Christians and Muslims should be bringing women to the fore!
I'm used to being on the edge, I've been that kind of Christian for a long time. My involvement in Christian-Muslim interaction over the last ten years is another edge, some would say a cliff-edge. Some would say that I have already fallen over the edge, still others that I shouldn't have anything to do with Muslims. Those are the negative voices. I am encouraged by those who, when I tell them that I am Director of the Christian Muslim Forum, say, 'That's cool!'
There is another edge that is challenging, and neglected, which I have been passionate about for almost as long. This is the edge which faces women. Two of our partners expressed this extremely well in our unsurprisingly-named 'The Edge' report, which looked at the role of women in faith:
'Role models, female leadership, strong articulate voices ... [are] all needed and I would say crucial and urgent. But it won't happen by accident. Academics, activists, community workers, professionals ... need to come together as women and discuss this. Of course we need to work with men but that women-only space is crucial and will make all the difference.' (Julie Siddiqi, Director, Islamic Society of Britain)
Professor Tina Beattie of the University of Roehampton, added:
'While Christian women can sometimes feel like outsiders and 'others' in an increasingly secular culture ... Muslim women experience many of these struggles in a more acute way. This is partly because of widespread prejudice and stereotyping, and partly because of economic, educational and cultural difficulties that affect minority communities. ... women [need] to work together and to support one another in seeking a national platform.'
I recall that the first national event that we organised at the Christian Muslim Forum was an 'Imams and Ministers' conference. It was not the most inclusive name and few women (Christian or Muslim) were present. In fact, the feedback from the female Christian ministers was 'where are the Muslim women?'
We were forced into a rethink. Two of my colleagues Revd Dilly Baker (Church of England priest) and Wahida Shaffi (Chair, Bradford Muslim Women's Council) led the way by running a couple of women's retreats - 'Women at the Well' - focusing on the lives of Sarah and Hagar in the Bible and Qur'an. This developed into the first national Christian-Muslim women's 'tea party', with dialogue and practical activities at Lambeth Palace with the Archbishop's wife.
We knew that the Forum still needed a properly-resourced women's programme. I proposed a women-only initiative led by my colleague Wahida, knowing that she would have the energy, imagination and commitment to deliver a really useful programme. I also knew that I would be taking a back seat! Nevertheless, I have been in the slightly-unusual situation of encouraging female colleagues to maintain women-only spaces at the various gatherings we have held over the last 18 months. Now I am trying to think how women and men can come 'to the edge' and work constructively on gender issues together.
Meanwhile, as I began writing this article I was attending one of our first female-led events which allowed male observers (for a prize-giving ceremony). We awarded those who had impressed us with what they were doing to bring local Christian and Muslim women together. At our awards event I stood in the doorway, on the edge, tweeting news and great quotes. It was a bonus that our first ever awards event focused on women.
I am conscious that there is something unsettling about wrestling with gender balance and equality. A heavy weight on one end of a see-saw can only be equalised with a heavier weight or stronger force, immediately creating an imbalance. As a society, as our respective faiths, we are not yet completely balanced and fully inclusive. Equality is the ideal that we reach after rebalancing, or unbalancing, the status quo.
For the benefit of us all, men and women alike, we need to hear women's voices. When voices are heard we can move on to constructive and change-making dialogue.