Feminist Practice: Non-Violence, Social Justice and the Possibilities
of a Spiritualized Feminism
Transforming Feminist Practice:
Non-Violence, Social Justice and the Possibilities of a Spiritualized
by Leela Fernandes
Aunt Lute Books, 2003
Just as the word feminist and the concept of different waves
of feminism are controversial, the subject of spirituality within feminism
has a long and divided history. In a recent blogpost, Judith Laura
writes that the prevalent attitude of the second-wave 70s feminists was
that a focus on religion was a diversion from the real work of feminism,
which was seen as political. Although some brave feminists
forged ahead and found ways to weave spirituality and feminism, this divide
has continued, particularly, I suspect, in academia.
Laura continues, Another trend Ive noticed is growing interest
from academics in the part religion has played in societys oppression
and repression of women. In this book, Rutgers professor Leela Fernandes
demonstrates clearly the trend that Judith Laura mentions.
Transforming Feminist Practice is an incisive social critique
that addresses these issues without ever naming any particular formal,
institutionalized religion. Leela Fernandes instead lays out her basic
definition of spirituality as
an understanding of the self
as encompassing body and mind, as well as spirit. I am also referring
to a transcendent sense of interconnection that moves beyond the knowable,
visible material world. (10)
In a departure from more mainstream feminist thought, Fernandes offers
solutions for students, social justice activists, and others who believe
that all persons are entitled to the fulfillment of basic human needs.
In the book, the terms feminism and social justice
are used interchangeably an idea I find tantalizing. In her
introduction, Fernandes writes:
In effect, this book departs from conventional social and feminist
analyses by taking the realms traditionally classified as the sacred,
the spiritual, the divine and this mystical as real.
Reclaiming the sacred in this way is not simply a new linguistic or
symbolic strategy for feminism. It goes to the heart of feminist struggles
for social justice and can provide a critical foundation for social
transformation. At one level, feminism becomes a means for the decolonization
of the divine. (11)
These words drew me into the book and its ideas. Fernandes believes that
spirituality, in contrast to religion, is direct and doesnt need
to be mediated. She posits that mainstream feminist analysis in its rejection
of spirituality has ceded the space of spirituality to conservative
religious and political forces. (9)
Like so much of 21st century literature, Transforming Feminist Practice
considers the radically different world we inhabit after 9/11. In the
fear-based milieu of the United States, Fernandes is uneasy about how
secular social justice movements have relinquished spirituality to right-wing
interests which, with their considerable funds and tight organization,
have been zealous in their efforts to change society.
Fernandes argues that social transformation requires an explicit
engagement with questions of spirituality. She asks
how feminist approaches to questions of social justice would change if
the existing dichotomy between the material/political/social and spiritual
realms were to be set aside. How would central feminist discussions of
questions of identity, practice and knowledge be transformed? (11)
I found the authors examination of identity, practice, and knowledge
to be engaging and challenging reading. I needed a dictionary and I felt
my lack of formal education in womens studies. Nonetheless, I found
that this small volume offered thought-provoking ideas and a much-needed
Identity politics is a frequent hot-tub discussion
topic at my house.
Identity politics is a frequent hot-tub discussion topic at my house.
My circle rebels against rigid definitions of ourselves and others. I
have noticed how people seem to be strongly inclined to categorize other
people or to hold tightly to narrow identities for themselves. Perhaps
it is these uneasy times, or perhaps it is the personality of the progressive,
liberal town we live in. Fernandes admits that in academia, identity
has served as an often deeply polarizing subject. (24)
She states, The problem that identity poses for activists/thinkers
is that it presents a paradox in the struggle for social justice.
Fernandes agrees that identity is important and will and should not be
discounted. She believes, however, that identity cannot provide
an adequate political basis for lasting social transformation. Identity-based
movements, while effective for short-term political or material gains,
end up with restricted constituencies and visions of social justice. Such
restrictions ultimately serve as an obstacle to social transformation.
(25) I wonder how that applies to Goddess spirituality?
We often hear the binary distinction between theory and practice. (Buddhist
teacher Tara Brach
quips, Thats the thing with those Buddhists. When are they
going to stop practicing and do something?) For instance,
many of the participants in a Goddess Scholars elist Im on make
a distinction between academicians and practitioners a duality
I find fascinating. The spirituality that Fernandes thinks is necessary
to feminism/social justice stems from people having a personal practice
that encompasses humility, being willing to work with their integrity,
and taking responsibility for their own experience.
The Practice chapter contains direct, unrelenting examination of ethics:
For any form of social activism or feminist practice to represent
a form of ethical practice, it must begin by linking the dailiness of
an individuals behavior with her or his more public, formal activity
that is engaged in service of others. (55)
In a 2004 radio interview,
Fernandes discussed everyday violence, or violence of the spirit; for
instance, how people speak, drive, and treat their peers.
Fernandes chapters on Knowledge and Spirituality are likewise provocative.
She examines the ways in which present-day scholars or spiritual seekers,
in their quest for knowledge, can exploit or marginalize other women
particularly indigenous women from countries outside the United States.
Fernandes takes a hard look at the
serious risk of spirituality being transformed into yet another
consumption practice for ones own personal well-being and comfort,
another commodity that is meant to alleviate the stresses of living
without the discomfort of challenging any of the structures of power
that shape the world
. Spirituality is mistaken for a kind of privatized
safe space that should not be contaminated by the muddy realms of politics
and power. Yet it is precisely this assumption that has allowed spirituality
to become hijacked by conservative, repressive movements across the
These are issues Ive been thinking about for years, brought into
focus. I recommend this book to any open-minded feminist who is willing
to see social justice and spirituality from a new perspective.
- Judith Laura, “Trends
in Feminist Spirituality,” 7/11/2008 post in the blog Medusa
Coils. This post garnered many responses in the blogosphere.
- Leela Fernandes interview,
GenderTalk, 5/31/2004. Available at http://www.gendertalk.com/radio/programs/450/gt463.shtml.