x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Conference told of plan for female muftis

Women map a greater role for themselves in interpreting Islamic and Judaic scripture.

Rori Picker-Neiss, right, Rev Serene Jones and K Thilagawathi Kanagaretnam, left, speak at the interfaith panel.
Rori Picker-Neiss, right, Rev Serene Jones and K Thilagawathi Kanagaretnam, left, speak at the interfaith panel.

KUALA LUMPUR // They did not always agree, but most - if not all - heard. The issue of diversity and lack of representation was dominant theme among those attending the Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality in the Malaysian capital. Pakistani activists addressed family law and a woman's rights in marriage and divorce; a German Muslim complained of hostility towards the hijab in her country. Some activists said the discussions were too American-centred, while at the very end, an Afghan woman delivered an emotional plea for "emotional support". "We don't need money," Farkhunda Saamy said. "Afghanistan is full of organisations that have funding. But we need your support. Things are very hard for us." On the fourth and final day of the Islamic women's conference, the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City announcing her institution's plan to prepare women to become muftis. The Rev Dr Serene Jones is the first female president of the 173-year-old institution, a non-denominational seminary affiliated with Columbia University. She made her announcement during an interfaith panel discussion. "My school is committed to shaping women spiritual leaders," said the Rev Jones. "We developed feminist theology, African-American and Black theology, and now we want to bring the muftiyya training." The Rev Jones was flanked by two other women aiming to be spiritual leaders in their communities. Rori Picker Neiss, 23, aims to become an Orthodox rabbi. She is an interfaith activist in New York and co-editor of InterActive Faith: The Essential Inter-religious Community-Building Handbook. She attended the conference to represent the Jewish faith to Muslim women and talked about some of the challenges she faces. "It's interesting you say future 'rabbi'," she said, referring to her introduction. "Because I will receive the same training as a rabbi and be able to perform the same functions as a rabbi, but my title will be 'Maharat'." Maharat is a new term devised just two months ago as an acronym for the Hebrew meaning of "leader in Jewish law, spiritual, pastoral, counseling and teaching the Torah", according to Ms Picker Neiss. "It's a title that tells people you can do almost everything a rabbi can do, but you're not quite a rabbi." Earlier, she spoke about similarities in experience between women in Judaism and Islam. The barriers presented to those who wish to become spiritual leaders, she said, are a problem facing both Jewish and Muslim women. "Entering leadership positions in scholarly religious interpretations is still very rare in our community," she said. The Jewish tradition of jurisprudence is similar to Islam's, whereby accepted interpretations of scripture are largely those of male scholars. Dr Mehnaz Mona Afridi, an American professor of Islam and Judaism at Antioch University New England and National University in California, kicked off the interfaith discussions with a reminder about geocentrism. "We're not all from the US," she said. "And we don't all have minorities, for example." European attendees spoke about challenges that face Muslim minorities in their country, include a feeling of hostility toward Muslim women's dress, barriers to integration, Islamophobia and an alienated generation of Muslim Europeans who are struggling to clarify who they are and where they belong. As Dr Mona-Afrindi pointed out, Muslims in Muslim countries face fundamentally different issues. "In Pakistan, society is pretty homogenous. It's 98 per cent Muslim. Sure there are Yazidis and Hindus and other groups, but they are truly a minority." Several presenters spoke about the conditions facing women in Pakistan, with one activist highlighting how women and their families, along with the clergy, have for too long overlooked the rights of a woman under Islamic family law. One activist described her campaign to show a woman's rights as prescribed by the Islamic marriage contract as "one bride at a time". With diversity comes also a broad spectrum of stereotypes, which for Muslim women include oppressed, docile, caged, marriage material, maternal, unprofessional, domineering, sinister and, most recently, potential suicide bombers, said Dr Mona-Afrindi. She showed a caricature of two women staring at a flyer that said: "Jihad wants you", a pun on the classic American flyer "Uncle Sam Wants You" recruiting men and women for military service during wartime in the last century. One of the caricatured women, wearing an abayya, says: "Finally, gender equality has arrived." Jewish women share some of the Muslim stereotypes too, often depicted as the domineering mother, or maternal, or as tough Israeli soldiers. For Hindu women, it is the stereotype of Sati, the Hindu widow who is burnt to death, or Tantra, a form of meditation that is often misconstrued as purely sexual. Christian women have over the centuries also faced stereotypes as debilitating, which Dr Mona-Afrindi said was still evident across women's magazines today. "There is the archetype of Eve, the temptress," she said. She is to blame for having seduced Adam. Then there is the Virgin Mary on the other end of the spectrum. And women who challenged the Bible were stereotyped as witches." Another example of diversity is the range of orthodoxy from conservatives to the secular. Some attendants said it was very important to include as part of the Shura council the voices of conservatives. One participant addressed the Rev Dr Jones with a bold questions about her faith. "In this conference we've been talking about a solution to gender equality through scripture," the woman said. "But do you sometimes think that the problem is the scripture itself?" "Of course I do," said the reverend. "I struggle with that every day. And if we can find an answer to that, we wouldn't be the complicated creatures that we are." The push for female muftis - muftiyya - has been gaining strength in the Middle East of late. In May, recruiting began in the UAE for the such first female religious scholar after a landmark fatwa from Dubai's grand mufti sanctioning the move. It was believed to be the first time that an Islamic state has sanctioned women for the role. relass@thenational.ae