Women of Abya Yala

From a Womanist and Decolonial Perspective

By Yenny Delgado

After many battles in recent decades, women mobilized against laws that seek control over our bodies, maternity decisions, women’s political participation and ecclesiastical leadership roles.

In the meta-narrative of society and Judeo-Christian theological belief, man is at the center of power, society, culture, and religious practices. From the patriarchal political rules, legislative bodies made up primarily of men that legislate on the morality of the framework of society. Indeed, for centuries the place of women has often been a place of marginalization and submission both in society and ecclesiastical spaces. This marginalization hurts the community and leads to a fracture of women’s identity, lack of clear opportunities for leadership, oppression in the family structure, and forced assimilation to cultural norms that affects social dynamics and women’s theological reflection. 

The women of Abya Yala* have experienced the colonization of our bodies and territories, humiliation, and lack of recognition of self-identity as a native population. A society built on colonizing the land and forcing native women to navigate the oppressor’s culture, history, and religious practice make native women doubly vulnerable.

In the history of the women’s movement, the Native women’s participation, our presence, voice, and needs have been invisible. The main protagonist of the women’s struggle has long been represented by European women descendants, who mobilized for the right to have equal participation as white men. However, other voices were left behind, even though Native women had been denouncing for decades; ethnic discrimination, racism, and supremacist ideologies were increasingly practiced.

Under this context, a theological reflection as women of Abya Yala aims to decolonize and liberate the living conditions of women through understanding our historical experiences. Recognizing the struggle and the value of our ancestral memories, our original languages, and spiritual practices provide the necessary recognition and opens an opportunity for renewed discourse on the women’s movement and action in the public square and throughout society.

Womanist derives from the word “woman.”

Womanism derives from the word “woman,” and in the historical sense of the term, womanist comes from the experience of African-descendant women in the United States who were enslaved and often passed from childhood to adulthood at a young age to assume household responsibilities in the process of generational slavery to which they were subjected.

Native women’s experiences were similar; women were confined to service and forced servitude, including sexual abuse from colonizers and forced work on their own land. On the other hand, European descendant women in Abya Yala distanced themself from colonize history. They played the role of daughters, wives, and mothers of colonizers and slavers in Abya Yala. The lack of reflection or recognition of this history of women further highlights the benefits and positions of power and status afforded them in a white supremacist patriarchal society. Indeed, in the United States, it is estimated that approximately 40% of all enslavers of women and men of African descendants based on the census from 1850 to 1860 were White women. These facts show the inequality reality in the women movement from the three significant ethnic communities (Native, African, and European descendants in Abya Yala) who are looking to approach liberation on women’s role in society and religious spaces.

Womanist theology against colonization and patriarchy

Women theologians of African and Native descendants in the late 1970s understood the conditions for women to visualize and have their voice. The theologians highlighted how the texts were predominantly written by white theologians and did not consider the perspectives and viewpoints of women in the church. Womanists created a methodological approach to studying and writing theology that focuses on the experience of women who struggle against oppression and colonization. Women developed new theologies through their role as professor, pastors, and leaders advocating for a place in the dialogue for women’s studies and perspectives in theological spaces, as well as in the field of ethical theology in which the understanding and regulations of moral norms have governed the society, the house, and the church for a long time.

The last few decades have been influential as women began to expose the triple dynamics of ethnicity, sex, and economic oppression in a colonized land. Women advocated for the right to freedom to do theological and social work from different disciplines and use intersectional work thanks to the contribution of Kimberly Crenshaw, who, since 1989, has worked on the concept of intersectionality-related systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination in the United Stated. Her social and academic contribution open new doors to another way of reflection. The results of these battles have given women greater autonomy in society and are now promoted as good policies in progressive governments, but still, many more challenges are ahead. 

Today we can see some results, which show in practice and establishment not only in a society where we can see women presidents and congresswomen but as well in the church, with leading women becoming theologians, bishops, pastors, ruling elders, and other vital roles.

From this historical analysis, a better understanding of the women of Abya Yala can show a broader approach to how women re-imagine other forms of women who have gone through all the complex situations in a patriarchal and colonial society.

Today is clear, the women of Abya Yala empower themselves with reflections on a historical colonial experience, ancestral memory of resistance, and hope in the new future that allows them to continue to raise their voice in a context of violence, disadvantages, and oppression. The discourse of the “monolithic and universal history of the women’s movement” is now amplified to integrate the native women’s history, memory, and public faith practice that continues to be shared around the community.

However, until 2022, the cases of inequality, womencide, and discrimination against Native women of the continent struggle for true representation in academia and at a political level that continues to practice colonial ideologies. The countless number of unsolved cases involving disappearances and murders of women and girls of Native descendants in the Abya Yala is an example that can show the lack of attention to women’s disadvantage. A long way from the native women’s concerns was liberation in responding to historical facts and working intensely in a decolonizing Christianity from Abya Yala.

Today the problems of ending a colonial narrative and policies are still on the agenda. Ensuring the right for native languages to be taught, access to land to cultivate and ownership, and ending forced sterilizations for governments as forms of birth control of native populations continue to be issues that women need to advocate for in the women’s movement.

Why women are we in a situation of disadvantage? Reading and interpreting the Bible in context is necessary from the theological vantage point. We can read in Genesis that woman was created as a man and in the image of God. Women are not only instruments of God but call to be active in the life of God’s message. As we can read in the Bible,  many women took the liberation role, such as Esther, Ruth, Mary, Lydia, and others, many of whom we will never know their names. Active participation and leadership are interwoven with pain, discrimination, and oppression were part of a religious control system that we recognize is part of women’s path.

Women of Abya Yala, from a womanist and decolonial perspective, continue to work for a more inclusive practices, liberation, and proclaiming a prophetic message across the continent.

*Abya Yala comes from the Guna language and means “land in full maturity and land of vital blood.” In the 1970s, the term Abya Yala was adopted by many native activists, historians, politicians, and theologians as the unified name instead of using North America (primarily English speakers) and Latin America (predominantly Spanish and Portuguese speakers), which perpetuate colonial divisions.

Published by

Yenny Delgado

Psychologist and Theologian. Director of PUBLICA and convener of Women Doing Theology in Abya Yala. Ruling elder in the PCUSA. She writes about the intersections between ancestral memory, decolonization, womanism, and public faith. Currently, she is a doctoral candidate in Psychology of Religion at the University of Lausanne. Twitter @Publicayenny