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Ecofeminism: a Latin American perspective.

In Christian churches in Brazil, while it is hard to be a feminist, it is harder to be an ecofeminist. I think that is the same in all Latin American countries. Our Latin Christian tradition stressed deeply not only the dependence of women on men but also the anthropological superiority of human beings. In our patriarchal culture, where the consequences of colonialist slavery are still present, power is a men's issue, especially public power: because of this, God, considered as a super power, has a masculine face. In this cultural context of masculine and white domination, in Christian churches, feminism and ecofeminism are not well known and are sometimes considered a kind of heresy disturbing the community.

For instance the word ecofeminism is not in Brazilian dictionaries and in all Latin America only a small number of persons know its meaning. One day I was giving a lecture in Brazil about ecofeminism. At the end of my lecture someone asked me about the precise meaning of ecofeminism. I spent almost one hour trying to explain it: I gave examples of real situations from where we can make an ecofeminist analysis, but, it seems, it was still unclear to many in the audience.

The woman who raised the question and probably others in the auditorium didn't understand me because this word is very unusual. And when she asked me to clarify, she was, in her way, trying to make me understand the meaning of her question. She said: "I understood 'ecofeminism' as a sort of echo of the feminism, a re-sounding, like a repetition of feminism in another way." I found this idea witty and suggestive and I thanked her.

Now, at lectures, I begin explaining first feminism and then ecology. I try to be an ecologist in a feminist perspective and a feminist in an ecological perspective. I try to explain ecology as one of the deepest concerns of feminism and ecology as having a deep resonance or a political and anthropological consequence from a feminist perspective. Both feminism and ecology want to understand human beings as female and male living in a complex web of life inside different cultures and ecosystems.

From this perspective of the echo of feminism, let me share with you three points: i) Ecofeminism as an echo of feminism; 2) Beyond Theology; 3) A new Utopia for our time.

Ecofeminism as an Echo of Feminism

Let me share some critical ideas about our present world especially about the discussion among feminists and ecofeminists. These ideas are not new but they will help me to put my reflection in the present historical context. In the Western capitalist world, we are always trying to apply to history concepts and analysis coming from a competitive world. Different feminist thinkers in Latin America try to discuss what perspective comes first: ecology or feminism. This discussion stresses the idea that some feminists believe that others appropriate ecological thoughts and integrate them into a feminist perspective. And by doing so, they are not faithful to feminism in its pure and exclusive struggle for women. Others feel that feminism is stealing a private property of the ecological struggle. Some think that feminism connects women to non-human nature and reduces women to an essence very close to nature. And finally, others work in a particular spirituality very connected to natural forces attributing them to a kind of women's nature or women's divinity. Each group claims its fidelity to the more coherent option for women.

While all these discussions are going on, the destruction of the Amazon forest, the rain forest, and others, continue. While this discussion is taking place, lots of paper is being used, lots of trees are being cut down and used by industries, polluting the rivers and the air. While these discussions are going on, lots of women and children are starving and dying with diseases produced by a capitalist system able to destroy lives and keep profit for only a few.

The challenging question for me is not the struggle among different ways of interpreting women's lives and the ecosystem, or the reductionism of theories, but the destruction of life while we are discussing the theories. No, I am not against theories but I suspect that some discussions are reinforcing more of the patriarchal logic of capitalism than a real alternative way of life. We discuss to understand or reinterpret life but sometimes we are not trying to find concrete ways to go beyond the ecological crisis that is killing millions of humans and other beings. It seems to me that feminism can't be tempted by masculine and competitive theories, which are in love with themselves, without searching for structural reform theories and actions towards justice. We need to go beyond competition in order to make possible another world.

An ecofeminism as an echo of feminism wants, in this perspective, to go beyond sterile discussions and go back to searching for concrete solutions to daily-life problems. Here is the place from which a reflection needs to begin. To talk about troubles in daily life invites us to ask what and whose daily life we are speaking. This question puts some limits to our thoughts and invites precision.

