Women have been elected heads of national governments on six continents. They have flown into space, served in elite combat units and won every category of Nobel Prize. The global #MeToo movement, in 15 months, has toppled a multitude of powerful men linked to sexual misconduct.
Yet in most of the world’s major religions, women remain relegated to a second-tier status. Women in several faiths are still barred from ordination. Some are banned from praying alongside men and forbidden from stepping foot in some houses of worship altogether. Their attire, from headwear down to the length of their skirts in church, is often restricted.
But women around the world in recent months have been finding new ways to chip away at centuries of male-dominated traditions and barriers, with many of them emboldened by the surge of social media activism that’s spread globally in the #MeToo era.
Millions of women in India this month formed a human wall nearly 400 miles long in support of women who defied conservative Hindu leaders and entered an important temple that has long been off-limits to women and girls between the ages of 10 and 50.
In Israel, where Orthodox Judaism has long restricted women’s roles, one Jerusalem congregation has allowed women to lead Friday evening prayers. Roman Catholic bishops, under pressure from women’s-rights activists, concluded a recent Vatican meeting by declaring that women, as an urgent “duty of justice,” should have a greater role in church decision-making.
Many feminist scholars are challenging the rightfulness of long-standing patriarchal traditions in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, calling into question time-honored translations of verses in the Bible, Torah and Quran that have been used to justify a male-dominated hierarchy.
Social media is seen as a big catalyst in boosting activism and forging solidarity among women of faith who seek more equality. The #MeToo movement has been evoked — even in the ranks of conservative U.S. denominations — as a reason why women should expect more respectful treatment from male clergy, and a greater share of leadership roles.
“Women are looking for opportunities to have their voices heard and be more effective in their religious traditions,” said Gina Messina, a religion professor at Ursuline College in Ohio who describes herself as both a feminist and a Catholic theologian. “Using social media is an opportunity to say what they think.”
She co-founded a blog called Feminism and Religion that has scores of contributors around the world and followers in more than 180 countries. She also co-edited a collection of essays by Christian, Jewish and Muslim women explaining why they haven’t abandoned their patriarchal-leaning faiths.
“The perception seems to be that it is a feminist act only to leave such a religion. We contend that it is also a feminist act to stay,” the three editors write in their foreword.
Here’s a brief look at the status of gender equality in several of the world’s religions:
Catholic doctrine mandates an all-male priesthood, on the grounds that Jesus’ apostles were men.
A decades-long campaign for women’s ordination has made little headway and some advocates of that change have been excommunicated. Women do play major roles in Catholic education, health care and parish administration
While the recent meeting of bishops at the Vatican produced a call to expand women’s presence in church affairs, no details were proposed. The seven nuns who participated along with 267 male clergy were not allowed to vote on the final document.
Earlier this year, a Vatican magazine published an expose detailing how nuns are often treated like indentured servants by cardinals and bishops, for whom they cook and clean with little recompense.
At the University of Dayton, a Catholic school in Ohio, religion professor Sandra Yocum says some of the young women she teaches “are having a hard time seeing where they fit in” as they assess the church’s doctrine on gender roles and its pervasive clergy sex-abuse scandals.
“They have a deep concern for the church,” she said. “They want to respond in some way and take a leadership role.”
Messina sometimes engages in “small acts of dissent” to show displeasure with patriarchal Catholic traditions. At the recent funeral for her grandmother, she changed a Bible reading to make the passage gender-neutral.
“We have to continue to push — regardless of whether it’s in our generation or five generations from now.”
Rose Dyar, a senior at the University of Dayton, says she’s determined to team with other young Catholics to help the church overcome its challenges. The ban on female priests isn’t enough to drive her from Catholicism, but it dismays her.
“I absolutely support women’s ordination,” she said. “Unfortunately I don’t foresee it happening anytime soon, and that breaks my heart.”
Some of the most important traditions and practices of the Prophet Muhammad were preserved and carried forth by the women closest to him— his wives and daughters. But as with many other major faiths, women in Islamic tradition have largely been relegated to supporting roles throughout recent history.
Women in Islam do not lead prayer or give traditional Friday sermons. In larger mosques where women are welcome, they are almost always segregated from men in the back or allocated spaces on other floors with separate entrances and exits.
In Saudi Arabia, a male-dominated interpretation of Islam bars women from traveling or obtaining a passport without the consent of a male guardian. Only this year did the kingdom allowed women to drive.
