Well, this has certainly been an interesting year. I don’t know why it is especially different from any other when it comes to women’s rights – there have been no real changes on the ground. For me personally it has been somewhat of a slow awakening. What I had considered to be readily accepted norms, what I had believed to be God-given Grace, were challenged. In a year when we all thought it would happen, even the Church of England has failed to come to agreement on women bishops. And along with my personal challenges, there have been challenges on a global scale too.
The challenges began for me when I finally opened my eyes to the fact that women of faith are not welcome to worship in some of our places of worship. When I made that rather public statement in a sermon at our cathedral, and later in a meeting, the youtube video of which went somewhat viral (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSrkt8AglLE), I was warned three times by men, in quiet, that I shouldn’t talk about these things. If I did so then people would stop coming to dialogue meetings, they would refuse to talk about it. I was told it was not my business as a Christian to talk about these things. Who was I to tell others what to do? None of these men seemed to realise I was talking as much about my own religious tradition, my own church, as any other.
I was privileged last summer to speak alongside my friend, Rabiha Hannan, at a Christian festival, Greenbelt, at which around 20,000+ people attend. Now we didn’t have 20,000 come and listen to our talk. It was at the most around 200. We spoke about the person of Eve in our respective Christian and Muslim texts. You see, there are those within our traditions who seek to blame Eve, to blame women, for the downfall of humanity. And our goal was to take another look at the texts, to see what they are really saying. And what we found was that woman and man were created to be helpmates for one another, to love one another, to be bone of one bone, flesh of one flesh. The sin they committed was not in the eating of the forbidden fruit but in their denial of their own culpability, and even more so in the accusation, the betrayal of another, of the one person they were called to love and care for. Losing Paradise came as a result of their loss of trust, and the hardest toil of their exile was winning back that love and trust once again. (see my talk earlier in my blog: https://bonnieevanshills.wordpress.com/2012/10/)
And we are still trying to win that back.
Whenever we betray each other, whenever we betray those we are called, nay, commanded by God, to love – we have to work doubly hard to win it back.
In December a young student was travelling on a bus with a friend. She had the whole world before her. A student at university and about to be married, she was just out with a friend to see a movie when both of them were brutally attacked. The country in which this happened is irrelevant. This kind of brutality happens every day, in every land. But there was something about this one case which caught the imaginations of so many across the globe. Here in Leicester our cathedral held a prayer vigil for her. Organised within the space of 24 hours, hundreds of mostly women turned up.
Since then, through much of the mapping Raheema Caratella has carried out, we have discovered so many women in this city of Leicester, women of deeply held faith and courage, who work so hard, devoting their lives for the betterment of others, particularly the betterment of women – women who have suffered domestic violence, or forced marriage, or rape; women who have been denied an education, who are not allowed to make friends or socialise outside of their homes, women who have no voice, no space in their place of worship.
These women come from every culture, from every background, from every faith – across the board. Their work goes largely unnoticed. Even when we were wanting to give out the publicity for today, we were told to mention something about Woolwich or the EDL or BNP because why would anyone want to take notice of a bunch of women getting together? That was somehow not sensational enough.
When Rabiha and I spoke last summer, we tried to emphasise that it would only be when men could see that their own dignity, their own humanity, could only be raised, could only be made right, if the rights of women were also recognised. And I hold to this today. We can only do this together. But alongside there is a necessity to recognise the tough courage it takes to face violence, to face this brick wall, day to day, on the ground, at the coal face of our communities. It is not glamorous, it is not soft. But it is a gentle kindness born of strength, strength that can only be had through the Grace of God given to those with a deep faith, deep and wide as the ocean of love in which it swims free.
Today, we celebrate the launch of a directory, one that will probably never be complete and to which we intend to continue to add to on line; a directory of groups of women of faith, or groups in which women of faith have found a welcome and a home. It is a small contribution, but one we hope will be the beginning of a movement which acknowledges and celebrates the faith, the courage, the hope and the Love women of faith hold for their communities, for one another, for the men in their lives and for God – together.