Daily life is not just a place of routine, it is a place of everyday emotions: of happiness and tears, of humiliation, of social and economical contradictions as well as a place of love, tenderness, and solidarity To begin by thinking about daily life is, as I said before, to choose what kind of daily life we are reflecting on.

I want to assume my analysis from the perspective of marginalized people, especially marginalized women suffering daily from the consequences of a patriarchal society with a capitalist dominion of nature and human relationship in a global system. This system makes slaves and hostages everywhere. Daily life for most poor women is like a jail. You have to live there as a prisoner without choosing alternatives for a better life. The horizon of daily life is monotonous and limited. It is more or less the same everywhere in the world. Women need to provide food, cleaning, healing for their families. The understanding of what is going on in our world overcomes most of them. They know how difficult their lives are but they have no real means to search for and experiment with new alternatives. The cycle begins early--when girls are thirteen or fourteen years old--with the process of adolescent pregnancies. They have no time to be educated thus limiting their choices in life. In a sense, it is the common life that cho oses them and introduces them to the jail of women's daily life. What surprises me is that, on one side, statistics today in Latin America show a growing number of women who are well educated; but, on the other side, there are numbers that statistics can't afford--and these numbers are also growing. These numbers are the reality of female poverty. This is part of the contradictory system of social exclusion that is going on with the economic globalization of our world. Female poverty depends on female and male wealth. Female poverty depends on the destruction of ecosystems.

I have in mind a very poor neighborhood of Recife in the northeast of Brazil. People live along the border of a canal. The canal brings in its waters part of the garbage of other neighborhoods. These people never clean the canal but only add more and more garbage. They are always waiting for the officials of the city to send someone to clean the canal. Sometimes these cleaners come but by the next day the canal is dirty again. It is a kind of vicious circle. They know that they are dirtying the canal but they have not tried other alternatives to the garbage, nor have they developed a continuous behavior--they begin something today and tomorrow they are not able to follow their own good decisions. They are hostages of their own poverty and inconstancy. This is an example of daily life. Daily life is a plural expression because it refers to a plural experience of life.

Daily life for poor women is like a jail, as I said before. A new morning comes. We send children to school. We try to clean what is not possible to clean. Some women go to work. Most of them stay at home. They have nothing to cook. They wait for the children to return from school. They hope the children have already eaten, but they have not. Night arrives and brings back the men. Some of the men have something to offer to their families. Most of them have nothing. Often the men eat before returning home or only drink alcohol. The cycle of domestic jail finished today and now women wait to begin again tomorrow, probably with the bad news of a new pregnancy.

Feminist movements and some small groups of women trying to do something in this area believe that the solution of social and environmental problems and the oppression of women can't come from this patriarchal structure of dependence. This structure has no way to overcome poverty because it is not rooted in egalitarian social principles. This structure reproduces the circle of dependence and violence. You can help some people but you can't change a hierarchical structure that reproduces unfair situations. And what's more, the ethical idea of public property is not developed for both the poor and the rich people. On one side, rich people believe that they have priority of everything and they can reduce politics to their own interests. On the other side, poor people feel that everything outside their own home is not their responsibility and so they continue to beg only for survival.

In more practical terms, middle-class people feel very sad seeing children living on the streets, and most of them are convinced they can do nothing. They are very busy with their own affairs and have no time to think about solutions. Of course the best solution would be to have the army and police in the streets keeping their lives safe. Rich people, those who are the elite that benefit from all the richness of the globalization of economy, live in a kind of separate city. They live in artificial fortresses that protect them from the real world.

In this situation, no movement, no science, no university, no group, and no feminism can or should struggle for its own survival. We need to understand that these different levels of one against the other will finally destroy all of us. The structure of violence over the world is growing and most government solutions seem to produce more violence. Violence to repress violence will be without end. Yet, there is hope.

