I came away from our conversation intrigued by the idea that a formal, age-old religion could serve as a call and a tool for social justice. I’d always associated my Catholic upbringing with conservative politics: not only is the Roman Catholic Church more male-dominated than most other forms of Christianity, but its ideas about sex are, shall we say, impractical—the church considers abortion, birth control, masturbation, and any sex act that does not occur within a heterosexual marriage to be sins; and, given all that, being gay is obviously also not OK. So when I met Suzanne Turner, who introduced herself as a pro-choice Catholic who works on social-justice and economic-equality issues, I was intrigued.
Suzanne’s extended family are Southern Baptists, but her parents were never particularly religious. She attended a Unitarian church with them as a kid, and started exploring different religions as a teenager. She visited a Catholic church with a friend and was fascinated by accountability process of confession, the status accorded to the Virgin Mary, and the church’s “level of splendor and awe” that, she says, “seems appropriate for the contemplation of the unknowable.”
She converted to Catholicism in her early 30s, and the religion’s emphasis on helping the poor, afflicted, and oppressed led her to a life of grassroots activism. “During the 1990s I worked directly with priests and nuns on issues from human rights to death-penalty abolition to alleviating poverty,” she says. “These were people who thought as I did…and who had devoted their lives to creating loving change in the world.… They were walking the walk and devoting themselves, body and soul, to it.
“I read the Bible cover to cover as a child many times, and was blown away by Christ’s revolutionary teachings,” she says. “If we could live as he taught, we could have heaven on earth. I didn’t find the infrastructure for living in this manner until I found the social justice Catholics and the grassroots church.”
Because of her pro-choice position, Suzanne is not considered a proper Catholic by many members of the church. (Simply by supporting women’s right to choose, many Catholics believe, you have committed a sin tantamount to murder, and therefore are considered excommunicated until you formally repent before a church authority.) This doesn’t seem to bother her.
“The church frankly can say whatever it wants to say, but I don’t have to do what Rome tells me to do,” she says. “My faith is not to Rome, my faith is to my own relationship with God…. My faith is just who I am, and being a feminist is just who I am, and I don’t force myself to put [those things] on a false path against each other.
“I don’t think God calls us to do that either,” she says. “I think God calls us to be, and to act from the true places of who we are.”
Unlike Emily and Suzanne, Nahida Nisa isn’t a convert—she was raised in the United States as a Muslim, and held fast to her faith as she came to define herself as a feminist.
That wasn’t always easy for her. “Since I was very young,” she says, “I didn’t feel like the way we were being taught about Islam was making us closer to God.” Some of the male imams at her mosque espoused sexist views that she felt in her gut were not the true message of Islam, which she describes as “potentially very liberating.”
A teacher at her secular grade school reinforced her feminist ideals, calling out fellow students who made sexist or homophobic comments in class. Nahida would run home and repeat the teacher’s messages to her mother, who reacted mostly with bemusement. But the friction was growing between Nahida’s faith and her feminism. “I didn’t feel comfortable in my own religious community,” she says.
Then 9/11 happened and changed everything, including Nahida’s relationship with her religion. Where she had been vocally critical of the sexism she heard coming from fellow Muslims, now she felt protective of a religion she felt was being misunderstood by her fellow American feminists, some of whom condemned all of Islam as harmful to women. “I saw a society—my own—that wasn’t completely devoid of sexism using women’s liberation as an excuse to invade another sexist society,” she says. “That kind of stereotyping only perpetuates an oppressive system of violence. And no one believes that non-Muslims are suddenly, after the attacks, genuinely super concerned about Muslim women now.”
Today, Nahida’s politics and faith are comfortably intertwined. “I’m actually very religiously driven when it comes to my political views,” she says. “My positions on several issues are well connected to my religious views. I suspect that might surprise a lot of people.”
Nahida has studied the Qur’an for years, and in her reading, the text expects men to exhibit traditionally “feminine” traits like gentleness and modesty, and encourages freedom from oppression (“even if you don’t agree with those who are being freed,” she says). She interprets the condemnation of Sodom through a pro-queer, feminist lens as well: “My interpretation is that it was because they were rapists, not because the people they raped where of the same sex.” The book’s message, to her, is that “even when you don’t agree with someone’s decisions, you have no right to suppress the free will that was given to them by God.” Therefore, she says, Muslim law is inherently pro-choice, and inherently against imposing one’s religious beliefs on other people.
“My best favorite thing ever in the world,” she says, “is sources within the religious framework that actually have promoted feminism, if not by name, since the beginning of time. Every religion has them! Use them! They are very restorative, and very useful in returning to women the power that was given to us by God.” ♦