Changes are happening elsewhere. In Tunisia, President Beji Caid Essebsi has proposed giving women equal inheritance rights with men — a much-debated topic around the Muslim world. In the Palestinian territories, Kholoud al-Faqih became the first female Shariah court judge in 2009, in part to help women beset by domestic violence.
Some women are challenging interpretations that state only men must attend traditional Friday prayers. A few have chosen to create their own prayer spaces, like the Women’s Mosque of America in California where women lead the services and female scholars share their knowledge.
The bylaws for that mosque were drafted by Atiya Aftab, who teaches Islamic Law at Rutgers University and is chair of the board at her mosque — a first for a woman in New Jersey. She says moves in the U.S. to expand women’s roles in the Islamic community have sometimes been met with conservative backlash, but the momentum for change seems strong.
In Texas, Muslim women recently formed a group that has investigated and publicized instances of sexual, physical and spiritual abuse committed against women by Muslim community leaders.
The gender situation within Judaism is markedly different in Israel and the United States, which together account for more than 80 percent of the world’s Jewish population.
The largest U.S. branches, Reform and Conservative, allow women to be rabbis, while the Orthodox branch does not. In Israel, the Conservative and Reform movements are small, and Orthodox authorities hold a near monopoly on all matters regarding Judaism.
One major source of contention: the Orthodox-enforced policy of prohibiting women from praying alongside men at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site where Jews can pray. Numerous women protesting the policy have been arrested, and several American Jewish groups were angered last year when Israel’s government backtracked on plans to expand a space where both men and women could pray.
However, there have been moves to expand Orthodox women’s roles in religious life. A Jerusalem congregation, Shira Hadasha, has adopted a liberal interpretation of Jewish religious law that incorporates women’s involvement in services, such as leading Friday evening prayers and reciting from the Torah on the Sabbath.
An Orthodox organization called Tzohar is trying to advance women in roles where social custom, not religious law, has excluded them — such as teaching Jewish law or certifying restaurants’ compliance with kosher standards.
“If Jewish law does not say that something is prohibited, but just because of social or cultural reasons women were not involved, we see no reason that they should not be involved, said Tzohar’s chairman, Rabbi David Stav.
Women in the Mormon church are barred from being priests, leading local congregations or holding the top leadership posts in a faith that counts 16 million members worldwide.
The highest-ranking women in the church oversee three organizations that run programs for women and girls. These councils sit below several layers of leadership groups reserved for men.
The role of women in the conservative religion, officially named The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been a subject of debate for many years, with some members pushing for more equality and increased visibility for women.
The church has made some changes in recent years; women’s groups say they mark small progress. In 2013, a woman for the first time led the opening prayer at the faith’s semiannual general conference in Salt Lake City. Later that year, a conference session previously limited to men was broadcast live for all to watch.
Mormon women are still expected to wear skirts or dresses to worship services and inside temples, but the religion has loosened its rules in recent years to allow women who work at church headquarters to wear pantsuits or dress slacks and to let women serving proselytizing missions to wear dress slacks.
The church shows no signs of budging on women’s ordination. Kate Kelly, the founder of a group called Ordain Women that led protests outside church conferences, was expelled from the faith in 2014.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” said Lorie Winder Stromberg, 66, a member of Ordain Women’s executive board. “I think women’s ordination is inevitable — but I have no sense of the timing.”
HINDUISM AND BUDDHISM
The gender-equality situation in these two Asian-based faiths is difficult to summarize briefly. Neither has a single supreme entity that enforces doctrine, and each has multiple branches with different philosophies and practices.
In Buddhism, women’s status varies from country to country. In Thailand, a Buddhist stronghold, women can become nuns — often acting as glorified temple housekeepers — but only in 2003 won the right to serve as the saffron-robed full equivalents of male monks, and still, represent just a tiny fraction of the country’s clergy.
India’s Sabarimala temple had long banned women and girls of menstruating age from entering the centuries-old house of worship. Some Hindus consider menstruating women to be impure.
The Supreme Court in September lifted the ban, and violent protests broke out after women entered the temple. Earlier this month, women formed a human chain spanning than 600 kilometers (375 miles) to support gender equality.
“The Hindu temples at present have almost 99 percent, male priests,” said women’s rights activist Ranjana Kumari, director of New Delhi-based Center for Social Research. “Things have to improve.”
While many Protestant denominations now ordain women, the largest in the U.S. — the Southern Baptist Convention — is among those that don’t. It advocates that women submit to male leadership in their church and to a husband’s leadership at home.
