This is a review of Leela Fernandes'  Transforming Feminist Practice: Non-Violence, Social Justice, & the Possibilities of a Spiritualized Feminism. The title of the book was the basis of an interesting personal challenge: as a friend put it to me, why apply women's spirituality to feminism or issues of social justice? For that matter, why any spirituality whatsoever? Before reading the book I had a few ready answers, but the book itself offered another entirely. I'll delineate mine after the book review, just because I think the comparison is interesting. Since I'm short on writing time, here are some of the interesting thoughts from the book:

We've sainted Gandhi & Martin Luther King, Jr., but we've also sort of de-spiritualized their teachings — as well as de-spiritualizing social justice. Worse, while we have excellent linguistic tools to deconstruct/tear down/destroy the "overwhelming structures of power in which we are all implicated" (50)… we don't have equally excellent tools for reconstruction/creation of a new or alternative practice or social system which, rather than simply replicating the old exclusions and privileges, instead moves us past them to new growth. That lack paralyzes the well-meaning, freezing us into a cynical anomie when faced with the apparently impassable conflict between the desired change and what currently actually is.

In order to accomplish this desired, lasting social transformation, Fernandes accepts the spiritual/mystical as real, reclaiming it for feminism as a means to both decolonize the divine, and to break free of the classic cycles of retribution which help perpetuate oppressions based on conventional understandings of identity, power, and justice — which then are unwittingly and continuously re-inscribed into the social movements attempting to resist them. In her hands, spirituality is not a tool for social change; instead movements for social justice become themselves radical and sacred, "fundamentally opposed to any hierarchical, patriarchal or violent representations of religious teaching … which are at the root of all forms of oppression in this world" (15).

Fernandes critiques the politics of identity as a means for lasting social change, noting that while it is essential for collecting members of a particular oppressed social group together to agitate for change, its structure is based in demand rather than also giving back. It is therefore not a good long-term social strategy, and she suggests instead a process she refers to as disidentification: a releasing of the standard external forms of identity (as in nationality, race, sex, class, gender, religion, etc.) and their associated, often unwitting, deep ego attachments to privilege and controlling power. As noted earlier, students are also not taught how to create from what is left of deconstruction, or that this re-creation is the true heart of social transformation. Fernandes believes such a tremendously demanding stripping away of non-essentials, in order to create a radically egalitarian new society, is most feasible from a spiritual basis — especially if it is to successfully dismantle the enormous and pervasive social structures of power which currently shape our lives.

Spirituality can serve as a tremendous source of power that can enable us to challenge some of our deepest practices of identification, and can lead us to understand our self as an infinite, unbounded source of divinity, spiritual strength, and empowerment. It leads us to question our ingrained assumptions regarding the boundaries of individual autonomy, agency, and rationality . . . [and] the often hidden distinctions we make between mind, matter, and spirit. It dares us to disrupt the careful lines which thinkers and activists, both modern and postmodern, both religious and secular, have carved out between the realms of the human and divine. (37)

Fernandes further develops this thought, deconstructing the current separation between spirituality and social justice in order to reveal an artificial social construct. This immensely powerful cultural belief is so subtly ingrained that we often no longer realize true external social change cannot occur without simultaneous self-transformation. In effect, our internalized petty jealousies, ambitions, and fears are simply smaller versions of the current structures of power.

I find her definitions of both spirituality and ethical action (quoted from the Dalai Lama) to be helpful and clarifying. Spirituality is related to "qualities of the human spirit — such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony … [qualities] defined by an implicit concern for others' well-being," while ethical action is related to "avoiding acts of harm and injury against others" (53). She also puts forth a concept I've always thought undervalued in US culture: leadership as laboring in service to others, rather than as a personal achievement. I strongly agree with her that a return to this concept would be a necessary first step in re-linking social activism and justice with compassion, humility, and love (59).


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