Interview: Faith in Feminism? 11 February 2014

We speak to Vicky Beeching about her latest project, ‘Faith in Feminism’, that seeks to explore the relationship between women, gender and religion.

OR: Hello Vicky. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. You’re a theologian, a writer and a broadcaster – tell us a bit about what that involves.

Vicky BeechingVB: Most weeks my life is a really interesting mixture of academic research and media work; reading piles of books in beautiful but dusty old libraries, writing up my research findings, and also conveying that information in a (hopefully) interesting and energetic way through TV and radio work and by writing for various newspapers and magazines. I want to have one foot in academia and one foot in media as I think they make a really fascinating combination.

This year has been a big one for religious news, so I’ve been busy! We’ve had a new Archbishop of Canterbury, and the resignation and appointment of a new Pope. Women Bishops legislation is at last slowly moving forwards, as is the much-needed journey towards equal marriage, so both have been in the headlines a lot. We’ve also seen the Church speak out against pay day lending, and do excellent work with Food Banks. So I’ve been part of discussions and live reporting on those sorts of stories; programmes like BBC1’s Sunday Morning Live, BBC1’s The Big Questions, Sky News, BBC News and Channel 5. I’ve started doing a regular slot on Radio 4’s Today programme too; it’s a religious reflection called Thought For The Day which a whole bunch of great people take it in turns to write and broadcast. Each of us are on about three times a quarter, so I’ll be back on doing that in January. So overall, I’m enjoying the mixture of work and no two weeks are ever the same, so it’s never dull!

OR: You often call yourself a ‘feminist theologian’ which for some might seem an unusual combination – how do your interests in feminism and theology combine?

VB: Yes, feminism is hugely important to me and has been from a really early age. I attended an all-girls school which had a definite feminist ethos, so we heard about the incredible work of the suffragettes and women who pioneered bravely in numerous spheres of life, and the vast gender injustices that were normalized throughout history. In the workplace I’ve been appalled at the ways in which women have still lacked equal pay and treatment – especially in many Church and wider religious settings.

But this didn’t lead to me abandoning my faith; rather, it gave me a passion to uncover the ways religion is misinterpreted. My feminist-atheist friends say that you can’t truly combine faith and feminism, but I think you can. One thing I’ve repeatedly said over the years is that “Christian feminism is not an oxymoron!” Many people still don’t believe me and give me a hard time over that though!

OR: At the start of this year you launched the Faith In Feminism Project; a website exploring the connection between religion and gender. You’ve had some really high-calibre interviewees on there and gained a lot of traction. Where did the idea for the project come from and what motivated you?

VB: Well, the Faith in Feminism Project has been in the back of my mind for years now and I’ve been speaking and writing on these themes since my undergraduate days. But the concept of creating a website was something I finally got round to earlier this year, mainly due to getting to know feminist campaigner friends like Caroline Criado-Perez, Laura Bates from the Everyday Sexism Project and Lucy Holmes from No More Page Three. I loved their use of online space to promote discussion and action.

I also found myself as the sole Christian at most of the rallies and gatherings I attended with feminists over recent years, so lots of questions around ‘how can you really be a feminist and a Christian?’ took place, as they have throughout my teens and adult life. So I thought I’d create an online space where voices could speak out about those tensions and stories could be told. There are plenty of other spaces like it; I don’t in any way feel it’s unique. But I wanted to do what I could to create online conversation and awareness that the relationship between religion and gender is anything but simple.

OR: Did living in America play a role in shaping your ideas?

VB: Yes, those eight years were really significant in shaping my passion for the combination of feminism and faith. I spent most of my 20’s living in the Bible Belt of Nashville Tennessee, then in the mega-church populated areas of Southern California. During that time I spoke a great deal about the need for women’s equality within religion as I saw so much gender discrimination within Christianity out there; many denominations wouldn’t let women be pastors and many paid them around half of the salary a man would get for doing the exact same job role. Many feminists have left the Church in America due to the discrimination, but I still believe that theologically there are solid grounds for seeing Jesus as a feminist and that Christianity can be interpreted as a movement for women’s equality rather than their oppression.

America also gave me a love for technology and social media, as Twitter and Facebook all emerged during my time out there. Social media is a really important part of my life; a place where I believe great discussion can happen on religious and ethical issues. So with this new project, a website seemed the right way to create a space that could be accessed by lots of people.

OR: The website hosts articles covering a number of religious traditions and several issues about faith and gender. What have been the highlights so far?

