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Concilium 1994/1 Violence against Women Table of Contents | Concilium 1994/1 Violence against Women Editorial


1994 / 1

Violence against Women


This issue of Concilium on Violence Against Women documents and explores the death-dealing powers at the heart of patriarchal and kyriarchal,1 relations of oppression. Violence against women and their children is all-pervasive. It is not limited to one specific class, geographical area or type of persons. Rather, it cuts across social differences and status lines. White, black, rich, poor, Asian or European, Hispanic or Anglo, urban or rural, religious and secular, professional and illiterate, young and old women face daily violence because of their gender.

In a poem published more than twenty years ago the African American writer Ntozake Shange has summed up this life-threatening danger in which women of all classes, races, religions and cultures daily find themselves.

Every three minutes a woman is beaten
every five minutes
a woman is raped/every ten minutes
a little girl is molested . . .

every day
women's bodies are found
in alleys and bedrooms/at the top of the stairs . . .2

Charting the problem

In the intervening years feminist work has documented and analysed the multifarious forms of violent attacks against women just because they are women.3 The list of abuse is endless: child-pornography, sexual harassment in schools and jobs, sextourism in Asia, Latin America and Africa, trafficking in women, sexual and domestic bondage,4 gender-specific violations of human rights,5 lesbian bashing, right wing neo-Nazi terror [viii] against women, mutilation and stoning of women on grounds of infidelity, restriction of movement and exclusion from the public sphere, Purdah6 in its various forms, sati in India, sexual assault in the workplace, rape in war7 and peacetime, women refugees and displaced persons, maids and migrant workers,8 illiteracy, poverty, forced prostitution, child prostitution, wife bartering, female circumcision, eating disorders, psychiatric hospitalization, battered women and children, incest and sexual abuse, homelessness, silencing of women; negation of women's rights, HIV infection through husbands, dowry death, isolation of widows9 and older women, abuse of the mentally ill, emotional violence, cosmetic surgery, cultural marginality, torture, strip search and imprisonment, female infanticide, witch burning, foot binding, rape in marriage, date rape, food deprivation, serial murder, sado-masochism, genital mutilation . . .

Most of these atrocities are part of women's daily lives around the globe. When asked what was the worst aspect of being female, participants in a twelve-country workshop held in China unanimously pointed to male violence.10 Such violence can take many forms: In the US more than two million women have received breast implants, and the number of women who have ‘chosen’ cosmetic surgery has increased more than 60% in the past decade.11 In Africa more than 84 million women have undergone sexual surgery according to the World Health Organization.12 Iranian women who show their ‘shameless nakedness’ by appearing in public without being completely covered are held punishable by seventy-four lashes without a court hearing, spat upon, attacked with knives and guns, and are fortunate if they survive the experience.13 Nevertheless, the malestream news media seldom report such crimes against women. For instance the collective rape of women in Bosnia executed in the interest of ethnic cleansing has only been reported by the international media after feminist publications pointed to this scandal. The widespread use of rape by government and guerrilla forces in the North Indian state of Cashmere or the trafficking in Burmese women and girls continues to escape the spotlight of the international press.14

Femicide,15 the murder of women, is the deadly outcome of such violence. Most women around the world are murdered in their homes by men with whom they have shared daily life. In the US nine out of ten women murdered are killed by men known to them; four out of five are murdered at home.16 For example, of the seventy-three women murdered between 1975 and 1979 in Dayton, Ohio, 80% knew their killers intimately as husbands, friends, family members, prior sex partners, acquaintances. [ix] Fully 72% of the women were killed in their homes.17 Such violence against women and its often deadly outcome is not restricted to the socalled First World, but similar statistics are found around the globe.18 For instance, 80% of women in Santiago, Chile have suffered sexual, emotional or physical abuse by a male partner or relative. 50% of all murders in Bangladesh are of wives killed by their husbands. Some 2000 Asian maids have fled from the abusive employers in Kuwait since the end of the Gulf War. Two-thirds of the women who survived the ordeal have reported that they have been kicked, locked up, raped, beaten and mutilated by their male employer or his male relatives.19 In the US, battering is the single greatest cause of deadly injury to women. Its impact is greater than muggings, car accidents and rapes combined. The majority of women and children who were killed in the metropolitan area of Boston in the first quarter of 1993 were murdered by husbands or live-in partners, although they had asked the police for help and even had obtained restraining orders.