Southern Baptist leaders say this doctrine aligns with New Testament teaching. One passage they cite quotes the apostle Paul as writing, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.”
A recent statement from SBC leadership insisted that Southern Baptists “are not anti-woman.”
“However, because Scripture speaks specifically to the role of pastor, churches are under a moral imperative to be guided by that teaching, rather than the shifting opinions of human cultures.”
Cheryl Summers, a former Southern Baptist who has challenged the church to improve its treatment of women, describes this gender doctrine as “tortured logic” — especially given the accomplishments of SBC women in the secular world.
“There’s tremendous cognitive dissonance for a woman of faith who is leading professionally or through volunteer efforts when she experiences the glass ceiling and walls in her place of worship,” Summers said via email.
For the past year, the SBC has been roiled by a series of sexual misconduct cases involving churches and seminaries, prompting some activist women to demand new anti-abuse policies.
____ Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City, Ashok Sharma in New Delhi, Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem and Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.
Lamin Sanneh, D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School, died unexpectedly from a stroke on Sunday (Jan. 6). He was 76.
In the words of Simeon llesanmi, “An African Academic Elephant has indeed fallen”— meaning that a great individual has died.
Sanneh’s scholarly contributions spanned more than 20 books as author and editor, and over 200 scholarly articles through the course of 40-plus years of academic scholarship on four continents. He represents a particular kind of scholar that is hard to come by in today’s academy: a rigorous polymath who cared about not only the theoretical work of theology and history but the everyday lives of those who believe.
Born in Gambia to a royal lineage, Sanneh grew up as a Muslim but later converted to Christianity. Earning his graduate degrees from the University of Birmingham (M.A.) and the University of London (Ph.D.), Sanneh would go on to teach at the University of Ghana, the University of Aberdeen, Harvard Divinity School and, since 1989, at Yale Divinity School. He worked with Andrew Walls setting up World Christianity Conferences and was a member of the board at the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Yale Divinity School. He has served with extraordinary distinction in many areas, including holding a lifetime appointment at the University of Cambridge’s Clare Hall and holding the John Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South at the Library of Congress.
Lamin Sanneh meets Pope Francis at the Vatican on Feb. 9, 2017. Photo courtesy of Yale Divinity School
In September 2018, the University of Ghana established the Lamin Sanneh Institute, which will promote scholarly research on religion and society in Africa, emphasizing the areas of Sanneh’s expertise, Islam and Christianity.
In “Translating the Message,” Sanneh upends the argument that Christianity — as a missionary religion — wipes out the cultures it enters. Rather, Sanneh asserts that Christianity is unique as a missionary religion because it is translated without the language of the founder (Jesus) and invests itself in every language by forsaking the language of Jesus (Aramaic). Christianity is, according to Sanneh, a preserver rather than a destroyer of indigenous languages and cultures. In “Whose Religion Is Christianity,” Sanneh answers questions about Christianity not from a Western perspective, but from the perspective of, as he puts it, “the movement of Christianity in societies that were previously not Christian and societies that had no bureaucratic tradition in which to domesticate the gospel.”
Here lies the crux of Sanneh’s scholarship.
About 15 years ago, several of us were working on a project about the history of world Christianity. At that time, there was an academic debate over what term to use: world Christianities, global Christianity or Christianity in the non-Western/majority world.
None of those fit, Sanneh told Dale Irvin, president of New York Theological Seminary, in an email. Christians outside the West had an equal claim to the word “Christianity.” They are not from a different faith.
“(T)he fight about what name to give to the subject is really a fight of the west and its surrogates to contest the right of Christians elsewhere to consider themselves as equals in the religion,” he wrote. “The countermove with the inclusive title ‘World Christianity’ is intended to force a reckoning with ‘tribal’ view of the west.”
For myself and many other students and scholars, this emphasis on world Christianity opened the doors to scholarship that was not simply focused on Western ideas and theologies. It opened the doors to new ways of thinking about the historical and present-day impact of Christianity in cultures around the world, as well as Islam and other indigenous religions.
I remember when, as a graduate student, I stumbled onto Sanneh’s book “West African Christianity.” Years later, I was delighted to meet Sanneh while I was a junior professor on a project working with world Christianity for Orbis Press. He was cordial, distinguished and welcoming to me, as well as many others.
Lamin Sanneh. Photo courtesy of Yale Divinity School
Sanneh’s loss is deeply felt among his colleagues.
