I am a Christian woman and go to a fairly, or rather, seemingly liberal church in New Delhi. It is oriented to community building, very warm and people-friendly with mutual respect for one another and there is no denying the fact that I love being a part of the community. As much as I love the warmth of the family and everything it represents, it would be rather unfair if, as a member of the church, I bottle up our blind spots and turn my eyes away from them. As much as the church celebrates gender equality, there is also a glass ceiling that divides the church along gender lines, which goes against what the church stands for.
I am not writing this to point fingers at anyone, neither is my intention to portray anyone, or for that matter any denomination, in a bad light. I simply want to bring to light certain practices of the church which I find to be discriminatory and unfair to women. If you feel that the church, despite its claims, is ridden with gender inequalities, I sincerely pray that reading this will provoke you to start searching for solutions.
I remember celebrating International Women’s Day in church in 2015 and feeling elated that our church celebrated its women when so many women in across the country were deprived of even human status. Stories of mothers and wives were being told by men. Stories of sisters were being told. All these stories had a common thread running through them and these stories were about how these mothers, wives and sisters have supported them in becoming who they are. Sadly, there were no stories that recognised them as ‘individuals’ who had their own dreams, desires and aspirations; as humans whose ambitions had been thwarted because of the sacrifices they have to make. I am not claiming that these sacrifices are unnecessary or that women should stop being good wives, mothers and sisters. Yet seeing women as just wives, mothers and sisters is not enough.
All humans have the right to be recognised as individuals — individuals with stories, individuals with distinct characteristics and personalities that go well beyond the ambit of socially ascribed roles. Also, another very disappointing aspect of that day was that no woman was ever asked to share her story. The irony lies in the fact that while advocating for women to raise their voices, no one seemed to bother much about asking for ‘her side of the story’. Instead of talking with a patronising attitude about what ought to be done to uplift women, isn’t it simpler and more effective to just ask women what they really want? Isn’t knowing her side of the story and allowing her to assert her individuality the first step towards addressing gender inequality? We want to be heard. We want to be a part of the larger community. We want to be made visible.
My next concern, of which I am quite aware will stir some controversies if not some murmurs of dissent, is the prohibition of women from preaching in some denominations. I am also aware of the fact that the practice is due to certain theological understandings of which I do not claim to have any expertise. But why would the biological factor of being a woman or a man hinder anyone from preaching? I believe that God created both man and woman equally and endowed them with wisdom to be equal partners in His mission. Prohibiting women from preaching implies that women are intellectually inferior, which is simply not true. There are differences in our physical abilities but the same cannot be said about our intellectual abilities. All other reasons, to me, seem to be insufficient in barring women from preaching. Given that a woman is capable and possesses the gift of preaching, which I believe is not a gift solely reserved for men, I find no reason why women cannot share the pulpit with men.
I have never seen any woman serve the communion but the church does not seem to mind much when women serve coffee and snacks after the church service is over! Is it to say that women can do the ‘mediocre’ tasks while men do the ‘important’ ones? Forget about women serving communion. How about men serving tea and snacks sometimes? Is it too lowly or is it because it is culturally and traditionally the women’s task to make tea and serve snacks? I think it is safe to say that the Bible does not assign the task of serving food solely to women. In fact, when Jesus fed the five thousand, his twelve male disciples were the ones who distributed the fish and loaves among the crowd.
The church so often claims to offer the space where all humans are treated equally but with practices like this, it clearly undercuts the ideal of equality. But how can we insist that all humans are created in the image of God when such deep divides exist?
I was quite taken aback when a pastor in his sermon once mentioned (with a certain sense of surety) that the three things that corrupt men are women, wine and wealth. What can be more enraging and humiliating for more than half of the congregation who were women listening to the sermon? When non-Christians come and attend our church services, expecting a difference, a sermon like the one I mentioned earlier would throw them off. If they are given the impression that the church is no different in condemning its women that would indeed be a big tragedy.
The archetypal stereotyping of the woman as the seductress/temptress is something that the church really needs to introspect.
I, being a woman, am aware of the potent sexuality that a woman’s body can possess. It is innate in us and I see it as something to be celebrated, this feminine aspect that forms the essence of being for many women. However, it is very often mistaken to be the source of temptation for men and a curse for women. Feminine beauty and attraction need not be fatal nor does it have to lead any man to mortal sin. I consider my femininity to be a gift from my Creator and I do not have to be branded a seductress for possessing it.
Despite the presumptuous claims of women being conniving and laden with potential sources of temptation, it is the beholder that really has to decide whether to be tempted or not and whether to appreciate the woman as another being created by God or reduce her to an object of lust. Men should learn to see a woman beyond her body and see her as another individual who has to be respected and admired for her inner beauty and the virtues that she embodies.
Across literature, Christianity has often been viewed with suspicion for its misogynistic ideals. I firmly believe that the Scriptures in no way talk about women being lesser or subordinate to men, that they grant equal fundamental rights to both men and women. I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of women ‘submitting’ to men; not that I have any less regard for the apostle Paul but when ‘submission’ is used by patriarchal men as their license to dominate, suppress and ‘command’ women, how can one remain silent? The current culture of inequality in the church has only given the critics of the institution of Christianity a chance to further and prove their claim that the church is indeed unfair towards its women.
The men in our church gave the women really beautiful bookmarks on International Women’s Day that carried a very thoughtful message: “It is you who is making the difference in so many lives.” It felt good to know. But I also wish the men would say, “Let us be the ones that make a difference in your lives.”
The very foundation of the church is built on the love of Christ, but moments like these shake the idea of all being equal. Jesus never condemned the adulteress who was brought before him but instead forgave her and sent her away telling her to sin no more. Even the adulteress found respect and freedom in Jesus. The church should rid itself of its prejudices towards women. We are not here to tempt men. We want to be co-workers in building the body of Christ.