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Q&A: A Missionary Who Preaches Gender Equality

Ivet González interviews MIDIAM LOBAINA, of the Cuban Council of Churches

Midiam Lobaina, a member of an ecumenical network of Christian women. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

HAVANA, Dec 3 2012 (IPS) - Midiam Lobaina describes herself as a “Christian militant” who takes a feminist reading of the Bible to workshops and religious services around Cuba, to discuss gender equality and a culture of peace.

Participants learn about gender violence, its prevention and ways to break free, among other issues.

“All churches know that the abuse of women is also a family and community problem,” says Lobaina, who is coordinator of the Women and Gender Programme of the Cuban Council of Churches (CIC).

Lobaina, who is also coordinator of the “Débora” Christian Women’s Network, founded in 2009, spoke with IPS about her work preventing violence against women.

Q: What is the reaction to these issues in Christian communities?

A: Sometimes there is a great deal of apprehension or expectations about what we are going to say. But when we address the issues of gender-based violence and discrimination through biblical texts, we are met mostly with acceptance.

The Bible has many liberating stories and others where women’s exclusion is denounced.

We have also encountered rejection. The gender issue can be disturbing because it addresses very difficult realities, and not everybody wants to know about them.

We have made progress compared to more than 20 years ago, when women’s problems had just begun to be discussed in Cuban churches. Now there is a greater openness to talking about gender inequality and many congregations ask us to hold workshops.

Q: What does this “alternative” reading of the Bible consist of? How are sexist passages addressed?

A: It is true that the Bible contains texts that are discriminatory toward women — in some communities they were expressly forbidden from speaking — but it also contains liberating ones.

For example, many say that for God there are no differences of sex or race. We cannot forget that some passages were a result of very patriarchal eras and contexts, in which women were not taken into consideration.

Q: Who tends to come to the workshops?

A: They are open to everyone, but it is mainly women who come. Nevertheless, the number of men taking part in the workshops has grown across the country, through the CIC programme.

The question of masculinity is also addressed using biblical passages, although this focus is new. People tend to confuse questions of masculinity with sexual diversity, an issue that many people are still reluctant to discuss.

Q: What special characteristics does the prevention of gender-based violence have in Christian communities?

A: Many women are abused in their homes and even in their churches, and they don’t tell anyone. They keep their problem a secret out of shame and the idea that “family matters” are not talked about in public. Some underestimate the seriousness of their situation, others don’t realise that they are in danger, and others reveal their secret only very confidentially.

That is why it is essential to train and raise the awareness of congregation leaders. That way they can assist women who ask for help or talk about their problem. Sometimes the solution is not within reach, but sometimes it is.

People who are abused generally lack the tools and resources to get out of the situation they find themselves in.

In Cuba not all of the structures exist, either, for victims to break that vicious cycle. I know of Christian congregations that support abused women, especially in the most extreme cases. On the other hand, people need to identify other, more subtle forms of violence.

Q: What are these other faces of abuses?

A: When women are made invisible, silenced, ignored and not allowed to participate, and their contributions are not recognised, they are very much abused.

Psychological violence, in all of its magnitude, is the most widespread. Women are centrally involved in pastoral work with children, caring for the sick and evangelical work, roles that they have always embraced.

I was the adviser to a student from Havana’s Instituto Superior de Estudios Bíblicos y Teológicos (Higher Institute of Biblical and Theological Studies), who conducted a study on gender-based violence among 28 women from a community in the Cuban capital.

When we processed the data, we found that six of them were in a dangerous situation. Unfortunately, one of them was murdered by her spouse that week, and he subsequently committed suicide. It was a tragedy…we were unable to save her. But we alerted the other five to the danger they were in.

Q: How much has women’s participation in Protestant churches changed?

A: I come from a Baptist denomination that does not ordain women. I later joined another Baptist group that does.

The history of women who have wanted to be pastors has been hard. For example, women missionaries studied in seminaries just like men, but when they graduated, they did not have the right to be pastors. In fact, if they married, they couldn’t even be missionaries.

That is why at a young age I joined a Christian group that stood up for the role of women in the church, and that asked for more equality and justice for them.

A gender-based approach has become much more influential in pastoral and ecclesiastical work and at Christian research institutes since the Decade of Women, from 1985 to 1995. This year we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the ordainment of the first three women in the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba.

Q: How much can religious communities contribute to the struggle against gender-based violence?

A: Congregations that work for gender equality are fortresses in their communities. In some, their work goes beyond the neighbourhood. When a woman is abused at home, the whole family is abused, and the whole community is affected.

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