Defining feminism is controversial. Not even self-acclaimed feminists seem to agree amongst themselves about what feminism is. Gloria Steinem famously claimed that “Feminism is not about a piece of the existing pie… It’s about baking a new pie.” The writer, lecturer, political activist and feminist organiser argues that feminism is about making life fairer for women everywhere. Jessa Crispin, on the other hand, describes Steinem’s role as always being the intermediary for men.
For this matter, I will not venture to define feminism in this article. What I intend to do, however, is to show how the Catholic Church can help us in our understanding of feminism. Despite backlashes against this institution, both locally and internationally, for keeping us dragged back into the past, it is the Church’s tradition – let alone its mission – to be radical.
The Catholic Church is not simply the innumerable churches that can be found throughout the Maltese islands. Often seen as a remnant of the old order that has fingers in too many pies, the Church as institution is not admittedly a very happy place to be in when it predominantly lives up to its stereotypical image of being too male, too clerical and too celibate.
Back to feminism. When highlighting our (that is, men and women alike) common humanity (as Steinem also does), we mostly speak of human rights. We make our cases in front of local courts and even the European Court of Human Rights, if necessary. This is a necessary albeit incomplete step, because changes are simply implemented in terms of law.
At stake, however, is something more meaningful to us humans, and that is dignity. Highlighting (as in fighting) certain rights over others reflects more our prejudices rather than overcomes them. Dignity begs for appreciation rather than combat. Dignity does not simply mean that humans pay back fellow humans what was intrinsically due to them in the first place.
Within this understanding of feminism, correcting misconceptions about women is also correcting misconceptions about men. Feminism is more than making life fairer for women everywhere, as Steinem claims. It is not a question of what is there in gender equality for me, or for my sister or for my mother. It is a question of what is in it for all of us human beings.
It is at this junction that feminism and the Catholic Church come together. History, even so in Malta, tells us that the Church proved to be an agent of change as much as it was an agent of continuity with its services to promote dignity in the areas of, for example, physical disabilities, substance abuse and immigration. The Church was radical when it let itself be challenged by the gospel and lived by it, and the contrary when Christians betrayed this powerful message.
Through a rereading of its own Scriptures, the Church realises that society and herself is impoverished when it doesn’t respect women for who they are and when it robs women the space to be what they are. Despite women’s emarginated role in early centuries Palestine, the Scriptures still show how women think, act, and lead differently than men, and that stifling this difference is a big handicap. Tradition evolves.
In the very first account of creation, before the fall, man and woman are both created equally in the divine’s image (Genesis 1, 27). Deborah emerges as an inspiring religious and political leader in the book of Judges (chapters 4 and 5), whereas Jesus blatantly challenges woman’s society’s ostracization of women throughout Luke’s gospel and more specifically in John 4, 8 and 20.
Whereas rights call for uniformity, dignity necessitates complementarity. Complementarity is about distinctiveness, not appropriation. Taking literature as a guide along these lines, Oliver Friggieri’s Hekk Tħabbat il-Qalb Maltija offers a striking insight and a possible way forward – to the Church and to companies and governments alike – beyond the domestic.
There is a scene – which is not as fictional as it looks to be – when Katarina, a simple villager in early 20th century Malta, exclaims at the highly-esteemed priest’s remark that she knows much better than Christ-like Dun Grejbel himself. “How is it that I know better than you, Father?” “You know the way [much better than I do] because you have already walked through most of it,” was the priest’s prompt reply.
Coming to terms with our own reality and limitations is neither easy, of course, nor is it a pie in the sky. If we are to bake a new pie altogether and together, we must add respect and a willingness to work together and to learn from each other to the ingredients. That is why baking a new pie is more than simply making life fairer for women everywhere.
Moving on from a rights discourse towards a rediscovery of our own dignity is no longer simply adhering to women’s cause but is living up to our humanity. If we are to walk this walk together, we should not let our biases, insecurities and fears define us. Women, as with men, have their unique way of leading the way. Rediscovering ourselves entails rediscovering our own sacredness, because it is all too futile to change laws if we first do not value those for whom laws are made. It is all too futile to change laws if we first do not change our hearts.