So last weekend I went to a Jewish and Muslim women's conference organized by Nisa-Nashim. They've existed as an organization for a couple of years now, and this was their first big national event. I think there's a lot to be said for their approach of starting with small, local groups and building up from there, but none of the local chapters happen anywhere vaguely geographically near to me.
Apart from being absolutely thirsty to get stuck in to interfaith again, I was really intrigued by the idea of an interfaith group without Christians. Because almost every other event I've been to has been a plurality or even a majority of Christians, and often it's them and then all the smaller religions sort of lumped together as "everybody else". Even with a policy of exactly one representative per religion, Christians tend to dominate because they have such distinct denominations.
So I was a little disappointed to read that they'd asked a Christian priest to do the keynote speech. But in fact meeting the Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons was worth the price of entry. The Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkins is absolutely nothing like I would have pictured a chaplain for politicians. She's this completely amazing Jamaican woman, with close-cropped hair and a Voice. And one of the most impressive preachers I've ever been privileged to hear, of any religious background. She said amazing things about the role of women in religion, and talked about motherhood without being gender essentialist or forgetting women who are childless by choice or misfortune. And interpreted the Bible and talked about the power of weeping together for the sorrows of the world, and at one point broke into singing a snippet of Bob Marley to convey something about her background growing up very poor (
in a tenement yard) in Jamaica. She talked about the idea of interfaith dialogue and community as shared and interconnected stories, which I always love.
On the other hand, I am a bit unconvinced by gender segregated events, so I wasn't sure how a women's conference would play out. And they sort of tied it in to International Women's Day and #BoldForChange. I admit it was interesting and valuable to have a mixture of different approaches to issues which primarily affect women, without having a really superficial "women in religion" panel and everything else being assumed to be about men by default. There was an even bigger positive, which was that a women's only event attracted people from a much more diverse range of religious approaches than a mixed one would. (This is similar to my experience with the women's interfaith group I inherited from a former chaplain at Keele.)
It was very noticeable that we had a real presence of quite religiously conservative women, both Jewish and Muslim, not just one or two, as well as lots of people who defined themselves as feminists (and a few who are both conservative and feminist, but that's by nature a rare combination). I reckon another factor in this was the way that Nisa-Nashim has mostly built up from the grass roots by word of mouth and personal connections, but anyway, it was really impressive how this event wasn't just the usual faces you see at every event on the interfaith circuit. And it wasn't even those types of people, either, it wasn't a bunch of recently retired, white, middle-class liberals who generally agree that religion is mainly about being nice to eachother and 'we have so much more in common than dividing us!' We had a whole age-range from teenagers to quite elderly, skewing about my age or younger. Muslim participants were more ethnically diverse than Jewish, but that does partly reflect the different demographics of the two communities in the UK. We did have a bunch of Mizrachi and Arab Jews, who don't on the whole show up to conventional interfaith stuff. There were also quite a lot of secular participants who defined themselves as cultural Jews or Muslims, and it's not surprising that those people exist but they don't, in my experience, have much interest in interfaith dialogue between Christians and other-religions.
The organizers took advantage of this by having sessions where we could really get into discussions that just wouldn't happen in the presence of a bunch of anglo Christian men. I went to a session on mixed marriage, which was physically too many people for a small room and a short time block, but was still going to some really powerful places. Lots of cultural exchange about varying experiences of being immigrants and surviving atrocities. And some real dialogue between mostly middle-aged people who talked about their children marrying out, and younger people who talked about having partners who don't share their religion. Shared and different anxieties about continuity, and at the same time lots of positive stories of acceptance and making blended families work. I said, hi, I have three non-Jewish partners, one of whom is female and two of whom are religious Christians, I can tell you a thing or two about not meeting parents' expectations for what my relationship would look like.