“Africa has lost a great scholar and a public intellectual, whose foundational works on Islam and Christianity vividly capture the religious identities of millions of Africans,” wrote Jacob K. Olupona, professor of African religious traditions at Harvard Divinity School. “Sanneh’s scholarship transverses the two dominant religious traditions on the continent, Islam and Christianity, and has provided significant insight into how they define contemporary politics, identities and civil society.”
Olupona, writing from Nigeria, also expressed his own grief at Sanneh’s passing.
“I have lost a dear friend, a senior colleague and a fellow sojourner in the common quest for African religious space in the global religious community,” he said.
Irvin, who also serves as professor of world Christianity at New York Theological Seminary and as editor of the Journal of World Christianity, called Sanneh “one of the most effective and insightful interpreters of world Christianity in the past century.”
“He was a persistent critic of the entrenched territorial Christendom of the West and the accompanying tendency to reduce Christianity to its Western tribal forms,” Irvin said. “He never tired of asking why should he as an African be considered accountable for the failures of Western colonial Christianity. His brilliance was to see beyond the arrogance of the West to uncover a deeper spiritual truth about the faith he so deeply embodied. We have lost a major prophetic figure.”
Dana Robert, Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission at Boston University, spoke of Sanneh as a “giant in the field of world Christianity.”
“His loss sends a tidal wave across multiple fields, institutions and continents,” Robert said. “He will be sorely missed by those of us who worked with him and called him a friend, as well as by people who knew him only from his powerful writings.”
Greg Sterling, dean of Yale Divinity School, said he recently gave Sanneh’s autobiography, “Summoned From the Margin,” as a gift to the school’s major donors.
“He had no idea that the gift would become the final testament of his life,” wrote Sterling.
In his autobiography, Sanneh wrote: “When someone dies, people say he or she has run out of rains. Life ends when we run dry.”
Anthea Butler. Courtesy photo
The rains may have run out for Sanneh, but his memory and scholarship will continue to refresh us for many years to come.
May he rest in peace.
(Anthea Butler is associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)
The Catholic church in Congo announced Thursday its data show a clear winner in Sunday’s presidential election, and it called on the electoral commission to publish the true results in “respect of truth and justice.”
The church, a powerful voice in the heavily Catholic nation, deployed some 40,000 electoral observers but could not say who the clear winner appeared to be, as Congo’s electoral regulations forbid anyone but the electoral commission to announce results.
Observers have reported multiple irregularities as the vast, mineral-rich Central African country voted for a successor to departing President Joseph Kabila. This could be its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence from Belgium in 1960.
The ruling party loyalist whom Kabila put forward as his preferred successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, already has said he expected to win, while polling before the election had top opposition candidate Martin Fayulu ahead.
The electoral commission’s president said it had collected results from about 20 percent of polling stations, while some Congolese expressed doubt that the first results would be released on Sunday as expected.
“We are working hard to announce them as soon as possible,” Corneille Nangaa said.
The internet remained blocked in the country in an apparent attempt by the government to calm speculation about the results.
The United States urged Congo to release accurate results and restore internet access, warning that those who undermine the democratic process could face U.S. sanctions. The State Department noted the reported troubles on election day and said results should be compiled transparently, with observers present, so that the votes of millions of people “were not cast in vain.”
The internet outage has hampered the election observers’ work. No Western election observers were invited to watch the vote, which was meant to occur in late 2016, after Congo’s government was annoyed at international pressure amid concerns that Kabila was trying to stay in power.
“The decision to cut internet and text messages hampered the transmission of data from the field,” said Cyrille Ebotoko, technical supervisor of the Catholic church’s observer mission. “It delayed our work by three days and considerably increased the cost since everything had to be done by phone.”
Thirty-eight percent of the some 40,000 polling stations the mission observed were still missing electoral materials more than three hours after polls opened on Sunday, the mission said. And 23 percent of its observers’ reports noted that voting had to be suspended at some point because of troubles with voting machines.
Overall, however, the irregularities did not considerably impact the voting, said Father Donatien Nshole, secretary-general of the church organization known as CENCO.
Shadary, a former interior minister, is under European Union sanctions for a crackdown on Congolese who protested the delayed election. Kabila, blocked from serving three consecutive terms, has hinted he’ll run again in 2023, leading the opposition to suspect he’ll wield power behind the scenes until then to protect his vast wealth.