Since December 1991 the German feminist journal Emma has documented that the most dangerous place for Western women is not the street but the privacy of the home, by chronicling the deadly violence against women.20 Typical entries in this ‘Chronicle of Hate’ are: 1 February 1993, Villingen-Schwenningen, woman, 28, shot by her husband; 6/-7 February, Augsburg, woman, 55, knifed in her sleep by her son; 16 February, Frankfurt, woman battered to death with a walking-stick by her husband; 18 February, Cologne, woman, 55, strangled by the ex-boyfriend of her daughter; 18 February, Mannheim, woman, 44, killed with scissors by her live-in partner; 19 February, Düren, nurse, 22, raped and killed on her way to work by former patient; 9 March, Kassel, Afghan woman, 25, killed with bread knife by her brother; 20 March, Landringhausen, woman, 51, choked to death by her husband; 20 March, Cologne, woman, 44, died of knife wounds inflicted by her son; 27 March, Kaltenkirchen, woman, 34, killed with an axe by her husband after marital quarrel; 27 March, Essen, woman, 37, drowned by her husband; 4 April, Kiel, woman, 34, strangled, alleged murderer: boyfriend; 5 April, woman, 72, stabbed to death by her son.21

In December 1989 Marc Lépine killed fourteen college engineering students at the University of Montreal in Canada. He gave as reason for his action that they were ‘fucking feminists’. Press reports speculated that he harboured such hatred for women probably because he had experienced intense humiliation by women, especially at the hands of a domineering [x] mother. Whereas this mass murder engendered much speculation in the press, the American media did not report that in January 1993 four women in Somalia were condemned to be stoned to death, a fifth was ordered to receive a hundred lashes as punishment, and a sixth was imprisoned facing the same charges. These women were condemned on grounds of ‘prostitution’ because they associated with and sought the protection of UN soldiers.22 Whether Western psychological and journalistic discourses, democratic courtroom hearings, or Eastern religious theocratic laws, none holds perpetrators responsible for practices of victimization but presumes that the women who are victimized by public vilification or acts of crime are to blame. Worse, the victims themselves often have internalized such guilt.

Systemic analysis

However, overt physical and sexual violence must not be seen as isolated incidence or perverse behaviour but must be explored as structural normative practices. Such violence must be placed on a continuum of male power and control over women and children that encompasses not only physical violence but also the cultural and religious construction of docile feminine bodies and subservient feminine selves. Verbal, emotional, economic, political, physical or sexual violence against women must not be reduced either to abstract statistic or to episodic evidence and isolated incidence. Rather, it must be understood and explored in systemic terms.

Whereas in classical patriarchy elite men exercised the power of life and death over freeborn women, children, slaves and servants of their household, in capitalist patriarchal democracy every man is believed to be entitled to exercise physical control and legal power over the women and children belonging to ‘his’ family, race, class or nation. Personal and national power is expressed through control and violence against women who signify all that is weak. Hence, violence against women is not just generated by heterosexist patriarchal but also by colonialist kyriarchal power.23 Violence against women constitutes the heart of kyriarchal oppression. It is sustained by multiplicative structures of control, exploitation and dehumanization: the oppressive powers of hetero-sexism are multiplied by racism, poverty, cultural imperialism, war, militarist colonialism, homophobia and religious fundamentalism.

Only if feminist discourses focus on the woman at the bottom of the kyriarchal pyramid will they be able to explore and comprehend all [xi] dimensions of the death-dealing violence against women. Feminist analyses have amply documented how the disciplining practices of culture and religion enact and reenact received gender norms producing the ‘feminine’ body.24 For instance, Sandra Lee Bartky has pointed out that three such disciplining socio-cultural practices produce the docile sub-jected and made-up body as the ideal body of ’femininity’.25 However, I suggest that a fourth type of socio-cultural practices must be investigated, if it should become apparent that the ‘feminine’ body is not just gendered but also ‘raced’, ‘classed’ and religio-culturally typed.

The first assemblage of disciplining practices seeks to produce the ideal feminine body as a body of a certain size and general configuration. Its regimes are obsessive dieting in order to produce the slender boyish body as well as forms of exercise that shape the ‘ideal’ body form. 75% of US women aged 18-35 believe they are fat and 95% of enrollees in weight-loss programmes are women. 90% of all persons with eating disorders are women. Only one in 40,000 women meets the requirements of a model’s size and shape, who today weighs 23% less than the average woman. A California study shows that 80% of fourth-grade girls were already dieting, 53% of high school girls are unhappy with their body by age thirteen and 78% by age eighteen. Such a negative body image leads to erosion in self-affirmation and selfconfidence of girls as well as to the tendency of women to renounce and devalue their own perceptions, beliefs, thoughts and feelings.26 Even highly accomplished professional women exhibit such negative self-appraisal and self-worth; they tend to feel ‘illegitimate, apologetic, undeserving, anxious, tenuous, out-of-place, misread, phony, uncomfortable, incompetent, dishonest, guilty’.27

The second set of practices seeks to produce the ‘docile’ female body by enforcing a specific repertoire of gestures, postures and movements. It constricts women’s spatiality and movement. Women’s body language must be deferential, timid and subservient. Women are taught that when sitting, walking and speaking they must constrict their gestures and should not ‘let themselves go’ in public so as not to give the impression of being a ‘loose woman’. Such a restriction of movement in the name of ‘graceful’ behaviour is reinforced through clothing (e.g. high-heeled shoes) and certain forms of etiquette (e.g. not to spread one’s legs when sitting). Through their clothing, movements, gestures and smiles women must communicate that they are ‘nice’, unthreatening and subservient, in short that they are ‘feminine’.

