Feminism and Spiritual Citizenship

The question that motivates this essay is “What does spiritual citizenship look like through a feminist lens?” Feminists have long argued that even the most intimate aspects of our lives – our relationships, dreams, and aspirations – are not merely private, but have political dimensions. Perhaps nothing is more intimate than our relationship with the Divine, and there may indeed be something about this relationship that transcends politics. Nonetheless, the ways in which we communicate, practice, and build community around spirituality are deeply imbued with power. Patriarchal ideas about sex and gender infuse language and imagery about the Sacred, sexism and racism rife within many spiritual communities (even those that have seemingly eschewed religious dogmatism), and spiritual leaders remain overwhelmingly male and heterosexual. We need, as Leela Fernandes has argued, a “decolonization of the divine.”

Below, I offer four ideas for how spiritual citizenship can be transformed by applying a feminist lens. Each theme is followed by questions for reflection and discussion.

Engage the politics of the intimate

Many of our famous exemplars of spiritual activism, such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi, are men who fell short when it came to their gender politics. Rev. King was a serial adulterer, while Gandhi used young women to test his own capacity for sexual austerity. Countless gurus and spiritual leaders from across traditions – mostly male – have been caught abusing their power, particularly in the sexual realm.

Other famous leaders, such as Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama, have, to my knowledge, remained free of sexual scandals, and they have much to teach us about the values of compassion and spiritual practice. Yet, as monastics, they cannot be exemplars of how laypeople can apply spiritual principles to the realm of intimacy, particularly sexual intimacy. 

This is not a call to “cancel” the spiritual activist leaders mentioned above. We can respect their powerful public leadership – and their ability to inspire love, nonviolence, and visions of sacred justice – while also recognizing that it is time for us to collectively work toward unlearning patriarchy in both our private and public lives. “Intimate activism” can look like taking seriously accounts of impropriety or abuse while actively fostering cultures of consent, egalitarianism, and transparency. 

The work of Gender Equity and Reconciliation International (GERI), a nonprofit that uses the power of truth-telling and dialogue to help people shift away from patriarchal modes of relating, offers one example of how a spiritual lens can be applied to the work of gender healing.  As a certified facilitator of GERI workshops, I have witnessed firsthand how sharing stories of our gendered experiences under patriarchy can foster participants’ deep commitment to undoing systems of inequality and abuse. This work is supported by an interspiritual framework that emphasizes contemplative practice, personal integrity, and group accountability. 

Similar practices of truth-telling and gender egalitarianism can be brought into other spiritual communities and social movements. Sexuality must come out of the shadows, where abuse thrives, and into the light where it can be openly discussed. While all individuals must be part of the work of undoing cultures of abuse, there are gender-specific ways that such work needs to move forward. Men or masculine-identifying individuals must learn more about active consent and commit to interrupting sexism and sexual coercion wherever they see it. Women or feminine-identifying individuals must be afforded safe spaces to speak up about abuse and be empowered to own their boundaries. Moreover, people of all genders can benefit from learning about the dynamics of intimate abuse so they can be better allies and advocates. 

Questions for Reflection

  • What thoughts and feelings arise in you when you hear of abuses by beloved spiritual teachers and activists? How can you hold yourself and everyone involved with compassion without denying or covering up misdeeds?

  • Consider your own spiritual beliefs and traditions. What principles do they offer to guide ethical behavior in the realms of everyday interactions, including sexual and other intimate interactions?
  • Reflect on your own gender conditioning. What might you need to learn – or unlearn – in order to promote consent culture within your communities?

  • Does your spiritual community actively challenge gender inequality and gender-based violence? If not, what can you do to advocate for women’s and queer rights within your community?

