This article appears in our 2017 Winter issue, Devotion. Subscribe today!
Among all the falsehoods constructed about feminism, one of the most persistent is the notion that it does not mix with spirituality. This is largely due to the patriarchal interpretations and practices of world religions. So Bitch asked some of our favorite thinkers, activists, and scholars—writer and faith organizer Zaynab Shahar, author and Temple University assistant professor Nyasha Junior, author Alexis Pauline Gumbs, editor Krista Riley, and author and rabbi Danya Ruttenberg—to discuss their experiences. We learned that not only do feminism and spirituality overlap, but for many, there is no separation between the two. —Lisa Factora-Borchers, Editorial Director
Let’s start with foundations: How would you describe your spiritual practice and identity?
Nyasha Junior: I was raised as a Christian. I am a fourth-generation member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. My beliefs and practices have changed over time, but I still identify as Christian. I don’t separate my spiritual practice from other life-affirming practices that sustain me. Such practices could include brunch, Ashtanga yoga, or dance parties with a friend’s toddler.
Krista Riley: I became Muslim about 10 years ago through a mix of exposure to classical Arabic and the richness of the Qu’ran’s language, as well as to close Muslim friends in my life who have embodied a critical engagement with religious principles and a strength derived from their faith. Although some of my religious ideas and practices have shifted over time, Islam continues to help me stay grounded and connected. Along with my personal daily religious practice, I also coordinate a small gender-equal and queer-affirming Muslim circle in Montreal.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Black feminism is my primary spiritual practice, and it is informed by many other spiritual traditions. My practice of Black feminism comes from a deep place of faith and incorporates breathing, meditation, movement, many forms of prayer and ritual, and ancestor reverence. The container for the ceremonies I facilitate is called Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind.
Zaynab Shahar: From an early age my mother stressed that I had the freedom of religion, the freedom to choose my religious beliefs, but anything I chose had to be accompanied by deep study and critical inquiry. I couldn’t just become a passive believer or a sheep. Inquiry and study were the closest thing I came to spiritual practices growing up. I grew up reading adult books about different religions, primarily Judaism, Buddhism, and witchcraft. I encountered a very watered-down Sufism in books about witchcraft and neopagan mysticism as a teenager. In 2012, I made the decision to convert to Islam. I flew to Washington, D.C., with my mother and took shahadah with Imam Daayiee Abdullah, who is the only openly Black gay male imam in the United States. Three years later I became a dervish under the late Sheikh Ibrahim Farajajé. Ibrahim Baba affirmed in me that there is a way to inhabit Muslim identity that is nondualist and polydoxical, and encouraged his dervishes to embrace organic multireligiosity as a means of embodying Chishti Sufi conceptions of oneness. It’s through him that I eventually became more comfortable with understanding myself as nondualist, polydox, and able to inhabit multiple spiritual locations at the same time.
Danya Ruttenberg: I’m an observant Jew. I keep Shabbat (the sabbath) and Jewish dietary laws, celebrate holidays, and pray in pretty traditional ways, all that stuff. I grew up with a pretty standard assimilated American Jewish experience: synagogue twice a year, lackluster religious education. And it wasn’t until late college and the years after that I discovered that my tradition was actually an exquisite treasure trove of wisdom, a path into the present moment, a relationship with the divine, and a guide to how to be of service in the world.
How would you describe the relationship between feminism and your spiritual, religious, or faith identity?
NJ: I don’t identify as feminist. I don’t find it to be a useful label. I draw strength from the Black women who served in formal and informal leadership positions in our church and in the wider community. They did not identify themselves as Black feminists or womanists although their commitments and activism could be thought of as reflecting feminist and womanist values.
APG: All of this is one because Black feminism is my spiritual practice. I identify as a Black feminist because the ancestors who inspired me to engage this practice identified as Black feminists (Audre Lorde, June Jordan, etc.). When I say, “I am a Black feminist,” I am saying a prayer that includes and cites them. I am quoting them with my life. The ancestor reverence that I practice is informed by New World Ifa/Yoruba practices and exists alongside the Ifa/Yoruba practices that we hold sacred in our household. I also see Black feminist historical figures and writers as representations of key energetic forces in the universe in a manner similar to the way Yoruba practitioners understand the Orisha. That means that my practice is also very grounded in nature, which is also in alignment with the practices of Black feminists, who have historically advocated for the planet without being called “environmentalists.”
