Women Expanding the Possibilities in Dialogue

By Jeannine Hill Fletcher

The challenges for interfaith engagement - highlighted powerfully in last month’s column by Catherine Cornille - are especially acute from women’s perspectives. Excluded from institutional leadership roles, women are often not invited to the most high-profile interreligious dialogues. But, with feminist theologies and methodologies at work across the broad range of religious traditions, the issue of women’s voices in dialogue has been raised to the surface. On March 23, a panel of scholarpractitioners from a variety of religious traditions gathered with a public audience at Fordham University to pursue together answers to the question, Why Do Women’s Voices Matter in the Dialogue of Religions?

While women are not always found on the stages of high profile dialogues, Dr. Chun-fang Yu of Columbia University reminded the audience, quite simply, “Women have always been here.” That is to say, women have always been a part of each tradition, and interfaith encounters among women - honest and sincere sharing of faith and experiences - have taken place throughout the centuries. Indeed, as each scholar presented her work, examples of women’s interfaith encounters came to life. Rabbi Leila Gal Berner highlighted the possibilities of women in 13th century Spain making “empathic links” across traditions in the course of everyday social engagements, and Yu described contemporary Buddhist and Catholic nuns of Taiwan learning from one another about hospital administration.

Yet, as these and other examples reflect, because women are so often excluded from formal leadership in religion, those interested in women’s voices in dialogue need to examine the everyday places where women cross boundaries of the faith traditions. Dr. Neelima Shukla-Bhatt’s research underscored how few come to know about the “dialogues” between Hindu women and Muslim tradesmen as the women prepare for the ritual dance for the Goddess with the wares their Muslim neighbors sell. These on-the-ground encounters in the Gujarat region of India run against the grain of the Hindu-Muslim violence that makes international headlines, but they offer balance and a more hopeful vision of cooperation across religious lines.

The methodological shift of these scholars suggests also a shift in the understanding of “dialogue” to include not only the theological comparisons of the expert leaders but the everyday encounters where no theological notes are consulted. And this might suggest a shift in the opposite direction. That is, organizers of interreligious projects might be increasingly self-reflective about whose perspectives “count”; incorporating the non-expert practitioner as an additional authority in the dialogue both expands our understanding of the experience of religion and opens more spaces for women’s voices to be heard. For years, Catholic statements have included “the dialogue of life” among the four kinds of interreligious dialogue, and women’s experiences demonstrate how truly profound and empowering this form of dialogue is.

The attempt to include women’s voices keeps on the table the necessity to continue to challenge the patriarchal privileges that structure current religious traditions and therefore, too often, the dialogues themselves. If an aim of interreligious dialogue is cooperation for a more just world, then each tradition must also turn inward to pursue the justice that is lacking within. As Dr. Sarah Sayeed noted at the Fordham conference, interfaith dialogue is often a catalyst for internal change; this could not be more necessary in addressing women’s continued exclusion from religious learning and leadership across the traditions.

But the patterns of exclusion that repeat down through the centuries and across the traditions also underscore the distinctiveness of women’s voices as theologically important. If our embodied lives are the place in which we as human beings encounter the divine, then the distinctive and embodied experiences of women across the traditions provide ever-new horizons for understanding what Karl Rahner called the incomprehensible “holy mystery” of existence. Shut out from mainstream rituals directed for and by men, women in many traditions have postured themselves toward the divine through life-giving rituals in a separate space. This was brought to light especially in Berner’s work, who shared with the audience new Jewish rituals focused on women’s life cycles, and in the work of Shukla-Bhatt, who described the way women’s ritual dance for the Goddess was unusually beyond the control of male priests. This expansion of our sites for theological consideration in dialogue has the potential to increase our understanding exponentially of what it means to be human and of our human experiences of the sacred.

Of the many visions that surfaced in the evening’s discussion, for me the most profound was the suggestion that women speaking forth their experience of the divine might be done for the greater glory of God. Indeed, this panel was encouraged to dialogue and supported by a wide range of offices at Fordham. Perhaps the opening of new vistas on God and humanity is a compelling reason why being “interreligious” is the way the Jesuits have sought to be religious today.

Fletcher is an assistant professor of theology at Fordham University and the author of “Monopoly on Salvation? A Feminist Approach to Religious Pluralism” (Continuum, 2005).

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