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Interview: Annie Imbens-Fransen, Feminist Theologian

Annie Imbens-Fransen is a Feminist theologian. In 1986, she founded the Foundation for Pastoral Care for Women to provide pastoral care and counseling to sexually abused women with a religious trauma. She has lectured and published extensively on the impact of a religious education on the lives of women, including the books: Christianity and Incest and God in Women’s Lives. She is the initiator and coordinator of the URI Council for women and served as a member of the URI Europe board and the URI Global Council.

By Stephen Fuqua

Q: I’m interested in sharing both people’s stories and their specific ideas about interfaith activism. So to begin, will you tell us something about your religious background?

I was raised as a Roman Catholic. Being raised as a Roman Catholic continues to be a source of inspiration. Different nuns, priests and teachers have inspired and encouraged me during my life. However, I was also often surprised about the rules and views in my religion, particularly the views on women and on other faith traditions. During my first year at primary school, I was taught that only Roman Catholics would go to heaven, while people from another faith and unbelievers would go to hell. I was not allowed to play with Protestant children.

In 1943 at the age of six, I heard for the first time the story of Adam and Eve and the creation of the world. At that time, because of the German occupation, my classroom was temporarily lodged in a wooden sports complex. During air-raid alarms, we had to take shelter in houses across the street. Hearing about the paradise, I started dreaming away from the reality I was living in. I imagined Adam and Eve who lived in freedom and had the disposal of all the fruits and plants God had created. I was told that this wonderful life was still not enough for Eve, which made her decide to eat from the forbidden tree. The story concluded with the explanation that Eve caused the original sin, because of her eating from that tree. This was interpreted as the beginning of all sins and evil in the world. As a consequence, Eve was held responsible for the hunger and for the bombs and the ravages in my neighborhood. I could not understand how this woman Eve could have been so irresponsible and reckless to put at stake such a good life in paradise for all the people who came after her.  I felt angry with her and disappointed.

A few years later, after the liberation, our class went to the church to prepare ourselves for the first communion. While we were standing at the sanctuary, a priest explained about the mass and the consecration. He showed us the different regalia and made clear that women and girls were not allowed to stay at the sanctuary during the mass and that only boys and men could serve. After that, he explained that the altar-cloth was washed by nuns, but only after it had first been flushed in water by a priest. In this way priests prevented that women’s hands could touch crumbs of the consecrated bread that could have been fallen on the cloth. He showed us the holy well where priests poured the first flushing water of this altar-cloth. This preparation for my first communion gave me the depressing impression that there was something wrong with girls and women, but I could not understand why. Some weeks later at the home of a girlfriend, I heard that she had to help her younger brother to learn Latin texts, because he was preparing to become an altar boy. He could hardly read, but he could serve at the mass as altar boy, because he was a boy. My girlfriend and I who helped him could not, because we were girls. At that moment, I felt the church was favoring boys above girls and thought this an unjust treatment of girls.

At the age of 12 and 15, I was offered scholarships. My parents however thought it not necessary for me as a girl to continue studying. They thought it important for me to find a job to make it possible for my elder brother to continue his study. I got an administrative job and followed different courses to become a secretary. After being married and having three children I started organizing and coordinating parent’s councils, environment and peace organizations and different innovative activities in the church. I was offered training for social worker, and I got two temporary part-time posts as social worker.

In 1979, I started studying theology. I wanted to learn how to read and interpret biblical texts, as I often felt uncomfortable with the way priests used and interpreted these texts. During my first year, I became a member of the Committee Perspectives for Theologians. The chair of that committee, an inspiring professor and priest, told me that notwithstanding my enthusiasm, I would have problems with finding a job in the Roman Catholic Church, because of my three handicaps: being a woman, being married and having children. I also became a member of a Women’s Studies Theology group. Together we read books from Dutch and American feminist theologians, and we explored methods to interpret biblical texts from women’s perspective.