In Latin America we want to be part of a national and international movement for the globalization of social justice. The old dream of humanity coming from the deepest of our hearts-the dream with a land where all can live with peace and dignity has taken new form--is of historical expression especially from different social forums as it has been in Porto Alegre, Brazil and before in Seattle, Prague, Quebec and other places. A new national and international order is our goal. An ecofeminism as an echo of feminism takes this as its goal without forgetting the special commitment for all women, without forgetting the importance of local education for a better world for everybody. It is the first time in our history that international civil society is uniting to form a new social and political order. It is the first time that together we are asking for a new qualitative daily life. In this perspective there is a new hope for all of us.

Beyond Theology

I have a hypothesis about the future of theologies. In my understanding, if theologies became only a system proposing ethical values for best relationships, they will have a future in the history of Justice and Peace over the world. They could be a source of dialogue tying to bridge the gap created by patriarchal religious systems. My hypothesis is based on the fact that most women in Latin America feel that traditional theology rooted in a patriarchal anthropology does not have a path for women's emancipation and autonomy. In the same perspective, some women are searching for ways of emancipation like recovering feminine divinities from ancient Europe. They feel that the male-way seems very far from their reality and their present culture. In my way of understanding, this is a search for a full citizenship in our world: we need something different and because of that I am proposing to go beyond theology or theologies. The theoretical and practical schemes of traditional religions and Christian traditions are not able to open new possibilities for our struggle for justice and happiness. The traditions, of course, offer some personal change, which is good. My concern is that we can't only be well inside our small world of friends. We need to act for a better world in its local, national, and international structures. This is the consequence of a new believing in connectedness as a political issue. We need to act individually and locally--but also internationally.

Theology is a cultural product. And official theologies are cultural products of our hierarchical and masculine philosophies and ideologies. They can give life and strength for a while but they need to be renewed. Today there is a new philosophy of history, a new understanding of human multiple cultural heritages, which is teaching the value of diversity in various places in the world. This new understanding applied to religious traditions invites us to go beyond cultural images, cosmologies, contents, and forms and tries to ask about values. Values have to do with the respect of each person-woman and man, each group, each culture, each ecosystem. Because of that we need to ask: what value is present in this or that theological tradition? How can it help us towards more justice and solidarity? Values have more chance to go beyond dispute than a metaphysic or a mythic view of religion or theology. Because of that, some women are trying to deconstruct traditional theology and discover what values are present an d are still able to support the effort of personal and social changing. Beyond theology in this perspective means beyond hierarchical and sexist structures present in patriarchal religions.

The question that lies at the heart of most of this is: why, having now conditions to be emancipated and freer, are we developing new forms of barbarism -- including religious barbarism? We are highly developed in technology and highly regressive in humane ethics and values.

Christian traditional theology and also reformist feminist theologies seem a way without concrete ways and are not able to overcome injustices and alienation. Christian theology is submerged by hegemonic dehumanization and becomes a kind of provider of irrational stimulus to forget the unjust patriarchal order. There is a split between words and reality. Theological words are not able to awaken hope and new praxis for fair relationships in our world. Why not think in a human faith beyond traditional theologies?

Most Christian women are living outside churches or in the border of Christian Churches. They are convinced of the importance of faith, but not the model of community with Christian male hierarchical domination. They do not want to live this kind of illusion and dare go beyond this model. They dare accept a kind of institutional loneliness and have the control and the creativity of their own lives. The struggle against domination and repression is also a repudiation of the jail from where Christian values are presented. This is the work of deconstruction and new construction of meanings. The task of these different groups of Latin American women is to provide a new order of meaning including marginalized people.

The option for the poor is an option for life. Our goal should be to build a world where poor and marginalized people have a place to live with peace and dignity. We know that without this option we are not building a world with justice and love. The challenge is now a political challenge; it is a creative challenge for a new real order because there is no choice. We choose the life of the planet and the respect of all living beings or we choose to die by our own bad decisions.