[xii] The third set of practices is directed towards the display of the body as an ornamental surface. Women’s faces and bodies must be made up and made over according to normative standards of beauty. These normative standards of beauty are Eurocentric and racially biased. The blonde, blueeyed white Barbie doll communicates such a racist standard of ‘femininity’. Hair must be straightened or curled, facial and bodily hair must be excised. Early on women have to become skilled in numerous techniques of hair care and skin care; practise the narrowly circumscribed ‘art’ of cosmetics, and suffer cosmetic surgery so that the ‘properly’ made-up woman can appear in public. Conformity to the prevalent standards of ‘feminine’ dress and make-up is a prerequisite for well-paying jobs and social mobility. No wonder that cosmetics are a $20 billion industry world-wide. In the U S the cosmetic surgery industry grosses $300 million a year and has increased 61% over the last decade.

A fourth set of practices is directed towards shaping the feminine body as a cultural-religious symbol. It seeks to produce the ‘feminine’ body as the ideal body by inflecting the first three types of disciplinary practices in terms of race, culture, class and religion. On the one hand, such inscriptions of the body seek to produce the submissive feminine by inculcating the desirability of the hegemonic feminine. Again and again womanist scholars have pointed out that beauty standards are not just sexist but also racist. The American ideal of beauty glamourizes elite, young white women’s features and bodies. The self-esteem of African-American women is undermined by colourism or pigmentocracy which highly prizes light skin and ‘good hair’, i.e. not ‘kinky hair’.28 Moreover, this ‘politics of beauty’ compensates the low self-esteem of white women who do not measure up to the ideal standard of beauty with the racist conviction that they are ‘better’ by the mere fact of being white. Women of colour in turn are stereotyped as ‘dirty, ugly, stupid, lazy, uppity, devious, and promiscuous’ in colonialist racist discourses. Such colonialist-racist stereotypes of femininity also serve in courts for labelling white women victims of violence such as rape or wife-beating.29

On the other hand, by stressing bodily symbols of women’s subordination, such patriarchal feminine inscriptions aim to produce a distinct cultural, national and religious identity in ‘feminine’ terms that invites men to protect the ‘feminine body of the people’. Hence nations, cities and churches are construed as ‘feminine’. Whether it is the Pope who seeks to uphold traditional Roman Catholic hierarchy by reasserting the religious garb, veil, and cloister of nuns as distinct symbols of Roman Catholic [xiii] identity, or the Ayatollah who seeks to bolster Iranian national identity by imposing hejab (the Islamic veil) as basic to Islamic religious identity, both seek to maintain kyriarchal identity and power by disciplining women’s bodies and controlling their lives. In the context of anticolonialist struggles, such patriarchal feminine identityinscriptions become a site of conflicting identity discourses. In her book Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alice Walker sets out to explore female circumcision as a disciplining practice of such cultural-national identity struggles.30

This four-pronged strategy of bodily discipline is not ‘forced’ upon women. Rather, it is perceived to be ‘freely chosen’ for the sake of beauty and love. Yet, the overt aim of beauty and love is far removed and indeed contrary to the covert aim of such disciplining practices which seek to produce the feminine body as a ‘subjected’ docile body, on which an inferior status has been inscribed. In order to achieve bodily beauty, the love of a man and their own happiness, women must make themselves objects and prey for the consumption of men. To question these practices of ‘femininity’ threatens women not only with loss of skills but also with loss of self-identity and disciplining power over other women. This heterosexist regime is not only sanctioned by loss of patriarchal ‘patronage’ and maintained through self-surveillance and women’s collusion in the disciplining of other women, but also maintained in and through the construction of religious meaning.

The religious politics of meaning

Feminist theological work on violence against women and child abuse31 has pointed to four key traditional theological discourses that are major roadblocks in the way of abused women and children who seek to change their violent situations. First, the Western socio-cultural politics of subordination has its roots in Greek philosophy and Roman law and is mediated through Jewish, Islamic and Christian Scriptures. Especially, the so-called household code texts trajectory inscribed in the Christian Testament has mediated these kyriarchal discourses of subordination that demand submission and obedience not only from freeborn women, wives and children, but also from servants, slaves and barbarians — both women and men. This scriptural inscription of the patriarchal politics of subordination is compounded if it is used to provide the interpretative framework for reading originally anti-patriarchal texts that prohibit divorce as upholding patriarchal marriage relationships. It also has [xiv] disastrous effects when it provides the contextual framework of meaning for the Christian language about God and God’s relation to the world. A Christian symbolic universe that proclaims an Almighty Father God whose will and command is revealed in the patriarchal texts of Scripture and doctrine legitimates and re-inscribes religiously not only misogyny, but also racism, status inferiority, homophobia and xenophobia.32

