Women in Abrahamic Traditions

“Please explain to me, because I don’t understand,” asked a woman in the audience, “Why it is that people can convert to Islam or in the case of the school girls, be forced to convert to Islam, but the reverse is not true? For example, the woman in recent weeks that was put to death because she converted to Christianity.”

This question was directed to Mahnaz Shabbir, who was a guest panelist at the Dinner of Abrahamic Traditions held last week at the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. This event is part of a series organized by the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest and that night’s topic was “Significant Women Role Models in Abrahamic Traditions.” Shabbir was the third and final speaker, representing an Islamic perspective. Rabbi Linda Steigman and Chancellor Jude Huntz had preceded her, speaking respectively from the perspectives of Judaism and Christianity.

As one who loves religions and who also identifies as a fervent feminist, there are many difficult questions I have to ask of myself. Why is it that the same holy scriptures that at once inspire in me a sense of wonder and give me a glimpse into the divine oftentimes also have the ability to frighten and repel me? How is it that the same scriptures that reveal the meaning of compassion, faith and justice, also display some of the worst instances of hatred, violence and inequality? These, I imagine, are difficult questions for anyone who has struggled with the faith. I still remember the first time I read with great dismay in the first letter to the Corinthians an admonition for women to remain silent in church, “for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.” (1 Corinthians 14:34, KJV) Even today, while I openly declare my undying love for the Bible and the New Testament, I have to admit this is a passage I wish we could just delete. And there are others like this, in the Hebrew Testament and in the Quran. Too many to list, really.

“There’s good and there’s bad in every place, but we shouldn’t always just emphasize the bad,” answered Shabbir. And there lies the rub, I think. Religion is most alive when we struggle with it, and it goes stagnant when we accept it as a given, when we take it for granted. Struggling with one’s faith means for me that we ask questions, and it means that when can’t find answers, we find new ways to ask questions. Shabbir faced the question head on, “There are people who use our faith in ways they shouldn’t. There is no forcing of someone to be a Muslim, that is not the teaching of Islam.” She elaborated on this and continued to explain the root of these reprehensible acts and misrepresentations of the religion, “You have to remember there are areas of the world where not everyone is as educated and that sometimes people become religious leaders without any education at all.”

This is true across all faiths, in my opinion. I’ve certainly experienced this in my own evangelical upbringing. In no uncertain terms, Shabbir condemned the incident in question and others like it, “It was wrong, and in America many Muslim organizations did everything we could to try to stop that incident, but unfortunately it wasn’t successful.” It is at this point that she emphasizes that there is good and there is bad, and she drives this point, “There’s a whole lot of good going on.”

Linda Steigman, Rabbi and Chaplain, teacher and interfaith counselor.

Linda Steigman, Rabbi and Chaplain, teacher and interfaith counselor.

In true “people of the book” fashion, all three presenters at the event recounted stories of remarkable women in the scriptures. We heard the stories of women such as Sara, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, the foremothers of Abrahamic religions. Stories about women who believed God’s promises, women who acted virtuously and courageously, women whose example inspires many even today. Women who, as Rabbi Steigman put it, “made a real difference by taking brave, gutsy actions.” She told the stories of Esther, Ruth and Naomi. But she also told the lesser-known story of Yael, a brave woman who delivered Israel from the troops of King Jabin when, as Rabbi Steigman put it, “took a tent-pick and put it through the head of Sisera after she wooed him with warm milk, and we don’t know what else was in the warm milk!” (I don’t remember hearing that story in Sunday School!)

This is all great. We need to hear the stories of these historically significant women, but I really want to know about the place women hold in Judaism today. In spite of the fact that women were held in high esteem in post-biblical times, the fact is that they were expected to run the home and even a business in order that their husbands could study. That rubbed me the wrong way. Did it mean that women were held in high regard as long as they fit a prescribed domestic gender role?

It turns out I’m wrong, and happily so. Yes, women were not commanded to attend to time-bound commitments or go to Synagogue. However, Rabbi Steigman declares, “There’s a difference between being not-commanded and being forbidden, and this is the road that women today have taken in becoming much more active in the Jewish clergy.” She tells us the story of Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi to be ordained. Her ordination took place in Germany eighty years ago, which seems late in the grand scheme of things, but is certainly longer ago than I expected. Rabbi Jonas was killed in the Holocaust in 1940. The next woman rabbi was ordained in 1973 in the reformed movement of the United States, “And now, about half of the each class of ordinees are women. Eventually, the rabbinate will be half women and half men, maybe more women, we don’t know,” said Rabbi Steigman. I had no idea the numbers of women in the rabbinate were this high. There is a lot of good going on, indeed.

