NSW: Speakers focus on how religion can advance gender equality

Panel speakers and guests at International Women's Day service

Speakers from various religious backgrounds focussed on the role of religion in advancing gender equality when they addressed a reception following a service at the Baha’i Temple in Sydney on 29 March to mark International Women’s Day.

Introducing the speakers, MC Safa Rahbar said there was increasing attention to the role of religion and the need for the empowerment of women to contribute to a more harmonious society.

The president of the International Council of Jewish Women, Robyn Lenn, raised the question of whether all religions treated women as equals and supported their members in a bid for a better, more balanced life.

“In faiths there is belief in equality, but still a gap in male and female roles, especially in religious leadership,” Ms Lenn said.

There had been progress in the progressive Jewish community but orthodox women still struggled against ancient divorce laws which disadvantaged women, and her organisation has spent decades advocating reinterpretation of rabbinic law in this area, she said.

CEO of the Immigrant Women’s Health Service, Dr Eman Sharobeem, said women were suppressed more because of culture than religion.

A member of the Coptic community, Dr Sharobeem said women in her community were still called the wife of somebody or the daughter of somebody. “We do not have a title on our own,” she said.

“We need to keep talking about it and not allow our issues to be forgotten,” she said.

A Dominican sister, lecturer and author Trish Madigan, said women need to challenge the political and economic structures of society as well as the religious structures.

Dr Madigan said that early Christianity had an egalitarian ethos but it is the politics and economics of our world that perpetuate patriarchal structures.

“Women meeting each other and supporting each other in interfaith environments has played an important role in making our community more inclusive and accepting,” Dr Madigan said.

The executive officer of the United Muslim Women Association, Maha Abdo, said she had been working against domestic violence for a long time, and without having the support of the men in her life she could not carry out this service.

“Men and women complement each other in our tradition—not despise each other,” she said, quoting the Holy Qu’ran on the topic.

“It is about balancing, not wiping out one group or another,” she said.

A Baha’i speaker, Saphira Rameshfar, said the equality of men and women is a facet of human reality.

“That which makes us human is neither male nor female,” Ms Rameshfar said.

“We cannot ignore the force of religion in people’s lives but we need to be able to leave behind labels that lock us in debates, she said. “I propose we conceptualise religion as an ongoing process through which humanity becomes conscious of the spiritual dimension of human life and learns to orient its individual and collective life accordingly.”

The speakers then answered a range of questions from the MC and audience members.

One question concerned what has been successfully tried by religions as a source of empowerment for women.

Ms Abdo said that Muslim women were attending classes where they studied verses of the Qu’ran in their original meaning so as to bring about empowerment through faith.

Ms Rameshfar said the junior youth spiritual empowerment program encouraged young people to question media and society and to change their interactions in a positive way, beyond current stereotypes.

Dr Madigan said the use of inclusive language – for example using the feminine pronoun for the divine and referring to female attributes of God—is a powerful tool as a reminder that the community is made up of both men and women.

Dr Sharobeem said in her work they have found it fruitful to engage in dialogue with the youth on the issue of gender equality, and to train them to talk to their peers on the subject.

Ms Lenn said women meeting and speaking with other women in the interfaith movement was very important, as was interfaith interaction at school level.

The speakers also discussed the role that male and female religious leaders can play in advancing gender equality. Proposals included creating spaces where equality can be discussed, taking a firm position on domestic violence, and seeking out women to appoint to senior positions.

At the reception, the singer Dahlia Dior performed to an appreciative audience.

The service in the Temple included the reading of passages from the scriptures of the world religions and also music from the choir.

International Women’s Day is observed internationally on March 8 but the event at the Baha’i Temple was postponed so that it would fall after the Baha’i fast and the celebration of the Baha’i New Year holy day.

Panel Speakers at International Womens Day, Mona Vale, 2015