The first panel discussion of the series on “Women of Faith in Community” will take place at 6pm on 28th October and feature a diverse group of panellists in conversation around the role of women of faith within their local communities.
This panel discussion aims to explore the different approaches, experiences, and challenges women from different faith backgrounds encounter in their involvement and integration into the local community. In particular, women of faith’s role in creating social networks and maintaining cohesive communities will be explored. Indeed, various faith groups often initiate or contribute towards social action projects; what then is the role of women working alongside their own and other faith groups to benefit their wider community? And how are women of faith, particularly those in leadership, perceived by their own faith groups and the wider community?
Dr Lindsay Simmonds begins by outlining the historical context for her talk. She states that forty years ago orthodox Jewish women could not sit in a “beth midrash” or study hall, they could not attend a Talmud class or make legal, halakhic, decisions. Neither could they take part in a public ritual or lead congregations. Lindsay argues that in their struggle for participation, Jewish women were rendered unintelligible, accused as heretics or branded witches because “religiosity is not primarily a matter of holding correct opinions, but of conforming to a set of behaviours” (Judith Berling). Contrastingly, Lindsay states that today, Jewish women do all these things, although not necessarily all in the UK. She continues by stating that Jewish women have come to occupy space that was historically ritualised and embodied by men, and have come to own that space, becoming intelligible within it. Yet, Lindsay believes that this emphasis on ‘behaving correctly’ is a sentiment that persists within the orthodox Jewish community, as well as in other conservative patriarchal religious communities it could be argued. It can be manifest as the silencing of women, rendering them invisible, however, the majority of the time, Lindsay finds that it is expressed in terms of women being unintelligible, or an enigma.
After outlining her involvement with different communities both religious and secular, Lindsay goes on to establish the position of women in biblical and rabbinic texts by looking at an example from the Book of Numbers and then contrasting this with an example from contemporary life. Giving a biblical example of women changing Jewish law and setting a precedent for women to inherit from their parents in the absence of any sons, Lindsay highlights the positive response of the ancient rabbis to this story. Lindsay then shares her experience preparing to give a class in a synagogue, explaining that the rabbi of the community specifically asked her not to speak on any Jewish legal matter, arguing that this was beyond her remit. This modern-day experience directly contradicts the example Lindsay brings from a biblical text.
Lindsay concludes by highlighting that although much has changed in the status and perception of Jewish women within their communities over the last forty years, the UK has been incredibly slow in increasing women’s equality within the Jewish community. Lindsay states that despite this lag in progress, she is ever the optimist and ever the activist.
Julie Siddiqi begins by stating that there is no such thing as the Muslim community, arguing that as much as people like to place Muslim people or women into a box, it does not exist and is diverse in every way you could imagine. For Julie, developing friendships with women from Muslim backgrounds and other backgrounds is really important, and she encourages others to realise the benefits of this. Julie explains that in interfaith work, often the importance of friendship is not featured and she emphasises the importance of having good people around us. Friendship, Julie highlights, is at the heart of the Nisa-Nashim Muslim and Jewish interfaith network that she co-founded along with Laura Marks. Julie explains how the women involved in the network demonstrate beautifully how creating friendships and getting to know one another is vital if you then want to eventually tackle controversial or sensitive topics together. Trust and bond are really important, with Julie giving the example of a Jewish woman who supported her Muslim friend from her local Nisa-Nashim group last year when her mother died from covid. It is these friendships that are most important.
Julie’s second point surrounds the stereotypes that Muslim women and women from different faith backgrounds face. She highlights the stereotype that sees Muslim women as being oppressed and controlled in what they wear and what they do and argues that this is not helpful and not acceptable, calling for a move away from these kinds of damaging stereotypes and from the temptation to simply put people into boxes, metaphorically speaking.
Julie continues this theme by mentioning the difficulties of intracommunity inequalities and stereotypes held against women, emphasising the particular difficulties that women of faith in the public eye face in navigating these issues. Julie argues that along with other similarities people see between Abrahamic faiths, there are also similarities in the struggles women from these faith backgrounds face in terms of discrimination. Julie explains the value in the friendships she has built with women of other faiths, stating that women of faith are not going anywhere, they are not leaving their faiths and their faith communities, and should feel confident in speaking up about the discrimination they face within their own faith communities. She argues that she will not put up with second-class treatment as she knows that her faith does not teach this. Finally, Julie states that having allies in women from different faith backgrounds is what is most encouraging and that sharing these difficulties with each other helps women to know that ‘we are all in this together.’
Raheema Caratella begins by stating that her experience lies mostly in working with young people and women. Raheema explains her involvement in the Christian Muslim dialogue group in Leicester, highlighting how well received this space has been by all women. It has given opportunities to reach out to people during covid, for example during an iftar meal where women from different faith backgrounds made food together and broke fast. This became an opportunity to find interfaith friendships and build trust and bonds between different people, which in turn has allowed stereotypes to be broken down and created a safe space for women to ask questions. It is in this space that women are able to tell their own narratives and share their stories. Raheema argues that it is often women who are the first to take on new projects particularly within the community, she goes on to explain that for herself it was her sense of justice that motivated her to become a leader within her community. However, Raheema describes her process of accepting her leadership role with the idea of being a leader within the Muslim community, not one that she was reconciled with initially, especially as she did not feel she fit into the typical image of a Muslim leader. Raheema describes having questions such as ‘am I supposed to be here’ and ‘do I fit in here’, however she realised that in reality, she had every right to that space because of her experience working on the group in her community.
Raheema moves on to highlight some of the difficulties of standing up for social justice issues within your own faith group, explaining that in challenging the status quo, for example, issues of women in Mosques, you can be seen as a “troublemaker” or a “sell-out”. This negative branding as something that in reality you are not creates a really difficult environment for women within their own faith communities. Through these experiences, Raheema has learnt that she needs to make her own space in her community in order to have her own voice. To conclude, Raheema links this right back to the teachings in the Muslim faith, demonstrating how women have every right to be leaders and have a voice within faith spaces.
About Women of Faith Series
Dialogue Society is pleased to announce a new online panel series on “Women of Faith” that aims to highlight the experiences, challenges, and contributions of women from different faith backgrounds in varying spheres of society. Following on from our previous panel series on “Women’s Empowerment” that inspired our recent policy paper “Supporting Gender Equality: Examples from Politics, Business, and Academia in the UK”, which was presented at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. The Women of Faith series extends our existing work on gender equality more broadly, to focus on a particular, often-overlooked group of women.
The series has three panels, each one focusing on a particular theme: “Women of Faith in Community”, “Women of Faith in Public Service’, and “Women of Faith in the Media’. The panel series aims to explore the experiences, challenges, and contributions of these women in different areas of life whilst also extending our gaze to examine the perceptions of women from all faiths and none within the public realm and the media.
The panel series will then inform a policy paper that will unpack the themes from each panel discussion and accumulate ideas and arguments discussed into policy recommendations.