The exploitation of women and patriarchy are realities in the Indian Church as much as they are part of Indian society, says Nazareth Sister Shalini D’Souza. The 71-year-old Indian nun, who formerly headed her Kentucky-based congregation of Sisters of Charity of Nazareth,  in a powerful interview says the Church needs “strong and courageous women who can speak for themselves. Conference of Religious Bulletin India.

Sister D’Souza, now based in Bihar, speaks about issues such as male domination in the Church, the Church’s exploitation of women and ways to liberate women. She spoke to while on a visit to Delhi.

Q: Is the Indian Church patriarchal?

A: Yes, it is. But patriarchy doesn’t apply only to the Church. It is part of Indian society. It exists in the Church as much as it does in society. I think what the Church and what we all need is to develop a feminist and a mutually-respectful cross-cultural consciousness.

Q: But how can patriarchy affect convent life where nuns live alone?

A: Patriarchy and male dominance do not affect convent life as such. But cultural hegemony continues. Women, including nuns, have internalized the system. Most women accept male dominance.

We exclude ourselves from positions of responsibility and power. I believe we need to address the issue with a broader vision. We cannot narrow it only to the Church.

We need to empower the powerless; connect with people at the grassroots the poor, tribal and dalit [oppressed] people. We need to introduce a paradigm of solidarity and work toward the “discipleship of equality.”

Q: Where do we start?

A: We have to look at several levels. Firstly, we need to re-interpret Scriptures and reconstruct liturgies. We need women like Mary Magdalene, a courageous woman who came to Jesus. She came alone and entered the room where only men were present. She did things which no other woman would dare to do. We need to re-interpret the Bible with a perspective of women, projecting the strengths of women.

Q: What about talk of sexual exploitation of women in the Church?

There is sexual exploitation of women Religious in the Church. But because there are priests involved, there is silence. The fight against this issue has erupted in Europe and the US and it will come to India.

Q: Why don’t nuns start speaking up?

Some women have, but only a few. For women to have their say there should be micro movements in the Church similar to what exist in society. Here you have movements against dowries, violence and trafficking. In the same way, we have to stand up against movements that exclude women from the liturgy and from teaching theology in seminaries.

Q: What do you mean by inclusion of women in liturgies?

Women’s roles in the Church are limited. Ordination is only for men. Let women lead the liturgy and let the Church include women in more significant roles.

Q: How can you say this when a recent Vatican document puts ordination of women on a par with child sex abuse?

That was very derogatory. Many sections of women have responded to it very strongly. I would like women to be ordained.

Q: What kind of women Religious would you like to see by 2020?

A: I do not think the institution of women Religious would be the same in the next 10 years. I don’t think we should be contained in institutions as we are now. There is a Church of the Diaspora, of people with little support. We should be out there living with them and come to the institution only for reflection.

The institution should be a base to rejuvenate but it should not be a place of residence. Women Religious need to look at their roles much beyond the convents.

Q: What do you expect from the Congress of Religious India?

A: It needs to become a forum where women Religious unite and discuss their issues, articulate them and strategize plans.

It has to be a vibrant organization. It has to be in touch with the signs of the times. Until we are involved in the micro movements, we will have no relevance. Until we understand what is affecting humanity and we stand up for it, we cannot be vibrant because we are isolating ourselves.

There are more than 100,000 women Religious. It’s a huge force. We have not yet garnered it.

Q: As a leader what have you done?

I opened many doors and took many risks. I spent seven years helping prostitutes and today we have a ministry taking care of their children so as to break the prostitution cycle.

I lived outside my convent with a woman and we used to visit the red light areas every day. I worked for seven years on the domestic workers forum as well as in Delhi’s slums. I have done my bit and I would have gone back if I wasn’t obliged to do other things.

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