At long last, our book was released officially on September 15th! Can’t tell you what a relief this is, after such a long incubation period. The project that led to this book was launched in 2010, a joint effort by USIP, the Berkley Center of Religion and World Affairs at Georgetown, and the World Faiths Development Dialogue. Katherine Marshall and I have shepherded the process along in the years since. Holding the book makes more real and evident the larger project and its impact on me and my work: all those conversations, those incredible women I’ve met and learned about.
The common assumption out there is that religious women are quiet, submissive, oppressed. When it comes to thinking about their response to violent conflict, there is little known about how they work, and so a conclusion that they do little. When it comes to their role in shaping gender dynamics in society, it is often assumed they reaffirm normative practices and attitudes privileging men and their authority. Look closer, and these easy assumptions fall apart. This book tells the stories of women you may never have heard of — women who have been unrecognized by either the religious peacebuilding field (which privileges male clerics) or the women’s peacebuilding field (which privileges secular women). It tells the story of Pastor Adelina Zuniga and Catholic Sister Maritze in Colombia who confront corporate powers and armed actors in their efforts to protect their communities and demand justice, drawing from Biblical stories affirming the leadership of women to defend their agency against religious or secular gatekeepers who makes claims about how religious women should act. It speaks of Tawakkol Karman, Dekha Ibrahim, Bilkisu Yusuf — Muslim women from across Africa and the Middle East who have led nonviolent resistance movements to topple dictators, forged relationships across fraught lines of violence, advocated for women’s rights within religious frames, and put themselves in the most dangerous, violent places to mediate between factions, drawing courage and conviction from their faith. Or Mae Chee Samanasee in Thailand, who quietly brings together Buddhist and Muslim women from the south to offer healing to those worn down by the unending cycles of suffering wrought from decades of violence. Thank God for these women, these stories, and for the opportunity given us to sing their songs.
In the course of this project two women just mentioned, Dekha and Bilkisu, died. Dekha died in 2011 in a car accident, and Bilkisu died just recently in the stampede at hajj in Mecca. Together those involved in the project mourned their deaths, even as we acknowledged their spirit and inspiration live on, encouraging other Muslim women in Africa and religious women across the globe. At our 2010 symposium, Dekha spoke quietly but with a wisdom that granted her authority. She spoke of how delicate peace is — like an egg. Bilkisu, meanwhile, demanded your attention — her towering presence, her deep voice. She didn’t speak much but when she spoke her words were careful and influential. She came across as powerful but never domineering. She co-authored one of the chapters in our book … perhaps her last published piece, her last written word, before succumbing to the glory in the most holy Islamic place on earth. Rest in peace, sisters. We’ll keep singing your song and your praises.