And a really cool session about women's participation in prayer, with some bits of text, some bits of complaining about institutional sexism. It was heartening to hear from an immigrant that back in her Middle Eastern home country there was none of this nonsense about excluding women from prayer. It touched on modesty and leadership and scriptural interpreation and structures of communities and lots of things that we'd have to explain from first principles in a mostly Christian group, so it was lovely to be able to go straight into advanced discussion. The consensus of that, backed up by the buzz from several other events during the day, was that Muslim women in the UK at the moment have things a lot harder than Jewish women in terms of institutional barriers, but we do have a lot of common experiences.
That discussion was co-led by a cheerfully feminist Muslim woman who is very contented that most barriers to women's participation are cultural sexism and not religiously required. It's interesting that even relatively conservative Muslim women tend to start out by stating that gender equality is central to Islam, I think because the Quran talks about women's rights explicitly in a way that most of Torah only glances on or even actively denies. So even the people who aren't exactly feminist in a western sense generally believe that the teaching of their religion is that women are fully equal to men. Her co-lead was coming from a completely different place: an Orthodox Jewish woman who is in that heartbreaking position of trying to give more Jewish women access to traditional texts including Talmud, while also really wanting to believe that her approach is normative within Orthodox Judaism, so basically drowning in cognitive dissonance.
This same woman had volunteered to cause a mincha, afternoon service, to happen. She was clearly very nervous about whether what she's doing is acceptable, she said that she was not going to exactly lead any davening but she was going to sort of, you know, guide any women who wanted to... And at the same time she was visibly glowing at doing something which for practical purposes amounts to leading prayer, even if she wasn't willing to call it that. I was a bit surprised that she didn't count a group of more than 10 women as a minyan given that no men were present, but apparently she'd never heard of that tradition. Does anyone have a source relating to counting women in the absence of men? I think it's something to do with texts on formally inviting women for grace after meals, but it's just my usual experience of lefty Orthodox contexts so I hadn't really questioned it. I wished I'd had sources for her because she so so so wanted to believe that women could say Kaddish. Also at some point one of the MCs accidentally introduced her as rabbi, and she just about fainted, and quickly explained that the very idea was ludicrously impossible, even though she was in a room with at least one female rabbi as well as the person who's a year away from being the first Orthodox woman to be ordained as such in the UK.
Anyway, the other thing that was cool about this mincha was that we shared a room with Muslims doing their afternoon prayers, which felt really companionable and nice. And much much better than the way that many interfaith events try to hold multi-faith prayers, which are usually cringey and watered down to nothing.
Logistically speaking, the conference was a bit shambolic. It was way over-programmed, and they let the whole group panels and entertainments overrun massively, living far too little time for the smaller workshops and basically no downtime between programmed sessions for people to get to know eachother. Those informal conversations are absolutely key to that sort of event, and it was a nuisance that the organizers kept breaking them up in order to make people sit in a lecture theatre listening to a speaker. Still, I am inclined to be optimistic regarding the fact that the whole event was run by people who are clearly inexperienced and don't know what they're doing. It's another sign that Nisa-Nashim is reaching people who aren't the usual suspects.
Later on this week the Islamic Society at Keele put on a big splashy interfaith Event. Again, they're inexperienced at organizing but they generated some real good will, so I'm really glad it happened. They managed to get a decent range of different religions involved, three Abrahamic (well, two different lots of Christians from different denominations...) Sikhs, Hindus and general "Pagans" of whom there are too few to have separate societies for different types of Pagan. And had a really good attendance, including really a lot of medical students many of whom were surprised to see me there and clock that I'm Jewish, so even having that visibility was worthwhile. The actual format of the event, well, it should have been three or four events, really, they had people doing introductory talks on their religion, and they had a sort of cabaret of performances, and they had a panel discussion of answering zinger questions from atheists, and they had a shared meal. I gave up after two hours when they were barely halfway through, because that is Too Much Stuff for one evening.
So basically I'm full of enthusiasm and really energized by getting a chance to do interfaith again. And I've been babbling at my partners about stuff that they're not very familiar with, so hopefully this post is a bit more coherent.
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