"If Christ can be a militant…"
As Interfaith Week draws to a close, Mirella Yandoli (Church of Scotland Interfaith Officer) reflects on one of the events that made the most impact demonstrating the connection between interfaith dialogue and other justice movements, in this instance marking 100 years of women's suffrage.
2018 has been a year of anniversaries, with the centenary of the end of the First World War falling during Interfaith week (IFW), the timing was perfect in order to highlight the diverse faith backgrounds who fought. This year also marks 100 years of women's suffrage and, with a similar aim to highlight the diversity of the suffragettes and suffragists, it was decided that we should mark it during IFW. The idea initially came from Ravinder Nijjar from Religions for Peace’s Global Women of Faith Network who approached myself and the Gender Justice Officer for the Church of Scotland, and the three of us did research on three notable women from our own communities, Sikh and Christian. There are plans to hold other events in the New Year to mark different women from different faith traditions.
The three women that we looked at were May Pollock Grant (1876-1957), Princess Sophia Dulheep Singh (1876-1948) and Dorothea Chalmers Smith (1872-1944). They each engaged in similar activities in terms of taking part in insurrections, interrupting meetings and acts of vandalism though Smith and Grant were more actively engaged in trying to move the Church along on this issue. Singh has a fascinating life story as she was the daughter of Mahraja Sir Duleep Singh, otherwise known as the Black Prince of Persia, brought to Scotland at the age of five was kidnapped by the British Crown to prevent an uprising in the kingdom he was supposed to be ruling over. Sophia was brought up in Hampton Court and generally considered to be royalty though as an adult she travelled to India where, for the first time, she faced her Indian heritage, saw the Empire's effect on those it ruled over, including her family who had lost a great deal through surrendering their power. During her stay in Lahore, Singh met several Indian freedom fighters which officially turned her against the Empire and connected her with a deeper understanding of her own Sikh faith. Upon returning to Britain she launched herself into the suffragette movement, throwing her anti-imperialist energy into a cause she perhaps felt that she would have more of an impact on. Her status as royalty allowed her to escape some of the brutal treatment that many women received at the hands of the police and in prison.
The women from the Church of Scotland couldn't escape punishment so easily. Smith's husband, a minister, was forced by the Kirk Session to divorce her and she was barred from seeing her three sons ever again and both experienced spells in prison with Smith went undergoing the brutality of the hunger strike. Pollock, a former missionary in India, was particularly frustrated by the Church in Dundee who voted against supporting the cause of women’s suffrage. In response this set-back she wrote a letter to the local newspaper saying:
This is not the first time that the Church has refused to support progress, but in this case its position is the more reprehensible if we consider how much it owes to those who are struggling for freedom. Who fills the churches, so far as they are filled? Who does Sunday school work? Who raises church funds? Who visits the poor and the sick. The men? Nay, verily.
The experience of presenting these women's stories, their strategies and frustrations had a profound impact on me. I saw three women trying to stake the claim in the traditions and systems which had both shaped them and betrayed them. Their acts of rebellion covered a vast range from being arrested for standing up in prayer at Church in the name of their fellow suffragettes, digging holes in golf courses to burning an entire church to the ground. These acts display both the anger and frustration aimed at them from the patriarchal establishment, outraged by their disruption of the narrative of mild and meek Christian women who were supposed to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-33). And the anger the women felt at being left unsupported by the Church which they had so energetically served. While researching my presentation, a quotation from another Scottish Presbyterian Suffragette, Helen Crawford, struck me as one which touched on how women at this time were learning to discover from their faith an alternative narrative, one of rebellion and independence from the status quo. In it she describes gaining inspiration from her husband's sermon about Jesus expelling the money-lenders from the temple and concluding 'if Christ could be a militant, so could I'.
All three women touched on issues that we struggle with today, especially considering the 'Me Too' movement, and 'Say Her Name' campaign in the US. This event offered a useful reminder of how faith can be at the centre of inspiration and a productive, if not morally ambiguous, channel for anger. From the perspective of how this event advanced interfaith relations, it was through the reports of several Sikh and Muslim women who approached me saying that they didn't realise how white Christian women struggled against the Church establishment, they just assumed that the Church had gone along with progress. In the Church we so often 'other' the issues of domestic abuse and women's inequality as a matter for the Muslim community. We need to get better at admitting that the issues of patriarchal dominance exist across faiths and cultures. We rarely get to look at the struggle of women side by side one another, women of different cultures and faiths but, ultimately, united by the same fight.
This article is written by Mirella Yandoli who has been the Church of Scotland's Interfaith officer for the past two years. Her role is to develop and expand Scotland's national Church relationships with other faith communities as well as help to educate its members and leaders about the interfaith landscape. A key issue is helping to connect members with their individual and community responsibility in tackling hate speech and prejudice in a Scottish context where these issues are not always so visible. Mirella is a Woolf Institute alumna having completed the University of Cambridge MSt in The Study of Jewish-Christian Relations. Mirella's first post reflecting on Interfaith Week 2018 can be viewed here.
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