Not only do scriptural inscriptions reproduce this patri-kyriarchal politics of meaning but theological teachings on headship maintain patriarchal family relations and church structures. For instance, at an international symposium on celibacy in May 1993, Archbishop Francis Stafford of Denver insisted: ‘The priest’s personal authority is exhausted in his exercise of his authority of the head; no authority remains in him to be the head of any other "holy society" than the church. Thus for as long as he holds his priestly office and exercises Christ’s headship he cannot marry . . .’33 This christological doctrine of male headship and patriarchal authority both legitimates the exclusion of women from ordained ministries and makes it impossible for Christian children and women to resist sexual abuse by marital and ecclesial ‘heads of household’, by natural and spiritual ‘fathers’. How can battered women or abused children turn to and trust ‘priestly authority’ for help, if it is the same kind of authority that maims and kills them daily?

Second, Paul’s second letter to Corinth already refers to the image of marriage between Christ and the church and associates it with the deception of Eve (II Cor. I I.2-3). The pseudo-Pauline Pastoral Epistles explicitly link the kyriarchal theology of submission with the teaching on woman’s sinfulness. They prescribe the silence of women and prohibit women’s authority over men by claiming that not Adam but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (I Tim. 2.11-15). Hence, the cultural pattern of making the victims of rape, incest or battering feel guilty and responsible for their victimization has its religious roots in the scriptural teaching that sin came into the world through Eve and that women’s salvation comes primarily through bearing children when she continuous in ‘faith and love and holiness with modesty’. This misogynist reinscription of the politics of ‘femininity’ and submission has been amplified by theologians throughout the centuries. Such theological discourses of victimization have either stressed women’s sinfulness and culpability or their failure to measure up to the feminine ideal of ‘faith, love, and holiness with modesty’. In either case, the victimized and not the victimizers are held responsible.

[xv] Third, not only traditional theological discourses but also Christian scriptural texts , theologize and christologize kyriarchal suffering and victimization. For instance, the Epistle to the Hebrews admonishes Christians to resist sin to the point of shedding their blood. It points to the example of Jesus ‘who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame’. Because they are ‘sons’ they have to expect suffering as disciplining chastisements from God. Just as they respect their earthly fathers for having punished them at their pleasure, so they should subject themselves to ‘the Father of spirits and life’ who ‘disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness’ (Heb. 12. 1-11). The First Epistle of Peter, which also stands in the Pauline tradition, explicitly enjoins slaves to practise the kyriarchal politics of submission by pointing to the example of Christ. Servants are admonished to subordinate themselves not only to kind and gentle but also to unjust and overbearing masters. There is no credit in enduring beatings patiently if one has done wrong. But if one does right and suffers unjustly, one finds God’s approval. ‘For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps . . . for he trusted him who judges justly’ (I Peter 2.18-23).

Such admonitions are not isolated aberrations, but go to the heart of Christian faith: trust in God, the Father, and belief in redemption through the suffering and death of Christ. Feminist theology has underscored the perniciousness of such theological and christological discourses which stress that God sacrificed his son for our sins. If one extols the silent and freely chosen suffering of Christ who was ‘obedient to death’ (Phil. 2.8) as an example to be imitated by all those victimized by patriarchal oppression, especially by those suffering from domestic and sexual abuse, one does not just legitimate but enable violence against women and children. Especially the work of Rita Nakashima Brock has shown that christological discourses which are articulated within the paradigm of kyriarchal submission ‘reflect views of divine power that sanction child abuse on a cosmic scale’.34

Moreover, Christine Gudorf35 has pointed out that contrary to René Girard’s36 thesis, the sacrifice of surrogate victims does not contain and interrupt the cycle of violence. Rather, by rechannelling violence, it serves to protect those in power from the violent protest of those whom they oppress. By ritualizing the suffering and death of Jesus and by calling the powerless in society and church to imitate his perfect obedience and self-sacrifice, Christian ministry and theology do not interrupt but continue to [xvi] foster the circle of violence engendered by kyriarchal social and ecclesial structures as well as by cultural and political discourses. A theology that is silent about the socio-political causes of Jesus’ execution and stylizes him as the paradigmatic sacrificial victim whose death was either willed by God or was necessary to propitiate God, continues the kyriarchal cycle of violence and victimization rather than empowers believers for resisting and transforming it.