VB: There have been a lot of highlights; every piece on the site fascinates me as the person behind it has such a compelling story. I really enjoyed Professor Francesca on why atheists make better feminists; Linda Woodhead on why she despairs of Church patriarchy; Mo Ansar and Sabbiyah Pervez on feminist Islam; and Rev Rachel Mann on being a trans, gay priest in the Church of England.

I also explored more conservative perspectives in the interviews; Catholic writer Caroline Farrow, who argues that you can be anti-abortion and feminist, and Dr Steve Holmes, who believes that you can be a feminist and believe that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. I think it’s crucial to explore those controversial areas and I was heartened by the debates the articles sparked on social media. Many said that they’d been made to think outside the typical boxes and had appreciated hearing from diverse perspectives on what feminism can look like in practice and the importance of exploring the numerous intersectionalities that exist.

Another highlight has been the response. Once we had a few interviews and articles up, to my surprise lecturers and teachers got in touch to say they were starting using the site as part of their A level and degree courses on Religious Studies to spark debate, and that non-religious feminist discussion groups in several different countries were using the articles as tools for discussion too. So I’m encouraged, and grateful to the many people who have got involved in the project so far.

OR: What role do you think a virtual space such as Faith in Feminism might play in debates and discussion on modern feminism?

VB: It’s been a really interesting year with regards to ‘Twitter feminism’; the online space has become a very potent place for feminist discussion and there has been a ton of it. Feminism has been regularly in the headlines – I tend to choose those stories in my Sky/BBC/LBC paper reviews and I’m amazed how regularly they’ve shown up. I think this year many people have spoken out with new boldness about the various forms of privilege that must be identified and taken into consideration, and a greater focus on intersectionality seems to have arisen. Figures like Miley Cyrus, Lily Allen and Amanda Palmer have sparked conversation about what it means to be a feminist today.

But many have also felt wounded and shouted down on social media; the huge problem with trolling in the headlines this past year has exemplified that. So it’s a mixed bag. Many feminists have left Twitter this year and stopped blogging due to the nastiness. But my hope is that overall the good has outweighed the bad. I think virtual spaces can really aid discussion and create genuine change, but we are all still learning how to navigate using such new tools; how to healthily retain freedom of speech yet also clamp down on abuse.

OR: Some have accused feminism of being an exclusive middle-class white women’s club. The #solidarityisforwhitewomen Twitter trend comes to mind. How do you deal with that in your work?

VB: Feminism must fully engage with intersectionality in order to truly do the work of liberating women from oppression of all kinds. It must never be – and can never be in its truest form – a movement that silences or shuts out other women, or fails to realise the extent of the multi-layered oppressions that exist. This was one of my main concerns in starting the Faith In Feminism Project; when I started the project I included a disclaimer on the site that the interviews would take time to form a collective whole, so initially there may not be a perfect balance between women’s voices, men’s voices, voices that represent all cultures, perspectives, orientations or faiths. Of course, unless you publish 100 interviews simultaneously, you can’t get a perfect balance! I’m dependent on who agrees to take part and on finding the right people in the first place. But I have plenty of people helping with that as there has been a lot of positive support. I’m grateful for the sense of doing it in collaboration as any feminist project should be about team work, sisterhood and unity, seeing as those are the foundations we are starting from.

OR: What do you hope the Faith in Feminism Project might achieve in the long term?

VB: I want to keep challenging the stereotype that religion and feminism are incompatible, and to collaborate with the many others who are also doing this. I also want to make sure that the voices of those who believe religion and gender equality are incompatible are heard – as their stories are crucial for us to understand why many women and men cannot reconcile their abusive experiences with a God of love and equality. I want their stories to be amplified, so that those of us who do identify as religious have to fully take on board the harm our religious cultures and misinterpreted teachings have caused. That will help us make changes and rectify the ways in which culture and gender bias have twisted faith into a system that dominates and discriminates.

OR: Where can people find the project online and will we be seeing more from you on this theme in the media and in your writing?

VB: The website is so that’s the main hub, but I also tweet about these themes too, so if you’re on Twitter you can find me at @vickybeeching. I’ve written a lot on this topic; probably a snapshot piece to sum it all up would be something I wrote for the BBC back in 2012. My interest in feminism as an expression of faith means that I love getting involved in campaigns, like the successful Women On Banknotes petition, and the ongoing campaigns about Lads’ Mags and page 3 of The Sun. So you’ll definitely see me continuing to lend my voice to those kinds of causes. Many women are doing incredible work to raise awareness of oppression and discrimination and I want to support them. For me, following a God of love and justice means I need to be speaking out for the oppressed. Religion, if rooted in love, justice and equality, should be the place where gender equality is most enacted rather than where we least expect it! So my goal is to see that change.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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