Issue 46, December 2005

The missing dimension
Women and inter faith encounter in Birmingham
Ruth Tetlow

It is now over 15 years since Ursula King identified feminism as ‘the missing dimension in the dialogue of religions’ (in D’Arcy May 1998).1 She continues to speak with the authority of her long experience of engagement in dialogue as well as her research and teaching in the field of religious studies, and her awareness of gender issues. The evidence of photographs and press releases from international inter faith conferences shows that women have largely been excluded from inter religious dialogue, where so often the official representatives and a majority of the speakers have been male.2 Even at the Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Barcelona in 2004, participants were disappointed by the lack of women speakers, women’s issues and feminist analysis. This disappointment is more than just a matter of human rights because feminism and inter-religious dialogue have mutually relevant insights to offer to each other.

Using my personal involvement, as a woman, in working for inter faith understanding in the multi faith city of Birmingham, I have been exploring King’s thesis on the ground. My aims included :
To find out whether there is anything distinctive that the experience of women has brought to inter faith encounter in Birmingham and, if so, to discover some of its characteristics.
If feminism is indeed ‘a missing dimension’, to explore what difference its recognition might make to the dialogue of religions.


The study used qualitative research methods because it was concerned with why women behave in the way that they do, in terms of their thoughts and beliefs as well as their words and actions. In a study of this kind, the position and influence of the researcher is significant. I was conscious that if I was to engage with people in meetings, questionnaires or interviews, my identity as a white British Christian woman of a certain age, would affect the response. I come from a background of ecumenical Christianity and a local church involved in inter faith relationships. This background together with my personal commitment to inter faith work in Birmingham over the last 15 – 20 years put me in a good position to make use of the network of relationships on which this study depended, but also created its own limitations.

One of the most experienced researchers in the field of religion and gender who has used similar methods is Knott (in King ed. 1995). She writes of this kind of research as, ‘not just an intellectual journey, but a personal journey as well.’3

Such research has four distinctive characteristics:

  • It involves immersion in the life of the chosen setting.
  • It relies on spoken and written words and observable behaviour, as the primary data.
  • It seeks to discover and value participants’ world views.
  • It views the inquiry as an interactive process involving the researcher as well as the participants.

A range of data collection methods are possible, but, bearing these four characteristics in mind, the following proved to be most helpful for this particular study:

  • Participant observation in a group setting. Since the subject of the research is inter faith encounter it is highly desirable to gather data from an actual encounter situation. I therefore created a group of eleven women involved in inter faith encounter in Birmingham and drawn from six different faith traditions – Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Muslim. They met monthly for five months and I recorded their discussions.
  • Questionnaires. This enabled experience to be recorded from a larger number of people and on a different range of questions, in addition to the data from the participants in the group meetings. There was no possibility of a statistically significant sample, but a high level of response was obtained from those who received questionnaires - 34/45.
  • Review of documents: this was useful for obtaining historical data about inter faith organizations in Birmingham. Mainly primary sources were accessed.
  • Elite interviews.

All these methods have their weaknesses, but by using four different methods the weaknesses of one method were balanced by the strengths of another.

The distinctive experience of women engaged in dialogue

In response to the first aim stated above, a series of themes emerged from both the process and the content of the group meetings, as well as the review of documents, the questionnaires and the interviews, held in the particular setting of Birmingham. They are hardly unique and echoes of them can be found in works of feminist theology such as Slee 2003, King 1989, and Egnell 2002 but they are presented here in the context of inter faith encounter. While they are particularly characteristic of women’s groups they also represent insights which women can bring to mixed gender situations.

(i) Response to the experience of exclusion
Exclusion, whether in terms of prejudice, discrimination or oppression, may be felt at the personal level, but has been particularly painful for women in terms of exclusion from public positions of responsibility and status in religious life. When men enter into inter faith encounter, some may have an assurance, either conscious or hidden, of the security that responsibility and/or status gives. Women seldom share it, with the result that some may be more ready to empathize and reach out to others who have had similar experiences of exclusion, though lack of self confidence may prevent other women from being able to do so.