ZS: I consider myself an embodiment of the crossroads between anarchism and Black feminism. White Western anarchism is known for its tagline “no gods, no masters” as a rejection of the long-standing marriage between religion and politics that had a vise grip on so much of European history, which is understandable. However, coming into myself as a Black anarchist has meant understanding that for so many Black folks throughout history, faith was instrumental in smashing the system. I think of the practices of enslaved African Muslims, such as the Maroons, who would go into spiritual seclusion to pray, meditate, and seek guidance from God in how they were going to liberate themselves from slavery. Piggybacking off of what Alexis said, I think about the poetry of Black feminist writers such as Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, and so many others who are playing with imagery and symbolism from a wide spectrum of religions. What’s even more beautiful is the inherent interspirituality of how that interplay manifests when an anthology of their work comes together in order to construct this multilayered Black feminist cosmology of liberation. So much of how I dream of smashing the state, how I engage in the process of otherworld building, has a lot to do with Black feminist foremothers whose poetry and writing let me know that the personal is political, and spirituality is so much of what is going to see you through to the other side.
DR: I was a feminist long before I got interested in Judaism, so there was no question for me that every and any engagement I had with my tradition would be predicated on the fact of my personhood. I pray in communities that consider the full participation and leadership of people of all genders and sexualities to be nonnegotiable; I am ordained clergy; my theology is informed by, and builds upon, the great work of the feminist thinkers and leaders who have been working over the past 40 years. There are plenty of places where Judaism has either not been fantastic about the status of women, or has missed a memo; we can embrace what is, overall, a powerful framework for holiness while also doing the work of healing, rebuking, and growing our tradition within the textual conversation and the community today. For me, it’s also about building into the empty spaces as well. For example, my most recent book, Nurture the Wow, looks at the way traditional spiritual practices can transform some of the hard, crazy-making moments of parenting—but also at how parents can transform some of our understanding of things like God, prayer, and spirituality. The people who wrote the books and designed the religious frameworks were not the same as those who engaged in the labor of childcare for most of history, so there are entire complex facets of human experience that are missing from our conversations about what holiness even is and how one might get there. So that’s really about building a bridge on which traffic flows in both directions.
KR: My feminism and religious identity enhance each other. My feminist analysis pushes me to ask questions of religious texts and religious communities: Whose perspectives have dominated in the interpretations of religious ideas? Who is being left out? This practice of looking religious texts in the eye and wrestling with them, rather than glossing over the uncomfortable parts, allows me to feel like I can claim my religious place with honesty and integrity. On the flip side, my religious practices help me connect to sources of strength and hope when it comes to engaging in feminist and antiracist work. When this work is done in community with others, it also becomes a source of joy and mutual inspiration.
If you identify with or come from a religion with patriarchal roots, how do you sustain yourself?
NJ: I think that this question reflects a similar perspective as those who find feminism and religion to be incompatible. In my experience, women within faith communities are not thinking about “patriarchal roots.” They are living, loving, and serving in many different ways within their communities.
DR: Judaism definitely has patriarchal roots, but it’s also a deep and powerful path to connection with the divine and community. I try to allow myself to be not only nourished by, but also challenged by my tradition. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.” Parenting is also a key spiritual practice for me—one of the most challenging ones, for sure, but probably the one that’s transforming me most powerfully.
APG: Obviously Black feminism does not have “roots” in patriarchy, except that it is a response to racist heteropatriarchy. But of course sometimes that’s the problem. In seeking to respond we may take on the values of those forms of oppression in an inverse and pervasive way. I know for myself the forms of oppression that Black feminism seeks to evolve us all out of are deeply internalized and cause self-judgment, divisions from potential comrades, and behaviors that show that a part of me still has more faith in institutional power than in the people. I sustain myself by simply deepening my practice of Black feminism. The Combahee River Collective Statement teaches us that “Black women are inherently valuable.” And Black feminism is the practice of believing and acting on that, even when it is pure faith/evidence of things unseen in my daily life and in our current society. So specifically, I chant quotes from the ancestors who inform my Black feminist practice. I make intentional spaces to share food and poetry with other Black women and other people whose lives are informed by Black feminist possibility. I read the sacred texts created in the past and being created now by Black feminists. I exercise devotion.
ZS: I think the notion of “roots in patriarchy” is an awkward misnomer. Is something rooted in patriarchy or dominated by it? What does it mean for a religion to be “rooted” in anything? Western atheism is rooted in white-supremacist patriarchy, except nobody would describe it as that even though its principal actors are white men who make their money saying epically foul shit about…well, everyone else who isn’t one of them. Subsequently, I can’t think of a religion, faith, or mode of spirituality that isn’t somehow connected to or a response to patriarchy.
