Women and inter faith engagement
Women are increasingly involved in inter faith dialogue: whether through general dialogue involving both men and women or through initiatives run by women and mainly for women.
Women are involved in inter faith activity through mixed gender national, regional and local organisations, activity and engagement. Women are also engaging in dialogue amongst themselves on inter faith issues.
Over the last two decades, a number of women’s inter faith initiatives have come into being, most developed by and for women. Some of these are short term programmes, special conversations or projects. Others are ongoing groups or organisations such as the Women’s Interfaith Network or the new Women of Faith Network of Religions for Peace UK. At a local level groups have also developed specifically for women such as those in St Albans and Birmingham. Interfaith Scotland has held regular opportunities for women of different faiths to come together in Scotland since its beginnings.
Women’s groups designed by women can support inter faith dialogue at a number of levels. The IFN’s report Living Well Together (2015) clearly showed that women’s groups can be catalysts for change, enabling a revival of inter faith dialogue in their areas. In fact for some women this may be an important point of entry into the world of inter faith encounter, dialogue and action.
Women’s inter faith dialogue groups have emerged for a number of reasons. Dr Fatheena Mubarak Iqbal explored these in a report specially commissioned by IFN in 2006 (for the full report see: www.interfaith.org.uk/womensinitiatives2006). Dr Iqbal found a number of reasons for women’s inter faith engagement, including:
- A conviction that women possess particular qualities that encourage inter faith work, such as a non-adversarial/non-confrontational approach to solution finding or good listening skills;
- A dislike on the part of some for formal structure of the kind that mixed gender inter faith groups may have;
- Wanting safe, comfortable or more relaxed spaces for encounter;
- Cultural and religious beliefs limiting participation of women in inter faith activity when such activity is open to both men and women;
- A sense of common experience, for example as mothers;
- Difficulty having their voices heard in mixed groups such as those which were mainly led by male religious leaders.
The Mubarak Iqbal report, though, did not explore women’s views and experiences of mixed gender inter faith contexts except in the context above.
Women’s initiatives were discussed at IFN’s 2014 National Meeting and here are some of the participants’ experiences:
- In one major city, the inter faith group had tended to bring together the same people, most of whom were male faith leaders. Very few of the faith leaders locally were women, even in traditions which do have women in leadership roles elsewhere. Women locally decided to set up a women’s group which would focus more on everyday issues (the leader-dominated group tended to focus on doctrinal discussions). The women’s group aimed to build confidence and create relationships which would enable members to become more active in the city’s inter faith interaction and to play a fuller role in the wider debate.
- It could be problematic when women’s groups were perceived as places for discussing minor or ‘home’ issues while male-dominated groups were seen as dealing with the ‘real’ or ‘tough’ questions. Many faith issues were the same for men and women, and there was a need for both to fully participate in inter faith activity. While in theory women’s groups could be a stage on the journey to better integrated inter faith activity, often they remained separate.
- Every local community functioned differently, and the way that faith communities within each locality relate would also be different. In the area in question, a dynamic had become established where women had come to accept that they had a limited role in the inter faith group. The establishment of a very successful women’s group had given them the influence to demand a more active role in the initial group.
In one case a women’s group was seen to become a catalyst for the revival of a inter faith generally within their area.
These points are anecdotal but shed additional light on some relevant issues.
If you are interested in finding out about joining or setting up a women’s inter faith group, there are a number of ways to get involved:
- Look at the Local Inter Faith Locator on the Inter Faith Network website (www.interfaith.org.uk/locator) and contact your Local Inter Faith Group. Many of the local inter faith groups have dedicated women’s groups or meetings, and all welcome women as an important part of their work.
- Contact the Women’s Interfaith Network, one of IFN’s National and Regional member bodies. They provide resources, organise events and promote women’s participation in inter faith activity. Go to www.wominet.org.uk/ to find out more. They have a number of local branches (www.wominet.org.uk/locations), and also welcome suggestions for the establishment of new women’s inter faith groups.
- Contact Religions for Peace UK, one of IFN’s National and Regional member bodies. They coordinate the UK Women of Faith Network, and will be happy to help. Go to www.religionsforpeace.org.uk/about/uk-women-of-faith-network/ to find out more
- A number of bilateral women’s initiatives have emerged, such as the Nisa-Nashim group for Jewish-Muslim women’s inter faith engagement. Go to www.nisanashim.org/ to find out more
- If you are a member of a faith community, contact your National Faith Community office. Many of the national faith community bodies in membership of IFN run dedicated women’s programmes and help women to get involved in inter faith activity. For contact details of national faith community member bodies, go to www.interfaith.org.uk/nfcrbs
- If you are in Scotland, contact Interfaith Scotland, who run a number of Local Dialogue Events for Women, and also coordinate activity between a number of local women’s inter faith groups. Go to www.interfaithscotland.org/our-activities/women/ to find out more. For opportunities in Northern Ireland and Wales respectively, contact firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively
- Take a look at the Inter Faith Network’s online resources. Our resources, such as Living Well Together, contain guidance on good practice and advice on increasing women’s inter faith activity. This resource can be found at www.interfaith.org.uk/livingwelltogether2015
- Contact the Inter Faith Network Office on 020 7730 0410, where someone will be happy to help