Tag Archives: gender equality

Two peace walks compared and contrasted.

It is increasingly common for towns and cities in the UK to arrange peace walks as a concrete expression of interfaith dialogue, and many such peace walks are arranged to coincide with, or take place just before or after, National Interfaith Week in November. This year I took part in two peace walks in North-East England and thought it would be of interest to compare them.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Newcastle-upon-Tyne

One peace walk took place in a city and is in its twelfth year, and the other took place in a town a third of the city’s size and is in only its second year. Although the walk in the city could draw on many more local people to swell its ranks and is now a well-established event, it attracted less than double the number of people who joined the walk in the much smaller town.

The peace walk in the city started at the Hindu mandir before stopping at an Anglican church, a Sunni Muslim mosque and a patch of grass where a Jewish synagogue is said to have once existed, and concluded at a Sikh gurdwara, where everyone was given excellent langar. Light refreshments were available at the mandir, the church and the mosque. Other than the stop at the patch of grass, this was exactly the same route undertaken for at least the last seven or eight years. Although the city has two synagogues, a Roman Catholic cathedral, many expressions of Christianity other than Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism (e.g. a Coptic cathedral), a Bahai centre, a Buddhist centre and an ISKCON centre, to list a few other manifestations of religious diversity, visits were made to only four functioning houses of worship.

The peace walk in the town started at the Friends’ meeting house before stopping at a Roman Catholic church, a Methodist church, the town’s only mosque (Sunni), an Anglican church, the town’s only gurdwara and the town’s only Buddhist centre, and concluded at what might be deemed a neutral space, a local authority facility with a swimming pool and large rooms for public functions (e.g. concerts). No refreshments were provided until arriving at the gurdwara, where everyone was given excellent langar. The town has pagans and Bahais in small/very small numbers, an Eastern Orthodox chapel and a small synagogue that opens very rarely to meet the spiritual needs of a community in terminal decline, but the organisers of the town walk did far better to make the route inclusive than the organisers of the city walk.

Darlington

Darlington

The city walk began with a few important people saying some words to those about to leave, but those who spoke represented only Hinduism, Anglicanism and the local authority itself. This said, someone managed to persuade the organisers that, in a welcome break with convention, a Bahai should read a passage from Bahai scripture. The passage from Bahai scripture better summarised some of the values and principles that underscore peace walks/interfaith dialogue than the words of any other speaker during the event.

The town walk began with some words said by two Friends and a humanist. The Friends and the humanists have commitments to peace more rock-solid than many people who subscribe to other religions and beliefs.

The city walk attracted a considerable number of high profile figures including the local Lord Lieutenant, two senior police officers, senior religious figures in the Anglican and the Roman Catholic churches, senior religious and community leaders in the Hindu, the Muslim and the Sikh communities, and councillors representing the Labour and the Liberal Democratic parties. Also present were Bahais, humanists, unaffiliated agnostics and atheists, and a Shia Muslim sheyk who has resided in the city for about six months.

The town walk attracted very few high profile figures, two councillors representing the Labour Party being the most obvious exceptions. But throughout the walk there were Christians of at least five denominations, Bahais, Buddhists, Muslims and, in very impressive number, Sikhs. There were also humanists and unaffiliated agnostics and atheists and, for all I know, a pagan or two. It was good that a few members of the local LGBTQ community were also present.

The city walk felt like an event organised by a small group of influential movers and shakers reluctant to broaden its appeal and reluctant to tinker with something tried and tested, despite it being far less inclusive than the town walk.

The town walk felt like an event shaped from the bottom up and was thus more inclusive and democratic in atmosphere. I liked how some people had come with their own, home-made, brightly decorated banners declaring their background and commitment to peace.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The police were the stewards for the city walk (the police did a brilliant job and their presence was much appreciated, not least because they inflated the number of people taking part. But their presence as stewards confirmed that the event had an official seal of approval, as it were). Ordinary people in high visibility jackets were the stewards for the town walk.

At each stop along the city walk, someone welcomed the walkers and engaged in a talk lasting between fifteen minutes and half an hour. I have attended five of the city walks and the same people usually do the talks every year. Even worse, the speakers rarely say anything different or get much beyond the usual platitudes about how their religion is peaceful (despite obvious evidence to the contrary, whether of a contemporary or a historical nature). Also, women very rarely, if ever, get a chance to contribute to the talks – which was why this year it was so refreshing that the Bahai who spoke at the start of the walk was female. Yes: convention was challenged in a second welcome way!

