Faith and Ideology: Asian Women's Experiences

By YONG Ting Jin


I am aware that by now you have had many discussions on globalisation. My role now is to add in the perspective of Asian women in the discussions because just as globalisation affects people differently according to their social, economic and political locations, there is also a difference in impact due to the matter of gender. I am glad that the CCA-URM and the Mission & Evangelism Desks of the CCA recognise that fact, hence, they have included the women's voice in this consultation. Of course I am aware that a larger purpose for this consultation is for participants "to reflect and to look for some answers for URM and people's movements in their wrestling on the issues of ideology, faith and spirituality in the new millennium... People's movements and URM seem to have lost both ideological and faith and spirituality foundation in struggling side by side with the people for facing the global economic power. A mission which fights for justice needs clear and strong ideological and theological and spirituality basis." I am glad for the fact that the women's perspective is taken seriously in this assessment of the faith and ideology of civil society.

Questioning the Ideology behind Globalisation

Over the last decade, many people-oriented groups and movements experienced a deepening of the ideological vacuum. The search for an alternative ideologies has continued and there seems to be no clear answer to people's questions. Since the fall of State Socialism, socialism had been depicted as a system that failed to deliver. Consequently, capitalism seems to have triumphed and succeeded as the system that works, the system that will not only usher in and realise "the abundant and good life" on earth through globalisation but even bring it to its ultimate consummation in the new millennium. The new world order, one global village, borderless world, global market, economic liberalisation are among the slogans being peddled promising the "abundant and good life" in this world. It seems then that the ideology of global capitalism reigns! And globalisation is the new label replacing neo-colonialism and imperialism.

How Asian Women Analyse Globalisation

I would like to present some Asian women's analyses of globalisation. Although the impact seems to be predominantly economic, globalisation is not just about economics. It is also a socio-cultural, political and religious issue that has wide negative effects on all spheres of life. Drawing from other Asians' analyses, Hope Antone[1] makes a concise summary that globalisation is "a new colonialism that manifests itself through economic domination, cultural aggression, and political imperialism." She describes and defines it in the following:

  • Globalization is economic domination because it aims at the integration of the economies of the world to the so-called liberal capitalist market economy which is controlled by the rich countries belonging to the so-called Group of Seven or, sometimes, Group Eight.

  • Globalization is cultural aggression because in its attempt to propagate a mono-culture, it has no respect for the uniqueness of peoples' cultures... All these at the expense of the local people's values, lifestyles, and natural environment.

  • Globalization is political imperialism because it boils down to the unjust power relations between the have and the have-nots among the countries of the world, and among the rich and poor sectors within individual nations of the world.

In line with incorporating and integrating Asian economies into the global market economy based on the economic development model for the NICs [newly industrialised countries] towards achieving a fully developed status, one new strategy is to increase the labour force. Other than the influx of migrant workers, women have been drafted into this development process, as in the case of Malaysia. However, far from gaining "liberation" and "equality" through gainful employment and "modernisation", women have in fact become further burdened and oppressed. This has given rise to new issues relating to gender and development apart from other multiple existing forms of violence against women in the home and workplaces.

In the light of this trend of globalisation, women in Asia are caught at the crossroads of development. A wide cross-section of them -- indigenous women, urban settler women, sex workers, domestic workers, women in the community threatened by environmental health hazards, battered women, women workers, women who experience sexual harassment and violence against them at some point in their lives in and outside the home -- are being incorporated into the mainstream of economic development under the disguise of "equal opportunity", "equality", "equal participation", "women's contribution" and "value" to the full development of the nation. This new strategy of mobilising the whole nation towards achieving a fully developed status accelerated in high gear over the last decade, as in the case of Malaysia towards "Vision 2020".

Lilith M. Usog[2] says "The most recent phenomenon is the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade [GATT] and the World Trade Organisation [WTO] wrapped in the term Globalisation with an aim of creating a global village under the guise of development... If globalisation means development, then why the Asian crisis?"

In her update on the exploitation of women labour force, Irene Xavier[3] views globalisation as "global capitalism in an age of technology which has direct impact on women workers". On another occasion, she names several ill effects of globalisation on women in Asia[4]:

  • Globalisation is really the lop-sided economic development in Asia which has thousands of women being retrenched... In the current Asian economic crisis thousands of women workers have lost their jobs and thousands more will also lose their jobs.

  • Globalisation is characterised by the weakening of national governments which have literally traded the labour of their people, particularly of women, for low wages and anti-worker legislation.

  • Globalisation means a dragging economy that has resulted in women taking up paid work outside the home but without changes in their domestic burdens at home... Asian women contribute the major share in household tasks especially on weekends. The multiple tasks that Asian women undertake has increased with globalisation because paid work requires of women long and intense hours of work especially with forced overtime work and shift work."

