Women, Nature and Religion Bilingual Webinar on Zoom 5 July 2021

by Amadeo Devin Udampoh

On July 5th, 2021, the Netherlands-Indonesia Consortium on Muslim-Christian Relations (NICMR) organized a webinar discussing the theme “Women, Nature and Religion”. Christine Hutubessy, a member of the consortium, was the one who opened the webinar and greeted all the participants. The webinar was moderated by Muhammad Dluha Luthfillah, a member of the gender working group at NICMR. He is also active in at the Sunan Kalijaga Islamic State University. The webinar featured three speakers namely Etjie Doek (Jaringan Perempuan Indonesia Timur – Network of Women in East Indonesia), Mia Siscawati (Gender Studies at the University of Indonesia), and Geke van Vliet (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam).

Etjie Doek was the first speaker in the webinar. Her presentation was entitled “The Impact of Cyclone Seroja to Women in Coastal Area of Kupang City”. Her presentation firstly highlighted the marginalization of women in the fishery sector. She began her presentation by pointing to the fact that women were involved in pre-production, production, and post-production economic activities.

However, they were not fully acknowledged by the government as workers. They were still unable to receive the Marine and Fishery Business Card that identified them as professional fishers. This was perceivably due to the common perception that it was only men who went out to fish at sea. In short, there was no adequate recognition of women as fishers even though the women in that area worked 17 hours per day – 5-7 hours longer than the men’s working hours.

Etjie also pointed out that male centrality and dominance were still present in the region. This was proven in the fact that in times the family’s income decreased, it was the women who needed to make sacrifices for their husbands. They must have prioritized the husbands’ needs over their own. A mother’s health is crucially related to her child’s. Consequently, the child became malnourishment and numerous other negative repercussions impacting women and children were visible.

Another problem faced in this context was the massive development of the coastal areas by the government. The government opened access for hoteliers to build huge hotels in the coastal areas, as well as jogging tracks that lied across the fishers’ village which hampered their movement. This had also thwarted evacuation efforts for the local villagers when Seroja typhoon struck the city, causing flood.

In terms of their understanding of climate change, the women had little to say about. They were only familiar with the signs of climate change through natural phenomena that could have affected their livelihood. For example, they knew from their husbands that extreme weather disabled them to fish. They knew and could name these phenomena but were unaware that these phenomena were all caused by climate change.

On April 6th, 2021, the coastal areas were heavily damaged. The boats and other fishing equipment were destroyed. Lots of fisher families were suffering from losses amounted from IDR 1 million to IDR 75 million. It was concluded that the severity of the impact could have been lessened if government policy sided with the fishers and the local people instead of the big corporations.

The ways coastal communities responded to this calamity is worth noting. In the aftermath of the cyclone, there was a strong sense of solidarity among the people. They volunteered in repairing the damaged boats. They also studied cyclone and how to respond to it or to minimize the possible damage incurred. The aftermath of cyclone also paved a way for interfaith engagement in the disaster relief efforts. Churches and mosques, along with other houses, were turned into shelters for the affected members of the population. The Evangelical Church in Timor (Gereja Masehi Injili Indonesia di Timor) formed a Cyclone Seroja Emergency Response Team which adopted the disaster response guidelines by the National Disaster Management Agency. The church organization also helped in distributing logistics, clothes, books, providing psychosocial services, even until rebuilding the damaged areas.

The second presenter came from an academic background. Dr. Mia Siscawati is a lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Indonesia. Her presentation was titled “Feminist Perspectives on the Environment”. She opened her talk by mentioning the close connection between women and the environment upon which many theorized about gender justice, ecological justice and ecofeminism. She also mentioned the ways feminist perspectives were used to analyse ecological problems.

She elaborated two main approaches to understanding the relationship between women and the nature. These two main approaches were commonly used by theorists in gender studies field. The first approach is the ecofeminist approach. This approach is based on historical, conceptual, and spiritual sub-approaches to the issue. She first explained the conceptual sub-approach as pointing to the natural connection between women and the nature. In this thought, women are naturally more compassionate to the nature because of they are more driven by compassion in all her conducts. Therefore, they must also naturally be compassionate toward the nature. This view also blames western patriarchy for ecological destruction.

Ecofeminism also makes use of historical perspectives in understanding women-nature relations. The historical sub-approach holds that human-nature relations were based on matrilineal values. This matrilineal connection with the nature was the mode of relationship between humans and nature back in 4500 BCE. Unfortunately, this connection was ruptured by the Indo-Europeans invasion and expansion. The historical view also holds the Industrial Revolution responsible for the ecological destruction. Industrial revolution brought about a mechanistic view of the world, distancing humankind from nature and vice-versa. The blurring of this previously maintained connections has led to the nature being exploited, ravaged, and destructed because of the perceived unrelatedness between humankind and nature.

