By Mary Yuen, Ph.D.
Dozens of women theologians from Asia presented at an online conference on February 24-25, 2022 with the theme “Towards Life-giving Communities in a Time of Pandemic: Asian Feminist Theological Perspectives.” The conference was organized by Ecclesia of Women in Asia (EWA), an academic forum of feminist Catholic women doing theology in Asia. This year EWA celebrates her twentieth anniversary since its establishment in 2002.
The 18 papers, including the keynote address, were presented by women scholars from the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Macau, and the United States. Also, Nontando Hadebe, a guest speaker from South Africa brought African women’s voices to bear during the pandemic. Four new PhD graduates presented the synopsis of their dissertation. Participants also shared their experiences during the pandemic and expressed their opinions on the upcoming synod in small group discussions.
The keynote speaker, Professor Kwok Pui-Lan (Hong Kong/US) presented an overview and theological reflections on the Covid-19 pandemic. She discussed climate justice, gender justice, and interreligious solidarity at a time of pandemic. With the changes in religious practices brought by the pandemic, she challenged us to open our eyes to the new possibilities of living into Third Space Ecclesia that disrupts a hierarchical understanding of the church and reclaims Christian communities that stress “discipleship of equals,” thus, opening new spaces for ministry and solidarity.
Since the mission of EWA is to encourage Asian women to do theology that is inculturated and contextualized in Asian realities, with focus on experiences and praxis of the socially excluded women, several papers focused on the marginalization of women in their own communities during the pandemic as well as stories of empowerment. Rachel Sanchez and Stephanie Puen (Philippines) explored how women in the work force are affected by the pandemic and how they can be strengthened by employing Joan Tronto’s framework of caring justice. Caroline Naibaho, KYM (Indonesia) highlights the challenges that Toba Batak women face because of their tribal patriarchal beliefs. The KYM sisters have worked for the empowerment and liberation of women whose efforts are unrecognized and unappreciated; they have also have offered opportunities to help these women live a dignified life. Nasreen Daniel, SL (Pakistan) shared the life experiences of grassroots women in Pakistan and women who empower others at the margins.
In addition to economic empowerment, some presentations were focused on community development, friendship, and mutual support, as well as conducting dialogue with other disciplines in their theological work. Jeane Peracullo (Philippines) discussed how the Asian Women Empowerment Project in Japan assists women attain economic power. Peracullo, offered a theological reflection based on an ecological ethic of solidarity through global sisterhood. Inspired by the community model of Sallie McFague, Peracullo argued that women can expand the liminal space and operate beyond the institutional church. On the other hand, Mary Yuen (Hong Kong) examined the vulnerability of frontline cleaning workers and domestic helpers in Hong Kong and how they strengthen themselves through joining a community in which they can support each other. To give a voice to women and stressing their agency, Yuen argued that the capabilities approach of Martha Nussbaum, which emphasize women’s collectives and women’s dignity can complement the notion of social friendship in the Catholic social teaching.
There are two papers that described how these regimes employed a militarized response to Covid-19. Despite this, women and men try to overcome fear through resistance and transgression. Employing parallel reading of the experiences of women workers in the Free Trade Zone and the story of Rizpa, Rasika Pieris, HF (Sri Lanka) argued that women can turn silence into a form of resistance unfolding the unjust system and be agents of transformation resisting militarization that reinstates patriarchal hierarchical structure. In response to militarization and fear in the Philippines, Kristine C. Meneses (Philippines) proposed a theology of transgression. In examining the semantics of transcendence, Meneses argued that transgression connotes at nothing negative. She then employed Michel Foucault’s concept of transgression and has appropriated the lived experience of PWD, specifically of interruption. For Meneses, transgression as interruption that seeks to commune can unfold narratives of peoples, hence such cessation that “step-across,” can be a moment of reflexive encounter that can manifest the Divine. In this case, transgression as interruption is incarnational.