A number of responses in the group were frankly summed up in this contribution:
‘I think all religions claim to treat women (and men) equally, but when you get to know them really well the majority of women are very very unhappy, whether it’s the glass ceiling re the post of managing director, or equal pay in Woolworths, discrimination is still there, but together they can empower each other.’ (S1)4

and from the same person:
‘Most gurdwaras have a women’s group – it’s empowering in the sense that women have the opportunity to get out of the house, but it’s giving them a sense of acceptance rather than questions and fight it. What do they fight for ? Women can speak to the congregation but not in as many numbers as men do, they can officiate at rituals but it’s still male dominated.’ (S1)

Words that were echoed by the Christians present.
And a Muslim added: ‘In a mosque women are second class citizens. I segregate myself from going to a mosque’ (M2)
‘Being other’ is frequently the experience of those of minority faiths, and in so far as the woman’s situation in mixed gender inter faith encounter is of being doubly ‘other’(King 2001:6), women are more likely to be alert to ‘othering’ than men.

The experience from Birmingham suggests that this leads to a tendency to question orthodoxy and to a greater willingness to take the risks involved in building inter faith relations. Many women of faith are not prepared to accept traditional serving roles, unless they are shared by men, and even less prepared to accept certain doctrines such as ‘the fall’ in Christian theology,5 that have been used to put women down. Questioning involves a process, which, while painful, can be profoundly empowering. This positive process of transformation is frequently found in inter faith encounter, when empowerment occurs through the experience of difference, enabling both an exploration of ‘the other’ and a deeper understanding of the self, the other and the eternal reality.6

(ii) Engagement in peace and social justice issues
The huge popularity of the Women’s Peace Group7 in Birmingham is due in part to the opportunity it gives participants of many different national origins to share their experiences of the sufferings of conflict and war and also their longing to work for peace throughout the world. Some remarkable exchanges have taken place between women who may have been on opposite sides of conflict situations in various parts of the world e.g. Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This is not the only women’s inter faith group that has come together around peace issues e.g. The Women for Peace Group in Bradford. However it is important to note Skjelsbaek’s work (2001) which led her to conclude that women are not inherently peaceful, because the rationality of motherhood (most of the women studied were from traditional societies where the majority of women experienced motherhood) includes both care for their children and also the wish to protect them from ‘the enemy’, which can even lead to engagement in combat. So we should avoid too easily linking ‘women’ with ‘peace’.

There has also been a strong social justice motivation among the women of Birmingham involved in inter faith encounter. The Women’s Peace Group has engaged with several of the justice causes raised at their meetings and there is evidence of women’s inter faith groups in other parts of the country that have come together around social action e.g. caring for asylum seekers (Leicester). This is not to say that some mixed gender inter faith meetings have not had the same motivation.

(iii) Embodied spirituality
There are many women for whom their monthly cycles, and, for some, the experience of motherhood, causes them to be drawn towards the integration of body and spirit. The central importance of this was recognized right from the beginning of the group meetings in Birmingham. These women, of six different faiths, discovered a shared spirituality which included the use of symbolic rituals drawing on the senses of sight, smell, hearing and touch, in addition to the written or spoken word. In all faiths there are festivals associated with the seasons, such as harvest, often expressed through domestic rituals.

On the other hand, taboos about purity have been, and still are, used in many religions to exclude women. Menstruation is seen as a form of pollution in orthodox Hindu tradition, for example. Some women have transformed these experiences into positive affirmation of bodily functions and recognized that physical experience can be the vehicle of spiritual development, in the same way that the black consciousness movement in the 1970’s cried out, ‘Black is beautiful’.

The inseparable nature of culture and religion was frequently mentioned by the women studied in Birmingham and it is in daily life, through rituals and customs, that history is commemorated, faith expressed and identity preserved.(Reuther and Gross 2001:7) In one of the group meetings a Sikh woman quoted a favourite saying:
‘There is a phrase from the Guru Granth Sahib, ’When your hands and feet are busy, your head is with God.’(S1)
She evoked an enthusiastic response from a Christian, who said:
‘That’s wonderful…….I can remember stirring the soup (in the kitchen) at Iona – no responsibility, a spiritual experience, hands busy, head free.’(C2)

Preparing food is seen in many cultures as a sacred duty. For example, Sikh women will cover their heads and remember God when cooking, while the langar is a powerful expression of the oneness of all humanity, in the preparation, serving and eating together as community. Thus the Gurus meant to break the myth that cooking and cleaning are menial tasks for women only. This has been picked up by the Sacred Space group in Birmingham, whose meetings focus on eating together.8