At each stop along the town walk, someone welcomed the walkers and engaged in a talk lasting no more than fifteen minutes. An almost equal number of males and females provided the talks. Although some of the speakers could not get beyond the usual platitudes about how their religion is peaceful (despite obvious evidence to the contrary, whether of a contemporary or a historical nature), I was impressed how speakers at the Roman Catholic and the Methodist churches (a female and a male respectively), and the speakers at the start of the walk (two males and a female), spoke with unusual insight and genuine emotion.

The worst thing about the city walk was that it had not occurred to those responsible for its organisation to make the event more inclusive (e.g. by increasing the number of religions that the walk embraced, by giving women a more prominent role in the formalities). Nor had it occurred to the organisers to ensure that the non-religious majority in the city, who are among the most loyal/enthusiastic supporters of the walk, had the opportunity to reflect on the merits of such events, perhaps in the first instance by urging humanists to reflect on their thoughts and feelings.

I have only one complaint to direct toward the town walk, and I am confident the problem can easily be rectified in future years. We arrived at the town’s only mosque to find about twenty dour-faced Muslim men, all but two with beards and skullcaps, standing in front of the main entrance (no women of Muslim origin could be seen anywhere. The mosque was the only place where women were not present, or where the impression was given that women lacked a substantive role in the religion). It was obvious we were not getting inside the mosque, even though entry was routine everywhere else. Instead, the imam and an ordinary member of the congregation (both male, of course) quoted a chapter from the Qur’an, translated the text into English and told us Islam is a religion of peace, despite all the wars, death and destruction Muslims presently engage in.

I will be honest: empty platitudes and an almost complete absence of Muslim women characterised the visit to the mosque during the city walk, but at least we got inside the mosque and, in an interesting departure from convention, non-Muslim women did not have to put on a scarf. But the disappointments associated with the town’s mosque were not so great as to confound what I have said above: the town’s peace walk was far more inclusive and democratic (and more people-led and people-centred) than the city’s peace walk, which is undertaken largely to let movers and shakers feel that they are doing the right thing. The movers and shakers ARE doing the right thing, but it is time for the organisers of the city’s peace walk to learn some lessons about inclusion and democracy from the peace walk in the much smaller North-East town.

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

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A letter to “The Times” newspaper about the sexual grooming of children and young women.

Sir,

For many years political correctness has led to the identity of the community most obviously involved in the sexual grooming of children and young women in the UK being described as Asian rather than Muslim. We are consequently encouraged to hear the prime minister’s assertion that “a warped sense of political correctness” will not stifle attempts to fight these crimes – which he now classes as a “national threat”.

The Sikh and Hindu communities have for decades been at the receiving end of predatory grooming by members of the Muslim community and have for some time campaigned in the UK for it to be recognised that this is so, as recent high profile sexual grooming cases involving Muslim gangs confirm. The emerging evidence clearly highlights that most of the gangs originate from within the Pakistani Muslim community and that their victims are almost always of a white, Sikh or Hindu background.

We urge the prime minister to tackle head-on why so many young Muslims in the UK have this disrespectful attitude toward women in non-Muslim communities, and we urge him to urgently engage with the leaders of the Muslim community to find answers to a problem that demeans women, that does incalculable damage to interfaith harmony and that has a detrimental effect on the public’s perception of the Muslim community generally.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon, the Network of Sikh Organisations (UK).

Anil Bhanot, the Hindu Council (UK).

Ashish Joshi, the Sikh Media Monitoring Group (UK).

Mohan Singh, the Khalsa Sikh Awareness Society (UK).

Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Sadly, there is considerable evidence to confirm that the thrust of the letter is accurate in all or most of what it says (thus, a good Sikh friend of mine in Newcastle provides shelter, food and education in safe houses around the city to the Sikh and Hindu victims of Pakistani Muslim gangs who operate in Leeds and Bradford). But is this an appropriate task for the prime minister to engage with? This is a problem that must be addressed by the men of a very particular religion and ethnicity.  And such men must begin by asking whether a statistically significant number of Pakistani Muslim males engage in such sexual grooming because of how they perceive and engage with females within their own community. Next, and perhaps most troubling of all, they must ask whether such sexual grooming is an inevitable outcome of a religion that exaggerates the differences between male and female, that accords to girls and women far fewer rights and opportunities than it grants to boys and men, and that sees girls and women as both threats to male well-being and legitimate targets for sexual exploitation.

