Female panelists share their struggles in male-dominated religions

by Traci Badalucco

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Women in the Catholic church have long been their own advocates, pushing the hierarchy and those within their faith communities to grant them the same ecclesial leadership roles as their male counterparts. The door, however, has remained closed -- but the fight has continued.

Pope Francis' announcement in May to create a commission to study the history of female deacons left many longtime advocates with a newfound hope. While the outcome of the commission is uncertain, feminists and advocates are crossing their fingers it creates a shift from a male-dominated church to one that is more inclusive of women.

Catholic women have company in their struggles. At a recent Religion News Association conference in Silver Spring, Md., four women from four different faiths identified similar challenges.

During the hour and fifteen minute panel, "Women and Religion: When Faith and Feminism Collide," participants spoke candidly about the obstacles they overcame and the oppression they still face in male-dominated religions.

"Women from all walks of life are often told, 'We have separate but equal roles.' That usually means totally the opposite," said Kate Kelly, a human rights lawyer who was excommunicated from the Mormon church in June 2014. "The same is true in Mormonism. Women are told and buy into that lie."

Kelly was raised Mormon by convert parents, she said, but began to realize how strict the male and female roles were when she entered college at Brigham Young University.

When she went on a mission trip to Spain during college she started to think about the idea of female priests. After speaking with women like herself, she would eventually help found Ordain Women, an organization that advocates for the ordination of female priests within the Mormon church.  

In April 2014, Kelly and almost 200 other women held a demonstration at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah at the General Conference, an annual, male-only gathering of the church's members. Each woman was turned away, said Kelly, holding back tears.

"It was a very powerful experience," she said. "We had to confront a man at the front of the door who literally turned us away because we are women. Every single woman went up to door and tried to get into the door and every single woman was turned away," she said.

But no one left, she added.

"It's hard to describe how revolutionary it is for Mormon women to speak up," she recalled of the experience.

Shortly after her excommunication, Kelly said she "saw the church for what it was," and transitioned away from Mormonism.

NCR has reported on women who have faced similar scrutiny in the Catholic community.

In June, NCR reported on the women's ordination conference in Rome, where about 20 people gathered in Piazza Pia at the far end of the boulevard that runs into the plaza outside St. Peter's Basilica, where a Mass for the Jubilee of Priests was beginning.

Related: "Women's Ordination Worldwide meets, marches in Rome" (June 3, 2016)

The Women's Ordination Worldwide supporters dressed in purple stoles -- a symbol of women's ordination -- and carried signs that read, "Women priests are here." They also had a cardboard replica of a telephone booth that was labeled, "Door to dialogue."

"We walked down the pilgrim's path toward St. Peter's and joined the Mass for priests," Kate McElwee, co-executive director of the organization, told NCR. "However, the women priests with us had their stoles and signs taken away, as well as our leaflets and pins."

Others on the conference panel opted to remain in their respective faith communities despite the challenges.

Jennifer Zobair, a Muslim convert and author of novel Painted Hands, said that while she understands why some women choose to leave their faith communities, there is also "value to staying and working in the tradition," as she did.

Zobair, who was raised Catholic, recalled sitting as a child in All Saints Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when she turned to her mother and said, "Why do we say amen instead of a-women?"

During her time at Smith College, Zobair said she began to meet other feminists and took coursework that made her explore feminism further.* "I never really reconciled the theology," she said of Catholicism.

She eventually married her current husband, a Pakistani American from a "very traditional Muslim community." When she first converted, she felt isolated, she said, while "trying to be welcomed and liked" in her new community.

She often "sat for things" in silence while others made anti-women and anti-LGBTQ comments, she said. "I lost my voice on things like that. There was a long period of time where I thought I was pretending."

She decided to write a novel about young Muslim women working in Boston, "the kind of women I was in my real life but I wasn't being in my new life," she said, at which point she reclaimed her voice.

Panelist Chani Getter also found her voice after many years of silence in her own Jewish faith community.

Getter, who is openly gay, said while growing up she knew nothing outside of New York City and her Jewish community.

"We are not really exposed to anything else," she said of her Hasidic Jewish upbringing.

Getter, owner and founder of Inspirational Living, Inc. and mother of three, said she grew up speaking Yiddish instead of English, common in her community.

Getter's parents arranged her marriage she was 18, another common custom. "I knew nothing about my body," or how fertile she was, she said. Within two weeks of marriage, she was pregnant. She went on to have three children.

One day, while watching "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," Getter recalled hearing the word lesbian. She immediately went to look up the word in the dictionary, and said to herself, "Oh my God, that's who I am." When she showed her current ex-husband, he said, "Yeah, that's probably you," she said.

She eventually went into therapy when her third child was 8 months old. She left her marriage a year later.

"I went out to get a job and I realized I was smart. I realized I was really good with numbers," she said. She went on to work for an accountant and support her family financially.

Getter, who was for years ostracized from her family, said changes started slowly. "I don't know when I started to become a feminist. I believed for a really long time that men and women have separate roles.

"I remember the first time I hugged a man and it was very bizarre."

Her kids, she said, also helped shape her.

"I found myself saying things to them that then shifted my own perspective. I found my voice through talking to them. I grew up with them. I have become who I am because of them."

At one point a reporter in the audience told panelists, "Looking around, there are men here but there are significantly fewer men here than in our other groups so far," before adding, "How do we make this a topic that men care about too?"

"Keep talking, raising awareness, educating," responded panelist Pam Palmer, an evangelical and activist who filed a lawsuit against her church, Sovereign Grace Ministries, for alleged sexual abuses. "The more people get involved in social media, the more people tell their stories," and relate to others in similar situations, she said.

Kelly gave thanks to religion reporters in the room. "I can't emphasize how important objective coverage of religion is to transforming these institutions," she said. "There is no accountability mechanism in religion. There are no voters. They don't have constituency," adding later, "The only accountability they have is when people know what is happening in the church."

"For me hope happens one family at a time. One relationship at a time," Getter said. "Something magical happens when we [first say], 'Let's agree to disagree, but listen to my opinion. And something shifts in the narrative if we are willing to be vulnerable."

*This story has been updated to clarify a sentence.

[Traci Badalucco is an NCR Bertelsen intern.]

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