A singer leads the group in a musical prayer inside a red tent on the convention centre floor designated as the Women’s Sacred Space. Photo by Michael Swan

Parliament of the World’s Religions explores how feminism and faith can, and must, co-exist

By  Jean Ko Din and Michael Swan
  • November 6, 2018

Religion has not always been a woman’s ally. 

That has been true not just in the Catholic Church, but in religions around the world. 

“Women are severely under-represented in the teaching and writings of all the religious traditions,” said Rev. Mary Beth Moran Cross, a minister from the United Church of Christ attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto from Kalamazoo, Mich. “I don’t think religion is the problem. I think the interpretation of it is…. I’m not saying men are the problem. I’m married to one.”

For thousands of years, religious traditions have defined a woman’s role in society to be separate and often subservient to her male counterpart. The woman is the bearer of life and she is the servant of her family. Sometimes she is the gatekeeper of the sacred. Sometimes she is the vessel of temptation. 

One of the major themes the Nov. 1-7 Parliament of the World’s Religions addressed head-on was whether religion and feminism can be truly compatible. The gathering is the oldest and largest interfaith event in the world, this year hosting more than 200 religions and spiritualities. 

In a session on faith and feminism, Canada’s Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef recounted that when her family was fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan, the militants and their mullahs used religion to justify a war against education for girls.

“They used Islam as their rationale, even though that is not there,” Monsef told a roomful of women gathered for the session Nov. 2.

Monsef teamed up with her old friend and mentor Rosemary Ganley, a Catholic and a feminist from Peterborough, Ont. 

“When we’re born into a faith, we’re aware of strengths and weaknesses. We have to critique the weaknesses,” Ganley told a gathering of about 40 delegates.

As a Muslim woman, Monsef finds herself engaged in battle on two fronts. On the one hand, she’s at war with patriarchal cultural attitudes within the Muslim community. On the other, Canadian society sees  Muslims as backward oppressors of women.

“Every community I go to, I ask to meet with Muslims and I ask to meet with Afghans,” she said. “Let me tell you, Muslim women in Canada are doing really amazing things.”

Catholic women were also reflecting on their place in the modern Church. Bioethicist and theologian Moira McQueen was joined by St. Augustine’s Seminary professor Josephine Lombardi and Sr. Davinia Pedro of the Sisters of St. Joseph Canada to talk about when they first found their place in the Church. 

Pedro had always known her call was to the poor and vulnerable. Growing up in the Philippines, she had to put her family’s needs before her own but she knew at a young age she was heading towards religious life. 

“I believe I am encouraged and challenged to live the mission of the Church, to be the presence of God where I am,” she said. “To be that reconciling love and also to receive the reconciling love of God from others.”

Pedro works in Fort St. James, B.C., where most community members are from the Indigenous Carrier Nation. Her daily ministry includes visiting prisons, serving at the local soup kitchen and volunteering at a drop-in centre. 

McQueen once had another life as a lawyer and then a homemaker. While she volunteered at her local parish to run the children’s liturgy and marriage preparation classes, she realized that she had a lot of questions about her faith. She began to study on her own and it was when she began to read about ethics that she found her calling. 

“I realized that there were areas that I could talk about that people needed to know about and from then on, that’s when I really felt that God was telling me I had a voice and I better use it,” she said.

With a law degree, a Master of Divinity and a PhD in moral theology, McQueen was appointed executive director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute. Her work in research and education in bioethics earned her a place in the Vatican’s International Theological Commission in 2014. 

“When I joined the (Commission), it’s a group of 30 theologians in the whole world and only five of us are women,” she said. “Before that, there were only two women. It’s a five-year term and a new group is about to be appointed. I’m hoping it goes up to at least 10 or I’m talking to Pope Francis.”

Lombardi echoed her fellow panelist, saying the Church needs to consider more opportunities for women to be present in decision-making processes. 

“We know that leadership is not limited to the ministerial priesthood, so then I often wonder when it comes to governance — is it limited to the ministerial priesthood or is there room for women in governance? I think that’s where I’d like to see more input,” she said. 

Women have an important role to play in forming future priests, said Lombardi, who is also director of lay formation at St. Augustine’s Seminary. 

Emilie Callan, who recently participated as an auditor at the Synod of Bishops on young people in Rome, moderated the panel titled, “Catholic Women on the Front Line: Evangelization, Care and Outreach.” Callan said the role of women was a prominent subject which synod fathers admitted required much more discernment.

The focus on women has been a tradition at Parliaments of the World’s Religions since the 125-year-old gathering was revived in 1993, said Toronto organizing committee co-chair Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton. The Parliaments keep coming back to the role and status of women in religion because the problem is real, Hamilton said.

“The role of women has perhaps been taken for granted,” she said. “It has been less articulated than men’s roles, less visible. It’s time to change that.”

It is no exaggeration to say that making women invisible in religion amounts to oppression, said Hamilton.

But women also experience oppression in their work lives, in the marketplace and in the culture.

“Religion lives and breathes in society,” said Hamilton.

It should surprise no one women are searching for uniquely feminine ways to express their own religious experience, said Donna Wilding of Toronto as she took a break just outside the red tent designated as the Women’s Sacred Space on the convention floor.

“Right now there is a rising awareness of the divine feminine.Because it is needed.”

If more women held leadership roles in religious and secular institutions, “things would be better,” said Wilding.

“Even though we’ve birthed the world, our role is quite small compared to what we’ve done in this world.”

Men who have had leading and public roles in their faiths for centuries recognize that making room for women means disentangling religious truth from cultural bias, said Interfaith Dialogue Institute executive vice president Azim Shamshiev, a Sunni Muslim.

“It’s important for the issue of women to be addressed within religions themselves,” he said.

Though Islam is often accused of keeping women subservient and separate, in the roots of Muslim tradition there are important female figures. Among the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, Aisha was an acknowledged scholar and political leader who passed on many sayings of the Prophet at the core of Muslim faith. She is referred to as the “mother of believers.”

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