Tuesday, September 3, 2013

European Women in Theological Research

The Dresden train station where mass deomonstration
 took place in October 1989
The 15th international conference of the European Society of Women in Theological Research took place from August 28 to September 1, 2013 in Dresden, Germany. About 180 women from 16 countries attended the conference with the theme “New Horizons: Resistance and Visions.”

This was the first time that I had visited a city in the former East Germany. I looked forward to learning about the revolution of 1989 that changed the Eastern Bloc. We were shown a documentary about the mass demonstration in October of 1989. The former mayor of Dresden, a local priest, and others who had participated in the demonstration came to share their experience with us. They talked about the contribution of the Women for Peace movement and the roles of the churches in providing a space for people to discuss social reform.

The outcome of the demonstration in East Germany was drastically different from what happened at Tiananmen Square in Beijing earlier in the year, when the Chinese military crushed the students and demonstrators. The demonstration in Dresden was largely peaceful and the police had dialogues with leaders of the people. In November, the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of the Cold War era.

Joerg Rieger, Kwok Pui Lan, Ulrike Auga
from Germany and Teresa Forcades i Vila from Spain
Joerg Rieger and I spoke on “Occupy Heaven: Are God, Religion, and Politics beyond Rescue?” at a public forum during the conference. We were asked to speak about the Occupy Movement and the theological issues it had raised, based on our book Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude.

This was the third time that I have attended a conference of the Society and I noticed several important changes. Spanish has become an official language of the Society, together with German and English. About 20 women from Spain attended the conference and their participation was significant. A sizeable group came from Eastern European countries, including Croatia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Czech Republic, and Hungary.

In the past, women in Western Europe dominated in the meeting. The leaders of the Society have worked hard to include women from Southern and Eastern Europe. Younger researchers and graduate students were also given space to present their research.

The conference had three sub-themes: postcolonialism, post-secularism, and queer visions. I was glad to see that postcolonial and queer issues have been taken up seriously in the discussion, which I have not seen so much in previous meetings. Musa Dube from Botswana was invited to speak about postcolonial feminist interpretation of the Bible, while Mayra Rivera Rivera from Harvard Divinity School spoke about the key challenges for theologies of the body in the twenty-first century. Janet Jakobsen from Columbia University used the example of domestic work to illustrate the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality in thinking about new economies and solidarities.

Dresden was heavily bombed in WWII.
The Church of Our Lady was rebuilt and reopened in 2005
In addition to the plenaries, there were many panels. Two papers were of particular interest to me. Aurica Nutt of Germany presented a paper on queer ecologies and Christian theologies. Drawing from queer ecologies, she discussed why Christian theologies must analyze their discrimination against “unnatural behavior” and against the environment. An interesting point is how queer animals challenge us to think about “nature” and “queerness” differently.

Niki Papageorgiou and Angeliki Ziaka from Greece presented a paper on “Postcolonial Feminist Theological Discourse: Muslim and Christian Interactions.” They talked about the important work done by Islamic feminists on reinterpretation of Qur’an and Shari’a and why feminist theology and reinterpretation of religion could contribute to postcolonial political discourse. They also identified the similarities and differences of Muslim and Christian feminist movements.

European women in theological research face many difficulties and challenges. Jobs are scarce and many with doctorates cannot find teaching positions and have to work in churches and organizations. There seems to be a serious “backlash” or re-traditionalizing of religious traditions. Feminist theologians are increasingly under more pressure. During the conference, participants identified strategies and ways to support one another.

One of the goals I had in going to Dresden was to learn more about changes of women’s lives in Eastern Europe. I bought two books to help me understand the transformation after 1989. Gendering Post-Socialist Transition examines the effects of social and political changes on relationships between women and men, gender roles and representations, and normative discourses about femininity and masculinity in eleven countries in Central- and South Eastern Europe.

Gender and Religion in Central and Eastern Europe contributes to our understanding of theoretical and empirical approaches to the study of gender and religion in post-communist societies. In the United States, we do not have many opportunities learning from women in post-socialist countries. I hope to learn more about the transformation of women’s lives in Central and Eastern Europe in the future.