Two of my papers Thecla, an Apostle besides Paul andThe Myth of Male Superiority, and the Image of Godwere published in a Roman Catholic magazine.

I started giving lectures and courses Reading the Bible with Women’s Eyes. From that moment on women started telling me about their problems with their religious education, and about their experiences with rape and incest. Hearing these women’s stories increased my awareness of the negative and harmful spiritual contents of mainstream androcentric and patriarchal theology for women and children. My realization of androcentrism in mainstream theology and Christian tradition led me to become a feminist.

Several research projects revealed how destructive and oppressive androcentric; patriarchal Christian thought and spirituality can be to women. The study Christianity and Incest (Imbens & Jonker, 1985/1992) led to the conclusion: “When Christian upbringing is seen from the perspective of patriarchal premises, the experience and teaching of Christianity makes girls easy prey for male family members. This religious education complicates the woman’s or girl’s ability to overcome the effects of sexual abuse.” I tried to incorporate pastoral care and counseling for survivors of rape and incest with a religious trauma within existing religious and health care organizations, as I did not succeed, I founded the Foundation for Pastoral Care for Women

Q: How did you become involved with interfaith activities? Was there any particular event or person that inspired you to work with people of faiths other than your own?

Since the 1980s, I had contacts with many Protestant women and women’s organizations and communities. Participating in the Women’s Studies Theology group to develop methods to read the Bible with women’s eyes, particularly the way the Protestant theologian Dr. Fokkelien van Dijk-Hemmes organized courses and workshops, continues to be a source of inspiration. I started giving lectures, workshops and courses for Catholic and Protestant and women’s organizations and communities. When giving workshops about reading the Bible with women’s eyes, we often closed the day with a ceremony prepared by participants. A highlight was the ceremony organized on request of Protestant women with Protestant and Roman Catholic women on the suffering of women in the week before Easter.

In 1996, I started a project to interview women from different faith traditions on their views on religion and spirituality. When participating in a research colloquium of the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life (ARIL), I met Ghazala Sharif, a Muslim woman. From the first moment on, we shared our views on women, religion and spirituality. The second day she read the poem Song of the Bird, True Spirituality from Anthony de Mello and told me “This is what your work is about.” During four weeks, we together read texts from the Bible and the Quran, and she gave me a Quran. Similar things happened when having a dialogue with Gila Gevirtz, a Jewish woman. We continue to keep contact with each other. In 2004, at the Assembly of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Ghazala and I organized a workshop Interpreting Religious Texts from the Perspective of Women’s and Children’s Human Rights.

Another inspiring experience occurred in 1997, at the first regional United Religions Initiative conference. Women took the initiative to form a group around the theme Women’s Experiences and Views on Religion and Spirituality. In this group women and men (including priests and an imam) from different European countries and from different religious backgrounds: Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Zoroaster and Brahma Kumaris participated. We spoke honestly to each other and asked each other sometimes difficult questions. This open atmosphere enabled a Christian woman to say to the imam: “I have never been in a women’s group with an imam, and honestly say I am afraid of you. It makes me try to behave nice to you, but I also want to express my anger about the oppression of women in religions.” Her words created an opening to go deeper into women’s concerns about the impact of religion on women’s lives. The imam explained that Muslim men feel the need to protect women. By asking him how it would feel if women would protect men in the same way he said: “You are right, it is patronizing women.”

We also shared our favorite texts from our religious and cultural traditions. We took care that the wife of the imam, who did not speak English, but could understand it enough to follow the conversation, could participate by asking her for her opinion and asking her husband to translate her words. It was impressive to hear her husband translate: “In religions there is no justice for women. That is the same in all religions. In all religions women are oppressed.” At the end of the conference, the imam told us that his wife was going to learn to speak English, and he explained: “So that she can speak for herself at conferences.”

Other impressive moments are the dialogues with an orthodox Jewish rabbi about kosher food, images of God, and the position of women; a Muslim man and milieu activist from India about feminism and the milieu. Being in dialogue with women and men from different faith traditions deepens my understanding and my faith.

