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What Do Women Bring to the Interfaith Table?

By Kimberly King, Pamela Jay Gottfried, Rita M. Gross, Rosemary R. Ruether, and Seyyedeh Dr. Nahid Angha

Transforming Religious Attitudes & Lives

This month TIO invited five remarkable women, interfaith leaders representing different faiths, to answer the question, “What do Women Bring to the Interfaith Table?” Three of their responses tell us stories – the other two approach the issue more on its own terms. But the result is a rounded, insightful discussion helping explain why women are more engaged as interfaith leaders than ever before.

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Kimberly King, Protestant

My introduction to interfaith dialogue began 22 years ago via a series of discussions between a Christian minister and Jewish rabbi. They later grew to include a Catholic priest, a Muslim scholar, and a Buddhist monk. The exchanges were compelling, provocative, and I’m embarrassed admitting it took several sessions before I noticed there were no women participating.

So accustomed was I to seeing men, and only men, in leadership roles related to “church,” I did not recognize something was missing. In my corporate world I would have noted such inequity immediately. But in matters pertaining to God, I was preconditioned not to question. Eventually I raised questions.

Daliat haCarmel

Daliat haCarmel

In 2003, I traveled to Israel to attend an interfaith women’s gathering in Daliat haCarmel, an ancient Druze Village in the hills south of Haifa. From the onset, every aspect of the women’s convocation was different. They emphasized hospitality, ensuring everyone who entered felt welcome and seen. They began with circle, rather than a panel, creating a sense of equality and unity. They engaged the whole person, invoking the powers of music, ritual and art. Girls and elders stood side by side, sharing personal stories about their lives and their dreams for the world. They allowed themselves to be vulnerable and took time to listen and witness each other’s truth.

Over the course of several hours, I learned a Hebrew prayer, sang a song of Palestine, and danced under the trees with a group of Bedouin women. We talked for hours and I learned many things about other faiths and about myself. No one tried to convert me or convince me. They simply shared their stories and listened to mine.

Looking back today, I have met men making an impassioned, compelling case for coexistence, rationally based, expanding my awareness and enlarging my field of possibilities. Women I’ve known have shown an innate capacity to build trust and cultivate community through the power of relationship and inclusion. And I’ve known brilliant, analytic women and deeply intuitive, relational men. The point is – between us and within us, the two energies do their best in mutual respect and dialogue, each engaging “the other” in essential, invaluable ways.

Despite this mutuality, women continue to be marginalized, locked out and shut up in so much of the world. Women continue to be second-class members in most religious communities. Yet, the data is irrefutable, the rationale clear: women represent 51 percent of the earth’s population. We are in this together!

Religion, its practice, and its explanations, intersect with global issues crucial to the safety and health of women: maternal health, girls’ education, domestic violence, reproductive freedom, HIV-Aids, forced marriage, and the alarming rise in honor killings. These matters must be explored in all their complexity. And the exploration will not be complete nor healing possible without welcoming the wisdom and holiness in the sacred feminine.

After all is said and done, if interfaith culture is based on a mutual respect supporting a sustainable peace that honors us all, then finally we must sit down at the table together, united in solidarity across every faith and all our differences. Only in a circle of mutual dignity can our reality, our shared world, begin to change.

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Pamela Jay Gottfried, Jewish

When I was studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary more than twenty years ago, there was much speculation about how women would change the face of the rabbinate. The assumption was that women differed radically from men; possessed different intelligence, shared different concerns and formed different kinds of relationships. I recall now the skepticism I harbored then, as a young seminarian, and I find it resurfacing as I address the question of women’s contributions to interfaith relations.

The expectations we may have about women’s intuition, greater sensitivity and nurturing instincts reveal the biases we maintain about supposed differences between the sexes. Yet I have met sensitive men at the interfaith table who listen actively and speak softly; men who express as much concern about providing sufficient food and drinks as their female counterparts do.

As I study sacred texts of various faith traditions and engage in interfaith discussions, I find that women and men bring their individual concerns and perspectives to the table. Perhaps the greatest contribution that women can make is to add the timbre of female voices not only to the conversation but also to the sacred texts themselves. These texts are often addressed only to men and are silent about women, and—at least in the Jewish tradition—often include commentaries and interpretations written exclusively by men.

Since, I believe, all careful readers view texts through the lens of their own experiences, each woman engaged in interfaith text study possesses the unique opportunity to enrich the text with her perspective, one that is inherently female. As a Jewish woman, I can bring only my own offerings to the interfaith table; when invited there, I strive to be wholly present and to speak with authenticity. I trust the women—along with the men—who sit beside me to share my intentions, and I pray the gifts I offer will serve as adornments at the interfaith table.