Cultivate “post-heroic leadership” 

For too long, too many of us have been entranced by heroes. Perhaps it’s our desire to be saved, to not have to do the hard work, to rely on someone else to figure things out… Somewhere there’s someone who will make it all better. Somewhere, there’s someone who’s visionary, brilliant, trustworthy, and we’ll all happily follow him or her. Somewhere… 

— Margaret Wheatley and Debbie Frieze

I agree with Wheatley that it is time to transcend our cultural fixation on heroes. Those of us who aspire to be engaged spiritual citizens in a chaotic world may long for clear direction from spiritual or activist leaders who capture the public imagination with their charisma and courage. While it can be wonderful to find inspiration and wisdom from gifted orators and organizers, there is a danger in giving away our power – and our responsibility – to others. Indeed, it is such relinquishment of power that has allowed the abuse of spiritual leaders to go unchecked, as discussed above. Rather than waiting on heroes, we can encourage each other to embrace our own inner wisdom and agency to shape the world.  This idea is consonant with the concept of post-heroic leadership, defined as “a set of shared practices that can and should be enacted by people at all levels, rather than a set of personal characteristics and attributes located in someone at the top.”

In the context of spiritual citizenship, the concept of post-heroic leadership sounds a call for ordinary individuals to tap more deeply into our own capacities for courage, wisdom, and service. This also affirms the feminist insight that our personal, daily lives are sites of power and transformation. Each day, we can either go along with the patriarchal status quo or follow our inner compass, paying attention when it asks us to resist injustices or take action for the benefit of all beings. Alfonso Montouri and Gabrielle Donnelly express a similar idea through what they call transformative leadership, which “invites everybody to ask what kind of a world they are creating through their thoughts, beliefs, actions, and interactions, and to compare that with the kind of world they would like to create, and the kind of person they would like to be.” 

Becoming a transformative feminist leader, in my view, requires that we commit to practices that strengthen our relationship with our inner divinity. In my own experience, I have found that meditation, contemplative journaling, and quiet time in nature strengthen my capacity to hear my inner voice. I must also consciously unplug from the din of the external world, which provides a continual barrage of distractions. While I continue to learn from spiritual teachers and activists with greater experience or insight than myself, I am able to do so without losing connection with my own inner teacher. 

Even as ordinary people exercise more leadership, there will remain space for those with exceptional skills or abilities to take on greater or more public roles within both spiritual and activist movements. However, a post-heroic perspective suggests that such leaders must be seen and supported as human beings who have their own needs and limitations. Further, all of us who are leaders – in big or small ways – must move beyond the idea that we must go it alone, work without rest, abuse our bodies, and never let go. Rather, we need space for healing, reflection, and community support. It is when more people step into taking responsibility for the world they want to create that we can have robust networks of support and accountability. 

Questions for Reflection

  • What is your relationship to “leaders” and “heroes”? Do you find yourself seeking out spiritual heroes – or rejecting authority altogether? How might you find a middle ground?
  • What are the qualities you most admire in leaders? How can you cultivate these qualities in yourself?
  • What is your relationship like with your own inner teacher and guide? How might you strengthen this relationship? 
  • What type of world do you want to live in? What can you do in your everyday life to help create such a world?

Challenge limiting ideas about sacrifice and silence

I was fortunate to grow up in a family of spiritual seekers. I’m a first-generation Indian-American, raised in the Hindu tradition. Because of my father’s interest in meditation and mysticism, I was exposed at an early age to spiritual teachings about the Divine Oneness underlying all apparent differences. I was inspired by the potential of reaching exalted states of connection and peace via spiritual practice.

Concomitantly, however, I was raised among myths that exalted female sacrifice and unquestioning devotion to husbands and other male authority figures. Whereas the spiritual journey for men was one of turning inward to the Sublime essence within, I learned that the path to enlightenment for women was through self-abnegation and submission to patriarchal authority. This contradiction did not sit well with me. 

In Sensitive is the New Strong, Anita Moorjani, who also comes from a Hindu background, details how this quest for self-negation as a spiritual path led her to illness and, eventually, to the precipice of death. She believes that her lifelong habit of pleasing others while neglecting her own soul’s stirrings caused her to develop cancer. However, her illness ultimately led to a powerful near-death experience that brought her into direct contact with the Divine and radically re-shaped her spiritual perspective. She had the sudden insight that self-sacrifice was not the path to enlightenment; rather, it was a “fast track to doormat-hood.”  

