Journey towards Consciousness on
Women’s Need for Liberation
by Elizabeth Padillo Olesen
While I was still in the Philippines the question on women`s role in the life of the church became one of the concerns in our coming together as women church workers. I was among those women present when an organization for women in church leadership roles and in laity called Association of Women in Theology (AWIT) was formed. In our local area, I was among those women who found it easy to do Bible studies about women in the Bible and to find liberating messages out of their lives. We found it easy to cite passages in the Bible, such as Mary, Ruth, Mary of Magdala, Tabitha, Vashti, Sara and Hagar, and other women who played very important roles in spite of their anonymity. We could enumerate a number of forces that made the women’s situation in the Philippines deplorable. We shared a common dream for women’s liberation. We then looked at Jesus and his way of dealing with women and the message he brought along: abundant life for all.
The movement in the Philippines for me was a natural part of our concern. But to my young mind at that time, it was more a subject for rational, theological discussion and deliberations. Although I was convinced that there were forms of oppression done against women in our Philippine society and ironically even in the life of the church, I felt the only thing I could do was to help formulate and explain the ethical or theological understanding why women’s rights need to be upheld, and why Philippine women’s situation should be tackled seriously as an important ministry in the life of the church.
It was my experience with the women in Nepal where the issues on women and patriarchy did not only touch my mind but also my heart so deeply, and which gave me the greatest resolve to take up the issue of women seriously. My husband and I employed a “bahini”, a young woman who could help us in the house. This woman had a daughter called Vishnu, who used to come with her mother and played with our daughter. Vishnu was a friend to our daughter, a good help in speaking the Nepali language. But one day Vishnu disappeared. The local church used money and time to send the father and brother of Vishnu to India in order to search for Vishnu. Vishnu was found and brought home after a police raid in the brothel house in Bombay where Vishnu was taken to and sold by an alleged Christian youth in our church fellowship in Nepal. It occurred to me that even among our church people, the idea of dealing with a woman in an inhumane way was taken as natural that not even a personal conscience or theology could take it as something repulsive. Vishnu came home as one of those young girls from Nepal, saved from a brothel house in Bombay. This common malady that women go through in a country like Nepal touched me deeply, giving me time to write more stories on women and writing poems on the women’s situation.
There are so many sad and terrible stories of Nepali women. One is of Parvati who was brought to the home of her husband when she was nine years old. Parvati became a property to her husband’s family from a very young age. Another is that of Urmila, our next door neighbour, who at fifteen years old had to say ‘yes’ to marrying a boy she had not seen at all. Then there is Asha, a daughter of a Sudra, an outcast in the society, who wept terribly at her wedding ceremony. She was forced to place a garland of flowers around the neck of the boy, whose face she had never seen before or whose voice she never had heard before, as he came along with a group on procession towards the small hut of Asha’s family.
I remember my helplessness as a woman when I asked Asha, “How can you say yes to marrying a boy you have not even seen before?” I cannot forget Asha’s tears and deafening silence as she kept touching the simple jewellery on her arms and ankles. I felt helpless in confronting a heavy cultural tradition that became part of the degrading of women’s dignity, depriving them of their right to make personal choices and plans for their own lives.
Then there was this classroom at Butwal Campus of
in Nepal where I was teaching. In such a school, most of the students were boys because the girls were generally in the fields and in housing constructions, carrying bricks on their heads. In Nepal, women were expected to labour in the fields and factories. After all, women were seen as a burden because of the established dowry system related to marriage. I helped in the literacy program for the local women in Nepal, teaching them to read, write and do simple arithmetic in their own Nepali language. My six years in Nepal made me see clearly the sad plight of women and the evil of patriarchy.
Stories of pain and women’s oppression such as these can go on and on but there are also stories where women in many parts of the world are trying to light candles of hope and to work in solidarity with each other in order to bring about changes and transformation in women’s sad situation.
For a number of years now I have been receiving the journal, In God`s Image, since the magazine started in Singapore. I have personally known some persons behind some of the published articles. I remember names like Sun Ai Lee Park and Lydia Niguidula whose lives and personal stories have been an inspiration for me. The journal has given a general look at the women’s situation in the whole of Asia. It has facilitated the formulation and sharing of liturgies, theologies, photos, paintings and songs, and reports of regional activities. All these create a symphony of solidarity, inspiration, better understanding and a common resolve to help women. The journal, I think, has been instrumental in gathering women for a common reflection and understanding. But this journal is not only reaching out Asia as I understand. This journal is also reaching out to the other corners of the globe where interest in Asian women’s situation or liberation is increasingly growing.
Elizabeth Padillo Olesen is a teacher and church worker from the UnitedChurch of Christ in the Philippines. Together with her husband Jens Christian Olesen, she was a missionary in Nepal. Now based in Denmark, she teaches at a Danish school while continuing with her singing, song composing, and painting. Some of her writings and paintings are posted on her website
In God`s Image, journal for women in Asia, editor Hope Antone