Iowa City residents discuss relationship between feminism and faith


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Religion and feminism seem to be clashing on the national level.

In recent weeks, policymakers and advocates across the country have sparred over whether the federal government should mandate that insurance companies cover birth control. Some religious leaders say forcing companies to pay for those services may interfere with some religious beliefs.


But a handful of locals representing many faiths say feminist interests and religion needn't be at odds.

Roughly 15 community members joined in a panel discussion on the role of faith and feminism hosted by the Hillel Foundation and the UI Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance organization on Tuesday night.

"I wanted the panel to be a collaboration and a conciousness-raising opportunity for women to talk about our experiences as women," Rebecca Bacon Ehlers said, a member of the UI feminist group.

Before the event, UI student and panelist Jorie Slodki said many women turn to religion as a source of strength. Slodki, who was born and raised in the Jewish faith, continues to practice Judaism despite experiencing sexism growing up.

"I found out I couldn't read from the Torah for my Bat Mitzvah [in an Orthodox synagogue] as a child," she said. "That really affected me and my central relationship with the text of Judaism."

In strict Orthodox practices, females are not allowed to read the Torah in public.

But Slodki said sometimes customs become so entrenched in communities that they become a force of law.

"I think part of it is a cultural context of what was considered OK and not OK for women to do in communities [in the past]," she said. "Now, women are really trying to take back those commandments. It's really about doing what makes you feel Jewish and being closer to God."

Sarah Sentilles, an author and a scholar of religion, said women need to reclaim their authority to tell new stories about God.

"Throughout human history, human beings have been imagining about what God they want to believe in," she said, who writes for NAME a blog centered on feminism and religion. "Women need to be able to reimagine a God that is bigger than the version of a sexist god that we've been taught to believe in."

But Colin Peterson, another panel member, said it's very hard to make an argument that religion has ever been strong in pushing for female equality.

"Religion, historically and still today, has been a way of oppressing woman," said the member of Secular Students at Iowa. "It justifies and codifies so many male privileges."

Peterson said he doesn't wish to attack anyone and that feminism comes before religion.

"We can't let religion divide us because the main goal is achieving equality for women," he said.

Cynthia Garrity-Bond, a Ph.D. student in women studies in religion at Clairmont Graduate University, said feminism promotes the full humanity of women.

"It liberates, and it shines a truth of life onto the scriptures, where women are not subjugated based on texts that could be misinterpreted," she said. "And then the challenge becomes what do you do about those texts."

Bond said feminism and faith can coexist.

"[Feminism] is always self-evaluating and expanding," she said. "It's never stagnant, because our relationship with the divine is never stagnant. And that's how we should be."

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