This year we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the historic meeting of religious leaders called to Assisi by the unforgettable, recently beatified, Pope John Paul II. The Community of St. Egidio took it upon itself to continue this tradition, and for a quarter of a century never failed to organize an annual encounter in different parts of the world.
I have had the great honor of being present as a delegate and as a journalist in every single meeting, and therefore, can give witness to the great significance these meetings have had in assisting the birth of friendships between men and women of every conceivable background, often coming from countries without reciprocal diplomatic relations or at war with each other. These friendships have born widespread consequences, and I am indeed happy to be able to continue to be part of this ever evolving process of peacemaking.
Today, finally, we are living in an age of inter-religious dialogue and inter-religious cooperation aimed at creating a better world. Yet we still continue learning about the many different customs and disciplines of our separate traditions regarding worship, belief, family life, existential philosophies and attitudes towards diverse beliefs and non - beliefs.
With regard to our topic, “women and religion”, a fundamental topic even if it does not seem such at first glance, I would like to tell you a tale – a contemporary “midrash” if you will.
The story goes that representatives of the world’s religions, in a gathering such as this, decided to synchronize their prayers, attuning them to one overriding question to which they hoped to receive an answer: “Dear Lord”, they said, “which of our religions and which of our religious ways contains the Truth?”
And the Lord replied, thundering simultaneously into the consciences of each and every questioner, “You are all abiding by a great misunderstanding. I never spoke to any of you about ‘religion’. I am the Lord your God, and as I have told ALL of you, your basic precept must be, NOT to do unto others what you would not want done to you. This in itself contains all the world’s positive precepts as well – for example, to do unto others that which you WOULD want done to you, meaning to respect the other’s individual needs (which may not be the same as yours), to act with love, mercy, kindness, fair play, honesty, generosity, optimism, joy and creativity, making sure that the needs of body and mind be met equally for every person on every level of every society you have created, enabling all to enjoy the beauties of this world, safeguarding them and safeguarding the lives, the health and the wellbeing of all people equally, and also respecting the lives of animals and plants…the list is endless. What you do unto others, you also do to Me. And when you work for peace and harmony, I am in your midst. And the rest is study – as I once told Rabbi Hillel, a disciple of mine, Rabbi over 2000 years ago. So now, go and study, read the Holy Books, but also study the literature, philosophy, science and arts that have been created by humankind the world over with the help of my Holy Spirit. And by the way, remember that I created women as well as men in My Image. I created women to be companions to men, and intended there to be total equality between them, for women to be men’s missing halves and not their indentured servants or worse yet, their slaves.”
This, in short, according to the story, was the Holy Message received instantaneously by all the leaders of the world’s different religions, united in prayer at a recent Interreligious Summit.
So, since this Message reminds us that men and women were equally created in the Divine Image and each sex needs to be completed by the other, we might reflect for a moment on whether the situation of women today in the world’s many different religious cultures corresponds to this precept.
Our findings are likely to be rather dismal. The overwhelming majority of all religious cultures are male dominated, and women’s roles have been defined and circumscribed mostly without the informed and educated consent of man’s other half. Discrimination takes on different forms, ranging from the mildest, regarding the lack of possibilities for women to officiate in many religions, to a near total denial of liberty and human rights pertaining to a woman’s lack of freedom to pursue an education, an individual lifestyle, to seek or refuse a choice of love relationship, of marriage or of an independent single life, the choice of dressing in traditional or modern fashion, of traveling and discovering the manifold treasures of the varieties of world views. .
Women who do not obey the norms codified by male dominated religious cultures are often subjected to segregation and/or violent punishment. Often they are conditioned from infancy to accept polygamous marriages and/or to cover their bodies completely from head to toe, impeding them from absorbing the healthful benefits of sunshine. Men can more easily obtain divorces than women. Antiquated barbaric customs such as female genital mutilation or the isolation of widows or the pre-arranged marriages of child brides, still survive in religious cultures where the levels of literacy and education generally remain very low and the rift between rich and poor is abysmal.
No society, whether religious or secular, is immune from gender inequality. In the so-called “developed” world, statistics show that women are habitually paid less for doing the same job as men, and are rarely promoted to leading positions.
And yet the ironic truth, floating near the surface of our consciences for all to see, is that women who have been granted the opportunities of freedom and education, excel in their fields, often outperforming their male colleagues.
In the economic sphere, women have been the heroines of remarkable stories of success related to the well-known system of minicredit loans to help start up small enterprises in the poorer nations. Percentagewise they far outdistanced their men in producing profit, paying back their loans punctually, and providing incomes for their families and friends. Not to generalize, but results have shown that while the great majority of women made these loans work, the men in their societies generally put in less effort, and were more prone to use the money for other purposes than those stated.
Humanity’s vision of the Creator of our world, according to most religions, is defined by attributes including “female qualities”. Some of these are named: loving kindness, tenderness, empathy and compassion, all-embracing maternal love, providing nourishment for body and soul, the capacity to forgive, generosity and altruism, etc. Saintly maternal figures abound in our religious cultures, but often there is a mental divide between the romantic, utopian womanly ideal and the way living human females are regarded by their men.
The motherhood role through which women pass, generally makes us more likely to accept human weakness and leads us to refuse to accept ideologies where the ends justify the means. Of course there are many exceptions to this rule, but in our European and American experience, so often those who stand up and speak out against violence and injustice – from individual cases to nations -- are women of all backgrounds, including recent immigrants.
These women are becoming bulwarks against the use of violence and terror to achieve abstract, misguided utopias. They prefer NOT to “do unto others what they would not want done to them” and TO DO unto others, in the here and now, what they would want for themselves. They are open to learning about other cultures, open to expanding their minds through higher education, open to new friendships and relationships with those who share our basic positive values in different religious and cultural contexts, open to respect diversity.
I think all of us, no matter what our individual religious beliefs, must conclude that if we truly value peace and want to contribute our small bit to help alleviate suffering, create possibilities for more freedom, harmony and happiness in our lifetimes, we must give women more opportunities to develop freely and contribute more widely to our ever more richly patterned civilizations.
Doing so, also means that we will be heeding the call of our Creator to consider women as men’s necessary other half, equally created in the Divine Image. Empowering women – everywhere - is the key to democratic change, to reshaping societies by eliminating bias, intolerance and extremisms, to standing up united in our common battle for achieving universal human rights, and – yes - even to strengthening our faltering economies, East, West, North and South, by creating space and opportunities for feminine ingenuity!