Reconstructing the Feminine: Women in São Paulo s CEBs / Reconstruction de l identité féminine et communautés de base à São Paulo - article ; n°1 ; vol.71, pg 63-74
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Reconstructing the Feminine: Women in São Paulo's CEBs / Reconstruction de l'identité féminine et communautés de base à São Paulo - article ; n°1 ; vol.71, pg 63-74

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Archives des sciences sociales des religions - Année 1990 - Volume 71 - Numéro 1 - Pages 63-74
12 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



Publié par
Publié le 01 janvier 1990
Nombre de lectures 25
Langue Français
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo


Carol Drogus
Reconstructing the Feminine: Women in São Paulo's CEBs /
Reconstruction de l'identité féminine et communautés de base à
São Paulo
In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N. 71, 1990. pp. 63-74.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Drogus Carol. Reconstructing the Feminine: Women in São Paulo's CEBs / Reconstruction de l'identité féminine et
communautés de base à São Paulo. In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N. 71, 1990. pp. 63-74.
doi : 10.3406/assr.1990.1343 Sc soc des Rel. 1990 71 juillet-septembre) 63-74
Comment les idées conduisent-elles action politique La réinter
prétation des discours par les acteurs peut conduire des comporte
ments et des pratiques qui ne vont pas dans le sens voulu par les
promoteurs du discours Pour comprendre action il faut accéder la
fa on dont les idées sont assimilées par les différents acteurs Dans le
cas de la population féminine des Communautés Ecclésiales de Base
au Brésil sa place dans la division sexuelle du travail et les contra
dictions internes de la théologie de la libération amènent les femmes-
leaders et les autres des pratiques apparemment identiques dont le
contenu est en fait divergent
One of the most dynamic locales for studying the translation of political
ideas into action is Latin America There an intriguing set of ideas liberation
theology is reaching people through unique medium comunidades eclesiais
de base CEBs The result has been significant political action by those considered
politically marginal women the rural and urban poor
Liberation role in this unprecedented mobilization is ambiguous theologians attempt to reconceptualize religious symbols in way that
frees those symbols to perform mobilizational rather than hegemonic role
Conscientization based on religious themes in CEBs is expected to lead the poor
to class-based awareness But growing evidence suggests members political
activism may be unrelated to any significant change in class consciousness 1)
How can we explain the unprecedented political activism given the apparent
ly limited impact of liberation theology To address this issue is to explore the very
process of translating ideas into political action In the case of CEBs that process
involves the reconciliation of two conflicting discourses one informed by religious
and cultural tradition and the other challenging conception of liberation theo
logy The consciousness of the agents involved is not simply given by the Church
but is developed interactively as members assimilate the new discourse into
existing beliefs 2)
In any discourse hierarchically-organized bipolar opposites are related to
one another in chains that is dominant concepts are linked to dominant
concepts and subordinate to subordinate Estab ishing identity within
culture depends upon positioning oneself correctly with respect to these concepts
As one matures within culture one internalizes the unwritten rules governing
behavior for person of given identity Ideally conscientiza results in the
complete superceding of the traditional discourse At the very least the new ideas
introduced in CEBs challenge it
Liberation theologians argue that the traditional discourse of religion perpe
tuates the status quo It reinforces the culturally-accepted definition of the poor as
humble passive submissive and dependent In addition it defines the religious
person as one who seeks personal salvation and is above politics Liberation
theologians attempt to deal systematically with the apparent conflicts between
poverty and empowerment religion and politics In reinterpretations of Exodus
in liberationist Christology and in reflections on the contemporary politics of
Brazil members are presented with ideas that challenge the cultural belief
that the poor and the religious cannot and should not engage in class-based
political activism
The dilemma of reconciling opposing discourses becomes particularly salient
in the case of working-class women in CEBs If it is difficult for poor Latin
American man to overcome established rules of identity to participate actively in
politics it is nearly impossible for his wife to do so She is culturally defined as
excluded from the political sphere limited to the domestic sphere
But ironically because that domestic sphere includes religion women are
disproportionately drawn into the CEBs Indeed in urban areas CEBs are not
only class-based they are also overwhelmingly organizations Women
comprise between 66 and 90 percent of participants In CEBs women are
asked to take on political roles that conflict with their culturally-established
identities as poor people as religious people and as women
By examining the ways in which women engage the ideas of liberation
theology and the new visions they articulate we can begin to define its possibilities
and limits adaptation of liberation discourse to their own
identities and needs is both vindication of and challenge to that theology as
mobilizational empowering resource It is also lesson in the process by which
new ideas generate political action Based on in-depth interviews with women in
the diocese of Miguel Zona Leste of Paulo examine the ways in which
women balance opposing discourses and the type of political mobilization that
follows First however we should establish briefly liberation challenge
to identities as defined traditionally by culture and religion
The Vocation of Motherhood
In Western societies the sexual division of labor is culturally reinforced by
distinction between the public and the private spheres Seen as binary opposites
these spheres are culturally and linguistically related to the opposition man-
woman The exact nature of the boundaries and the related question of what
kinds of behavior are appropriate for men and women varies of course But the
two spheres continue to be perceived as governed by opposing discourses
masculine rational competitive discourse and feminine emotive suppor-
tive discourse Women who enter the public world of men must develop
way to balance the two discourses an especially complex task for women who
also bear the culturally-accepted private sphere roles of wife and mother 6)
In Latin America the division of masculine and feminine domains is rein
forced by religious symbolism Mancinismo the veneration of the Virgin Mary
emphasizes the semi-divinity moral superiority and spiritual strength of
women The ideal is summarized in the figure of the long-suffering wife and
mother whose patient prayers may yet redeem the wayward males of her
family In Brazil as in much of Latin America since the tum of the century
Marian and other devotional societies encouraged women to view the domestic
sphere as their natural place and the one in which religious piety and practices
were preserved from the corrupting influences of the increasingly secularized
male domain 8)
The aftermath of Vatican II presented an opening for women just as it
facilitated liberation theology Pope John XXIII called on women to participate
as co-equals in the construction of the human community and more equally
within the Church The Brazilian Church began accepting changes in
status such as work outside the home by middle class women But
Church pronouncements continued to justify change in terms of
traditional roles 10 Moreover the Church did not confront moral prohibitions
e.g. birth control whose removal might facilitate expansion of
roles 11)
Pope John Paul II has reverted to more traditional conception of
role in Church and society The statements suggest for example that
women are not essentially part of the world of work Rather they relate to it as
dependents of working men or must occasionally engage in external employment
because of an unjust necessity 12 The Pope often uses the example of Mary in
ways that reinforce the notion of sphere in the home His apostolic
letter On the Dignity of Women focuses on virginity and motherhood as the
appropriate vocations for women It posits the existence of separate but equal
male and female spheres of action and has been interpreted as blow to
ambitions for greater participation within the Church itself 13)
Ambivalence about status is present in liberation treat
ment of gender as well The CEBs have perhaps unintentionally proved great
force for mobilizing women At the same time however they have difficulty
breaking with the notion that primary concern is the family
Call to Lay Activism
Base communities meshed well with the post-conciliar emphasis
on innovative structures for increasing lay participation 14 For the hierarchy
the CEBs constituted way of bringing lay people more actively into the Church
particularly in countries like Brazil which are chronically short of clergy For
liberation theologians the groups were means to reach out to poor laypeople In
the conte

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