(iv) Listening and sharing stories

‘Hearing into speech’ has become a phrase used by feminist groups (Egnell 2002:5) to describe the characteristic creation of an atmosphere of listening, so that those who have been silenced elsewhere are empowered to speak, and then to listen to others. In the group meetings listening was taken for granted because the meetings were exclusively for women:
‘Even while we’re examining our past and talking about it and listening to each other, we’re creating something new already. Ruth has handed us an idea and even in this hour or so that we’re together it’s becoming something else…. It’s all of us listening to each other….the finished product will be a hologram of your original idea and your aim.’ (B)

The need for this listening space was frequently cited as the justification for women needing to meet without men, particularly by those women from cultures where women and men traditionally live separate lives. Those from south and east Asia in the Birmingham context, find women-only groups particularly liberating in this way, as the Women’s Peace Group illustrates. There were many responses to the questionnaires which included a view of this sort:
‘women behave differently in the presence of men.’ Or, more fluently:
‘women speak truth to each other, take risks, depart from orthodox dogma, speak with an inborn authority as women – never in the presence of men however, to whom they defer in silence when men ’pronounce’ the accepted view.’

Some said men were ‘intimidating’ or ‘inhibiting’ and women enjoyed a ‘greater freedom of expression’ in the absence of men.

The characteristic story telling frequently focuses on autobiographical themes as women share personal experiences, offering one another the affirmation so apparent in the group meetings. As a method of inter faith encounter this avoids the pitfall of making unfounded generalizations about another religion as a whole and helps to ground the discussion in lived reality. It may also be linked to social action.

(v) New ways of perceiving eternal reality and reading scriptures

As women have become accustomed to envisioning and naming feminine and gender-free ways of expressing their concepts of ‘God’, they have not only found spiritual liberation but also been prepared for the realization so essential to inter faith encounter, that people of different faiths express these concepts differently. Aware that language alone is inadequate to interpret mystical experience in any faith context, they have explored new forms of symbolic ritual and the use of the creative arts. In the past public rituals have been linked with male authority in most religious traditions (e.g. the priestly role in Hindu traditions, the rabbi in orthodox Judaism), but now, in parts of the world where there is greater freedom for the individual, women are taking a lead in exploring new ways of expressing their spiritual experience in ways that sometimes cross faith boundaries, and are beginning to exert a wider influence on faith communities.9 In Birmingham this exploration has often taken moving form in the Women of Faith day10.
The lives of the great mystics, including women, have become a uniting force between people of different faiths, exemplified by the popularity in the West of the poetry of the Persian Sufi Jalaluddin Rumi.11 Sr Vandana is a powerful example of an Indian Christian with mystical experience, who speaks of doing theology through meditation in a personal relationship with the Spirit, ‘in the cave of the heart’ (Kim 2003: 132). She sees this experience of ‘the unbound Spirit’ as transcending the boundaries of Hinduism and Christianity in the search for the Divine.

In all the great world faiths scriptures have been revealed to men or written by men, in male dominated cultures, necessitating a process of re-interpretation by feminist theologians and other women, begun mainly in Christianity and Judaism. This is a process of standing in the shoes of women characters in the scriptures, or of re-reading the scriptures with the eyes of feminist analysis, a process which enables some women to take the further leap of imagination involved in standing in the shoes of a devotee of another faith and appreciating the scriptures of different faiths. There is a movement among Muslim women in Birmingham (and elsewhere) to study the texts of the Qur’an12 and the hadith13 in order to rediscover the vision for humanity, both male and female, at the time of the prophet Mohammed. The Islamic requirement for all Muslims to dress modestly for instance, has been interpreted by different cultures in different ways, contributing to the current controversy over the wearing of the hijab14. This example is part of a wider recognition that it is patriarchal cultures that have been largely responsible for the exclusion of women, rather than the classical teachings of the religions. Inter faith encounter can be part of this liberating process.

These five themes, characteristic of the experience of women, demonstrate what a wealth of distinctive insights women have to bring to inter faith encounter, in Birmingham and beyond. They represent ‘the missing dimension’ of feminism, in so far as they are rooted in women’s experience and are an expression of ways in which relationships between man and women in all the religions have not been equal, in spite of the egalitarian ideals of the religions.