Fourth, when preached to women and subordinated men, central Christian values such as love and forgiveness help to sustain relations of domination and to accept domestic and sexual violence. Hence scriptural texts and Christian ethics often maintain the cycle of violence by preventing resistance to it. For instance, rape victims who believe obedience to God’s will requires that they preserve their virginity and sexual purity at any cost not only endanger their lives but also suffer from loss of self-esteem. Hence, rape survivors feel not only that they are ‘used goods’ but also that they are responsible for their own rape. Battered wives, in turn, who believe that divorce is against God’s will, cannot but remain in violent marriage relationships for ‘better and for worse’.

Although their original intention might have been quite different, scriptural texts such as ‘blessed are the peacemakers and those who suffer for righteousness sake’; ‘but I say to you that everybody who is angry with his brother is liable to judgment’, ‘it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body goes to hell’; ‘love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you’; or ‘do not resist evil’ (Matt. 5-6) construct a sacred canopy that compels victims to accept their sufferings without resistance. Injunctions of Jesus, such as to forgive the one ‘who sins against you not seven times but seventy times seven’ (Matt. 18.21-22), or Paul’s praise of love ‘as patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, as not insisting on its own way, not irritable and resentful, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping for all things, enduring all things and as never ending’ (I Cor. 13.4-8) make those feel guilty who do not patiently and lovingly submit to domestic violence, sexual abuse, or ecclesial control for resisting such violence and for having failed their Christian calling.

Children who are taught to trust and obey adults as the representatives of God, particularly parents and priests, are especially prone to become victimized. Because of such Christian teachings, incest victims do not have the spiritual means to resist the traumatic sexualization, stigmatization, betrayal and powerlessness that lead to damaged self-image and loss of self-esteem. If such victims are taught that it is essential for a Christian to [xvii] suffer, to forgive unconditionally, to remain sexually inexperienced and pure, to believe that their sinful nature is in need of redemption, and to be obedient to authority figures,37 it becomes virtually impossible for them, particularly for little girls, either to remember and to speak about sexual abuse by a beloved father, priest, relative or teacher or to recover their damaged self-image and selfworth. No wonder that those women and children who take their faith seriously are convinced that resistance against violence is un-Christian and that their suffering is willed by God.

It must not be overlooked, however, that such patri-kyriarchal readings of scriptural texts and traditions which might originally have had an antikyriarchal aim are made possible in and through a discursive and institutional politics of meaning that seeks to sustain and reproduce patriarchal and kyriarchal relations of submission. Hence, if Christian theologies and churches should not continue their collusion in kyriarchal violence, they must help to fashion an ‘ethics and politics of meaning’ that can engender resistance to all forms of victimization and responsibility for changing structures and discourses that engender suffering, violence and murder.

Resistance and transformation

In so far as feminist movements around the world38 have challenged patriarchal-kyriarchal regimes that sustain physical, sexual, cultural and religious violence against women, they have become primary targets for the political and religious Right. When the New Right in the USA, for instance, overtly advocates ‘upholding traditional family values’, its covert aim is to vindicate the legitimacy of chastizing and battering women and children in the home, to maintain silence about incest and child abuse, to attack parental leave, child care programmes, and reproductive rights, to abolish affirmative action programmes ensuring equity for white women and men of colour, to mandate prayer in schools, to censure public education and libraries and to teach creationism and sexual abstinence and all this in defence of the ‘Christian’ family.

In short, the New Right seeks to recreate the kyriarchal Eurocentric society and world that existed before the changes brought about by the civil rights, women’s liberation, and gay and lesbian rights movements. By coopting civil rights and liberationist discourses the New Right casts itself as an oppressed and silenced minority fighting for their cultural and political rights that are believed to be threatened by left-wing ‘political [xviii] correctness’.39 Whereas Christian American-style religious fundamentalism admonishes women to display their ‘femininity’ and to utilize makeup, cosmetic surgery, diets and fashion for seducing their husbands and maintaining their marriages, Islamic fundamentalism insists over and against Western decadence on the total covering of women’s bodies in public in order to reserve women’s bodies for their husbands. In so doing both types of religious regimes theologically reinscribe the socio-cultural kyriarchal construction of femininity and subordination in order to maintain heterosexist kyriarchal structures of subordination.

Still, not only the religious Right but also liberal churches and theologies reproduce the socio-cultural discourses of femininity and subordination. As long as Christian faith and self-identity remain intertwined with the socio-cultural regime of subordination and its politics of meaning they cannot but reinscribe physical and ideological violence against women and the weak. Theological and religious discourses reinscribe the inferior object status of women and reinforce rather than interrupt the victimization of women and children if they do not question but reproduce the socio-cultural inscriptions of ‘femininity’. True, Christian theology overtly condemns oppressive forms of exploitation and victimization such as incest, abuse, femicide or rape. Nevertheless, Christian proclamation of the kyriarchal politics of submission and its attendant virtues of self-sacrifice, docility, subservience, obedience, suffering, unconditional forgiveness, male authority and unquestioning surrender to God’s will covertly advocate patriarchal practices of victimization as Christian revelation and faith-tradition. Liberal and liberationist theologies will not be able to overcome their own violenceproducing socio-cultural and religious discourses of subordination, economic exploitation and political objectification as long as they do not publicly condemn the institutionalized structures of heterosexist kyriarchal ‘Christian’ family and church that jeopardize the survival of the women who struggle at the bottom of the socio-cultural and economic-political pyramid of domination. As long as such structural change does not take place, Christian theologies will continue to collude in practices of physical and spiritual violence against women.