The other leading candidates were Fayulu, a businessman and lawmaker in Kinshasa, and Felix Tshisekedi, son of late opposition icon Etienne and head of Congo’s most prominent opposition party.
Some 1 million of Congo’s 40 million registered voters were barred from Sunday’s election at the last minute as the electoral commission blamed a deadly Ebola virus outbreak in the east. Affected people in Beni and Butembo cities protested as some observers warned that not allowing them to vote undermined the credibility of the election.
The cities’ residents can vote in March, months after Congo’s new president is set to be inaugurated on Jan. 18.
Election day was largely calm. Life in the capital, Kinshasa, had returned to near-normal on Thursday, though some residents expressed frustration at the internet outage.
“We are waiting and trying to adapt, searching for places where we can still find network because we need it to work,” businessman Paul Odimba said. “I can understand the government’s decision because fake news was spread indeed, but some of us that are impacted are able to make the difference between fake and real news.”
Congo is preparing for a crucial vote to elect a successor for President Joseph Kabila, who has been in power since 2001. A successful election would mean the first peaceful transition of power for a country whose rule by dictators has been broken only by coups and civil wars.
But church leaders have put the stakes higher for Sunday’s vote (Dec. 23), demanding deeper change for Congo’s 81.5 million citizens.
“What is at stake is unity of our country, the integrity of our national territory, justice, peace and the improvement of the people’s living conditions,” said the country’s Catholic bishops, spiritual leaders to half of the population, in a statement last month.
Two years ago the bishops brokered a pact between Kabila and the opposition that allowed Kabila to remain in power until his successor is elected.
The Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. Map courtesy of Creative Commons
Now the bishops, joined by leaders from other churches, are urging their followers to turn out in large numbers to elect leaders who can defend the country, guarantee freedoms and do not steal the country’s resources, among other qualifications.
“We are urging the people to elect those who stand for progress and those (who) would not steal people’s mineral wealth,” said Bishop Josue’ Bulambo Lembelembe of the Church of Christ in Congo.
The bishops say they do not support any particular candidate but instead want the people to vote their conscience and elect a leader they deem trustworthy.
“We have told everyone to prepare to participate in the elections. We have urged them to ensure the process is carried out in a peaceful atmosphere,” Archbishop Marcel Utembi, president of the Congo Catholic bishops conference, told Religion News Service.
More than 40 percent of the country’s people are Roman Catholics, while a similar proportion is Protestant. An estimated 10 percent are Muslims, while others follow an indigenous group known as Kimbanguist.
While rallying people to the polls, religious leaders have been leading prayer vigils and preaching against the violence that has marred the electoral campaigns.
On Dec. 13, a mysterious fire burned down the electoral commission’s warehouse in Kinshasa. Police reports indicated that nearly 8,000 of the 10,000 electronic voting machines and ballot boxes to be used in the capital for the election were destroyed. The computerized voting system, purchased from a South Korean firm, has been met with mistrust after a similar system was abandoned in Argentina because it was vulnerable to hacking.
Bishop Marcel Utembi in Kinshasa, Congo, on Dec. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/John Bompengo)
In eastern Congo, people are also dealing with an Ebola outbreak, posing a further obstacle to getting people to the polls.
“I think some people are running out of patience,” said Lembelembe. “This raising (of) tensions days before elections is not good.”
The race has attracted 21 presidential candidates, with Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, widely viewed as Kabila’s proxy, as a front-runner. The opposition has fielded two main candidates, Felix Tshisekedi and Martin Fayulu.
The Rev. Donatien Nshole, secretary-general of the bishops conference, stressed that the bishops only want to ensure that the election is credible.
Church leaders have urged the international community to accompany the people of Congo in this process.
“We want them to be there and tell the truth and defend the truth when the results are released,” said Utembi.
One of the participants receives her certificate after the two-week empowerment program. (Courtesy of Sr. Agatha Chikelue)
When Fatima Isiaka, a religious Muslim teacher, asked the cab driver to drop her off at St. Kizito Catholic Church in Abuja, the driver thought she was lost. “The cab man that took me to the church, a Muslim, was surprised to see me enter a church,” Isiaka recalled of the summer 2014 meeting. “He told me, ‘This is a church!’ I said, ‘Yes, I know.’ ”
Isiaka was part of innovative effort to bring Christian and Muslim women together in hopes of fostering religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence. The Women of Faith Peacebuilding Network was first started in 2011by Sr. Agatha Ogochukwu Chikelue, of the Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy congregation, and local Muslim businesswoman Maryam Dada Ibrahim.
