Bringing Hope to Women in Inter-Religious Dialogue

By Wen-Chin (Lucy) Lo, CCAO Peace Intern

On October 13, 2015, I had the good fortune to attend a panel on “Islam, Culture and Sexism: What Needs to Change?” held by U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP). I left with a hope that one day equality between men and women would be appreciated across all religions and traditions.

During the panel, I learned that blurring religious and cultural lines can negatively affect everyone. Take Islam for example. The traditional understanding of men as providers and protectors may lead men to act aggressively when they feel their masculinity challenged or threatened by women assuming more leadership in society.

According to Susan Heyward, Director of Religion and Inclusive Societies at USIP, when men are absent and women are left as sole caretakers for their families, we actually see more opportunities for women to take on leadership roles. However, “women’s leadership does not equal women’s rights,” Manal Omar, acting vice president of the Center for Middle East and Africa at USIP, reminded us. In traditional societies, where religious values and cultural practices are blurred and interpreted in a more patriarchal context, not only do women become victims of oppression, but religion itself falls victim to the negative influences of a patriarchal society.

Fortunately, organizations like Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights are doing their best to bring about positive changes. Dr. Azizah al-Hibri, founder of Karamah, explained, “We do not tell our Muslim women what true Islam is. Instead, we offer them the tools and assist them with the ability to read Islamic texts directly.” By asking questions in this way, not only can Islam be understood from a different perspective, but confidence in Islam among the younger generation of Muslim women can also be restored.

In and of itself, however, this approach of “speaking through our own voices” is not enough; we also need women and men who are willing to listen. Faith can only be understood in depth and with authenticity when there is a strong and voluntary willingness to listen on all sides.

As Cardinal Francis Arinze writes in Meeting Other Believers (1997), “Dialogue implies both receptivity and active communication.” Instead of reliance on the idea of what one person believes, two-way interaction and communication is crucial. Through interreligious dialogue, all sides, no matter what faith they represent, are invited to see the world as others see it with an open mind and conscious acknowledgment of differences. And in that spirit, religion can be a partner in achieving gender equality rather than an excuse for oppression.

Be sure to check out the work of Columban Interreligious Dialogue, by clicking here: