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Struggles for Women-Inclusive Leadership in Toraja Church in Indonesia and the Evangelical Church of Vietnam: Agency and Structural Change


This dissertation is a comparative analysis of the different forms of accommodating women in church leadership between Toraja Church in Indonesia and the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN). It examines how the church gender structure has been formulated and contested by the context of each church, and how the agency has been shaped by its context, developed, and pushed for gender equality in each church. The study argues that the gender structure of each church has been destablized to varying degrees and reshaped in different forms today largely due to: (1) the degree of destablizing forces from external context and institutional structure; (2) the degree of support and identification with the struggle by male leaders; (3) the dominant existence of women's feminist projects and their success in turning their feminist projects into collective effort. Particularly the cultural, political, and religious contexts of Toraja Church offer a higher degree of gender equality opportunities, the empowerment of the agents, and pressure to change than those of the ECVN. Institutionally while Toraja Church has been flexible and open to reform, the ECVN seems to become more conservative and resistant to change regarding women's roles. These forces in turn destablize and reshape the gender structure of each church accordingly. The findings reveal that the struggle for women's rights in Toraja Church involved powerful male leaders and their persistent struggle to transform the formal religious structure to be gender-egalitarian. In contrast, men's struggle for women's rights in the ECVN tend to be pragmatic and momentary. The male supporters have still taken for granted the patriarchal system. This has helped to reproduce the system rather than transform it. The women's struggle in Toraja Church has been dominated with feminist projects and they have successfully turned them into a collective effort under the leadership of influential feminist leaders. In contrast, the Vietnamese women agents have diverged in their projects most of which direct toward community needs and avoid challenging the gender status quo. Feminist projects in the ECVN have been minimal and have not successfully mobilized a collective support from the women and are mostly carried out at individual basis due to the gap of gender worldviews among the women and the lack of influential feminist leaders. This dissertation develops a comparative theoretical framework based on various theories: agency and structural transformation from William H. Sewel, Jr. (1992; 2005) and Sherry B. Ortner (2006), structural opportunity theories, and feminist theories of agency. This comparative framework includes two levels of analysis: (1) the interconnection between the gender structure and contextual forces and institutional dynamics, and (2) the interconnetion between the gender structure and agency. In the analysis of the former relationship, Sewell's theories of structural transformation and structural duration, and structural opportunity theories are utilized. Sewell's theory of "conjuncture of structures" is helpful to explain structural transformation by referring to the transposibility of symbols or meanings across structures. However, it cannot explain why social actors are willing or unwilling to adopt certain values. In the analysis of the relationship between the gender structure and agency, agency theories from Ortner (2006) and others are utilized. Differential levels of gender structure change are explained through the dominant presence and successful establishment of feminist projects in collective forms that contribute to the contestation and transformation of gender practices in religious institutions. This framework is helpful to explain the different levels of women's advancement in leadership; however, the distinction between feminist and non-feminist projects based on their outcome is relative because some of non-feminist projects might have transformative effects in the long run. Ortner's model of two modes of agency: agency of project and agency of power is helpful to analyze both men's and women's agency in two institutions. However, her framework of analyzing the formation of social actor's subjectivity by referring to the wider cultural framework has limitations. This study finds that agency in the ECVN is mostly enabled by structural opportunities. It arises and falls according to changes in the political context. Therefore, it is not possible to grasp the complexity of the agents' subjectivity by referring to the wider cultural framework. This study shows that feminist analysis of gender equality struggles in religious institutions need to include men's agency in the analysis since their agency plays a significant role in the transformation of the formal religious structure. The study also reveals that men's struggle for gender equality can go beyond gender politics when their agency is enabled by long-existing cultural values such as gender justice and empathy found in Toraja and Vietnamese cultures. Opportunity agency can contribute to structural change; however, this change might not have a long-term effect. The case of the ECVN is an example. For the Toraja Church, opportunity structure plays the role of a catalyst rather than main motivation for the struggle.

Key Words: women in leadership, Toraja Church, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam, agency, structural change