Fresh perspectives offered on women reshaping religion

By staff writers
21 Aug 2012

Religious and secular communities need more education on the role and status of women in the world’s religions, according to Ravinder Kaur Nijaar from the Religions for Peace European Women's Network.

Dr Kaur, herself a Sikh, said that there was widespread ignorance of positive affirmations on womanhood in scriptural traditions, while negative verses and texts were often elevated out of context or left unchallenged.

She referred to the Religions for Peace toolkit on women and dignity, as well as an exhibition on women and scripture.

Dr Kaur was speaking at a well-attended discussion on ‘Women and Religion’ at the Festival of Spirituality and Peace in Edinburgh, which is hosting 400 discussion and cultural events across 21 venues from 3-27 August 2012.

The conversation contained both positive and critical elements, seeking to look at how women’s experience could reshape what gets labelled ‘religion’ in fresh and positive ways.

The Rev Fiona Bennett, minister of Augustine United Reformed Church in Edinburgh, said that she was part of a church wrestling with the use of power and what it means to be a transformative community. Revaluing women needed to happen in that context, and with their active involvement.

Her own perspective, she said, was shaped by liberation theology and the quest for religious expressions that challenge oppression.

Dr Lesley Orr, from the University of Edinburgh, said that her early formation was in the belief that all people were made in the image of God and abundance of life was to be shared by all.

Her faith in these things has remained, she said, but her belief that religious space as a whole is a good place for women to flourish has been shaken – not least by her research into violence against women in Scotland and elsewhere.

The Christian churches have often silenced the ‘abundance of life’ message, Dr Orr said. Her own work on these issues has taken place in an ecumenical Christian context, including the World Council of Churches and the Iona Community, as well as in academic work.

The interpretation and living out of scriptures has clearly failed to affirm the full humanity and participation of women on many occasions, she said. The texts come from contexts shaped for and by men, specifically the Ancient Near East. When that is universalised, problems follow.

In discussion, the three women differentiated between different dynamics in religious and scriptural traditions. The question of authority and the right to authorise interpretations is central, said Dr Orr.

“Holding authority in my experience as a woman which enables me to say ‘yea’ and ‘nay’ within the life of the community is important,” added Ms Bennett.

“If you are a person of faith and have been practicing it, why would you not take that spirituality out into society and treat someone else equally?”, asked Professor Kaur. That is failing to really learn from faith and the divine frame, but going through rituals and beliefs with something missing, she said.

“If you are going to the church, gurdwara, temple, synagogue or mosque without it changing you from within, you are wasting your time,” Dr Kaur added.

How can the spirit of equality and inclusion espoused by faith be expressed in institutional terms, asked Ms Bennett. This is the practical challenge.

“To what extent does religion have the capacity have the resources to create the possibility of transformation?” That was the key issue for Dr Orr.

“‘Religion’ has been hijacked”, suggested Dr Kaur, “for destructive purposes… religious traditions need to be reclaimed for good.”

Equally, said Dr Orr, ‘dignity’ as a category has been used to box women in categories that limit who and what they may become, rendering those definitions ‘sacred’ through power structures.

A ‘post-religious’ spirituality would surely mean challenging the boxes imposed by power elites, she added.

“Models of society that enable people not to be limited involves using power differently,” Ms Bennett added. “We in the churches have not been good at doing power.”

Self-transformation and social transformation go together, with the personal as the starting point, concluded Dr Kaur.

“Religion has been boxed as an institution”, one respondent said. “But many of these [alternative] ideas have been grown by people within the traditions.” That was a point of hope and inspiration.

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