Feminism and the dialogue of religions

The second aim of this study was to explore what difference ‘the missing dimension’ of feminism might make to the dialogue of religions.

Firstly, it was clear that the women studied emphasized ‘encounter’ rather than ‘dialogue’, to express the nature of their relationships with women and men of other faiths.

As one of the participants in the research group said:

‘Maybe encounter is a better word (than dialogue) because dialogue tends to suggest that it’s what you do with your mouths and it goes into your ears, whereas what we’re talking about is using our hearts, our eyes and our senses, out intuition, our instinct and also the things that are beyond putting into words. When we step into the area of our faith lives, our spiritual lives, there’s a whole lot you can’t say, but we try to hear that… And sense it from each other …’(C2)

This word is preferred because it conveys a more holistic engagement with each other, rather than one focusing on verbal and intellectual exchange. Arising from this, the women are concerned about how religion is lived and practised, and even the very nature of religious life. It includes devotional practice, God language and interpretation of scriptures, but also the life of the family and community, the serving of food and marking of rites of passage. All these can form the substance of ‘dialogue’ – the dialogue of spiritual experience and daily life. This experience is more widespread in the Indian sub-continent and has been enhanced in Britain by the British Asian communities.

The dialogue of religions is also concerned with theological issues and here again feminist analysis is affecting it. Feminism brings a critical approach to theological categories such as exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. They take no account of gender or other variables and, if presented as being comprehensive, they appear to be androcentric. In so far as interreligious dialogue has been predominantly a Christian initiative, both locally in Britain and globally, it is not surprising that the hierarchical and patriarchal nature of Christianity has had its influence on both the process and the categories. Feminist theology has its roots in liberation theology and here the emphasis on personal transformation brings a relevant dimension to dialogue – how many have testified to being transformed spiritually by their encounter with a person of another faith ? Transformation lies at the heart of the dialogue experience.

Thirdly, the women studied in Birmingham have demonstrated a clear commitment to the dialogue of social involvement and action for peace and justice. There are a growing number of places where groups of people are working together on common projects such as urban regeneration. This is usually known as multi-faith activity and has grown in Britain considerably since 2000, partly as a result of the provisions of the Local Government Act of that year and also expressed in the Act of Commitment made at the Palace of Westminster to mark the Millennium. There are many other examples of people of different faiths working together for social change in professional life and voluntary organizations. Naturally these developments involve people of both genders, but this research indicates that women have often given such involvement a particular impetus.

The insights of feminism show that there are concepts and methods flowing from the experience of women that have profound relevance to inter faith encounter, and which have, until recently, been relatively unrecognised in gatherings and publications at international level. This study has been limited in its scope and context to relatively few women in one British city – other insights would doubtless emerge from studies in different contexts. Insofar as the life experience of women throughout the world is distinctively different from that of men, due the inequality of the relationships between these two human groups, when gender is taken into account explicitly, new insights will enrich the whole process of inter religious dialogue or encounter. In some cultures women and men live very separate lives and their roles are very different, but even in those cultures where roles have more in common the different experience of the two genders needs to be considered. Feminism takes a critical approach to society, culture and tradition. By studying examples of grassroots involvement of women in inter faith encounter at community level, it has been possible to examine the dialogue of daily life and spiritual experience in that context. It appears to be an area where those who are critical of their own tradition, partly because of the discrimination they have met, find the liberation of a voice and a common cause with sisters of other faiths.

It is not the contribution of women that has been ‘missing’ but, in the absence of a feminist analysis, its implications have seldom been fully valued, except at the local and informal level. In Birmingham, women have been actively engaged in dialogue as encounter, particularly through daily life, social action and spiritual experience. These are aspects of inter faith experience requiring further study, as humanity, with both masculine and feminine attributes acknowledged in people of both genders.

Ms Ruth Tetlow BA, PGCE is tutor for External Programmes at the United College of the Ascension, Selly Oak, Birmingham. She is a British Anglican and is studying for an MPhil in Interreligious Relations at the University of Birmingham, which draws on her wide experience of inter faith dialogue.