I think patriarchy is one of the roots of many religions, but I don’t think it’s the soil itself. I meditate, tend to my altars, go into spiritual seclusion when called, water my plants, observe the cycles of the moon, and study. I study the work of Black feminists, abolitionists, political prisoners, poets, sci-fi/fantasy writers, fiction writers, etc. I study the writing of Sufis, Buddhists, witches, healers, empaths, folks in the realm of African traditional religion. In the fall and winter, I spend my evenings sitting on the shoreline of Lake Michigan watching the moon rise and praying.
KR: While there have always been patriarchal structures that dominate, and as Zaynab points out, this isn’t limited to religious communities, there has also always been resistance. Even stories from the earliest days of Islam have women not only questioning the Prophet’s decisions, but also questioning the language of the Qu’ran. There is patriarchy in my religious
traditions, and I don’t dispute that, nor do I think it’s unique to religions. I just don’t believe it’s the only thing that’s there. God and Islam (or any religion) have to be bigger than humans can imagine them to be. That’s the whole point of a belief in the divine or the transcendent. And in that case, I just keep reminding myself that I’m not really accountable to other humans for how I interpret these things. If I’m hurting someone in any way, then of course I’m accountable, but I don’t owe it to anybody to align my beliefs or practices with theirs just because that’s what they think Muslims are supposed to do.
What feeds the resistance to multiplicity or duality? Why do people struggle to comprehend multiple identities?
NJ: Many people assume that religion is generally oppressive to women, and they question how it could be useful to women who identify as feminists. In many instances, these questions are from people who are outside of those communities and/or who do not understand feminism.
KR: I agree with Nyasha that the assumption tends to be that religion as a whole is oppressive to women. That narrative plays a huge role in how mainstream feminist histories are told and in the panic that some people express at the idea of women choosing to be religious. People can’t imagine that being the case without some deep level of brainwashing or false consciousness. That said, religions aren’t all responded to on an equal level. Ironically, various Catholic symbols that remain throughout Quebec (street names, crosses, etc.) are now seen as unproblematic “cultural” symbols, while women who wear hijab are portrayed as being in need of saving, which echoes a bunch of colonialist myths.
DR: One of the books that’s been most influential during my spiritual formation was Carol Lee Flinders’s At the Root of This Longing. She identified what she described as the four major tenets of spiritual practice—be silent, quell the ego, shed desire, and stay enclosed in the kind of space where you can do deep inner work—and observed that all of these would only be liberatory practices if one started with these privileges in the first place—male privilege, in a nutshell. Feminists have focused on having a voice, knowing oneself, embracing the body, and taking back the public sphere (and the night) precisely because they didn’t come to them freely. The “just add women and stir” method doesn’t work in a lot of ways; Flinders’s lens has helped me engage a lot of the underlying presumptions in my tradition in ways I wouldn’t have seen, and to try to think about what a path forward into wholeness can mean in the context of Judaism.
APG: I don’t think that Black feminism as a spiritual practice or in communion with any spiritual practice is contradictory at all, since Black feminism is based on the resilience and power of generations of people who acted based on profound faith in dire circumstances and who may have had a variety of named or unnamed faith practices. My relationship to Black feminism is expansive, and my evaluation of Black feminism is that it is obviously expansive because it has already contained and embraced multitudes. Which means that, this question is about constriction, and there are definitely dominant practices and thought patterns that attempt to constrict people and movements by saying you have to be this or that. When usually it’s this and that. I don’t think that type of constrictive thinking is useful for the world that Black feminism or really any progressive movement demands. However, it is very useful in limiting people’s behaviors to actions that reproduce the status quo.
ZS: I think the inability to conceptualize multiplicity reveals a lot about white supremacy, particularly white subjectivity as it leaks into white feminist thought. White people have never had to think of themselves in the language of multiplicity. Occupying the position of dominance makes it so that everyone else has to exist in multiplicities as they are trying to figure out where they land on the hierarchy of white supremacy, but the dominant don’t have to do that grunt work.
Europeans thought they were “escaping religion” when they came up with enlightenment and the notion that intelligence, particularly political intelligence, means relying on “objective reason” and shucking religion from the equation. Instead they only reified the singular standpoint, and one form of collapsing identity replaces another. These modes of dominance have infected so many Indigenous and ancient ways of knowing ourselves in multiplicities and multitudes. So it’s not surprising to me that white Western thought, particularly white Western feminism, frames the integration of more than two identities as “unholy collision.”
What is the greatest misconception about your feminism and/or faith identity?
NJ: People make assumptions about my faith because I am a Black woman. There is a stereotype of Black people as super-religious. Likewise, people assume that I identify as Black feminist or womanist because I am a Black woman.