Anyway: the letter above provoked from a friend of mine, someone very knowledgable about the world of Islam, the following reflection, a reflection which demands from individuals within the Muslim community to confirm that gender inequality and the sexual exploitation of girls and women are not inevitable facets of a religion which, at times during the medieval period in particular, had much of which it could be proud:

I support just about everything in the letter to “The Times” except the idea that the prime minister should “tackle head-on why so many young Muslims in the UK have this disrespectful attitude toward women in non-Muslim communities”. The prime minister could use his considerable influence to ensure Muslim leaders “find answers to a problem that demeans women, that does incalculable damage to interfaith harmony and that has a detrimental effect on the public’s perception of the Muslim community generally”, but this is a problem that is most apparent among Pakistani Muslim men (note the evidence from Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and Newcastle, for example) and, perhaps, Muslim men more generally (Muslim males of non-Pakistani origin have also been charged with sexual grooming of girls and young women, but in numbers far smaller than those from within the Pakistani community). It is time that the Pakistani and/or Muslim community took full responsibility for a problem that is self-evidently of its own making. The Pakistani and/or Muslim community needs to get its own house in order and should not – does not – require anyone outside the community, least of all the prime minister, to steer it toward doing what is no more than the right thing.

My worry is that the root of the problem lies with scripture itself and not “merely” the culture associated with Pakistani Muslim men. There are simply so many statements in the Qur’an and the Hadith that point to the inferiority of girls and women; that state how girls and women should be denied the rights and opportunities granted to boys and men (e.g. in relation to dress, education, employment, marriage and inheritance); and that conclusively stack the cards against girls and women being treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. Moreover, look at how, in the Muslim world generally, the honour of the family is fundamentally shaped by the behaviour of female relatives (in particular, such honour is shaped by how female relatives behave in the company of males who are not relatives), but men can commit the most dreadful crimes against humanity without bringing obvious shame on themselves or their family (they can also drink, take drugs and engage in sexual practices forbidden to women, presumably because boys will be boys!).

The challenge for Muslim leaders, whether Pakistani or otherwise, is that they need to find within their scripture theological justification for treating males and females equally, for providing males and females with the same rights and opportunities, and for according to girls and women precisely the same respect and dignity that should be accorded to boys and men. My Muslim friends frequently tell me that justice, equity, equality and respect for human rights lie at the heart of the Islamic faith. If this is so, I urge Muslim leaders to get to work to confirm it, in the first instance in relation to gender alone (then, perhaps, a theology of equality can be elaborated in relation to sexuality, disability, non-Muslims with or without a faith commitment, etc.). The victims of misogynistic Muslim male attitudes and behaviour need to be confronted with that theology of gender equality as soon as possible.

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Wow: I hear what is said and agree with much of the content. But can such a theology of gender equality be extracted from scripture? I believe it exists, but only if Muslim leaders ignore the much more compelling/detailed/problematic theology of gender inequality. Here is a tip for those honourable Muslim leaders, Pakistani or otherwise, who are determined to get their own house in order. Rely less on scripture to identify a theology of gender equality and examine Muslim history and tradition instead (in particular, examine how some Shia and Sufi groups have given expression to gender equality in the past and continue to do so today). But, for perhaps an even more obvious source for a theology of gender equality, engage with the many brilliant Muslim feminists (most of whom remain alive, thankfully, despite repeated death threats from males hostile to gender equality) who have done all the groundwork for the Muslim leaders already. Yes: confirm a commitment to gender equality simply by taking seriously what Muslim women really want and act upon their demands. As the meerkat says, “Simples.”

Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

P.S. Even before this post was published, a Muslim friend who kindly examined the draft pointed out, “And do not forget ijtihad, which allows for individual interpretation of scripture where scripture is not wholly explicit or unambiguous about what should be the case. Also, you are correct. While Islamic scripture appears to provide people with a theology of gender inequality, a very careful selection of statements from the Qur’an and the Hadith allows for a theology of gender equality. I am confident that Muslims will rise to the challenge this post provides for them to express such a theology of gender equality.”