As long as Christian theology and pastoral practice do not publicly repent their collusion in sexual, domestic and political violence against women and children, the victims of such violence are forced to choose between remaining a victim or remaining a Christian. Feminist theologies have developed three strategies for addressing this either-or choice. The [xix] first strategy of feminist studies in religion seeks to deepen this either-or alternative in order to empower women for leaving abusive situations rather than attempting to make them religiously meaningful. This strategy argues that women must abandon their oppressive Christian faith convictions in order to resist their victimization. However, such a strategy is not able to challenge the religious politics of political and religious right-wing fundamentalism on religious grounds. It deprives religious women not just of their communal support but also of the belief systems that give meaning to their life. It overlooks that religious systems of meaning collude in the socio-cultural practices of ‘feminine discipline’ but do not produce and sustain them. When confronted with this choice, victimized religious women are likely to intensify their search for meaning rather than resort to religious and cultural nihilism. Susan Hagood Lee aptly describes this predicament of a Christian woman:

From my earliest years, I was a faithful churchgoer, enjoying the religious ambience, awed by the loving and all-powerful God that I believed watched over me. Then I married a man who, once the wedding ring was safely on my finger, began to abuse me. The crisis was both personal and religious. Where was God, when one month after our wedding, my husband [a bright doctoral student in psychology] first blackened my eyes, . . . when he punched me in the stomach when I was pregnant, . . . when he broke my nose because I wanted to see my family? And what did God expect of me, a wife, who had vowed at the altar to love and cherish my husband through good times and bad?40

Instead of rejecting her Christian faith in order to move out of her violent marriage relationship, she engages in a desperate search for Christian values that could govern and make meaningful the culturally sanctioned relationship of heterosexual marriage. In this struggle to sustain her marriage and family she discovers an unused copy of the Bible which was given to her as a wedding present. This discovery enables her to find a religious rationale for tolerating her sufferings.

My course of action seemed clear. God’s will, as the Bible instructed, was that I stay with my husband, forgiving him, when he hurt me, countering his evil behaviour with my love, cooperating with God’s plan of salvation for him. It all fit into a meaningful programme for me and confirmed my desire to see my marriage work . . . .41

[xx] This narrative indicates that a high socio-cultural valuation of marriage and family is the driving force behind Hagood Lee’s search for religious meaning.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite has argued that the first feminist strategy confronts women who take their Christian faith seriously with an impossible choice, in so far as it encourages women to abandon their religious affiliation without having the power to disrupt the culturalpolitical inscriptions of the ‘feminine’ politics of meaning. Hence this strategy often deepens the disempowerment of religious women who refuse to accept its solution. Therefore Brooks Thistlethwaite42 advocates a second feminist theological strategy that can address the ‘impossible’ choice of either remaining a Christian or resisting abuse. This second feminist strategy underscores the alternative ‘liberating’ tradition inscribed in Christian scriptures and theologies. For countering the negative impact of texts such as Eph. 5.22 and traditions such as sacrificial christology, Thistlethwaite lifts up, for instance, texts such as Luke 4.18–20; Gal. 3.28 and Matt. 20.25–26 and theologoumena such as the incarnation of Christ, God’s identification with human suffering or God’s being on the side of the oppressed.

Survivors of sexual, domestic and political violence seem to confirm the validity of this second discursive strategy of feminist theology when they point to religious experiences and Christian traditions, texts and values that have allowed them to resist such abuse and to engage in the struggle to change it. To quote Susan Hagood Lee again, who speaks of the liberating power she felt when she experienced Christ as being on her side:

I was crucified and finally knew where God was: God was hanging beside me, crucified also. I was not alone . . . Now this was not the God I had hoped for; I was looking for the knight-in-shining armour God who would . . . save me. But this rescuer God had been silent; this saviour God was dead. The God I found, the God in agony, the God with me in my pain, became my new God.43

However, it is not clear from her narrative why she does not extrapolate from this experience that because Christ suffered with her she had to continue to bear unjust suffering. Rather surprisingly she declares: ‘This God did not want me to suffer; this God wanted me to be happy. But I had to save myself; God would not do it for me.’44 This surprising conclusion, I submit, was not just engendered by her ‘mystical’ experience of God’s [xxi] suffering but was made possible by an experience she had mentioned earlier:

