Feminist Theology from Scratch

May 17, 2013
Zilka Spahic Siljak
Zilka Spahic Siljak

Before the war, things were fairly liberal in the former Yugoslavia, where Zilka Spahic Siljak grew up. In the 1970s, Muslim families like hers had the right to declare their ethnic identity. In response, they were subdued in their expressions of faith. Her parents went to services and prayers at the local mosque, but otherwise looked and lived like their non-Muslim neighbors.

Muslim women certainly didn't wear the traditional veil—the "hijab"—over their heads. So when the college-bound Spahic Siljak decided to pursue Islamic studies, and to wear the hijab, she did so against the wishes of her mother and father, who were afraid for her career and for her future.

"For me, hijab was relevant because I wanted to be in constant prayer and conversation with my God," she says. "I didn't know what feminism was, and I didn't know what gender equality was, but I knew what it should look like. I knew something was wrong in my society and something was missing in my religious tradition, but I didn't know how to theoretically frame it and properly articulate it."

The quest to understand a woman's role within Islam that began when Spahic Siljak went to college has, decades later, brought her to Harvard Divinity School's Women's Studies in Religion Program (WSRP), where, as one of the program's research associates, she works on a book about women peace builders in Bosnia and Herzegovina and teaches "Women, Spirituality, and Peace," a course that sheds light on female spiritual leadership within Sufi tradition.

"Women played significant roles in the teachings of Islam," she says. "And from their personal stories, as well as religious interpretive practice, it's interesting to see how femininity, masculinity, womanhood, and manhood were understood and interpreted over centuries, and what kind of strategies women have employed to overcome barriers in predominant masculine spiritual environments to become respected spiritual leaders, shaykhas, and teachers."

To become a respected leader in her own right, Spahic Siljak spent her years as a student on the front line of the Yugoslav wars. Just before she graduated from college, German feminists on a human rights mission approached her to join them at central Bosnia's first rape crisis center for women and children. She agreed to help, and found that the experience put her theology to the test.

"I learned later—when I continued my studies after the war—that what my colleagues and I had done at that time was feminist theology from scratch," she says. "Only later we learned how to name it. We hadn't a clue what feminism was, what feminist theology was. We just did it, trying to answer the immediate needs, to ease the pain and the suffering of these women and children. And we tried to help them understand how to believe in God after trauma, while answering their questions such as, why did God leave us to suffer? Am I sinful? What about abortion, and keeping a child out of rape? And without any literature or support from the Islamic community, I and my colleagues dealt with these issues the best we could."

After the war, Spahic Siljak felt like an empty battery. "I needed something to reenergize myself, to regain power, and continue my life. The best way for me to do that was to continue my education."

She pursued a master's degree in human rights, and then a PhD in gender studies. "It was important for me to get some distance from theology, to be able to approach religion from scholarly perspective, and to get a better understanding of it."

While getting her PhD, Spahic Siljak taught at a women's studies program in Sarajevo. After graduate school, she taught feminist theology based on the knowledge gained from prominent scholars like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Leila Ahmed, both of HDS, as well as Judith Plaskow, Fatima Mernissi, Amina Wadud, and others. She initiated and ran the first master's degree program in religious studies in postsocialist southeastern Europe, at the University of Sarajevo, and also taught gender and religion, human rights, and peace studies.

Spahic Siljak's academic interests intersected with human rights issues in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she lived. She partnered with a colleague and a Franciscan Catholic nun from Croatia to produce literature on women's human rights and domestic violence awareness that was distributed to nongovernmental organizations in the region.

"I don't believe that intellectuals and scholars should only sit in the classroom," she says. "We have to be in contact with people and know how to transfer our ideas and concepts, and to channel them to ordinary people."

With one year left in her fellowship at HDS, Spahic Siljak is working on a book that tells the story of 12 Bosnian and Herzegovinian women activists from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.

"They bore witness to incredible humanity during the war and after, and they serve as beacons of courage, love, compassion, and justice for a new generation stuck in isolated, ethnically homogenized communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and other parts of the world," she says.

Spahic Siljak credits the WSRP for making the work possible, and calls the program "a sanctuary" for women scholars like her.

"The Women's Studies in Religion Program is an amazing place for research, intellectual discussions, learning, teaching, and friendships," she says. "It's a 'safe space' where I can work in peace and a good atmosphere. This fellowship is not only important for my personal academic growth, but also provides an opportunity to make and build relationships, both professional and personal, that make my life rich and fulfilling."

—by Sarah Sweeney