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Religion: does it facilitate or inhibit gender equality?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Why is it that so many expressions of religion deny girls and women the same opportunities as boys and men? Is it that God, gods, the supreme being/beings, ultimate reality and/or the divine are all too often described as if they are male? Is it that men and not women wrote all or most of the world’s scripture? Is it that men edited scripture in such a way that women’s contributions were distorted/suppressed? Is it predicated on daft ideas that the physically powerful (males) should always shape life for the physically less powerful (females)? Is it predicated on the equally daft idea, no longer sustainable, of course, that males are intellectually superior to females?

Goddesses and women have played diverse but significant roles in many religions throughout history, so why have they been nearly invisible in the official stories of most expressions of religious faith? In the contemporary world, women often make up the majority in any congregation/gathering for religious ritual purposes, but they are less well represented in leadership positions.

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

The qur'anic class concludes with refreshments, Arapgir, Turkey. Note the difference in headwear

The qur’anic class concludes with refreshments, Arapgir, Turkey. Note the difference in headwear

I am not convinced that religions are necessarily sexist in their beliefs, practices, predispositions or general character. By way of opening up discussion about this matter of supreme and fundamental importance about religious commitment (a religion that cannot treat males and females as equals is highly suspect and deserves condemnation of epic proportions to encourage it to mend its ways immediately), I will dwell on the case of Christianity, which, in its very earliest decades, looked as if it would present a formidable challenge to prevailing norms about gender roles. Too bad, therefore, that, in a relatively short time, males of sometimes questionable character (e.g. note in the first three or four centuries of the religion’s existence the disquiet expressed about the abuse of children, some of it of a sexual nature. Have things changed that much since?) seized the reins of authority and quickly marginalised women. In other than only a few fleeting instances thereafter, it was not until two centuries following the Reformation in the 16th century that some of the Protestant churches began to address the issue of gender equality in a holistic and serious manner (although, in fairness, some expressions of Christianity prior to the Reformation allowed women to attain positions of considerable influence, but only within monastic orders).

A general comment to begin with. To a very large degree, the Bible has been written by men for men about men (to what extent is this also the case in relation to scripture in other religious traditions?).

However, in John’s Gospel, women are active, innovative and ministers of the kingdom to come. They are affirmed in roles unusual/unacceptable in contemporary Middle Eastern society.

Books of the Bible written before John’s Gospel make it clear that women should be the bearers of their husband’s children and satisfy their husband’s sexual needs. Biology shapes women (and men as well) and determines their roles in society. In a lot of early Jewish literature, women are defined as unclean and sexual temptresses, and contact with women should therefore be avoided. Because they were “responsible” for male temptation/deviation from an ethnically sound life, women were barred from public life lest they cause men to sin. Because women were not thought to have the intelligence of men, they were discouraged from using their initiative. In fact, it was sinful for women to study the Torah. Moreover, because they lacked intellectual ability, they could not act as witnesses.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls women to public ministry despite male opposition to the idea. He engages in theological discussion/debate (“I am the messiah”) with a Samaritan woman (who is doubly suspect, for being a woman and for being a marginalised/distrusted Samaritan). He talks with Martha about resurrection. The news of his resurrection reaches the disciples via Mary Magdalene.

Jesus is happy to interact with a marginalised Samaritan who is also a woman, someone whom many Jewish people at the time would have regarded as unclean. But it is the unclean Samaritan woman who is persuaded that Jesus is the messiah – and she drops/abandons everything to share her knowledge with others. She is therefore a model for apostolic activity and would therefore seem to be on an equal footing with the disciples. Her role in John’s Gospel is described in the same way that John’s Gospel describes the disciples’ ministry.

The Samaritan woman is the first person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus reveals himself as the messiah and she is the first person who acts on the information. She is therefore the recipient of important theological knowledge. Jesus treats her seriously and responds to her comments patiently and thoughtfully. To a very real degree, therefore, she is a model of female discipleship. This seems to imply that women can be messengers of the kingdom.

In John’s Gospel, Martha of Bethany is introduced/described in such a way as to suggest that she is more important than Lazarus. Jesus delivers “I am” speeches to Martha and Martha’s response to them mirrors that of Simon Peter in Matthew’s Gospel. Simon Peter’s response is generally viewed as confirmation that he has a leadership role, which would therefore imply that Martha is like a leader within the Jesus sect. Jesus sees Martha as capable of perceptive and discerning faith.

