Issue 46, December 2005
The missing dimension
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 :
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:
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:
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
A number of responses in the group were frankly summed up in this contribution:
and from the same person:
Words that were echoed by the Christians present.
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
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
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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