The third sub-approach is the spiritual one. To some, the two abovementioned sub-approaches in making sense of the relation is not sufficient. One should insert spiritual sub-approach as well to complement or even enrich the existing two sub-approaches. In this approach, there is the acknowledgement that religions often take part in perpetuating views that disenfranchise, subjugate, and oppress women and nature. Spiritual ecofeminists argue that anthropocentric principles and values in religions foster ecological destructions. The hierarchies of gender in religions and cultures have translated into hierarchies of humans in nature. This is not the pure form of religion but the impact of androcentric as well as anthropocentric views that engulf religion. Therefore, it is felt that there needs to be a return to the traditional interconnected views of women and nature that can be explored within religions themselves.

While the ecofeminist perspectives are well-articulated, there is another view that attempts to revise this view by stating that women and nature are not naturally interconnected. The materialist approach which stands as critique to the ecofeminist one, comes in several features that, in contrast to the earlier approach, which is primordially and spiritually imbued, engages the relations politically, making their actions look more concrete in form.

The materialist approach contends that women are not automatically connected to nature. Women’s connection to nature was made and hugely dependent on their social locations. This view also holds that women oppression are related to material inequalities. It also rejects the notion of the “innate” nature of connection between women and nature. This approach stresses the importance of intersectional analysis in looking at the oppression of women.

An intersectional analysis will observe women oppression by looking at how the women’s ethnicities, classes, genders, economies, and many others as being the source of their oppression. This analysis will look at how layers of oppression are created because one’s bearing of multiple identities.

This approach has birthed out feminist environmentalism as well as feminist political ecology that have wide-ranging issues to respond including the estrangement of women from their land in the Global South. Women are the ones who tend the land, but massive industrialization and capitalism have dispossessed them from their land. Within this approach, the ecological issues are always intertwined with women issues. Ecological disasters happen when capitalists grab women’s land or in other words separate the caretaker from the cared ones and ravage the land. The oppression of women and those causing environmental damage are the same actors.

Mia Siscawati then asked us, the participants to use one of the theories presented, namely the feminist political ecology theory, to analyse some of the ecological problems in Indonesia today. She picked the continuous destruction of peatland by palm oil companies. Purun, which is a special kind of plant growing in peatland, brings ecological good and economic benefit for women for they make bags, and other products with it. However, as palm oil industries encroach the peatlands they get their purun from, their economies are slowing down.

The third presenter was Geke van Vliet who spoke about her thesis that was centred on the vision of churches in Amsterdam on the urban field of climate action and sustainability. She began by stating her research question; how do Green Churches in Amsterdam position their vision on sustainability and climate action within the border field of sustainability and climate action? The research was done with Green Churches organization that is involved in sustainability within churches and inspire them to become “greener”. They discuss topics on conscious purchasing, creation and nature, energy and climate, handling money, policy and research, faith and inspiration. There are 325 green churches in the Netherlands, which 7 of them located in Amsterdam.

She did research with Rainproof Amsterdam which is a network of water management companies in Amsterdam that try to adapt Amsterdam to climate change, especially severe cloud bursts which are the impact of climate change extremely felt in Amsterdam. They are also a network of not only companies, but also NGOs, religious organizations, and even individuals.

Geke was inspired to do her research when she was part of a water symposium in November 2019. At that time, Rainproof was also part of the conference. Her research methodologies included literature studies and interviews. The literature that she used varied from toolkits and guidelines by Dutch Council of Churches, and others, as well as academic theological books by Jurgen Moltmann, Sallie McFague, and Celia Deane-Drummond. Her interviews were done with regards to the literatures studied as well as two of the seven Green Churches in Amsterdam.

The interviews sought to deepen topics on the churches’ awareness of climate action, why churches should be involved in climate action, etc. The result of the interviews is diverse. Some want to directly act upon the climate change issues. Small steps are taken such as buying fair trade products, separating waste, installing solar panels on the churches, and many more. Other than action, some feel that contemplation is needed in responding to climate change. Contemplation entails deep reflection and discussion on the correlation between climate actions and the Christian faith. However, churches in the Netherlands exist in secular society. Most of the members are the elderlies who have little interest in having such contemplational conversations.

It turns out that it is difficult to have the right balance between action and contemplation. There are also discussions about the extent of the churches’ contribution in climate action. Questions around whether churches should boldly act out in concrete activism regarding climate change or should they just do minor campaigns about it. A member of the church spoke up saying that Jesus does not only care about being “a nice guy”, nicely advising how society should run; he can also be radical in his movement and actions.