Even in stained glass windows, men invariably outnumber women. St. Vitus's Cathedral, Prague

Even in stained glass windows, men invariably outnumber women. St. Vitus’s Cathedral, Prague

If Chapter 20 of John’s Gospel is taken at face value, it would seem to provide the ultimate confirmation that Jesus is the resurrected Christ, the Son of God. Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty and tells Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Mary Magdalene is told to tell Jesus’ brothers the news of the resurrection. She is therefore entrusted with the supremely important message of Jesus’ triumph over death. It is due to this role that Mary Magdalene has been called the apostle of the apostles. A woman is informing/teaching the male disciples about the most basic tenet of the Christian faith, about the most startling mystery at the heart of the religion. One is therefore compelled to ask, “Is Mary Magdalene the equal to Peter?”

In some key respects, therefore, Jesus in John’s Gospel is revealed as distinctly radical/revolutionary in relation to the cultural norms of his age. He seems to suggest/confirm that women do not seduce men and that they should have access to public life. He seems to say that women should benefit from education. However, the Bible very soon confirms that all the disciples are male. Does this therefore reveal that Jesus is really a man of his time despite the above? Or does this merely suggest that others who came after him subverted his original intentions?

There is an indication in Chapter 12 verse 2 of John’s Gospel that Martha may have served at a table, perhaps as what became known as a deacon or, eventually, a minister in a house-church.

Although the earliest Christian texts attest to the importance of women in Jesus’ entourage and in the running of the first Christian house-church meetings, women rapidly disappear from the official history of church leadership (is this so because leaders within the church conformed with Paul’s hostility to women playing an active, public role in society/the church comparable to that of men?). However, sufficient evidence exists (historical and biblical) to confirm that, in those early days of innovation, Christianity accorded to women a role within the emerging religion that was indistinguishable from that of men. Consequently, far from the Church of England’s recent ordination of a woman as a bishop being a departure from early Christian tradition (of course, women bishops have existed for some years in the Episcopalian Church, the US version of the Church of England), Anglicans have simply brought practice within their denomination into line with the seeds sown in the decades immediately following the execution of Jesus.

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. For a number of years now, the synagogue has had a female rabbi

Although the great majority of religions worldwide discriminate against women in favour of men, or withhold opportunities to women that they grant to men (can anyone come up with examples of sexism that are more blatant?), the Church of England, the Episcopalian Church, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church are among the Christian denominations that have female priests/ministers, and within Judaism all “schools” except Orthodoxy encourage women to train as rabbis. Men and women share priestly responsibilities in ISKCON and in many manifestations of what is collectively called Paganism. Women also play a key role in rituals associated with the religion known variously as Vodou, Voodoo or Vodun (e.g. female Vodou priests are called “mambos”). In some manifestations of Sufism, men and women assume an equal role in ritual practices, and monasticism for males and females exists in many forms of Christianity and some forms of Buddhism.

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Can anyone identify the other religions around the world which accord women exactly the same opportunities as men to play a full/leading role within their faith? I’m not interested at this stage in those religions which say women are equal to men (this is frequently alleged by expressions of religion, but quite rarely carried through in practice); I seek instead evidence that this is so in terms of their authority within the religion. Put another way, if authority figures within a faith are men, can women fulfil exactly the same roles? If not, why not? If they can’t fulfil such roles, don’t tell me it’s mere tradition because, if it is, tradition needs to be immediately challenged. Slavery was traditional, but it no longer exists in most parts of the world (it is most common in India, however, where an estimated fourteen million people – yes, fourteen million people – suffer from different types of bondage/false imprisonment, children and women primarily). Female infanticide was traditional, but it is rarely encountered today (it appears to be most common in the People’s Republic of China). The burning of witches was traditional, but today it seems to be confined to only a few places in Africa and Melanesia. Human sacrifice was traditional, but it would appear to have died out everywhere (except in Louisiana, if “True Detective” is to be believed).

Unnecessary differentiation by dress, Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Unnecessary differentiation by dress, Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Who can say for certainty what form the divine assumes (if it exists at all, of course)?

Who can say for certain what form the divine assumes (if it exists at all, of course)?