Faith and Feminism: Contradictory or Coexistent?
Ross Brittain reflects on the panel discussion, 'Faith and Feminism: Contradictory or Coexistent?' how interfaith can empower women from all faiths and beliefs to share experiences and combat prejudice.
The University of Sussex Coexist Society in collaboration with the University of Sussex Feminist Society and the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) Campus Leadership Programme put on a panel event on 18 April 2018 entitled Faith and Feminism: Contradictory or Coexistent?. The panel consisted of Maggie Hall, Chair of Brighton Secular Humanists, Lindsay Simmonds from the London School of Jewish Studies, Rev. Pat Alden from The United Benefice of Old Shoreham & Kingston Buci and Nasreen D'Agostino, President of the University of Sussex Coexist Society. The panel was chaired by Emilie Felsing from the Coexist Society. Together the panel included Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Humanist women reflecting on this topic in their own beliefs. But why?
We wanted to allow women of these faiths to give their own perspectives on how their interpretations of their faith informed and reinforced their belief in feminism. We see it as vital to give women a voice which - though none of our speakers could speak for everyone of their faith - did give an insight informed by lived experiences rather than the assumptions and prejudices that too often inform these discussions.
An accusation, likely familiar to everyone, is that of religion as being antithetical to women's rights. Certainly the emergence of laws against the wearing of Burqas in different areas of daily life in France, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Bulgaria, and the Quebec region of Canada  are often justified on the grounds of 'protecting' women from being forced to wear Burqas. It is this very line of thought about the need to 'protect' women from religion which led us to set up this event.
This is not to say women don't face unfair persecution or aren't forced into dress or actions they don't agree with by some groups claiming religious authority, such as mandatory head coverings in Iran. However the issue in such thinking is that it deprives women of all agency, of any ability to express themselves except in a way deemed legitimate - which in the case of the Burqa ban is usually decided by a group of non-Muslim men with little understanding of Islam, and even less of the meaning Islam has to the women who follow it.
The event allowed our Muslim speaker to talk about what the Hijab meant to her which, though she no longer wears it, she related back to its meaning in Arabic as 'barrier' and as such a wider code of values relating to modesty, not only in appearance, but conduct in daily life and with it a sense of humility.
Another fact which our speakers taught us was that the Arabic and Hebrew word for 'He' is the same word used for 'It' and thus when in Arabic and Hebrew this word is used to refer to God it may mean 'It' not 'He' denoting that God is not necessarily male or gendered at all. This was further shown in the fact that names for God have been both male and female. It was through this interaction that the interfaith nature of the event truly elevated the discussion, allowing a bonding across communities on shared meanings that they have given to their religious and feminist views which, though they may have arrived at through different paths, upheld the same values.
Such bonding can be incredibly powerful as we saw at an earlier event when we screened the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell  which followed the struggle of the Liberian Women's Peace Movement during the 2nd Liberian Civil War. The documentary shows how Christian and Muslim women came together to protest for peace against both sides and succeeded in bringing an end to the conflict, with their leader Leymah Gbowee in 2011 receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for her part in the struggle. This group, both as women and as people of faith, united to bring an end to the conflict that had devastated their country and showed the power that interfaith can have to bring real change.
It is thus in this spirit that we undertook the event, not simply to address issues of women in their faith communities, both those real and perceived, but to show the power that women of faith hold to bring about change in society. Our event thus sought to address both the negative experiences of women of faith within their religion, but also what it has given them and when our Jewish speaker was asked is faith and feminism a contradiction or can they coexist she answered 'yes'. Religion can and is used by some to reduce the status of women, but it can also be a force for liberation and change in those same women's lives.
Our task going forward must be to fight the prejudices held against women of faith as surely as it is to support those women who seek equality within their faith from those groups denying it, and it is both through faith and the coming together of different faiths that we shall achieve this.
Ross Brittain is a Student Leader with the Council of Christians and Jews at the University of Sussex. As CCJ Student Leader and Events Coordinator for the university's Coexist Society, he organised the panel event 'Faith and Feminism: Contradictory or Coexistent?' in collaboration with the university's Feminist Society.
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