A few presentations started with stories in which women’s bodies are abused and/or stigmatized and some reinterpret biblical stories for faith reflection. Based on the experiences of comfort women as sex slaves and their survival in World War II and Covid-19 on the one hand, and the biblical stories of Lot’s offer of his virgin daughters and the Levite’s offer of his concubine on the other, Sharon Bong (Malaysia) offered theological reflection on radical hospitality from a feminist-postcolonial perspective, claiming comfort women can break silence and share their experiences, as well as embody love, reciprocity, and inclusion. Jacklyn Cleofas (Philippines) examined the sex abuse and abuse of power in Catholic schools in the Philippines and suggested to renew the organizational structures of these schools based on the relational safety model and a holistic pastoral approach. Inatoli Phughoto Aye (India)’s paper compared the experience of Mary Magdalene and the lived experiences of indigenous Northeast women in Indian cities, with a focus on the escalating racism and the intersectionality of race, caste, gender, queer, and anti-Chinese sentiment. In discussion, the authors argued that these abused or discriminated women have the ability to embody, transgress into a new identity that are liberating.
Some papers in the conference focused more on the implications of the pandemic for nurturing life-giving communities through interdisciplinary studies. Kochurani Abraham (India) suggested to use an eco-feminist reconstruction of relationality and the notion of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh of “We Inter-Are” to build inter-relationality with other beings on this planet. Using a sociological analysis, Diana Veloso (Philippines) argued that feminist theology and intersectional theology, which recognizes overlapping inequalities relating to gender, race, social class, and other positions can be used to build life-giving communities, including women who are currently or formerly incarcerated. Nameeta Renu, OCV (India) proposed on employing the hermeneutic of the Early Church as a feminist liminal movement and suggests inter-vocational communitas for dialogue, solidarity, and action such as synodality, especially in the context of the pandemic, thereby advancing women’s role in history and herstory. Agnes M. Brazal and Teresa Camarines (Philippines) studied the impact of cyber-churches on women and the development of a new hybrid approach could be developed with regard to living the faith. Joy Candelario (Philippines) investigated how the pandemic is reshaping catechesis and religious education and bringing a renewal of mystagogy to ecclesial life through listening, discerning, and mission. During the discussion, many participants agreed that webinars and online religious activities organized by laity for lay people demonstrate synodality in action. These are some of the first steps in creating a new space for the ecclesia of women.
To promote dialogue with other Catholic scholars and people who are interested in feminist theologies, during the conference, EWA put up an inter-continental video-conferencing session and conducted dialogue with some institutions in the United States through the Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church (CTEWC) network. Among the two papers presented in this session, one focused on popular religious practices of women and the other on urban poor women. Using women’s narratives in Macao, Miranda Chan (Macao) showed that popular Catholic devotion practices enable women to create solidarity and communities that are inclusive, empowering and nurturing. During the pandemic, the digitization of religious gatherings strengthens the global connection among women in other parts of the world. In Marilou and Maricel Ibita (Philippines)’s presentation, based on the biblical story of the Canaanite woman who challenged Jesus’ identity and mission. The presenters
showed how the Canaanite woman can be an example and companion for the urban poor women leaders in fighting against poverty and gender equality during the pandemic and beyond as stated in the Sustainable Development Index.
During the conference, EWA also launched a new book Displacement and Disqualification: Asian Feminist Theological Perspectives, edited by Mary Yuen and Regina Wolfe, a proceeding of the 9th Biennial conference, as well as celebrated the 20th anniversary of its establishment. Evelyn Monteiro, SCC and Edmund Chia, the two among other co-founders as well as the former EWA coordinators, shared their impressions, observations, and expectations regarding EWA. They hope this extraordinary journey of Asian Catholic women doing theology can be sustainable.
A new leadership team was elected at the end of the conference, during the business meeting of EWA. Rae Sanchez from the Philippines is the coordinator of EWA 11 (2022-24).
 The partner institutions of EWA for the video-conferencing session in the US include Boston College, Fordham University, Marquette University, Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, and St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame. EWA would like to express her heartfelt thanks for their participation and support.