‘WE will dance, we will dance, we will dance as Miriam danced’ – and danced we did, and sang and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, just as our Thai host Chuleepran Srisoontorn wished us to.
The occasion was a one-day seminar organized by AWRC at McGilvary College of Divinity (previously known as McGilvary Faculty of Theology), Payap University in Chiang Mai on Feb 19. The classroom overflowed with about 80 people, including seminary students and faculty members and alumni.
An AWRC organising team was in Chiang Mai from Feb 17-23 to plan for a December workshop on feminist leadership; and while there, to have a day-long programme with Thai church women. Thus the seminar, which was held after a morning worship at the seminary chapel.
Japanese feminist theologian Hisako Kinukawa led in a bible study on alternative leadership, using the story of Moses and Miriam.
Through raising thought-provoking questions and dissecting biblical texts, Hisako compared the top-down pyramidal type of leadership practised by Moses that alienated him from the people, and the inclusive power-sharing type of leadership of Miriam who worked for the sake of the people.
Hisako reminded that authors of texts wrote from their own perspectives and often women were not mentioned.
It was an eye-opening experience for the seminar participants to look at Miriam in this new light and perspective. They expressed that they were challenged by this interpretation which was different from the usual androcentric way of reading Miriam.
A Myanmar male student said such an interpretation had given him new ideas on how to respond to the women’s position in Myanmar.
A Thai woman participant in a later session commented that she had thought all along it was God’s punishment on Miriam: “I never thought it could be seen as evidence of how much Miriam had worked with the people.”
“When I hear the story of Miriam (in the new way), we follow her faith,” said another.
If women had written Miriam’s story, it would have been very different, added yet another.
The camaraderie of ‘Miriam’s dance’ flowed into the afternoon when the seven members of the AWRC team had a session with a group of 14 Thai church women, who included pastors and those working in education, and with youth, children and women.
The conversation was at a comfortable level. There was spontaneously frank and open sharing of personal stories and women’s experiences of oppression, and connecting with one another in the spirit of sisterhood.
AWRC coordinator Yong Ting Jin, IGI editor Hope Antone and the seminary’s lecturer and pastor Chuleepran Srisoontorn opened the discussion.
Ting Jin introduced AWRC, its programmes and its publications, such as IGI, and spoke of its efforts to be linked with Thai women.
Hope said the purpose of the meeting was to encourage Thai women with their theologizing and to put together their theological reflections in writing so that IGI can have an issue on it.
The discussion started with the word ‘feminist’. The Thai women said it was a negative word in Thailand with a militant connotation, of an aggressive group of women who are man-haters. Usually they used the word “gender”, and one liked “partnership.”
Hope said there was a misunderstanding of the word: “We are simply saying that men and women are created equal, in the same image of God. Anything that violates this, we will question. Women and men can be feminists.”
Next, the Woman Question was raised, and each had a story of her own about how women were treated lower than men in the family, workplace and in religion.
In Thai society, women were expected to do the housework and the head of the family is the man: Supaporn who is from the Yellow Lahu tribe, said after completing her sociology studies at Payap University, she worked in her village community in healthcare for 15 years while her husband was its pastor. She noted that women could do all kinds of work, from the house to the field. In the Lahu community, she said, the women were actually the leaders and were smarter than the men, yet they did not believe they had equal rights with the men. They don’t even let women ride a motor-cycle or drive a car!
There were also problems in religion: Sukonrak related her frustrations in her attempts to become a pastor. She was not readily accepted because she was a woman, was too young and was from that local church. When she became pregnant, some church members questioned whether she could still preach from the pulpit in her “ugly” state!
Chuleepran, who lectures at McGilvary College of Divinity, shared stories of how she had to juggle her multiple roles and tasks as a mother with three sons, a pastor and feminist; and Rungtiwa who is a student at Ewha Womans University in Korea and is assistant pastor for the Thai church in Korea, said the male pastors were wary of her feminist thinking.
Next, Ting Jin raised the question – why do women experience discrimination in culture, church, society and family – and stressed the need for analysis.The Thai women felt the discrimination had been long ingrained in Thai culture and especially through the Buddhist religion which teaches “karma”, that is, do good in this life and you will reap the benefits in the next life. So women are told to be patient and accept their fate and this prevents them from liberating themselves.
Hisako then raised some questions: When did Buddhism come into Thailand? Is there an indigenous religion? When did Christianity arrive? Why did you become Christian despite this strong “karma” background?
To a question on how to move forward, Hisako used the metaphor of “dropping bombs” in relationships with culture, religion and in every sphere. “To give a vision to ourselves and our friends, just like Miriam, we must be prepared to be discriminated against. To endure that, we need to know ourselves who we are and who we want to be. We need to be connected; we cannot be alone in this transformative step.”
Hope rounded up the discussion by pointing out that being woman is not equal to being a feminist. “We grow into becoming feminist when we are sensitive to the pain of women and commit ourselves to change the situation.”
In concluding, Ting Jin expressed the hope for the beginning of a new relationship with Thai women and perhaps holding a longer workshop in the near future. “Our stories are not finished,” she said.
Reporter: Woon Yoke Heng