Another result of the interview was that there was a need for cooperation between organizations. The churches felt that they needed to be part of a larger network to get encouraged to take actions on climate change. This is in line with Rainproof’s vision to build a network of organizations and individuals working toward the same cause.

Geke also included gender perspectives in her research as well es ecofeminist theological perspective. She mentioned the impact of what Mia described in her presentation as androcentrism in religion on the destruction of the nature. Her research shows that women mostly take the lead in most climate actions. They are also aware of the influence climate change has worldwide. Geke highlights the lethargy in responding to climate change in Europe and conjectures that indirect experience with the impacts of climate change is the cause of this slow response. Furthermore, she locates that white privilege and Europe’s seeming adaptability to climate change as the reason why some people in the Netherlands are not involved in climate actions.

In conclusion, Geke’s research focused on how Green Churches are being organized. It is important to stress the important part of gender perspectives in responding to climate change. She also emphasized the salience of Christian perspectives as well as the ones obtained from readings of academic literatures to shape a sound and solid Christian theological vision of climate justice.

In the Q&A, there were several participants who engaged enthusiastically in the discussion. A participant asked whether there is some effort to make a balance between ecology and religion. Another was curious about what constituted feminism. Another question is whether there is effort by the government to educate the communities on the climate issue. Another question focuses on developing countries’ trying to model developed countries by endlessly building and developing infrastructures to be as advanced as the developed one. The participant asked whether this could also contribute to worsening the climate. A participant asked about what the goals ecofeminists are trying to reach. All the questions were raised to all the speakers.

Etjie responded to the second question by clarifying what she said about the amount of knowledge coastal populations have. The fishers are only having little and limited knowledge about climate change. To the first question, she responded by sharing her experiences discussing with a friend who is finishing a dissertation on “blue theology” which talks about eco-theological perspectives to respond to ocean crisis. This can be brought to the church and adopted as part of the church’s deaconic ministry. So, there is an effort to empower coastal people as “sea deacons” by enabling them to get involved in managing the ocean. This is an example of how balance between ecology and religion can be reached. On collaborative effort with government to educate the coastal population, Etji responded by saying that based on discoveries by Oxfam, there was an organizing process by using feminist perspectives and involving the government in doing so. That is a way of bringing the government closer to the coastal community. On development, Etjie said that development must be taking environmental perspectives as guidelines. Referring to her city, development is always oriented to promote the tourism sector. In response to this she said that development should also include the people’s perspectives so that the locals’ livelihood is not disrupted.

On the balance between ecology and religion as a strong indication of feminism, Mia responded by saying that the goal of feminism is an undertaking to bring justice to every living being. One aspect of feminism is the support for ecological justice. She added that being devoted to religion does not automatically make one turn into a feminist or become an environmentalist. It is only when there is reinterpretation of religion that these efforts to conserve nature and promote gender equality can happen. Responding to the question on the goal of feminism, she said that the goal was to advocate for change in natural resource management system so that it does not make use of means that are destructive to the nature and promote one’s interconnectedness with nature.

In response to another question on the danger of modelling developed countries on environment, she said that every activity that we do has great impact on the ecology (explained through the concept of ecological footprint). For example, flying on a plane can produce carbon footprint. Another example is the use of electricity. In Indonesia, electricity derives from coal, the crudest energy resource of all. Here we can examine our own paths toward development. If we uncarefully imitate the developed countries by using the old ways for development, then ecological downturn will be the consequences.

On whether there is advocacy and education for women, Mia said that there was advocacy and education for women. She mentioned a group of female fishers who fought for their acknowledgement as fishers. The women refused to be classified as household wives because they partook in economically supporting the family by becoming fishers. And this effort eventually led to them being acknowledged on their citizen ID card as fishers. Mia also answered to the question about the link between climate change and ecological disaster. She confirmed that the link is present and gave a few examples of it. Women will be more severely affected by drought than men because the unavailability of water would make women suffer because the need for water increases if they are in their menstrual cycle. Another point to consider is the refugee camps which have improperly installed toilets which make them prone to sexual abuse and harassment by men in the refugee shelters.

The question about whether a person should become a feminist to care for the climate was responded by Geke. She responded by changing the question to “can you really take care of the climate without being a feminist?” She argued that for too long climate change had affected women more they men. Domination of nature is also related to the hierarchy that we have in gender. Regarding the goal of ecofeminism, she thinks ending climate change is the goal of ecofeminism. This can be done by ending the separation between humankind and the nature.

Geke’s answers to the questions concluded the webinar. The moderator and host concluded the webinar by reemphasizing the need for preserving the nature and promoting gender justice at the same time. The need for examining our actions is also important so that we can help in minimizing the impact of climate change and live out values of equality.