  • Globalisation has come with work methods that try to ensure that the multiple tasks of women continue. This is done by offering contract work and home work to women. Thus, women with young children can stay home and carry out both paid and unpaid work in the same premise.

  • Globalisation has also caused the increase in prices of essential goods and services.

Xavier's conclusion is that such stress results in the deterioration of women's health. Altogether, globalisation leads to "an erosion of women's democratic space in economics, politics and culture. Gender relations continue to be unequal."

On the plight of women migrant workers, May-an Villalba[5] asserts that "the idea that the world is integrating economically or "globalising" is simply not true as far as migrant workers are concerned... Yes, migrant workers may be filling a temporary labour vacuum in the host countries and are being paid wages which are comparably better than in their home countries. But no, poor migrant workers are not being 'integrated'. They are not considered a true, much less a 'permanent' factor of production. They are a tradable and movable human resource that may not enjoy tenure of work and real labour rights. Hence, she points out, Globalisation is simply an illusion of corporations so that they may operate globally without constraints, simply because they proclaim the power of capital, technology and trade which they claim they alone are the bearers of".

Globalisation that comes with the advancement of information technology has further impact on women while offering some gains for many. Cecilia Ng[6] advocates for a more gender-friendly information technology and thinks that women's skills, knowledge and access to information technology should be enhanced. She asserts that the information communication technology [ICT] serves to provide excellent facilities to the current phase of globalisation and economic liberalisation. These ICTs are "mainly controlled and dominated by MNCs located in the industrialised countries".

In another comprehensive analysis on globalisation and women, Ng[7] raises a critical question: "is globalisation weakening or strengthening patriarchy? In other words, are women, as a result of globalisation, gaining more rights or because they are now more visible in their claim for gender and social equality, the forces of conservatism (in the name of tradition, religion and even love) have reacted, making their struggle an uphill one?" While she argues that there have certainly been gains in view of women's rights being recognised as human rights, she also points out that "these gains have been made both as a result of and in spite of globalisation - through centuries of struggle... There have been increased economic opportunities for women but also mounting threats". She then highlights at least five major areas of concern in relation to opportunities and threats: feminisation of employment, migration and the family, violence against women, commoditisation of women and privatisation.

Where is God in this age of globalisation and technology?

Is the gospel of the Jubilee and God's reign relevant in the 21st century? Does God really reign or is it the ideology and forces of globalisation that reign? There is much to reflect about in the face of a rapidly changing Asia entering into the 21st Century with new issues and challenges of globalisation to come. What comes to mind immediately as an analogy from which we can draw some lessons is the story of the "Tower of Babel" and "Cain the City Builder". We can see in the first 11 chapters of Genesis the many parallel accounts that can illustrate the realities of globalisation. The dynamic signs of the tower of Babel, Cain's spirit of the City and that of the city-builders describe to us globalisation.

The story culminates in a series of narratives pointing to the origin and increase of the sinful character of humanity and society. The tower is gloriously reaching up to heaven. It is held around the myth of the city and a name. Cain, the murderer of his brother Abel, goes to build a city for himself, where he can attain material security. He is also the first city-builder by his own inauguration of a new world as opposed to God's Creation. He creates, names and constructs his own beginning; the city and all that it represents. He transmits his life to his children and descendants, for the entire history of the city has its beginning in Cain's act. All the builders are sons of Cain who act with his purpose.

The "sons of men" said to one another, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves." Corresponding to this, the Lord said, "Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language..." (Gen. 11:4-8). The city that culminates with a tower is the means of acquiring the name because to make a name for oneself means power and control with the attempt at building and creating. It is a conquering step of "mankind" towards the city of his independence and pride, distinct from the spirituality of God but in continuous revolt to mark his own success and advance against God. "Let us go" is the conquering step of the triumphant subject now taking over all of creation and his own destiny by his name. Such is the nature of the entire human enterprise.

This general human condition has reached its high point in Babel, which means "confusion". The "one language and few words" is not a language of communication between people. It is a language of power, domination, and of how to make a name for self-glory. Indeed, this entire human history bears the language of the city and urban civilization.

The essential character of city development as described in the earliest accounts of human existence has its sharp parallels with the current trends of globalisation. Today, the modern city is the administrative and ideological centre of the nation-state around which the entire economic, social and political life revolves. It is secured with schemes and strategies that desire to be as wise as God and with no accountability to God. The characters of Cain and his descendants as the first city builders and the character of today's cities have striking similarities. There is no more exercise of stewardship over God's Creation but only the abuse and destruction of ecology and the life-support system in creation.

Furthermore, the city with a tower reaching high up to the heavens flies the flag of globalisation. Behind this lies the political, military and economic power of a few who are brought about and united by the vision and language of a common capitalist ideology. This global capitalism is expressed in the few words of a borderless world, one global village, new economic or world order, modernisation, industrialisation and information technology; free market, liberalisation and privatisation. It has multiple faces and subtle manifestations in the forms of MNCs, TNCs, G7, WTO and World Bank, etc.