APG: Sometimes people assume that because I take a love-based approach, I am not angry and not critical of existing systems and practice. Actually, love-based Black feminism, grounded in a love for Black women that radiates out into our whole communities and includes the entire planet, inspires me to be very angry sometimes and to sharpen my critique in the service of necessary change.
ZS: People make a lot of assumptions about my spiritual worldview as a queer Muslim. So much of the queer Muslim narrative has been crafted to appease heterosexual Muslims on the nature of our inclusion in mainstream Muslims spaces thoroughly entrenched in oppression. “We believe in the same things you do, we’re just queer!” Queerness in this sense is subtly posed as a defect, and so much of the existing narrative of de/humanization buys into it to make a point. “If you could just look past our sexuality or gender identity and see that we’re the same as you, all would be good in the ummah!” Actually, I don’t believe in the same things you do. I believe my queerness is the exact thing that enables me to see the divine differently, to see how spirituality can work differently, to explode and expand boundaries, upend definitions. My queerness doesn’t mean I want to assimilate into what is, it means I want to violently smash what should have never become. I don’t “do” queer Muslim organizing to assimilate into the land of happy heteros, I do it to get free.
KR: One of the most uncomfortable, and just plain offensive, perceptions about me is because I’m white and don’t wear a headscarf, I’m somehow a more palatable kind of Muslim, presumably less Muslim and less threatening than if I were a woman of color. There’s a sense that any kind of critical perspectives or progressive ideas I hold are because of my whiteness, as if white Muslims are uniquely enlightened, and by extension equipped to “civilize” Muslims who aren’t white. Never mind that most of the strongest feminist teachers and mentors in my life have been women of color, and that some of the most misogynist Muslims (and non-Muslims) I’ve met have been white. And that Muslims are just as complex and diverse as any other group of people.
What gifts come with your spiritual practice? How does it transform you?
NJ: As a biblical scholar, it is difficult for me to sit through most church services. The choir may be great, but sometimes, there is an abundance of bad theology. For me, the gift is the gathering of the community. The beautiful hats, the juicy hugs, and the butterscotch candy make it worthwhile. Being in Black sacred spaces is healing. These are spaces where I belong and where I see people who look like me and who love me.
APG: Oh my goodness, everything! Everything I have can be traced to this love practice called Black feminism. My relationships with other Black women and women of color are sourced by it. My relationship with other Black folks, other queer folks, plants, animals, the river, everything. Most importantly, this practice—which is, like Krista said, both a daily individual practice and a regular communal practice—has given me permission and tangible faith in loving myself, which is what the intersecting oppressions that sustain capitalism try to steal from me every day. I cannot imagine my life without this love. As June Jordan says, “Love is lifeforce!”
DR: Little by little, it has grown me into someone who is more open, more compassionate, more empathetic, more sensitive to injustice, braver, more in tune with my intuition, more in touch with the flow and stream of all life. It makes it harder and harder for me to sidle past the junctures in my life where my values aren’t being lived out as they should be. It helps me to see the divine and the sacred in every person and every thing—and to understand my obligations to the greater whole. It has embedded me in amazing community, and sacred texts such as the Torah and Talmud seem to always reveal new insights and understandings, no matter how many times I’ve seen something. One of our foundational texts (the Mishnah) says of Torah, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.”
KR: Like Alexis, I’ll come back to the elements of both personal practice and community. I generally pray five times a day, and while I can’t pretend that every single one of those prayers is carried out with full attention and focus, even the act of regularly stopping what I’m doing to take time out to pray is an important reminder to put my life into perspective and to take a step back from whatever I’m caught up in. The physical acts of washing before prayer and then moving through the positions of the ritual prayer remind me to pay attention to my body, and because the prayer times are set according to the position of the sun in the sky, it helps me pay attention to the world outside. And it’s a time to ask for guidance and to reorient myself.
I also have an incredible online community that has developed through shared religious and feminist beliefs, and this community has gifted me with some of my closest friends and sources of ongoing inspiration.
ZS: I think the gift of being a seeker is the crux of my practice. I first encountered the notion of being a seeker when reading about witchcraft as a teenager, particu-larly Wicca. In Wicca, a seeker is the first stage before becoming an initiate. I felt drawn to the title of seeker because it describes my outlook on life: a person interested in acquiring spiritual knowledge absent of any desire to assume official titles of religious authority. Even in becoming a Muslim and a Sufi dervish I’ve never really left that stage of being a seeker that I encountered as a teenager. I’m still a seeker of knowledge, of the divine in odd and interesting places, in the unexpected, in the dark as well as the light and everything in between. My gift is my curiosity, my belief in the inherent abundance of spiritual knowledge, and the endless possibilities in communing with the divine and with others.