The conference at USD was a test in patience and understanding, and I’m not sure I passed. The theme was “gendered responses to religious violence,” or perhaps more accurately: women’s rights and religious extremism. Throughout three days, scholars and practitioners from around the world discussed the exponential rise of religious extremism around the world, much of it violent, and its impact on women’s bodies and status in society. As was rightly said by a number of participants, the situation of women is a good indicator of a spike in religious extremism. Where women are facing more sexual violence and more formal and informal repression, this is often a sign that dangerous forms of politico-religious movements are on the rise that could spill into larger and more militarized forms of violence. Look at Iraq and Nigeria, where women have been kidnapped and forcibly married and converted for years as a tactic of ISIS and Boko Haram. Look at Myanmar, where the monk-led Buddhist nationalist groups have been pushing for legislation to “protect” women that would restrict their right to marry whom they want and practice the religion of their choosing. These groups, all of which are led by men who seek to impose some vision of moral purity on society, often inflict this agenda first and foremost on women – seeking to control them, stripping them of their agency, and claiming in the process that they do so to honor, protect, and dignify them, which is obviously B.S.
A central debate at the conference arose about what the solution to this is, and where religious doctrine and institutions fit in both propelling this phenomenon and addressing it. There were a handful of conference participants who were people (mostly women) of faith. There was me, the Christian minister, several Muslim hijabis (women who wear the head covering) and a Muslim imama (a female imam, or Muslim clergy). Ashima Kaul, a practicing Hindu from Kashmir was in attendance. At one point, Joyce Dubensky, a religious Jew, asked those participants who identify as a peacemaker motivated by faith to stand up. A little under half the participants stood. The majority of the wider group of conference participants, I would say, was of the “spiritual but not religious” camp. They were not hostile to religion, and recognized its complicated role as a source of both peace and violence, justice and oppression (just as those representing the religious camp did). Finally, a small but vocal camp of participants was openly hostile to religion throughout. I referred to this group as the “secular fundamentalists;” they represented the most extreme position. Lord, did they test me.
This group of secular fundamentalist women’s rights activists had the same definition of religion as the religious extremists: one in which “authentic” religious doctrine necessarily oppresses women and compels violence. As a result, these secular fundamentalists shape religion in the same way as the religious extremists – they reify normative religion as patriarchal, exclusionary, and violent. They ultimately hurt us women-of-faith seeking to chip away at patriarchal and misogynist forms of religious interpretation and amplify the many religious teachings supporting women’s dignity and authority and the history of women’s religious leadership in our traditions as much as the religious extremists do. And so I often feel as angry toward them as I do the religious extremists. I am heartbroken by the distorted version of religion presented by the religious extremists and secular fundamentalists, the way they butcher sacred traditions and ignore their teachings supporting gender egalitarianism, tolerance, and peace, or dismissing them as somehow inauthentic and unpersuasive. But the alienation imposed by secular women’s rights activists is doubly heartbreaking for me. These so-called progressives force their version of what’s right on me. They force me to choose between women’s rights and my faith. This is a false choice that ends up dividing women against each other, and this fragmentation of the movement for gender egalitarianism in the end only benefits patriarchy.
The fundies at the conference were exclusively from the Middle East and Southwest Asia, as is common. There political Islam has had negative repercussions for women, while the secular regimes of the past – including Saddam’s and the Shah’s in Iran – were much more gender egalitarian. Thus women’s rights activists from this region tend to see secularism (which in their mind often translates into utter absence or suppression of all forms of religion) as the solution and religion as the problem. As a result, the group at this conference was uniformly dismissive of religious actors and any role they can play in fostering inclusion and peace. The Lebanese moderator of a panel on which I spoke with three other women of faith – all of whom spoke about male and female religious actors supporting peace and women’s rights – said at one point that a “secular mindset” is the only one that can promote tolerance. My jaw dropped. Had she heard our presentations? Did she just summarily dismiss all those we spoke about, not to mention us panelists ourselves? I don’t have the “secular mindset” of which she was referring. I am a devout Christian and a stalwart proponent of high-order tolerance, someone who is appreciative of racial and religious difference, sensitive to majority/minority power dynamics and seeking institutional justice, a builder of religious pluralism not just in word but in action, and a defender of the legal separation of religious and state power for the good of both institutions (but note that this doesn’t mean I think they should not be in conversation with one another). I do not have these positions in spite of my faith, but because of it. The teachings of Jesus and many Christian theologians throughout the millennia motivate and shape my work for these goals. And this woman had just dismissed me as having an inferior mindset for this very reason. Bear in mind as well that just as my Christian ethical commitments motivate and shape my work, so too did Christian theology and ethics drive the establishment of human rights law and the Geneva Conventions in the first place (ahem, Hugo Grotius). As Jimmy Carter has said, those that worked on crafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were all people of faith.
