Women’s Conference in Bangladesh

A Place at the Table

By Rachel Tombs

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From November 24-30th 2015, I attended the Asia Pacific Regional Women’s Programme titled “Reclaiming my identity: Building theological and critical reflection on body, sexuality, violence against women and the sexual minorities”. This programme was hosted by Bangladesh SCM and held in the Church of Bangladesh retreat centre in Savar. This coincided with the beginning of the UN 16 days of activism campaign, including the international day for the elimination of gender based violence. It was pretty cool to have these conversations during a time the issue is in the hearts and minds of so many globally. We wore orange ribbons as a reminder we were part of a much bigger picture. In our sessions we followed the Asian feminist theologizing spiral: naming the realities, identifying reinforcing agents and dominant theory, feminist critique and offering an alternative, providing action for transformation. This began with talking about violence against women in our country and looking at the situation in more detail in Bangladesh. Violence against women is a pandemic. It is suggested by the UN to be the experience of 1/3 of females worldwide. Unfortunately, everyone of us had stories of gender based violence manifesting in our own lives. The problem is so big it’s hard to know what we can do. After this workshop I would suggest the starting point should be listening to and validating women’s experiences.

The study of Genesis chapter three led by Dr Hope S Antone offered a new perspective on women as a creation of God. Eve is often blamed for the original sin, seen as a temptress and a troublemaker. Instead Hope suggested we could see “bone of my bone” as an image of mutuality or consider the translation to be without gender to simply mean earthling. Hope called for us to affirm ourselves as daughters of Eve, a limitless masterpiece rather than tainted or gullible. Bible study continued with guest speaker Rev David Das (general secretary of NCC Bangladesh). He challenged us to read our own bible and not that handed down by our brothers, husbands or fathers. His words echoed our previous study that violence is a sin which disregards the image of God. Churches have a responsibility to offer support and healing to victims. They can also offer possibilities of healing to the perpetrator of the violence. In reclaiming our identity it is necessary to also reclaim and rename our image of God, from the father of judgement to considering the image of God as a mother, a friend or simply a being.

The oppression of LGBT people was the main focus of the later days. This began with a “Sexual Minorities 101” session, clearing up the definitions and participants original perceptions. I was somewhat saddened when initially the majority agreed with the statement “God disagrees with Homosexuality”. The conversation developed addressing the questions: What is sexuality? Why doesn’t the church talk about it? And of course what does the bible actually say about homosexuality? For our exposure we visited Bandhu (“friends”) society a Dhaka based organisation supporting the health and welfare of sexual minorities. Shale Ahmed (organisation director) explained the biggest challenge to LGBT acceptance is “religious notions”. How unfortunate it is that world religions, which are sought after to provide refuge and peace are agents of oppression. Some participants left the exposure really keen to encourage further LGBT acceptance in their churches and national SCM. Our group dialogue switched focus to transformative action. The key suggestions were: 1) providing fellowship, getting to know LGBT people, listening to their stories and treating them with friendship and 2) continuing to educate ourselves and others on these issues. Despite initial hesitation the ending consensus was all humans are creations of God and thus this love should be shown to all. One participant said “after this week I’m not scared of those people anymore”.

The women I met from WSCF were truly wonderful, I consider them sisters and friends. However the initial prejudice they held of the LGBT community, disgruntled me significantly. If I heard some of these comments from people in New Zealand it would colour my entire view of their character. This experience taught me much about sharing meals, laughter and selfies with women who aren’t singing from the same hymn sheet as me. In order to move forward together we must start where people are. This means not leaving people behind just because they aren’t where we are.  The closing worship included the song “A place at the table”. This was a fitting summary for my time in Bangladesh. Firstly because we were so well hosted, the food was always delicious. But secondly there should be a place at our table for everyone; those we disagree with, those who are oppressed and marginalised, the victim, the perpetrator. It is here, sitting at the table, listening with openness will bring real progress to our understanding of violence against women and the sexual minorities.

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