Isiaka, an observant Muslim who wears a grey jilbab, a long head covering and robe, the traditional dress of some Nigerian Muslim women, is a respected Muslim leader in Abuja. Today, she serves as deputy director in the network’s Abuja branch.
She looks back fondly on her time at the St. Kizito Catholic Church. “It was an amazing experience and I loved every bit of my stay there,” said Isiaka. “In fact, I found a place in the church where I performed ablution [ritual washing before Muslims prayer], to set up my mat and pray.”
Since the group started in 2011, the Women of Faith Peacebuilding Network’s activities have reached more than 10,000 Muslim and Christian women across the country through seminars, meditations, presentations by religious leaders, and dialogue.
The peacebuilding network also offers vocational training in catering, bead making, fashion design, and soap production to a smaller group of women who participate in the annual 21-day seminar. “The empowerment [training] serves as bait to lure more women to the network so that they’ll learn peaceful coexistence,” said Isiaka. The Swiss Embassy provided seed money to get the vocational training started in 2014. Cardinal John Onaiyekan’s Foundation For Peace (COFP), an organization working for peace in northern Nigeria, has sponsored the vocational training in subsequent years.
Sr. Agatha Chikelue started thinking about how to build bridges between Christians and Muslims in 2008, as northern Nigeria disintegrated into violence. Nigeria’s population is evenly divided with 48 percent Muslims and 49 percent Christians. Northern Nigeria is majority Muslim, while southern Nigeria is majority Christian. Ensuring equal Christian and Muslim political representation at local, state, and national levels is an especially sensitive subject.
Since 2009, Boko Haram, a group of extremist Muslims whose name means “Western education is forbidden” has terrorized northeast Nigeria. The terror group murdered Christians and burned churches, hoping to clear the area of Christian influences and create an Islamic caliphate to rule under Sharia law.
Hajya Fatima Isiaka, left, is co-deputy director of the Women of Faith Peacebuilding Network in Abuja, Nigeria; right: Ekene Ofodili is a Catholic laywoman who oversees the six chapters in Abuja alongside Isiaka. (Festus Iyorah)
Later, Boko Haram began carrying out attacks in other parts of Nigeria and targeting moderate Muslims as well. In 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 270 female students in Chibok, Nigeria, prompting the international social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls.
Chikelue knew that religious leaders would need to step up. “We don’t want to use our religion as barrier, rather we want to use it as stepping stone towards achieving common good,” she said. “The essence of an interfaith group is to break barriers, break the walls and build bridges.”
In Nigeria, some religious clerics forbid their members from even visiting a house of worship from the other religion. But Chikelue dismissed those notions, using the respect afforded to her as a Catholic sister to visit mosques and set up meetings with more moderate Islamic clerics to propose an interfaith network.
But Chikelue knew she couldn’t do it alone.
A parishioner recommended Chikelue contact Ibrahim, a respected leader in the Muslim community. Chikelue visited Ibrahim’s office, and within a few months the two started planning the first meeting between Christian and Muslim women in Abuja. As the capital of Nigeria, Abuja, a growing city with a population of 2.5 million, is more diverse and integrated than other parts of the country. The city is about 40 percent Christian, and the Christian population is growing quickly.
Chikelue and Ibrahim recruited Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the archbishop of Abuja, and Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III, the sultan of Sokoto and president-general of the National Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, to act as patrons of the organization.
“Getting the Muslim women was not as difficult as getting the Christian women,” Chikelue recalled. “We started during the early days of the insurgency [with Boko Haram in northern Nigeria]. The insurgents started with bombing churches and killing Christians before they started killing Muslims too. A lot of Christians were holding grudges against Muslims at the time. Anytime we planned a meeting with Muslims, the Christian women would withdraw. They’d say ‘All Muslims are Boko Haram.’ ”
It took time, patience, and weekly meetings after Sunday Mass to convince the first group of Christian women to sit down with Muslim women.
Women attend an empowerment program that was sponsored by Cardinal John Onaiyekan foundation for peace in 2017. (Courtesy of Sr. Agatha Chikelue)
“That first meeting in 2011 was one of the best meetings we’ve had,” said Chikelue. “The Christian women changed their perceptions about Muslims even after just one dialogue together. Everybody went home happy.”
The women’s meetings include presentations by clerics and priests, explaining basic tenets of each religion or challenging the view of religious extremists who say that Muslims and Christians should not interact with each other. Sometimes they discuss parts of their religions that overlap; for example, when Abraham plans to sacrifice Isaac, and how both religions interpret the story.