The city also belongs to the design of the "sons of men", the patriarchs of urban civilization and modernisation. This design does not bear the mark or essence of God's Creation, who created male and female in God's image. But rather, the "sons of men" create the city in their own image, based on their own religion of self-worship and patriarchal system. Therefore, men build the city and women are co-opted to satisfy the human desire for the purpose of cheap human labour and reproduction. Genesis 4-11 is revisited but now with heightened gender socialization, manipulation and sophistication to maintain the system of patriarchy. Even the story and its interpretation of Cain and Abel reflects subtly the exclusiveness of "brotherhood" ("am I my brother's keeper?"), not humankind inclusive of women.

Women have no place or role in the construction of the city. The "sons of men", the conquerors and city-builders have a name and language for themselves that exclude and marginalise women, the disabled, the poor and oppressed. But this name and language have an age-long patriarchal face while the women and the marginalised groups are faceless and nameless. Their language comes in many words of suffering, oppression and the struggle to be treated as fully human, equally made in God's image.

Calling globalisation a beast in contemporary time, Jeannie Nacpil-Manipon[8] asks pertinent questions: "What manner of a beast is this Globalisation, which seduces powers and principalities with the promise of glory and wealth, which gives benevolently, but takes away mercilessly? ...Globalisation favours certain actors, powers and forces, and mercilessly excludes others. It facilitates and allows access and unhampered control over markets, commodities and almost all the earth's resources to a certain few, while the millions of marginalized people are deprived of the access to resources, their share of benefits, their control over their own lives and future." The Global Beast can be appropriately called "Legion" because it is many -- it has multiple faces, names, subtle forms and manifestations.

In light of the above, what are the alternative thinking and visions that will bring forth light into the 21st century and the new millennium? Perhaps the most recent events that have mobilised international mass actions are the anti-globalisation campaigns and the Jubilee 2000 movement. People who formed themselves into Jubilee 2000 movement both in and outside of the church have persistently called for the cancellation of Third World debt as seen in the 1999 WTO Conference in Seattle and the largest protest represented in Prague this September 2000.

With the rhetoric around the millennium comes also the question of an unknown future with great uncertainty for many people wherever they are. What kind of ideologies or theologies or spirituality can serve as effective counter-culture to the dominant capitalist ideology? What message of hope do we as people of faith have for a despairing humanity plagued with the present global crisis?

Renewing the Vision of Jubilee in the New Age

The Jubilee prompts us to look at our global realities with new hope and renewed vision. As contained in the core message of God's Reign and Jubilee, God's historic time or "kairos" is here and now in the 21st century and new millennium. God's "kairos" is the time of liberation of the captives and oppressed for all of humanity. Hence the new age of liberation is offered to all women and men.

The 50th year is God's sacred "kairos". It is a time of revolution, liberation from inequality and injustice and celebration of the righteousness of God: slaves are to be set free, land to be redistributed and returned to its original owners, and the debts of the poor to be written off. It is also a time in which people of faith in obedience to God would set right the unequal and unjust relationships in society. Therefore the Jubilee Year is God's sacred time for God's people to re-order and restructure life. Socially, one needs to put into action following the summary of the Law: to love God above all and to love neighbour as oneself. Economically, one learns to live and work for the establishment of an economy of sharing and co-operation (Acts 2:44). Politically, one who is the master shall be the servant of the people and power is employed for the service of people and not for domination. The Jubilee is a sacred renewal of a covenant between God and the people of faith when the 50th year is supposed to set and usher in such a new social order for the next 49 years!

In his first mission address Jesus embraced fully the Jubilee vision together with the vision of the "baseleia" [God's Reign that has come] as the GOSPEL, the "good news". In Luke 4:19 the Jubilee vision is the culmination of the gospel in the Reign of God that has come. Jesus regarded himself as the fulfilment of the Jubilee vision as he was sent to inaugurate the Reign of God here and now in these words "today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (v. 21).

The Jubilee bears precisely the characteristic marks of the "baseleia" of God. Jesus brought with him the testimony of Isaiah 61 that the time of God has come to put an end to all oppression and bondage and injustice under Roman power. Jesus said when the "baseleia" came it could not keep the old structures and lifestyles intact. As in the parable of the wine and wineskins, if new wine is contained in old wineskins, the latter will burst. Hence, new wine needs new wineskins (Mk 2:21-22).

Likewise, we see Jesus setting aside, challenging and discarding many an established tradition and institution in the areas of religion, social practices, norms, economics and politics. This placed Jesus in a situation of historical conflict with the vested interests - conflicts with both the religious Jewish leaders and Roman political authorities [Luke 4:21].