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Rita M. Gross, Buddhist

The most important thing that women bring to the interfaith table is our sheer presence. I do not support theories of gender essentialism, which claim that women and men are fundamentally different, that men have a masculine essence different from women’s feminine essence. Regarding most interfaith issues, I do not think that women offer different insights than men could. But because religions have been such a boys-only club, the presence of women at the interfaith table loudly proclaims a critical message that can be proclaimed no other way. Religions are no longer going to be male sanctuaries, closed off to women except for the supportive roles we have traditionally played.

Religions claim to have messages relevant to all human beings. But that claim is hollow when the only people who proclaim the messages are men. The further up the ladder of religious hierarchies we go, the fewer women we find. Highly publicized meetings of world religious leaders are usually devoid of women. How can such gatherings pretend to represent all humans or have messages relevant for all? The messages that emanate from conferences of major religious leaders would have more credibility if half the people at those conference tables were women. The most important thing women bring to the interfaith table is our sheer presence. There is no other way for religions to live up to claims they make about their universal relevance.

When we are present at the interfaith table, we talk about many things. Some of things we say are not distinctive to women. If someone read a transcript without knowing the gender of each presenter, it would be impossible to determine which are women and which men. We also speak of things which most men would be unable to speak about. We speak about the pain of being excluded from something as meaningful as roles of religious leadership. We speak about not having role models who look like us in the religions to which we give our best energies. We don’t have a specifically feminine message, but we do add a feminist voice to interfaith discussions. Only then will every chair at the interfaith table be filled.

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Rosemary R. Ruether, Roman Catholic

One obvious issue which women bring to the interfaith table is how women fare in the different world religions. Each religion has patterns of gender relations, as well as teachings on gender in both theology and practice. One major subject of discussion among women across religions traditions is the understanding how these teachings and practices work for women in the different world religions. It is important for women to talk to each other about the effects of their religions on their lives, since this may not be apparent from formal writings by male scholars, who often ignore the subject of women. Women’s own experiences are crucial, for the effects of the religion varies in different contexts. Moreover these effects are not static but everywhere are in process of being contested and changed.

How do women fare in Christianity, for example? Clearly there are many different traditions about this in different forms of Christianity. There have been great changes, for example, in the ordination of women, in different traditions. How do women fare in Islam? Here too there are many different contexts. Women may have their own Quranic study groups in one context; they are being trained to chant the call to prayer in another, while being forbidden to do so in other places. These differences may not be recognized in official teachings. One has to discover these differences by sharing among women.

Clearly, this is not a matter of competition, to prove which religion is less oppressive to women! This is not the purpose of any interfaith conversation. But rather this type of sharing aims as mutual understanding and solidarity. There may be resources which women in one context can offer women in another context for their development.

Women are not only interested in “women’s questions,” but any subject that interests them. This may involve how each religion impacts family relations and upbringing of children, environmental care, social justice and political relations. Women bring all possible topics to the interfaith table to share with other women and men from other religious traditions.

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Nahid Angha, Sufi Muslim

Women have played a significant role in shaping our cultures and inspiring our hope for peace and understanding. They have claimed their rightful positions in many fields including the institution of religion, especially in the interfaith movement. Today the global community is acknowledging its debt to women’s contributions and dedication. My own journey is an example of what is now possible.

My work with interfaith communities, where all genders, cultures, religions, races, and traditions are welcomed, began in early 1980s. I was invited to a dialogue and board membership in a local interfaith community, the Marin Interfaith Council. Its mission is to celebrate faith traditions, and advocate for justice and building community. Over time my participation went beyond the local level. The Interfaith Center at the Presidio, a regional interfaith organization that welcomes and celebrates the diverse spiritual wisdom and faith traditions, invited me onto its board. Subsequently I served as president and represented the Center to the Goldin Institute, held in Spain.

My global interfaith contributions began in the early 90s with involvement in the United Religions Initiative (URI) and Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions (CPWR). Both organizations promote understanding for the sake of global peace. I worked on efforts to develop inclusive language and helped found the URI’s Council for Women. I served as an assembly member for Parliament’s conferences in South Africa, Spain, and Mexico, where I was a presenter and panel organizer.

My work in the interfaith movement developed, hand in hand, with creating an intrafaith movement within my Islamic Sufi community. This led to the creation of the International Association of Sufism, a UN NGO/DPI and the establishment of the Sufi Women’s Organization, whose focus is to education to acknowledge and recognize a leadership role for Sufi Muslim women.

I have been most fortunate in all of this. My fellow travelers, in both interfaith and Muslim communities, have been respectful and welcoming of these endeavors. The historical developments of the past quarter century have finally created a forum where women may claim their rightful seat at the center of the interfaith movement.