“Peace can be achieved through dialogue,” Chikelue said. “When Muslims and Christians sit together to explain how both religions operate it will aid understanding and put out any form of ignorance, stigma or hate that both parties have against one another.”
The women also visit each other for holidays. In 2017, a group of Christian women prepared the evening meal at the mosque to break the fast during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. Muslim women have joined for special church programs, especially the annual end-of-the-year interfaith party organized by Onaiyekan.
The decision to create a women’s peace network was made after careful deliberation about which group would be most effective for fostering peace. Women have a unique a way of addressing conflicts, Chikelue explained. “In the family, women manage the home and are closer to their children, making it easy for them to preach peace,” she said. It can also be empowering for women, who are often marginalized, to suddenly have a leadership role in creating a more tolerant community. “We also want women to be aware of their role in peace building,” Chikelue added.
In 2014, with a special grant from the Swiss embassy, Chikelue began offering vocational training for the women as an added incentive. In a region where the female adult literacy rate is 41 percent, women welcome free empowerment training on sewing, soap making and catering. Basic communication skills, personal hygiene and training on financial literacy and how to start small businesses are also part of the free empowerment program. The training programs also help the women meet people from other religions, getting to know the “other” as well as combating poverty and gender-based violence.
“When there’s peace at home, we can achieve peace in the society. That is why we empower women in order to stop gender-based violence between women and their husbands,” Chikelue said.
The women who participate in the peacebuilding network are expected to pass on the information to the children in their communities by making presentations in their elementary and secondary schools about religious tolerance and talking about their experiences working with women from other religions.
Sr. Agatha Chikelue, left, presents catering equipment to women as part of the women of faith Network empowerment program in Abuja (Courtesy of Sr. Agatha Chikelue)
Participants of a Women of Faith Network empowerment program organized in 2017 learned catering and were given catering equipment afterward to try their businesses. (Courtesy of Sr. Agatha Chikelue)
“There is also violence that doesn’t carry a gun,” explained Chikelue. “There are situations whereby parents don’t allow their children to have interaction with children of a different religion, or when they instigate them to go for war against a different religion.”
The network has made it easier to gather Christians and Muslims to speak on certain issues with one voice, Chikelue told GSR. For instance, in 2015, the network protested against a bill proposed to ease restrictions on obtaining an abortion. Armed with banners scrawled with messages against the bill, both Muslim and Christian women marched under the scorching sun to Nigeria’s parliament. The bill was later dropped.
Isiaka, the Muslim teacher whose cab driver thought she was lost, oversees the six chapters in Abuja with Ekene Ofodili, a Catholic laywoman.
Ofodili was one of the people who believed that all Muslims were Boko Haram, and at first, she resisted any interaction with Muslim women. But after Chikelue’s encouragement in 2011, Ofodili started seeking out Muslim women to hear their stories.
In 2012, Ofodili was invited to Turkey as a guest of a Turkish government-sponsored peacebuilding tour. The program invited Christians and Muslims women working to fight religious violence in Africa, the United States, Asia and Europe to discuss peace, harmony and religious tolerance. Additionally, the Turkish government wanted to highlight its own peacebuilding efforts by visiting areas where minority Christians lived with Muslims in harmony. In Turkey, Ofodili mingled with Muslim participants and entered a mosque for the first time.
“It changed my mentality about Muslims, and that’s why I can move with them,” Ofodili said of her time in Turkey. “Often times, many of the Catholic women shy away [from meeting with Muslims], but I tell them never to use one person’s actions [like the Boko Haram insurgents] to generalize an entire religion.”
Ofodili owns an English version of the Quran, a gift she got in one of her visits to the Muslim community in Abuja, which she reads in her free time.
“I discovered that the Muslims also recognize the Blessed Mother Mary,” said Ofodili. “That was when I had a total change of mind about them. I am a Legionary [a member of the Legion of Mary, a lay Catholic organization focused on Mary and charitable work], and anyone who says something good about our Mother is endeared to me,” she said.
The women celebrate after receiving catering equipment from the network. (Courtesy of Sr. Agatha Chikelue)
In the Quran, an entire chapter (called Surah 19/Surah Maryam) is dedicated to Mary’s genealogy, childhood and her role as the mother of Jesus.
Isiaka, Ofodili’s co-deputy director in Abuja, said she did not face any opposition from her Muslim community regarding her interfaith work.