Jude Huntz, Chancellor at the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph

Jude Huntz, Chancellor at the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph

“Abraham is often called our father in the faith, and in the Christian tradition we often refer to Mary as our mother in the faith,” said Chancellor Huntz. He drew parallels between the promises God gave to Abraham and to Mary, about the child they would each have, about how they each responded to God’s promise and about how they each faced the prospect of the sacrifice of their sons. The difference being, of course, that Abraham’s son was spared and Mary’s wasn’t. And then he compared Mary to another father from the New Testament, Zechariah. “If we look at Mary in the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew we see a remarkable woman,” Huntz said, adding that the Gospel of Luke highlights the role of women as role models and leaders of the faith. Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, did not believe the promise of the Lord and his incredulity was punished with the inability to speak for three days. Mary, on the other hand, believed and accepted the promise, in spite of the repercussions she would face as a young woman pregnant out of wedlock. In his reading of the Gospel, Huntz sees women and men in contrast, he quips that “The women are always getting it and the men are not.” This to him, serves to remind us of the stories of all the remarkable women in the the Old Testament Rabbi Steigman has just shared with us. I want him to talk about 1 Corinthians 14:34, but then I remember there is a lot of good going on, and I shouldn’t just emphasize the bad. There is, after all, a lot of good.

Mahnaz Shabbir, President of Shabbir Advisors, is an active advocate for interfaith dialogue and has written a number of articles for a variety of publications.

Mahnaz Shabbir, President of Shabbir Advisors, is an active advocate for interfaith dialogue and has written a number of articles for a variety of publications.

“There are five pillars of Islam. It isn’t five pillars for men and five pillars for women. It isn’t that men do one thing and women do another. We all do the same things,” said Shabbir. I could sense this is a question she has had to answer countless times. It reminds me of the only question people think to ask of vegans, “But, how do you get your protein?” She proceeds gracefully, but sternly as she quotes from the Quran, “O mankind! We have created you from a single pair of male and female…the most honorable of you, in the sight of Allah is the one who is most righteous of you.” (49:13) This is an aya she often refers to as she makes a point about gender equality in Islam. “Here, in the words of God through the angel Gabriel, we view that God has made us equal, men and women. The only thing that makes us any different is how pious we are,” she says. Okay, that’s great, I’ve read the Quran and I know that there is even an entire chapter dedicated to Mary (Maryam), the mother of Jesus. But what about the way women are treated throughout the Islamic world? That’s a question I’ve been getting a lot these days and I need help. Shabbir tells us “That has nothing to do with religion, it has to do with culture. It’s important that we understand what the religion is before we go into the distinctions of culture.” And it’s true, she talks about women in Islamic countries who are not allowed to drive and reminds us that, “The Quran doesn’t say anything about automobiles!” This is helping me out. I can relate this to the different schools of Buddhism I’ve studied. Tibetan Buddhism, for instance, looks so different from Zen Buddhism in great part because it has assimilated into its practices so much from Tibetan culture and folklore.

The Prophet’s equal treatment of women is documented in great detail in the Haddiths. There is an instance where he is asked to whom one should pay respect after paying respect to God and the Prophet answers, “To your mother.” Twice more he is asked and twice more he gives the same answer. Only the fourth time does the Prophet say, “To your father.” Shabbir jokes that perhaps this means women are more important than men, but she quickly adds, “no, we’re equal.” There are other accounts, like the fact that the Prophet stood up every time his daughter Fatima walked into a room as a sign of respect toward her and other women. Shabbir tells us about other significant women in Islamic tradition, and then she moves on to talk about remarkable Muslim women today. Dr. Shirin Ebadi, for instance, is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Iran. She is well-known for her personal accomplishments, but mostly for her leadership in human rights activism. She’s a Muslim. Ingrid Mattson is a professor of Islamic Studies, an interfaith activist and a former president of the Islamic Society of North America. She’s a Muslim convert. Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister of Pakistan, Khaleda Zia was the prime minister of Bangladesh, Megawati Sukarnoputri was the prime minister of Indonesia; all three, Muslim women. “We haven’t had a woman president in the United States yet, but we’ve had Muslim women prime ministers in other countries,” remarks Shabbir. This is true, and for me it’s painfully true. She makes a few more points about the equality of women in Islam and she closes by saying, “In America I can practice my religion exactly the way the Prophet wanted us to practice.”

Whenever we can have an open and honest dialogue between people of different faiths, whenever we can ask difficult questions and have the courage to struggle with incomprehensible truths; there is no doubt in my mind that there’s good and there’s bad in every place, but we shouldn’t always just emphasize the bad. And, what’s more, there’s a lot of good going on.

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