Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Mormon community here.
Depending on which newspaper or blog you read, when it comes to Mormon women they are either oppressed by inflexible patriarchs or liberated by latter-day prophets, either pushing to change the status quo or fighting to protect the sacred order.
And yet these depressing polarizations also largely depend on one more factor: whether or not you live in or follow news from the United States. Taking stock of Mormon communities outside the United States yields a more complete picture of the range and the dynamism of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' engagement with women's issues. From this global perspective, Mormon women's integration into church structures of authority may fall either "ahead of" or "behind" the North American feminist curve. In either case, the picture is complex.
In Hong Kong, structures for women's roles within Church institutions are flexible and expanding. For instance, in certain Hong Kong congregations composed entirely of female foreign domestic workers, women comfortably occupy many of the ecclesiastical positions usually held by men. They serve in branch presidencies (the top local leadership unit) as executive secretaries, exercise stewardship over the entire congregation as presidents of the Relief Society (the women's organization), keep track of money as ward clerks, and coordinate proselytization efforts as branch mission leaders.
In short, what so many Mormon feminists in North America want someday is what hundreds of Mormon women in Hong Kong (who probably would not identify themselves as feminists) already have.
Church's norms in Hong Kong even break what in North America may be seen as Mormonism's most sacred and non-negotiable laws, such as the rules governing observance of Sunday as the Sabbath Day. While in North American units it is common to hear church members speak in support of great sacrifices that they have made in order to avoid working, shopping, or otherwise "breaking" the letter of the Sabbath law, in Hong Kong the spirit of the law prevails even in official administrative structures. To accommodate workers' varied schedules, domestic worker units meet for worship on every day of the week, with a pair of full-time missionaries assigned specifically to facilitate these meetings. In a similar vein, the Hong Kong temple has recently begun to open on certain Sundays to allow domestic workers with only Sunday off to attend the temple.
The fact that the temple, Mormonism's most sacred space, has recently been opened for "work" on Sunday when the body of church teaching on the Sunday Sabbath for most of Mormon history has seemed to proscribe this possibility, is significant. It shows how, far from being a rigidly hierarchical system incapable of change, church organization can be extremely adaptable and responsive to ground-up initiatives.
This has hopeful implications for women and men who seek to carve out more recognition for women's diverse voices, varied roles, and spiritual authority within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Of course the Hong Kong domestic worker units—overwhelmingly populated by Filipina and Indonesian women who left their families to be breadwinners in Hong Kong and who are vulnerable to abuse, usury, and other forms of exploitation—are currently seen by church administrators as special cases in which "normal" church organization has been adapted to meet the members' extraordinary needs, and not the pathway to the future.
And yet, for others the case of Hong Kong suggests a broad mandate for flexibility in a worldwide church that members believe is divinely led. In Hong Kong, women do church jobs that in North America are only done by men; certain rules set out in Scripture and enshrined by historical church practice have been bent; and God apparently has no problem with this. "Since we already do it here," a male acquaintance in the local Hong Kong leadership mused to me on one occasion, "I don't see why we couldn't do it everywhere."
Demographically speaking, the Hong Kong adaptation to the needs of members from the Philippines does indeed open a pathway into the future because they reflect Mormonism's shifting center of gravity in the direction of the global South. Numerically, Filipina branches dominate the Hong Kong International District, the administrative unit that also encompasses the relatively well-to-do Western expatriate congregation. In the audience at the church-wide semiannual General Women's Broadcast, American stay-at-home-moms, British teachers, and Japanese businesswomen comprise a tiny minority within a sea of Filipina maids.