I am grateful for Mohinder Singh’s support for my proposal to include principle 8 in the URI Charter: We practice equitable participation of women and men in all aspects of URI. Thanks to his support my frequent requests to include such a principle was unanimously accepted by the Interim Global Council at the very last moment.

Q: I know that you are passionate about women’s rights (incidentally, these questions were written on International Women’s Day, March 8).  hat do you see as the most significant challenges facing women today? In Europe specifically? Elsewhere in the world?

Interviewing, counseling and speaking with hundreds of survivors of rape and incest from all over the world led to my thesis: “Sexual violence against women and girls is a cultural phenomenon in our society, which can befall any woman at any place and at any time, regardless of her age and regardless of her relationship to the offender.”

Different UN officials continue to express that violence against women continues to be pervasive worldwide. At the fourth International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November 2003, Noeleen Heyzer executive director of the UN Women’s Fund (UNIFEM) said: “Violence against women has become as much a pandemic as HIV/AIDS, or malaria. But it is still generally downplayed by the public at large and by policy-makers who fail to create and fund programs to eradicate it.” She indicated that globally, one in three women will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime, and wondered why gender-based violence continues, seemingly unabated, despite the hard work by women’s institutions to have women’s right recognized.

UN secretary general Kofi Annan expressed that gender-based violence is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. “As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace.” He called on all sectors of society to redouble their efforts to achieve the objective of ending all forms of violence against women. He expressed that: “This will require leadership at every level, in every culture, country and continent. It will require a bold transformation in men’s attitudes and behavior so that women become their equal partners.”

In 2004, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan affirmed that despite the important legal framework set up by the UN, regional organizations and national governments through resolutions, guidelines and reports condemning all forms of violence against women, the collective response to violence against women is “inadequate” in comparison to the magnitude of the problem.

The United Nations Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) expresses that the shifts in consciousness that led to the establishment of laws, conventions and declarations on violence against women need to be translated into shifts in behavior. They indicate that campaigns launched by national and international Non Governmental Organizations and Women’s Organizations are most effective. They refer to the campaign of The World March of Women 2000, which they refer to as an “an unprecedented series of actions in 157 countries, demanding that the United Nations and its Member States take concrete measurers to eliminate poverty and ensure fair distribution of the planet’s wealth between rich and poor, and between men and women; and to eliminate violence and discrimination against women.”

We may expect that the alarming details of the worldwide violations of children’s and women’s human rights and the urgent appeal of UN officials will open the hearts of religious people and inspire and motivate us all to stop this violence.

Q: How are you involved locally in women’s issues and how much of that activity is through interfaith organizations?

Until a few years ago, I was actively involved locally, but it was difficult to combine it with my European and global URI activities. At this moment, I am active in the Dutch sector of the World March of Women. We discussed the first draft of the Women’s Global Charter for Humanity, launched on December 10, 2004 in Rwanda. 

The World March of Women proposes to build another world where exploitation, oppression, intolerance and exclusion no longer exist, and where integrity, diversity and the rights and freedoms of all are respected. The values equality, freedom, solidarity, justice, and peace are described as the driving force. Under each value different affirmations are given, some refer to the role of religions.

Equality, affirmation 3: No custom, tradition, religion, ideology, economic system or policy justifies the inferiorization of any person or authorizes actions that undermine human dignity, and physical and psychological integrity.

Peace, affirmation 5: No custom, tradition, ideology, religion, political or economic system justifies the use of violence.

Until October 17, activities are organized in 166 countries. For information about the activities in these countries and for the complete text of the Charter, see their website: http://www.marchemondiale.org/en

Q: Do you see any unique role interfaith organizations can play in promoting the dignity and equality of women?

