Religion’s Invisible Women

FAITH IN ACTION By Katherine Marshall Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, a courageous woman from the arid north of Kenya, devotes her … Continued


By Katherine Marshall

Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, a courageous woman from the arid north of Kenya, devotes her life to building peace. She compares this work to an egg. “An egg is delicate and fragile. But if given the right conditions, it gives life.” Likewise, the potential for peace is fragile, and it needs careful nurturing if that potential is to be fulfilled.

Only a tiny number of those who sign peace agreements are women (one count puts the share at 2 percent). Likewise, photographs of interfaith gatherings constitute unmistakable evidence that religious leadership is one of the last places where the glass ceiling survives intact. But women, of course — as victims of war, citizens, and nurturers of values that are transmitted from generation to generation — are obviously deeply engaged in peace and religion. So where are they?

This was the question underlying a symposium at Georgetown University last week held by the United States Institute for Peace out of concern that both religion and women were too rarely at the center of its work. The symposium revealed an extraordinary array of activity that involves women, peace, and religion.

Stories of creativity, persistence and heroism tumbled out in a series of interviews and at the symposium. Dekha Ibrahim Abdi quoted the Koran to shame the groups fighting each other in her country into addressing their differences. Nuns in Uganda, Colombia and the Philippines stand as witnesses, hide those in danger, and demand action where rape is used as a weapon of war. Ashima Kaul returns again and again to Kashmir to document a past where different communities lived peacefully side by side. Bilkisu Yussuf demands action from Muslim and Christian leaders alike in the tense north of Nigeria and Amina Rasul-Bernardo helps Muslim women religious leaders (the Aleemat) in the Philippines to break out of traditional supporting roles into action to transform the community. Elana Rozenman hosts women from all Israeli communities at her house in “pajama parties” that offer a tiny glimpse of her vision of peaceful diversity.

So a first puzzle is why so much of this work is simply invisible. Security and peace have continued to be male bastions, despite Security Council Resolution 1325 that calls unequivocally for more women in peace processes. Some women claim that they need to be invisible to do their work well, to protect them from threats and to make sure that credit and responsibility are shared.

But invisibility has a cost. It means that heroines are rarely recognized and celebrated. There are fewer role models to inspire young leaders. And support and funding rarely go to invisible efforts.

So documentation of the work that women do is sorely needed. A fuller picture that takes note of work done outside the bargaining room will enrich our understanding of what peace means and give it a better chance to last and grow.

Scott Appleby, respected guru of the history of religion, observed at the symposium that it was a first for him to introduce himself after 14 women. He and others cautioned against women asserting (as some did at the symposium) that in the peace-making sphere their perspective is better than men’s and that they alone can persuade warring sides to come together.

His argument was absorbed and accepted, with caveats. Some women responded that when women meet by themselves, the atmosphere is more likely to produce results, and they are loath to give up this treasured bargaining format.

It will take some persistent work to alter the habits and also the rules that have men still dominating peace and religious tables, and to instill appreciation for the qualities like inclusiveness, reconciliation and healing that emerge when women are present in significant numbers.

It is not an easy transformation. But make no mistake: there’s a formidable and peaceful army of women determined to change the meaning of peace and to nurture that fragile egg, the potential for a lasting and living peace, with every gift and power they can muster.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

By Katherine Marshall | 
July 12, 2010; 12:13 AM ET

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Faith in Action

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