Immersed in a sea of unconditional love and acceptance, she received a clear message that her path in life, once she returned to her body, was to love herself and embrace her individuality – and her ego. Despite the “bad rap” that the ego gets in spiritual communities, Moorjani suggests that it is necessary to have a strong ego in order to set boundaries and live authentically. This is especially true for women who have been conditioned within patriarchal cultures to put themselves last, but is also true for people of any gender who are naturally sensitive and empathic. 

Writing from a Western lens, feminist mystic Carol Lee Flinders poses a similar challenge to spiritual teachings about self-abnegation. She notes that such teachings were historically directed at men who were culturally conditioned to put themselves first within patriarchal social systems. “Women, on the other hand,” she writes,

have not been in a position to renounce these privileges voluntarily because they never had them in the first place. Quite the opposite. If you knew nothing about mystical literature, you might think these precepts had been excerpted from a book of counsel for young brides in just about any ancient and/or traditional culture we know. They sound remarkably like the mandates young girls have always received as they approach womanhood and that, in veiled forms, or under tacit threats, they still receive. These are the terms of our subordination… 

Neither Flinders nor Moorjani are arguing that contemporary women should become egotistical or trample on others in rebellion against patriarchy. Nor do they deny the value of service to others. Rather, they are inviting women – and, I might add, those of any gender who have been conditioned to people-please – to value their own humanity, set wise boundaries, and resist exploitation. For it is when we are rooted in our own dignity and self-love that we can freely give to others. Sacrifices that are coerced by culture, family, or tradition often lead to resentment; on the other hand, acts of service that arise from a place of freedom can bring giver and receiver closer in the shared joy of interconnection. 

Moreover, movements for social justice require that those who have been exploited resist silence. Oppression thrives when individuals are led to believe that they must sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of family, workplace, spiritual community, or country. While the spiritual path leads us to move beyond purely selfish pursuits, we must maintain a sense of personal sovereignty and dignity in order to take actions that foster greater justice and well-being for all. 

Questions for Reflection

  • Do you think that spiritual teachings about self-sacrifice affect women and men differently? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever silenced your inner truth or let yourself be used because you believed it was “spiritual” to put yourself last?
  •  What does the word “ego” mean to you? Is it a help or hindrance to the journey of spiritual citizenship?
  • How do you integrate self-love with service to others? 

Question exclusionary notions of the “citizen”

Citizen:

  • a native or naturalized member of a state or nation who owes allegiance to its government and is entitled to its protection (distinguished from alien).
  • an inhabitant of a city or town, especially one entitled to its privileges or franchises.

Historically, a great deal of feminist activism has centered around efforts to ensure that women have the same access as men to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. While such efforts have been necessary and laudable, they have not liberated our societies from the logic of oppression and exclusion. Within the United States, for example, the celebrated 19th amendment which prohibited sex discrimination in the polls, did not in fact grant all American women the right to vote. Native American women, for instance, were not considered citizens in their own land until 1924, four years after the 19th amendment was ratified. Racial discrimination continued to prevent Black and Brown women and men from exercising voting rights until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (and voter suppression continues in other forms to this day). Moreover, undocumented immigrants continue to be denied access to basic human needs because they lack the status of citizens, whether or not their ancestors were the original inhabitants of this land.  

Some might argue that the remedy to these issues is further legislation that expands citizenship rights and prevents discrimination. While I support such actions, I believe such remedies do little to address the spiritual roots of exclusionary policies. Such roots lie in “us-them” paradigms that encourage us to see members of our own group as more valuable, worthy, or sacred than people with different identities, perspectives, or passports. How do we develop a deeper transformation in how we see ourselves and each other?

Spiritual activism as understood by feminist thinkers asks us to hold multiple realities at once. On the one hand, we recognize the need to coalesce around identities to challenge racism, sexism, and other structural oppressions that have divided us along identity markers. On the other hand, attaching too strongly to these identities can reinforce what AnaLouise Keating calls oppositional consciousness, a mode of thinking and acting that keeps “us” locked in battle with “them.” Such oppositional thinking means that the citizen requires the “alien,” which can simply mean “unfamiliar” but can also mean “too different from something to be acceptable or suitable.” If we invest too much in an identity construct, we can then see others as alien, finding it easier to ignore their suffering or accept their exploitation.