Since the World’s Parliament of Religions held in 1893 its first interreligious conference in Chicago many other initiatives have been taken to foster interreligious dialogue and co-operation. Understanding and co-operation among people from different religious and cultural traditions and peace among nations are generally described as the main goals to be achieved. Considering the worldwide violations of human rights, and considering the role of religions in these violations, the interreligious forum should first of all be a space where religions work together to establish the full human rights of all human beings, including the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In view of the statistics on the worldwide violations of women’s human rights, it is most important to focus in the interreligious dialogue on the human rights of women and children and on the impact of religions on their lives. 

That makes it necessary for interreligious organizations to practice equal participation of women and men in all aspects of the organization.

Participating at the Assembly of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in July 2004, Pathways to peace: the wisdom of listening, the power of commitment made again clear to me that the contribution of religion for the protection and implementation of women’s human rights continues to be a controversial issue when male religious leaders of hierarchical and male dominated religious institutions set the tone at such a gathering. In Barcelona, female and male participants expressed their disappointment and anger about the invisibility of women and the male dominance at this assembly, and the lack of respect for the minority of women who participated in panels. After discovering two young female students crying in the hall near the bathroom because of this atmosphere, I organized an Open Space Gathering Listening to the Voices of Women in the Parliament of the World’s Religions. About 200 women and some men participated. Two volunteers organized translation for Spanish participants. Participants were invited to express: why they had come to this open space gathering; what they hoped to achieve; how we could best achieve our expectations.

The majority of the participants clearly expressed the necessity of the elimination of male dominance in religions; solidarity; respect for women’s human rights; listening to the voices of women.

A committee of 12 volunteers was formed (eleven women and one man), who prepared a Petition with Recommendations to the Council of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. We asked for permission to read the recommendations at the closing ceremony. As this proved to be impossible we made copies and handed them to participants after the closing ceremony. The recommendations clearly express the important role interfaith organizations need to play in today’s world in promoting the dignity and equality of women.

Recommendation to the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions:

  • The focus of the Parliament “agenda” should include the gender inequality in the world’s religious and spiritual traditions. 
  • Equal numbers of women and men should be present on all programs.
  • There are gender issues embedded in every topic.  Women’s experiences often differ from mainstream interpretations.  This should consistently be reflected in the presentations.
  • Scholars of women in religion and feminist scholars should be included in every program.
  • The interpretation of religious and spiritual texts from the perspective of women’s and children’s human rights should be given priority.
  • Broader criteria for selection of “experts” must also be considered.  The emphasis put upon “experts” as a criterion for participant selection often excludes the primary concerns of women because women have been denied the opportunities for professional advancement.
  • Experiences from women’s interfaith projects show that emphasis placed on building relations facilitates constructive dialogue.  The format of programs should include, as a priority, group dialogues and the creation of space for co-equal conversations that produce collective insights.
  • Experts in the study of women and religion and feminist scholars should be included in every program.
  • Women often have less opportunity for education, employment and economic resources.  This means they are less able to participate in Parliament activities.  We propose that the Parliament actively sponsor women by developing partnerships that provide financial support.  This also applies to other marginalised groups.
  • An equal number of women and men (including feminist scholars) should be members of the Parliament’s governing bodies, especially the program task force and the advisors to the program task force. 

At other interreligious conferences and workshops women and men expressed what they thought the necessary contribution of religious and interreligious organizations:

  • to listen to the voices of women,
  • to cooperate with women’s organizations that are working tirelessly to have women’s human rights recognized,
  • to reinterpret sacred texts shaped by patriarchy,
  • to read religious texts from the perspective of children’s and women’s human rights,
  • to read studies from feminist scholars and theologians,
  • to stop promoting the subordination of women as being according to God’s law.
  • Religions have the responsibility to make sure that al women’s human rights are fully recognized, respected and implemented in religion and in society.
  • Religious leaders have a duty to speak out about and to practice women’s human rights.
  • It is necessary to bring in women leaders – new interpretation of religious texts.
  • Women teach religious leaders from all faith traditions:

    • how to use inclusive language,
    • how to learn to fully respect all human right of women in their faith traditions,
    • and how to interpret their sacred texts from women’s perspective.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add for our readers?

