part of the overall liberation of the whole people, but with a distinct focus and distinct strategies. Mary John Mananzan (1989: 105) of the Philippines writes: "There is no total human liberation without the liberation of women in society. And this is not an automatic consequence of either economic development or political revolution. In other words, the women's movement is an essential aspect of the very process of societal liberation."

Because of the divergent historical, cultural, and economic situations of the Southern continents, feminist theologians have different emphases and priorities in their social analyses and theological agendas. As Latin American countries won their independence struggles in the nineteenth century, liberation theologians focused on neocolonialism, the failure of the Western development model, and problems of political and military dictatorship. Informed by Marxist social theory, they stressed the preferential option for the poor, liberation and redemption in history, the integration between theology and praxis, and the church's transformative role in bringing about the kingdom of God. Developed in the late 1970s, feminist theology in Latin America shared these concerns, while highlighting the oppressions of machismo cultures and violence against women. The feminist theological agenda has been gradually broadened to include racism, multiple levels of cultural oppression in a continent with various forms of racial hybridity, and environmental justice.

Asian and African feminist theologians tend to highlight the cultural and religious dimensions of oppression because of the impact of entrenched cultural myths, rituals, and traditions on women's roles in society. They are interested in assessing Christianity's role in supporting colonialism and patriarchy, because political independence for many of them happened only a generation ago. Postcolonial interpretation of the Christian past involves new readings of the missionary enterprise, attention to cultural hybridity and resistance, demystifying racial hierarchy, and critical evaluation of the use of the Bible as a tool of oppression. Cultural studies and postcolonial theories have been employed to assist in building more comprehensive frameworks of analysis.

There are also particular concerns for Asian feminist theologians. The economies of countries on the Pacific Rim have developed at a phenomenal rate in the past thirty years. In fact, the twenty-first century has been hailed as the Pacific Century and the "Asian miracle" was touted a model for other developing countries. While Max Weber has attributed capitalistic development in Europe to Calvinistic ethics, Asian feminists point out that the East Asian miracle has been sustained by a political oligarchy, transnational capital, and the revi-talization of elements of patriarchal neo-Confucian ethics (Kwok 1995). While the focus has been on the glistening Pacific Rim, countries in the Asian subcontinent are still suffering from abject poverty, compounded by the caste system and violent ethnic clashes. Sexual exploitation of women, especially in the form of sex tourism in Southeast Asia, domestic violence, dowry, the fast spread of HIV/AIDS, and child prostitution are also significant concerns for Asian feminists.

In a continent where many die from famine, malnutrition, unclean water, diseases, and warfare, African feminists have focused on survival, just distribution of resources, and the quality of life. Much of their theological writing has been devoted to the cultural, ritualistic, and religious customs that disempower women, such as the issue of polygamy, the stigma of the pollution of blood, widowhood and rituals of mourning, and female circumcision. At the same time, apartheid in South Africa, as well as racial and ethnic strife in Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and other African countries, have heightened their concerns for racial oppression and the role of religion in social conflicts. African feminist theologians express the "will to arise" as women in their continent continue their strides to gain collective power and respect in their societies.

Because of globalization, women across the South faced similar socioeconomic challenges: women's subsistence economy crushed by larger-scale industries and multinational corporations, the social and economic consequences of large national debts, and in some cases the constant threats of instability and war. The realignment of world powers according to their geopolitical interests and the economic structural adjustments imposed on poorer countries both lead to less political autonomy and less democratic participation. In the transnational movement of capital and the "race to the bottom" for cheaper resources and labor, countries in the South have to compete with one another to be exploited by corporations in the North. In the age of information technology, many women have found that they are totally left out in the postindustrial and technological restructuring process because of lack of access and training.

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