1King notes, for example, that the Chicago 1993 ‘Declaration Towards a Global Ethic’ condemns patriarchy but does not admit that the religions themselves are guilty of patriarchal exploitation.
2 As evidenced in the remarkable photograph of the Plenary session of the World’s Parliament of Religions, in Chicago, 1893, which can be seen on the cover of Braybrooke M. 1992
3 Knott has set up the Community Religions Project in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds, which has produced an interesting series of monographs.
4 The women in the group were referred to as follows, to indicate their faith tradition while maintaining their anonymity: B – Buddhist woman, C1 and C2 – two Christian women, H1 and H2 – two Hindu women, J1 and J2 – two Jewish women, M1 and M2 – two Muslim women, S1 and S2 – two Sikh women.
5 Genesis 2 v 4 – 3 v 24 has been used by Christian writers from Paul onwards to show that women were subordinate to men because they were created after men and for men, and also to emphasise the fundamental wickedness of women. This also became interpreted in terms of sexual temptation.
6 Introductory Booklet in The Life We Share – a study pack on inter faith relations. 2003. USPG and the Methodist Church London
7 The Women’s Peace Group is a group of over 50 women of all faiths who have been meeting regularly in the home of Patricia Earle in Birmingham since the early 1990s
8 Sacred Space is a mixed gender group but it was founded and is led by two women.
9 Gross R. in Holm and Bowker eds. 1994: 27, ‘The emergence of a large and strong core of women teachers who are well-educated, well-practised, articulate, and not male-identified, will be one of the most significant events ever in the intellectual and spiritual development of Buddhism.’
10 This is an annual event hosted by the United College of the Ascension in Selly Oak and organized by a long standing mixed faith group of six women. It is always attended by at least 50 women of all faiths and includes speakers, creative workshops and a concluding act of corporate meditation.
11 Translation by Barks Coleman with Moyne John 1995 The Essential Rumi USA Harper Collins, 1999 Great Britain Penguin
12 Qur’an :the Muslim scriptures, as revealed to the Prophet Mohammed.
13 Hadith: the recorded sayings of the Prophet Mohammed.
14 Hijab: one of the names for the headscarf customarily worn by Muslim women.


Braybrooke, Marcus 1992 Pilgrimage of Hope. One Hundred Years of Global Interfaith Dialogue. London. SCM.

D’Arcy May, John ed. 1998. Pluralism and the Religions: the theological and Political Dimensions. London. Cassell Academic.

Eck, Diana. and Jain, Devaki, eds. 1986. Speaking of Faith. London: The Women’s Press.

Egnell, Helene. 2002. Dialogue for Life - Feminist Approaches to Inter Faith Dialogue. Presented at Aarhus University 13-15 May 2002.

Gross, Rita and Radford Ruether, Rosemary. 2001. Religious Feminism and the Future of the Planet. London/New York. Continuum.

Kim, Kirsteen. 2003. Mission in the Spirit – the Holy Spirit in Indian Christian Theologies. Delhi. ISPCK.

King , Ursula. 1989. Women and Spirituality. Voices of protest and promise. London. Macmillan.

King, Ursula. Ed. 1995. Religion and Gender. Oxford. Blackwell.

King, Ursula. 2001. Feminism: The Missing Dimension in the Dialogue of Religions.
Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo. Also in D’Arcy May J. ed. 1998.

Knott, Kim ‘Women researching, women researched. Gender as an issue in the empirical study of religion’ Ch 9 in King U. 1995 Religion and Gender. Oxford. Blackwell.

O’Neill, Maura. 1990. Women Speaking, Women Listening : Women in Interreligious Dialogue. New York. Orbis.

Skjelsbaek, Inger and Smith, Dan. eds. 2001. Gender, Peace and Conflict. London. Sage.

Slee, Nicola. 2003. Faith and Feminism. London. Darton, Longman and Todd.

Wingate, Andrew. 1988 Encounter in the Spirit. WCC Risk. Geneva.

Other Voices
A Study of Christian Feminist Approaches to
Religious Plurality East and West

Helene Egnell

Studia Missionalia Sveca C, Upsala, 2006
ISSN 1404-9503, ISBN 91-85424-92-7


Sybille Fritsch-Oppermann

Kühler Kopf & weiches Herz
Frauen in den Religionen der Welt
Über das kreative Potential des Randständigen

EB-VERLAG, Schenefeld 2005
ISSN 3-936912-05-X

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