This Jubilee vision is a New Order of life under God's Reign. Jesus was guided by this vision to carry out his mission. He used many parables to illustrate the ideals of the baseleia and his sayings were pregnant with ideas of the new creation, the new order of life, new humanity and human relationships; all expressed in the language of the Jubilee! They were spoken to the ordinary people to reflect about life and the concrete experiences of their situation. Therefore he sought to communicate a vision of new age, a new vision of human community, a new vision for the whole of life when love, peace with justice, equality and dignity will prevail among all people, both women and men, young and old. In word and action Jesus embraced fully the acceptable "Jubilee" year of Yahweh.

It is a NEW age when God's will is worked out through God's people establishing a new social, economic and political order. This new age is to re-order and restructure life socially, based on the summary of the Law which is to love God and "love your neighbour as you love yourself"; economically through the establishment of an economy of sharing and co-operation (Acts 2:44) and politically, where the masters shall be the servants of the people and power is employed for the service of people and not for their domination... In this new age people must repent and turn to a new mentality fit for the new social and humanising order.

The Jubilee is Good News to Women

The new order also speaks of a time in which God would set right the wrong relationships in society where equality and human relationships in social-personal terms should be corrected and changed. Here in particular the old and unequal gender relations between men and women were to be corrected and set right in God's sight. The woman 's status will be restored. In God's Reign and historic time, the "acceptable year", woman is truly recognised as God's own creation, sharing in the very image of God with full dignity, respect and value.

Seen within the oppressive social structures and realities, JESUS the embodiment and fulfilment of God's Jubilee is GOOD NEWS TO WOMEN! At Jesus' time, the women responded and accepted this good news wholeheartedly! It is good news against the old system that is bad news. The old system is oppressive which has subjected women's lives to many forms of violence and discrimination. It denies the human dignity, value and status of women. It has dehumanised women and distorted the image of God in them. The old system is also patriarchal from the home to social and religious places. It is an old society where women experienced domination at all social, cultural, economic, political and religious levels.

From Challenges to Alternatives

In view of the ongoing aggressive trends and challenges of globalisation by the powers that be, what lies ahead for women? Coming back to the original objectives of this consultation on the search for an alternative ideology [or ideologies], it seems difficult to point to one single answer or identify an ideology that can truly answer to people's questions and in particular the woman's question. The systems of state-socialism and capitalism are unable to respond to the woman's question as patriarchy is a part and parcel of the system. But as Cecilia has recalled the critical question whether globalisation has weakened or strengthened patriarchy, women found themselves having to wage a double struggle resisting the ideology behind globalisation and the male-dominated structures within it. While women work and struggle alongside with the male-dominated people's movements for peace and justice, they find themselves having to fight against the "enemy from within" for their own rights, equality and justice. Women find that the old system is oppressive which has subjugated their lives to many forms of violence and exploitation. The old system is also patriarchal from the home to social and religious places. It is an old society where women experienced domination at all social, cultural, economic, political and religious levels.

In view of women's realities and experiences, I am not sure if we need to look for another ideology or theology or spirituality. But the reflection of the tower of Babel and the biblical Jubilee in the context of God's Reign are indeed inspiration for women to pursue and persist with the centuries of struggle in spite of or as a result of the manipulative 'isms' that have caused women much pain and suffering. Despite this, women of many different economic sectors, social classes and background, races and religions are working for life-giving alternatives with and without the general people's movements. The challenge is once again issued to look towards the biblical jubilee for a renewal of our vision with the renewed hope for change and transformation of oneself and the society at large.

  1. Hope Antone, "Some Asian Women's Responses to Globalisation", presented at the Friday Assembly of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Hong Kong on Sept. 15, 2000.

  2. Lilith M. Usog, "Cacophony: It was very good, then... How do we make it good now?" Vol. 18, No. 1, 1999, p. 15.

  3. Update on globalisation and women workers shared at the Editorial Advisory Committee meeting of In God's Image journal, AWRC, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on November 20, 2000.

  4. Irene Xavier, "Gender and Women's Concerns: An Asian Perspective", In God's Image, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2000, p. 38-39.

  5. May-an Villalba, "Migrant Workers Challenge Globalisation", In God's Image, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2000, p. 30.

  6. Cecilia Ng, "Towards a Gender Friendly Information Technology", In God's Image, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2000.

  7. The paper on "Globalisation and Women" was presented by Dr. Cecilia NG for the conference on "Development and Liberation in the 3rd Millennium" that was organised by Faith, Mission and Unity Unit of CCA, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, October 2000.

  8. Jeannie Nacpil-Manipon, "Global Trends and Asian Women", Vol.17, No.1, 1998, p. 12.

**[The above article was presented at the recent CCA-FMU/URM Consultation and Discussion on Ideology, Faith and People's Movement in the New Millenium that was held in Chiangmai, Thailand, 8-11 December 2000]