As moderator, she had the final comment for our session, in which she dismissed religion as an avenue for supporting gender egalitarianism and peace. In a session earlier that morning, a small working group comprising all the secular fundies (they stuck together) said religious actors couldn’t play a role in the Gender Working Group of the Network of Religious and Traditional Leaders. Mind you, this is a network deliberately comprising religious actors, many of whom are concerned about gender justice. These kinds of comments and attitudes did not diminish throughout the conference, and as they were voiced I kept getting more and more offended, hurt, frustrated, and most of all: angry.
I’ll tell you what did not help: when in the aforementioned panel, during the question and answer period, an Egyptian Copic priest stood up and through a translator, informed me that women cannot be priests and bishops because the Bible does not condone it. “If this were the case,” he asked, “why were all of Jesus’s apostles men?” I couldn’t help but think: great, one point for the secular fundies.
Now, I’m no apologist for religion, of course. I know these kinds of attitudes are a pervasive reality that have driven gender injustice, and I spoke to this reality throughout my presentation. But given where I was at emotionally and what I was up against, I sighed inside as the male priest dismissed my religious authority because I’m a woman. Fortuitously, this also allowed me to illustrate a point I’d made in my talk: that women-of-faith draw from theological and scriptural sources to defend their agency as leaders, their rights, and their religious authority. I informed my Christian brother that I was an ordained minister, belonging to a Protestant denomination that had been ordaining women since 1853 without negative repercussions for the institution. Turning to the scriptures, I reminded him that in the Book of Acts there are many women named as leaders in the early church. “As for the gospels,” I noted, “don’t forget that the female followers of Jesus are consistently portrayed as understanding who Jesus is when the men don’t get it, and of staying by his side while he was arrested and crucified while the male disciples betrayed, denied, and fled. So yes, I do think women have the religious insight, faith, and courage to lead the Christian community, and I think the scriptures support that position.” There was my illustration of how to draw from religious resources to support women’s rights and authority against religious actors seeking to undermine women’s empowerment. How would the secular women have responded to this man in a way that would speak to him? With secular arguments?
I did not persuade the Coptic priest about women’s ordination that day (and I wouldn’t have expected to with one conversation), but perhaps I planted a seed. Later he came up to me and we spoke further, digging into the scriptures some more. All-in-all I found it exceedingly easier to be in conversation with him about a topic on which we had divergent views than I did with the secular fundamentalist women. He was open, he listened, he engaged patiently. The secular fundies, on the other hand, were often combative, arrogant, and dismissive. Guess with whom I’d rather work.
In the end, religion is a reality. The secular fundamentalists (including the “New Atheists” like Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens) would like all religion to go away. Or they think that it can be marginalized to a degree that it has no influence. When one of the secular fundamentalist women worried aloud that engaging religious actors at all will empower normative/patriarchal religion, I understood her concern coming out of her context and experience. But secular suppression of religion, history has shown us, only breeds religious backlash – often in “conservative” forms that differentiate themselves from secular liberal (Western) models of governance and social norms. Given this reality, why not work with people of faith who have the same end goals as you? Why summarily dismiss religious actors who are eager to advance women’s empowerment and/or coexistence and peace, drawing from religious values and arguments to do so, and willing to mobilize in support of international law and standards? Of course we won’t agree on everything, but that shouldn’t be a standard for collective action between groups with overlapping goals. And most importantly, one should never be forced to choose between a faith that is precious to them and their rights as a woman. To force this choice, which the secular fundamentalists do, is itself a form of violence and oppression against women. It denies the integrity and worth of my own voice and forces me into your vision of what’s right.
I’m tired of the secular fundies. They bring me down, man, by defining religion in a way no different from the religious extremists. I’m tired of them telling me what religion teaches, what it is. Who are they, of all people, to say what my religion teaches? They don’t know it like I do. Recognize that fact, and then listen to what I have to say. Really listen. Don’t silence my voice. Don’t tell me that my religious voice, my religious interpretations, my values are not authentic or legitimate.