“We have been able to understand each other better and have also passed the message of religious tolerance to our children,” she said. While the group has worked hard to break down barriers and build friendships, she knows there is still much work to do. Still, Isiaka is optimistic.
“If we groom our children this way, I think in the next few years, we’ll have the peace we are all craving,” she said.
Festus Iyorah is a Nigerian freelance journalist and photographer based in Lagos. He reports on global health, social innovation, gender equality, technology, development, conflicts and religion. He has been published in Al Jazeera, The Catholic Herald, The Guardian, National Catholic Reporter and World Politics Review.
Nigeria recently surpassed India to become the country with the highest number of people living in extreme poverty: 87 million. Nigeria is oil-rich and boasts Africa’s fastest growing economy. Yet six of its people fall into extreme poverty every minute.
This is the continent’s paradox: vast natural resources and mineral reserves alongside extreme poverty.
Historically, poverty has been predominantly dealt with as a lack of material resources or an income deprivation issue. Development work has focused on pushing resources to poor communities. Many have criticised the availability of “free money” through international aid, which they say has created a “dependency syndrome”, dishonest procurement and white elephant projects. Aid work has also been accused of fostering paternalism rather than partnership.
Without contextual knowledge, education and adaptation, foreign or imposed practices or resources cause new sets of problems. This is seen again and again across countries that depend on aid. For example, where food poverty was causing under-nutrition in parts of Malawi, financial aid has alleviated it. But that problem is quickly being replaced by diabetes and hypertension – because of a narrow financial solution to a complex problem.
We argue that tackling poverty requires a different focus, rather than just money. It requires partnerships and practices that promote learning, particularly in relation to cultural and self-knowledge. Having communities identify their own problems, then collaborate to find solutions, is also crucial. Money has a role to play in partnerships, but projects shouldn’t default to depending solely on it.
Many of the factors that are blamed for contributing to poverty are not measurable in dollar terms or connected to income. These include people’s lack of choices, restriction of freedom, lack of skills, gender castes and barriers.
Understanding these issues and their complexities require looking at poverty through a sustainability lens. This is a perspective that focuses on ethical and innovative ways to look at and use resources, share knowledge, and build a community to affect positive change.
Our work with the Sustainable Futures in Africa Network has shown the importance of this lens. We’re an interdisciplinary collective of researchers, educators, and communities of practice that aims to build understanding, research, and practice in socio-ecological sustainability (which recognizes the interconnection between social and ecological systems) in Africa.
We work from the understanding that because poverty is multifaceted, solutions to alleviate it must be multifaceted, too.
A number of the community projects we work with are engaged in poverty reduction practices but don’t focus solely on generating income. These projects are driven by communities on their own with existing resources; they rely on their own abilities and efforts that are not externally funded.
One example is ECOaction, which works in a slum community on the outskirts of Kampala in Uganda. Residents largely rely on collecting and selling discarded plastic bottles collected from across the city for small amounts of money.
With no resource other than time and vision, residents have built a community hall from recycled water bottles and an urban garden that grows food for residents and a chicken farm. Colorful murals and sculpture can be found around every corner.
In Botswana, the Sustainable Futures in Africa team is working with a community in Mmadinare to develop a project that will protect their farmland from wild elephants. This will not rely on or generate, external funding. But it will protect the farmers’ and the wild animals’ interests.
There are other ways to build strong sustainable communities without external financial resources. In Taba Padang, a village in Indonesia, sustainable community forestry is helping improve human well-being. There’s also Boomu African Village in Uganda, where a women’s group participates in eco-tourism and invests back into the community. They have built a nursery school and trained other residents in their village to get involved in eco-tourism.
Other self-reliance projects centre on health. For example in Lesotho, volunteers participate in community home-based health care and fill the gap in the community health care chain.
A new lens
There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all solution that will end poverty. But aid in the form of donated money, from one place to another, is culturally, practically, and ethically problematic.
Money is not the currency of well-being, sustainability, and community cohesion. More often, it’s a tool for influence and power dynamics that will favor the creditor. That’s why partnerships that rely on different types of resources and bring people together to design and act on context-relevant solutions can be such powerful drivers of change. That’s why for resource-rich Africa, promoting self-reliance would be key to eliminating poverty.
This article was co-authored by Dr. Deepa Pullanikkatil, who recently completed a residency at the University of Glasgow funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, UK. She is the co-founder of Abundance (www.abundanceworldwide.org).