The only drawback for me . . . was the business about turning the other cheek . . . I never offered him my other cheek. My lived experience of violence conflicted with the Bible-based rationale I had worked out, and this conflict was the seed of my eventual escape from abuse.45

Hence, Susan Hagood Lee’s experience points to a third possible feminist theological strategy for transforming the impossible either-or choice which religious women confront who suffer from abuse and violence. I suggest that this third feminist strategy must focus on women’s religious agency and theological subjectivity and foster resistance and change by exploring the contradictions between the religious-cultural kyriarchal politics of ‘femininity’ on one hand and the religious-cultural emancipatory politics of meaning and self-worth in the eyes of God which is inscribed in Christian texts and traditions on the other. Whereas the first two feminist theological strategies valorize either one or the other side of the dualistic alternative (leave Christianity or remain a Christian in a situation of abuse), this third strategy seeks to shift the theological discourse on violence against women and children by focussing on the contradiction between the lived experience of survivors’ agency and the discursive theological meanings that negate such agency.

Speaking from within religious and cultural communities, discourses and traditions of meaning, such a critical feminist theology of liberation contests the authority of the practices and discourses that advocate the politics of subordination and violence on theological grounds. By bringing out the contradiction between the overt and covert aims of cultural and religious practices of ‘feminine’ inscription as well as by providing contesting resources of meaning it aims to empower those victimized by kyriarchal oppressions and the whole Christian community to believe in a God who is with us in our struggles to eradicate violence and to foster self-determination, dignity and well-being for all. This issue of Concilium seeks to take a small step in this direction.

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza


1. Since feminist discourses tend to understand ‘patriarchy’ (lit. reign of the father) primarily in terms of gender oppression, I have coined the neologism ‘kyriarchy’ (lit. the reign of the lord/master) in order to underscore that Western patriarchy has been and still is kyriarchy, i.e. ruling power is in the hands of elite propertied educated freeborn men (in German Herr-schaft).

2. ‘With no immediate cause’, in Ntozake Shange, Nappy Edges, New York 1972.

3. Cf. J. Hanmer and M. Maynard (eds.), Women, Violence, and Social Control, London 1987; Kate Young, Carol Wolkowitz and Roslyn McGullagh, Of Marriage and the Market: Women’s Subordination in International Perspective, London 1981; Roxana Carillo, Battered Dreams. Violence Against Women as an Obstacle to Development, New York 1992; Margaret Schuler (ed.), Freedom from Violence. Women’s Strategies from Around the World, New York 1992; Jessie Tellis Nayak, ‘Institutional Violence Against Women in Different Cultures’, In God’s Image, September 1989, 4-14

4. Yvonne and Chandana Yayori (eds.), ‘Prostitution in Asia’, In God’s Image 9 June 1990; Elizabeth Bounds, ‘Sexuality and Economic Reality: A First and Third World Comparison’, In God’s Image 9, December, 1990, 12-18; Mary Ann Millhone, ‘Prostitution in Bangkok and Chicago-A Theological Reflection on Women’s Reality’, In God’s Image 9, December 1990, 1926.

5. Charlotte Bunch, Gender Violence: A Development and Human Rights Issue, New Brunswick, NJ 1991.

6. For the discourses of Purdah see Edda Kirleis, ‘Between Exclusion and Integration: Women Workers in Bangladeshi NGDOs’, Lila. Asia Pacific Women’s Studies Journal, 1, 1992, 50-65.

7. Sun Ai Park and Yvonne Dahlin (eds.), ‘Militarization and Women’, In God’s Image 9, March 1990.

8. Carol Medel Añonuevo, ‘Feminist Reflections on the International Migration of Women’ Lila. Asia Pacific Women’s Studies Journal, 1, 1992, 42-9; see also Mayan Villalba (ed.), ‘Women in Migration’, In God’s Image 11/1, 1992.

9. Emeka Onwurah, ‘The Treatment of Widows in a Traditional African Society — A Challenge to Christian Women’, In God’s Image 10/1, 1991, 36-40.

10. See Lori Heise, ‘Violence Against Women, the Missing Agenda’, Women’s Health: A Global View, New York 1992.

11. The Women’s Action Coalition Stats: The Facts about Women, New York 1992, 18f.

12. For statistics cf. WAC Stats: The Facts About Women.

13. Haleh Afshar, ‘Women, Marriage and the State in Iran’, in Haleh Afshar, Women, State and Ideology, Studies from Africa and Asia, Albany 1987, 70-88: 73.

14. Patricia Gossmann, ‘Widespread Rape in Kashmir Escapes the Spotlight’, Human Rights Watch 11/2, 1993 3, and Therese Caouette, ‘Burmese Girls Forced into Prostitution in Thailand’, ibid., 4.