A New Utopia for our Time

Are women introducing a new utopia for our time? Are feminism and ecofeminism a new utopia or part of a common utopia? To answer these questions we need first of all to think again about the meaning of the word utopia. As we know all social movements and interpretations of human history have utopias or an orientation of the history for the present and future. This orientation is at the same time a critique of the present history and a dream for the future. The dream becomes a kind of line-driving history, giving direction and finality. The utopia is never realized totally. This is constitutive of human life. We need hope but our daily life never coincides with our hopes. Sometimes we can observe some feelings of utopia, but never as it was dreamed from the utopian perspective.

Feminism has its own utopia, which is in general the construction of new human relationship among women and men based on justice, equality, and solidarity. It is not simply a place for women in this same hierarchical and unfair social structure, but a place, a glimpse, of utopia, built on new relationship.

As feminism is plural in their theories and practices this utopia has similarities and differences among the different feminist currents. But today an only-feminist utopia is not enough. We are invited to keep our particular utopias and be open to others as ecological, social and political in order to build new models of living together. We are struggling for a new international order where people respect each other and their environments. We want to build a world where spiritual values are as important as material needs and we do not need patriarchal institutions to shape our lives. But we must allow room for our own theories and practices to eventually become incorporated into this existing model. This is one of the challenges of a new understanding of Utopia. The new understanding needs a critical analysis of what is going on in our world in order to clarify what could be a common utopia for us.

Today we are living multiple ideas of utopia. From the declaration of the end of utopias to the affirmation of the possible realization of Marxist utopia, we have a multiplicity of expressions and struggles of our dream. More than that, we have the possibility to have more and more people living without a social dream, without thinking and acting in a historical direction. They simply live and obey. They accept their lives as a decision from the will of others probably without knowing it. They work to distract themselves from reality. They are only workers and consumers of the system, players in the match of the system. They are from the establishment without knowing who they are. We do not know who we are. We live as we live without the radical or tedious questions coming from feminist philosophers. Cultural and economic globalization invites us to forget these questions considered as questions from our pre-history, questions that do not fit in a world of globalization. We need the facade of happiness, casu al relationships, virtual emotions, and dreams from drugs, values without ethical references, and political games to maintain the illusion of political participation in democracy. We need to believe that life is what the mass media controlled by capitalism says it is. And if we believe that we are not alienated, we are in the heart of capitalist life.

The word alienation as a separation from our own desire, our own production, our own creativity doesn't exist in this global system. From the patriarchal global capitalist system, alienation is only alienation as consumers, alienation from the offers of the economic market. The unique rule of the market allows you to be always different, always free to do what you want to do following the insanity of the system. They spread the idea that this is freedom, freedom to buy what they want you to buy, freedom to move where they want you to move, freedom to love what they want you to love.

In this context freedom loses its deepest meaning because there is no reference to express freedom. We lost our own desire, our humanistic reference to be definitively without interiority; without personal desire. We are what the world wants us to be. Being this kind of Xerox of the system has a consequence of not being considered as a personality, as a citizen, as a valued life by itself and with social recognition. Because of that the webs that we are building are also webs of loneliness. Who cares about the death of women, of poor people, of civilians in unjust wars? Who cares about my personal sufferings and my search for happiness? If we are not giving money or profit to the system we have no value.

We lose the sovereignty and the power of Nations or the autonomy of each State. We do not know what democracy is, we forget its meaning and the inspiring source of its beginning. We live in great insecurity about everything. Life is vulgarized. Thought is superficial. Marginalized people are growing. The destruction of different species of plants and animals are growing too. The richness of the world is becoming more and more in the hands of a small elite. We are killing and we are cloning ourselves. Our body becomes merchandise without limits, without knowing who we are and where we are going. We are destroying ourselves as an interconnected body. In that destructive situation what could be the new understanding of utopia?

