Read: Romans 16
Today is International Women's Day. On this day people often, tend to remember women who have made a mark in their field and have been channels of transformation and change. But there are some who tend to be relegated to the sidelines and often forgotten because their battles have been long drawn and they are still fighting their battle. On this day, I believe I need to bring to our attention the life and struggle of Irom Sharmila, human rights activist from Manipur, India. Sharmila is fondly called as the Iron Lady of Manipur and she has been on fast for the last 12 years. Fasting to demand the repeal of a controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which provides the security forces to shoot at sight and arrest anybody without any warrant. She undertook this fast on November 2, 2000 when she witnessed to the killing of 10 people at a bus stop near her home. Three days into her hunger strike, Sharmila was arrested on charges of attempted suicide, sent to a prison hospital and put on a nasal drip. In fact the charges of attempted suicide is still foisted on her and a few days back when she had to attend the court proceedings, she told the court that " I don't want to commit suicide. Mine is a non-violent protest. It is my demand to live as a human being. I love life. I do not want to take my life. I want justice and peace". Today, the 40 year old Sharmila is frail but very stoic and full of resolve to continue her hunger strike. Sharmila does not come on the front page of the news magazines nor on the news channel, may be because for the channels her fight for justice may not have the ingredients to boost the star rating of the channels or the news agencies. But she is remembered very passively once in a while. People tend to take her fight for justice and peace as something not serious and an issue that they are not interested as the issues related to her hunger strike has nothing to do with them. In a day when you will have number of discussions and symposium on empowering woman, the greatest discrimination that a society could do to people like Sharmila, is to take her and her fight for granted. We don't want to be serious about her and her cause because the very attitude that a patriarchal society tends to promulgate is to put certain boundaries both in life and in our perceptions with regards to the way woman has to function, in family, church and society. Unless those boundaries are not broken or widened, woman like Sharmila and host of other unknown women who are struggling for justice and peace, will always be relegated to the sidelines of the society.
Apostle Paul has been vociferously condemned and criticized for his writings about his stand on woman and their role in the church. But this criticism comes when we do not comprehensively study Paul's epistles and his attitudes in contextual terms and understanding. In Romans 16:1,2, we find Paul recommending Phoebe, one who serves the church in Cenchreae. The Apostle Paul addresses Phoebe, in Greek as Deacon of the Church. Thus you find a very unique contribution of the church in the early years of its existence of appointing woman as deacons. Thus you had woman deacons like Phoebe who must have been appointed by the apostles and had an office of service. People may tend to misinterpret the word used to describe Phoebe as "one who serves the church". The word used in Greek is "diakonon" and is both masculine and feminine accusative form of the noun, when translated in English is deacon and also could denote the word servant. Thus, the early church had no problems in appointing woman as deacons to serve the church. However, today the very understanding of deacon has changed and also its gender affiliations. Deacons were meant as a position to serve in the church, but today it is considered as an office of authority and position. When the word deacon became a position of authority and office, came the denial of woman from this office. Male could be a deacon since it is a position of authority and power, while woman should not have position and authority and hence the best way to deny woman authority and position is to restrict the functioning of woman, by consciously limiting their role to the other English translation of deacon- a servant. Man as a deacon is a position of authority, while woman is considered more as a servant or one who is consciously condemned to do the job of service. It is this type of deliberate misinterpretation of biblical truths and historical facts that denigrates the role of the woman in the church and the society. On this women's day, let us consciously rise above such hollow and lopsided interpretations of biblical truths and work in such a way that church and society could break or broaden its boundaries so that everyone irrespective of one's gender is able to contribute meaningfully to the growth of the church.
Rev. Dr. Joe Joseph Kuruvilla