15. Jill Radford and Diana E. H. Russell, Femicide, the Politics of Woman Killing, New York 1992.

16. The Women’s Action Coalition Stats: The Facts about Women, New York 1993, 56.

17. Jaquelyn C. Campbell, ’ "If I Can’t Have You, No One Can"; power and Control in Homicide of Female Partners’, in Jill Radford and Diana E. H. Russell, Femicide the Politics of Woman Killing, New York 1992, 99-113: 101.

18. See for instance Rowena Unas, ’Violence Against Women in the Philippines’, Lila. Asia Pacific Women’s Studies Journal 1, 1992, 5-11.

19. Sarah Y. Lai, ‘No Way to Treat Guests: Asian Maids in Kuwait’, Human Rights Watch 11/2, 1993, 5.

20. ‘Die Opfer des Frauenhasses’, Emma, March/April 1993, 29.

21. Emma, May/June 1993, 85

22. Robin Morgan, ‘Isolated Incidents?’, Ms. Magazine 3/5, 1993, 1

23. For such a distinction see my books Discipleship of Equals. A Feminist Ekklesialogy of Liberation, New York and London 1993, and But She Said, Feminist Practices of Interpretation, Boston 1992.

24. See for instance Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating, New York 1974; Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology, The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, Boston and London 1978; Wolf Naomi, The Beauty Myth, New York 1991.

25. Sandra Lee Bartky, ’Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power’, in Irene Diamond and Lee Quinbee (eds.), Feminism and Foucault. Reflections on Resistance, Boston 1988, 61-86.

26. Lori Stern, ‘Disavowing the Self in Female Adolescents’, in Carol Gilligan, Annie G. Rogers and Deborah L. Tolman (eds.), Women, Girls and Psychotherapy. Reframing Resistance, New York 1992, 105-18.

27. Peggy McIntosh, ‘Feeling Like a Fraud’, Work in Progress. No. 18, Wellesley, MP, Stone Center Working Paper Series, 1984, 1.

28. For these terms see Katie G. Cannon, ‘Womanist Perspectival Discourse and Canon Formation’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 9, 1993, 29-38: 31f. ; see also Katie Russel, Midge Wilson, Ronald Hall, The Color Complex, New York 1992, and Chandra Taylor Smith, ‘Wonderfully Made: Preaching Physical Self-Affirmation’, in Annie Lally Milhaven (ed.), Sermons Seldom Heard. Women Proclaim Their Lives, New York 1991, 243-51.

29. Cf. Martha Mamozai, Herren-Menschen. Frauen im deutschen Kolonialismus, Reinbeck 1982, 160; May Opitz, Katharina Oguntoye and Dagmar Schultz (eds.), Showing Our Colors. Afro-German Women Speak Out, Amherst: Mass. 1992.

30. Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy, New York 1993. See also the exploration of this controverted issue by the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between, Oxford 1965.

31. See for instance Regula Strobel, ’Der Beihilfe beschuldigt. Christliche Theologie auf der Anklagebank’, Fama. Feministisch Theologische Zeitschrift 9, 1993 , 3-6, for a review of the discussion.

32. For historical documentation and theo-ethical evaluation of the politics and theology of submission see my books Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation, Boston 1984, 65-92, and In Memory of Her: A Feminist Historical Reconstruction of Christian Origins, New York and London 1983, 243-314.

33. As quoted by A. W. Richard Sipe, ‘Celibacy and Imagery: "Horror Story" in the Making’, National Catholic Reporter, 2 July 1993, 5.

34. Rita Nakashima Brock, ‘And a Little Child Will Lead Us: Christology and Child Abuse’, in Joanne Carlson Brown and Carol R. Bohn (eds.), Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, New York 1989, 42-61: 43. See also her book Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, New York 1988.

35. Christine E. Gudorf, Victimization. Examining Christian Complicity, 1992, 14 15.

36. Cf. René Girard, Job: Victim of His People, Stanford 1977 and Violence and the Sacred, Stanford: 1977

37. Sheila Redmond, ‘Christian "Virtues" and Recovery from Child Sexual Abuse’, in Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn (eds.), Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, New York 1989, 70-88: 73f.

38. For documentation see Robin Morgan (ed.), Sisterhood is Global. The International Women’s Movement Anthology, Garden City, NY 1984.

39. Cf. the analysis of Heather Rhoads, "’Racist, Sexist, Anti-Gay . . ." How the Religious Right Helped Defeat Iowa’s ERA’, On the Issues, Fall 1993, 38-42.

40. Susan Hagood Lee, ‘Witness to Christ, Witness to Pain: One Woman’s Journey through Wife Battering’, in Annie Lally Milhaven (ed.), Sermons Seldom Heard. Women Proclaim Their Lives, New York 1991, 11-22: 11.

41. Ibid., 13.

42. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, ‘Religious Faith: Help or Hindrance’, In God’s Image 9, December 1990 7-11.

43. Ibid., 15.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid., 13.


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