After considering many women's stories about their daily lives and reflecting on my own experiences, especially during my study of theology and my work in theology and pastoral care for women, I discovered two different sides to spirituality.

First, spirituality is a stimulating and empowering source of strength and insight that grows as we become more receptive and realize our abilities and limitations. Inner strength stimulates us to open our eyes to the structures, mechanisms, and limitations in our society that support unjust practices and relations and to the suffering, they cause. Spirituality also cultivates our insight, self-esteem, strength, courage, creativity, and sensitivity to truth, justice, beauty, and love, which are the necessary instruments or attributes for transforming ourselves and our societies and for creating a better life for all beings. This quality is conveyed through words, attitudes and gestures, paintings and sculptures, music and dance, and poems and stories. Biographical stories express how and where we find hope, strength, perseverance, vitality, and joy in daily life, even under difficult circumstances.

This view on spirituality emanates from texts and stories from my Christian heritage and from many women’s stories. Two biblical texts have acquired a special meaning to me. The first answers the question: What is needed to inherit eternal life or enjoy the fullest possible existence? According to the answer, we should love God, the supreme being, wholeheartedly, with all our soul, all our strength, and all our mind, and we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. (Luke 10:27). The second text is a story about a widow who was involved in a lawsuit. The judge who heard her case neither feared God nor respected people. After refusing for a while, he finally granted her justice. The widow succeeded in convincing this judge of his obligation to dispense justice by repeatedly telling him: “Provide me justice against my opponent.” She persisted until the judge sighed: “I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see to it that she gets her rights. If I do not, she will keep on coming and finally wear me out.” This story advises us how we should believe and pray. It also expresses the power of justice and the wisdom and strength of a woman who knew how to obtain her rights before an unjust or corrupt judge. (Luke 18:1-8).

Studying theology and receiving instruction exclusively from male teachers made me aware of the male domination in Christianity and mainstream theology. I discovered that mainstream theology marginalizes and ignores women and children and their experiences, problems, feelings, interests, insights, and talents and imposes androcentric and patriarchal views about God and the world’s creation and ideal order on women and children. Mainstream androcentric theology views reality on the basis of the experiences, feelings, and insights of men who consider themselves superior to women and children.

Androcentric spirituality also figures in biblical texts and stories from my Christian heritage and in their androcentric interpretations. The texts Ephesians 5:22-33 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 are notorious. In the first text, wives are told to submit to their husbands as unto God. This text fosters inequality in relationships between husbands and wives. The second passage prohibits women from teaching but has them study in silence instead. It explains the cause and manner of the violation of women’s human right to freedom of speech in Christian tradition: because Adam was created before Eve, and because Adam was not deceived, while Eve was deceived and became a transgressor. The passage concludes that women will be redeemed through childbearing, “provided they continue in faith and love and holiness with modesty.” As long as texts and ideas such as these are interpreted by people raised as Christians as God’s law, they stimulate acceptance and justification of women’s subordination.

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2 Responses to “Interview: Annie Imbens-Fransen, Feminist Theologian”

  1. » On April 18th, 2005 at 6:24 pm Robin Myren Said:

    Dear Annie:

    I met you a few years ago, but you may not recall me. It was good to read your interview. At one point I tried to get involved in a URI cc around women’s issues, but I never succeeded. What women’s cc’s are you aware of? I hope you are well.

  2. » On April 19th, 2005 at 6:48 am George Armstrong Said:

    Dear Annie You and I have both been long-term initial Trustees - Council Members of the URI.

    Your contribution (through the URI and by many other networks) has been and will be immense to the world wide struggle to free us all FROM our religions so that we may become free FOR our religions. So far I have only skimmed through your weighty but gripping interview and look forward to reading if far more carefully. George Armstrong

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