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Review: Women, Religion, and Peacebuilding

Illuminating the unseen: A movement moment  

REVIEW: Women, Religion, and Peacebuilding  

by Kathe Schaaf and Kay Lindahl

We have been captivated by the subtitle of the anthology Women, Religion and, Peacebuilding, edited by Susan Hayward and Katherine Marshall – Illuminating the Unseen. So much about the contributions of women to our culture and history has been invisible – both unrecorded and unacknowledged. Particularly in the realm of organized religion, women of many faiths across the world have been marginalized and systematically denied access to legitimate leadership roles. For these women to rise up and bring their leadership despite the many layers of resistance, for them to persist in creative, collaborative, and effective peacebuilding work is indeed a story that needs to be told.

To illuminate the unseen contributions of these courageous women is itself important and complex work. Hayward and Marshall collect essays from global women who have been involved as leaders on the front lines at this intersection of religion and peacebuilding. [See the table-of-contents below.]

The editors construct a sturdy frame as a context for these diverse reflections by exploring the paradoxes and complex issues involved. Even their goal of “illuminating the unseen” is questioned in their thorough analysis as they explore the benefits and liabilities of “strategic invisibility.” While staying invisible and under the radar can be a strategy to increase safety, flexibility and mobility, it also “hampers their ability to be role models to new generations of women, attract funding or support for their work, or ensure progress toward gender equality in society at large” (p. 15). Similar paradoxes emerge as women contrast the freedom of working outside formal religious hierarchies versus the potential of creating institutional change from the inside. These strong women struggle to find validation either from the leadership of their religious hierarchies or from their secular feminist sisters who sometimes stereotype them as victims of their religious beliefs.

This is a serious and substantial book; it has to be if it wants to have credibility with its target audiences – scholars, academic researchers, religious and educational institutions, policy makers, governmental agencies, leaders of NGOs and civil society. It is a foundational resource documenting what is happening in the real world.   

The essays introduce us to ordinary women doing extraordinary work. Their methods are as diverse as the women themselves. Many of them are involved in high-level negotiations, advocacy, education, and mediation to help manage active conflict in their regions. Others work to build coalitions and networks that weave relationships bridging interfaith differences or tribal conflicts. We hear stories of grassroots work to heal the effects of trauma and rebuild trust in the aftermath of war, especially addressing the personal devastation of genocide, displacement, and rape as a weapon of war. Some of these women use the tools of their spiritual practice – like silence, prayer and meditation - to promote inner peace.

Katherine Marshall – Photo: Religion Communicators Council

Katherine Marshall – Photo: Religion Communicators Council

Almost all of them are ultimately contributing to the profoundly important work of shifting cultural norms and values that underlie the violence and conflict tearing communities apart around the world. We have come away feeling humbled and awed by the courage and stamina of these women who truly embody transformative spiritual leadership. They do this in the face of resistance everywhere they turn – within their own religions; from the male-dominated leadership in both governmental and civil society organizations while swimming upstream against cultural norms that limit roles for women in their own communities.

The Path from Here

This book is an important beginning … and we have been stimulated to imagine other ways to tell the stories of women’s leadership. How do we magnify the stories of these women to enliven, activate, validate, encourage, and engage many more women? How do we also illuminate the thousands of other projects women have launched globally – both large and small, both visible and invisible, working both inside and outside of the big hierarchies? Who is listening to the stories of women’s leadership that are already out there in the world – and how do we create the space for more listening?

How do we support women to stand up for themselves? And stand up for each other? How do we support the men who are standing up for women? How do we support partnership and collaboration between men and women as the new norm? How do we find a way to tell the stories of women in a way that mirrors and reflects the unique qualities of feminine leadership? How do we leverage the creativity and passion of women to make much bigger cracks in the glass ceiling, in the heart of religious hierarchies, in the very foundations of patriarchy?

Susan Hayward – Photo: Twitter

Susan Hayward – Photo: Twitter

As we write, we are living in an amazing moment in the United States, when demeaning and sexist attitudes toward women are being illuminated. Social media is buzzing, and both men and women are rising up in a myriad of ways to demand a paradigm shift that will embrace women’s leadership and strength.

But what does that shift look like? And why does it seem so hard to step into doing things in a new way? Dena Merriam begins to explore this dynamic in her chapter about women and peacebuilding. “We have seen in women political and business leaders that women who achieve positions of power have had to compete so intensely that they often follow the same behavioral patterns as their male counterparts” (p. 111). She continues by wondering what would change if half the world’s religious and political leaders were women, who have demonstrated globally that they are more likely to weave the needs of families and children into their decision-making. We join her in curiosity about what women’s leadership might look like if women felt safe enough to step out of old patterns of hierarchy and began to experiment with new forms and structures.

What we see happening at this potential movement moment is that women are breaking through the code of silence that has been our pattern for survival. We are finding out that when one courageous woman speaks out she is no longer alone. Both men and women are standing up for the dignity and respect of all women. We can reclaim our voices and our wisdom. As we step into the opening created by this conversation we look for possibilities, not problems; we pay attention to the questions arising – seeking to open up rather than close down; and we listen before we speak. This is how the shift happens.

We encourage you to breathe in the most powerful message of this book, one that is being lived into by women around the globe as they do their diverse work on behalf of a better world:

We are here – now.
We are not going back and we are not going away.
We are awake and alive, passionate and skilled.
We are the good news that many of you have been waiting for.

** ** **

Women, Religion, and Peacebuilding: Illuminating the Unseen (2015)

Edited by Susan Hayward and Katherine Marshall


Introduction – Religious Women’s Invisibility: Obstacles and Opportunities
Susan Hayward and Katherine Marshall

Part I
Women Peacebuilders: Distinctive Approaches of Different Religious Traditions

  • Catholic Women Building Peace: Invisibility, Ideas, and Institutions Expand Participation – Maryann Cusimano Love
  • Muslim Women’s Peacebuilding Initiatives – S. Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana
  • Creating Peaceful and Sustainable Communities through the Spiritual Empowerment of Women in Buddhism and Hinduism – Dena Merriam
  • Jewish Women in Peacebuilding: Embracing Disagreement in the Pursuit of “Shalom” – Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen

Part II
Women and Faith in Action: Regional Case Studies

  • An All-Women Peacekeeping Group: Lessons from the Mindanao People’s Caucus – Margaret Jenkins
  • Women, Religion, and Peacebuilding in Kaduna State, Nigeria – Bilkisu Yusuf and Sr. Kathleen McGarvey
  • The Politics of Resistance: Muslim Women Negotiating Peace in Aceh, Indonesia – Etin Anwar
  • Women Reborn: A Case Study of the Intersection of Women, Religion, and Peacebuilding in a Palestinian Village in Israel – Andrea K. Blanch, with coauthors Esther Hertzog and Ibtisam Mahameed
  • Women Citizens and Believers as Agents of Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina – Zilka Spahic Šiljak
  • Women Peacebuilders in Postcoup Honduras: Their Spiritual Struggle to Transform Multiple Forms of Violence – Mónica A. Maher
  • Women, Religion, and Trauma Healing: A Case in India – Anjana Dayal Prewitt
  • Strengthening Religious Women’s Work for Peace – Jacqueline Ogega and Katherine Marshall

Conclusion: Seeking Common Ground – Susan Hayward and Katherine Marshall