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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Chilean women unite in faith-based activism against authoritarianism

As a 1990 seminary graduate, this exclusive by Maxine Lowy from the Women’s Media Center on the activism rooted in feminist theology in Chile caught my attention. 
Courtesy of the Women's Media Center

Women who formed the backbone of the antipoverty and human rights work of liberation theology in Latin America have organized for women’s empowerment for decades.

Twenty years since Chile emerged from dictatorship, the legacy of faith-based activism against authoritarianism lives on among women who challenge traditional patriarchal notions of Christian religion. The fertile ground that in these two decades has nurtured women who seek full participation in their churches and society at large is the annual Women’s Theological Week, which convened most recently November 17 to 19 in Santiago, Chile.

The gathering has been organized since 1991 by the Diego de Medellin Ecumenical Center (CEDM, its Spanish acronym), an institution that channels faith to address pressing social issues. Women’s Theological Week brings together Catholics and Protestants, theologians and grassroots community organizers, nuns and Pentecostals under the multi-hued banner of feminist theology.

In Latin America, feminist theology springs from the liberation theology that was born as a theological commitment to the poor in Latin America in the early ‘60s and came into full maturity when military regimes took the continent by assault in the ‘70s and ‘80s. During the 17 years (September 1973 to March 1990) Augusto Pinochet held Chile in his grip, from under the protective wings of the Catholic Church arose neighborhood health committees, human rights groups, soup kitchens, crafts coops and an array of mutual aid groups, with majority participation by women, to resist the authoritarian political and economic policies.

Liberation theology taught how to read and analyze the Bible in light of the repression Chileans were witnessing. But by the mid 1980s when secular women took to the streets demanding “democracy in the country and in the home,” women’s empowerment gave way to a sense of marginalization even in the progressive but male-dominated liberation theology circles.

Women’s Theological Week coordinator Doris Muñoz, a CEDM staffer who during dictatorship participated in the Catholic-led Sebastian Acevedo Movement against Torture, exemplifies this itinerary. “My political conscience is embodied in the Christian ethic of giving sight to the blind.”  When, in 1988, she entered a Chilean seminary renown as a place for reflection on liberation theology, she perceived “levels of discrimination” and realized that it “was not the same to study theology as a woman, or to study theology as a layperson.”  Today Muñoz considers herself a feminist theologian or, more precisely, an eco-feminist, because “the patterns that degrade the environment are the same as those that subjugate women.” She insists, “We need a change in cosmovision because androcentrism dominates the world and we as women suffer as a result.”

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