Indian Christian women 'take wing'

Members of the Indian Christian Women's Movement participate in a ritual at their recent "Women Take Wing" convention. (Courtesy of Sr. Noella de Souza)

"Women Take Wing" is not just the theme of a convention held in India in early August. It is the lived experience of members of the Indian Christian Women's Movement, in which women are raising their voices loud enough to be heard in churches that treat them with silence. Although the movement started out as a Catholic inspiration, it spread to other Christian denominations as well.

Sr. Noella de Souza, a member of the Missionaries of the Child Jesus and one of the founders of the movement, shared her experience of the most recent convention, but also of the movement's beginnings and evolution.

The Indian Christian Women's Movement (ICWM) took on its name in 2014, when 113 women and seven men met to talk about the exclusion of women and all marginalized groups from having a voice and significant decision-making roles in their churches. People enthusiastically gathered from five different organizations of various Christian denominations.

"We reflected on the impact of Vatican II and its future impact on Christian women," Sister Noella said. "We were determined that its theological and ecclesiological shifts, particularly of inclusion, would energize us to take actions to move women beyond narrow Christian denominational roles that currently confine us." She noted that although they have taken many steps forward, they still meet many obstacles.

One of the group's first actions targeted liturgy.

"We protested the discrimination of women and other marginalized people of class, caste and gender [who were] often ignored and excluded from liturgical celebrations," she said. "We were encouraged by the example of Pope Francis during the Holy Week celebration of foot washing in 2014."

Traditionally, foot washing has been and continues to be a ritual for boys and men only in the churches, she said. But for the past two years, they have organized a public foot-washing ritual, one year in a home for senior citizens and the next, a public park.

"Men washed the feet of their wives and youngsters washed the feet of elders and guest workers who serve us in agriculture, construction and factories," she said.

"Our Kerala unit of ICWM provided spaces for this alternative ritual to raise the question about why [men are the only people to get their feet washed in church] when women are at least 50 percent of the people of God," she added. "We also sent a letter to the Indian cardinals requesting that the tradition change to include women and other marginalized groups; they did not acknowledge or answer our letters."

Sister Noella noted that this theme of silence prevails. Silence is a power the patriarchy uses to exclude and marginalize.

At the convention, a husband washes his wife's feet to provide an example of a gender inclusive ritual. Foot washing is a practice for boys and men only in the churches. (Courtesy of Sr. Noella de Souza)

She noted that the patriarchy has had untold damage on women and other marginalized people. Women themselves have often inadvertently participated in the victimization and have bought into the clerical belief system since childhood, she said.

"We have not only accepted a role of second class, but internalized these beliefs with conviction that priests take the place of God, and thus, their person and authority makes them untouchable," she said. The goal of the Indian Christian Women's Movement is to change these beliefs to a new normal, the Gospel vision of Jesus.

With every opportunity, members of the movement raise their voices and act against violence not only perpetrated in ecclesial structures, but civil structures, as well. They carry out campaigns of resistance against policies that lead to and perpetuate diminishment, humiliation and ostracism of women across class, caste and religion. Most recent are their protests against the continuing brutal murders and killing of women in many parts of India. The members write letters of support to victims of sexual violence who courageously make their experience part of the national debate about human rights. The movement not only protests hierarchical church practices but also supports attempts to stop sexual harassment in the workplace.

Servitude or Service is the title of a new program in India among Catholic women religious. Its goal is to awaken congregational leaders to question how their sisters are treated when working in parishes or dioceses. Are the sisters recognized as co-servants, equal to clerics in service, or slaves, who only do what they are told? Movement members designed a survey for general and provincial superiors in 2017 to begin gathering data about what is happening at all levels of ministry in the church where sisters are engaged. This will be an ongoing process, as having specific data and facts are necessary to support action to break down patriarchal norms in church and in society.

As in many places of the world, clergy sexual abuse is still not taken seriously. Sister Noella cited a recent attempt to address this with the India national bishops' conference. The ICWM campaigned for signatures to call the bishops to accountability, particularly in the Orthodox Church in the south and the Jalandhar Diocese in the north. The collected 179 signatures were sent with a letter to the Orthodox bishops' conference requesting that the bishops of jurisdictions where clergy sexual abuse has occurred step aside so that fair and unbiased investigations of abuse could be carried out. To date, there has been no response from this conference.

Related: Religious demand removal of Indian bishop amid abuse allegations

Another effort of Catholic women religious is to speak out collectively in support of abuse survivors in their congregations, something not done in the past. Without this solidarity, victims are kept silenced and marginalized even by the church laity: Parishioners still under the influence of hierarchical power tend to support their priests and bishops rather than the sisters who have been wronged.

Related: Christian women in India take steps to address clerical abuse cases

Sister Noella acknowledged that efforts, although carried out with conviction and hope, still meet with disappointment. Letters to the hierarchy are left unanswered and concerns ignored. What is most discouraging at the moment is the lack of leverage to hold those in power to transparency and accountability. In some ways, she said, even with so much effort over the past four years, things have gotten worse for the voiceless. The hierarchy continues to protect itself. But, she said, "the media is our current hope — investigations are being made public."

Setbacks aside, Sister Noella said she found the August convention encouraging. Participants came from far and wide: Lutherans, Methodists, Orthodox and Marthomas as well as members of the Salvation Army, Union of Protestant Churches of North India, the Union of Protestant Churches of South India, and the Catholic Church. They represented a diversity of professions: theologians, activists, ordained women, lawyers, educators, health professionals, musicians, scientists and pastoral professionals.

"The diversity gave us new hope that together, we can bring about change," Sister Noella said.

The keynote speaker, Vibhuti Patel, chairperson and professor of the Advanced Centre for Women's Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, presented a backdrop of the mainstream women's movement in India. This context, Sister Noella said, confirmed the Indian Christian Women's Movement's resolve to see their place with all women of India who seek inclusion and human rights and challenged them to see themselves as part of a larger movement of minorities.

One trans woman who spoke at the conference "helped us understand the struggle of sexual minorities, particularly trans women, and asked that they be welcomed into our churches," Sister Noella said. "We reflected together on the many brave women of the Bible who swam against the currents of their times, encouraging us to address the obstacles that keep us from full participation in our churches. We know that by doing this, we are bound to pay the price, but we need to challenge our churches thriving on patriarchy. We have indeed taken wing, and we need to celebrate this and keep on supporting the women with broken wings."

[Joyce Meyer is a member of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and GSR's liaison to women religious outside of the United States.]

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