Utopia and utopias need to be rebuilt and reborn again. Without utopia, a form of hope-there are no human beings. Without hope there is not life. Each group needs to formulate their utopia and connect this utopia with a common one for the well being of humanity and of the earth. The new meaning of utopia is not a pre-definition but is a horizon of values that outside of them no life can be sustainable. Utopia is a common construction of meaning, of solidarity, of self-control--and common control for the well being of all. Feminism lies inside this common utopia with its own particular struggle and will also be a particular utopia for all women living in the hierarchical structures in different cultures. Feminism is a movement for a new humanity, for a new social and political order. Something in the world is better since feminist struggle in its various forms began. It is not enough, but it is something.

A new utopia is possible. A new utopia beyond patriarchal utopias is born in different groups. We have some national and international signs that can nourish our dream of a new earth, a new woman and a new man. These small signs can give us some certitude that life will not be destroyed by our bad competitive passions. Our struggle, the struggle for justice and solidarity of so many generations is still alive in our history.

The Echo of Rosemary's Work

The three points that I developed have to do with the work of Rosemary Radford Ruether. They are, in a sense, an echo of her teaching meeting other ideas and experiences of life. It is an echo that enriches different people all over the world following the creative wisdom present in so many different cultures.

From our Christian Tradition we learn that in spite of the strength of evil, in spite of its apparent victory, love and justice sustain the world, sustain our lives. Love and justice allow life to be alive. Love and justice nourish hope and are nourished by hope. I believe in that and it is because of this that I am speaking out. My personal commitment is also the possibility to struggle for a humanity that can live with more dignity and respect for all living beings. And in this struggle, I am living with what I call a "community of a community of solidarity" with different persons all over the world. Rosemary Radford Ruether is a leader in building this kind of community in different places of the world. She taught and committed solidarity with people in Latin America, with Palestinians and others, this allows our world to be alive. And more than that allows us to believe that we can still have hope about ourselves and about the possibilities of the healing of the earth.

Rosemary is my teacher in feminist, political, and theological issues. For this I owe her a debt of discipleship for she introduced me to feminist theology and ecofeminism. Now my debt is transformed also in friendship, mutual appreciation, and solidarity.

It was in 1980, in my country, Brazil, when I first read her name and read an article about the images of God in a patriarchal perspective. The article moved me deeply, an experience of joy and opening mind. She gave me words to understand myself regarding to the traditional images of God. It was also an experience of women in solidarity through writings and readings. I was not alone in my way of thinking and doubting about traditional images of Christian Tradition, other women were thinking in the same way that I was. I shared my discovery of Rosemary's ideas with some friends and she became an important author for them too.

Rosemary opens minds to enlarge theological issues, to link theology to politics and history in order to struggle for the transformation of human condition. She added to my experience in Liberation Theology not only a feminist view but also a more universal anthropological and historical reference to understand human and women's oppression. Rosemary also embraces political activism with a critical deconstruction of the Christian theological and ecclesial tradition to claim the emancipatory power of Christian values. She doesn't cut off religious and cultural traditions that can help us find new ways of life but helps us replace them in the light of making justice, of right relationships with women, men, and all living beings.

Indifferent issues my friend Rosemary touches universal human conditions and universal women's conditions. Rosemary is not only a theologian; she is not only a feminist; she is not only a Christian woman. She is an intellectual for our contemporary time committed to justice with love.

Thank you, Rosemary, for being what you are for all of us. The echo of Rosemary's work is crossing worlds, building new relationships, inviting people to think about life and all lives, inviting forgiveness, inviting adventures of love, justice and solidarity.

This paper was first presented at "Theology, Ecology, and Feminism," a conference honoring Rosemary Radford Ruether at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, April 3-4, 2002.

Ivone Gebara, a Brazilian Sister of Our Lady (Canoneses of St. Augustine) is one of Latin America's leading theologians. For nearly two decades she has been professor at the Theological Institute of Recife. She is the author of Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (Fortress Press).
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Author:Gebara, Ivone
Publication:Cross Currents
Geographic Code:3BRAZ
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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