Religion: Empowering or Oppressive to Women?

When one speaks about Islam to almost any group in the United States, one of the first questions posed is always about Muslim women. Invariably, the assumption behind the question is that Islam is irrevocably and uniformly oppressive to women. In response to such questions, I draw upon my strongly held conviction and insist that religions in general can be, have been, and are both oppressive and empowering to women, depending on a wide range of factors that interact in complex ways. Rather than speaking in generalities, I have found it is helpful and important to note the many “facts on the ground” that provide counterexamples to this assumption that Islam is oppressive to women.

This example comes from an all-day event I attended at a mosque in Worcester, Massachusetts on March 8, 2014 in celebration of International Women’s Day. I had been invited to speak on a panel alongside two Muslim women about our experiences being women in leadership positions.

The mosque in Worcester is large, well-cared for, and located in a middle-class suburban area. Several hundred women gathered here to celebrate International Women’s day. Immediately evident through language and dress was the variety of national and ethnic backgrounds of the women, their wide range of ages—which probably spanned four generations—their easy camaraderie, and their welcoming spirit. These were women who clearly liked to be together and were looking forward to the day. The fact that they chose to celebrate International Women’s Day at all—and take an entire day to do so—in itself says something about the awareness and the energy of the women involved.

The day consisted of a skillfully thought-out combination of activities. On the panel, I listened to one Muslim woman speak who heads a Muslim sponsored shelter for battered women and children. I myself spoke as a Christian woman who heads a seminary with a significant program in Islam and Christian-Muslim relations. The other Muslim woman, who emigrated several decades ago from the Middle East, heads a successful clothing business and recounted her experiences after arriving in the United States many years ago with nothing. The day also included honoring several women from the mosque who lead the way in service activities such as visiting the sick and helping the poor. Participants were also invited to participate in various civic activities, and there were prayers, lots of laughter, great homemade food from all over the world, and formal as well as informal conversation.

As the day unfolded, I realized how empowering this day was going to be to all involved, and that it was certainly planned to be so. Chosen themes for the day, implicitly and explicitly, were meant to empower, to teach, to encourage, and to expand horizons. These themes included violence against women that happens even in Muslim families, violence that can and must be talked about in the mosque, along with information about the organizations within the Muslim and civic communities that can help women and children; Christian women’s interest (and those from other religions as well) in developing relationships with Muslim women that are fruitful and constructive and, especially on International Women’s Day, the unique role women can play in building bridges between their religious communities; Muslim women in the United States are and can be successful business people even if they start from little or nothing; service to those in need is an honored Muslim practice that is valued in any context.

Implicitly and also explicitly, the themes chosen for this day impressed upon those involved that there is nothing in them antithetical to the Islamic beliefs they have been taught and strive to be faithful to. In other words, Islamic teachings value women living free from violence in their own homes; women involved in their families and religious communities, and also in their civic communities and with peoples of other faiths; women having jobs and earning an income while also being pious; and women serving others in innumerable seen and unseen ways, some of which are quite traditional.

I haven’t done a formal survey, but based on experience it seems safe to say that this kind of learning, this kind of empowerment of women, is happening in mosques all across the United States. I would also venture to say that while this is the case in this particular mosque and likely others, it is by no means happening in all mosques across the United States.

It is important to note that this learning of skills and knowledge in the mosque depends greatly on the interests of the women involved and their individual situations. At the same time, women’s involvement here does not contest male leadership of the mosque, history of Islam, or the teachings of the Qur’an about women and their roles in the community and family. To the contrary, this is teaching and learning of knowledge and skills of religious Muslim women who honor and abide by the teachings of their faith tradition. They are doing their teaching and learning of this kind not in spite of being religious, but at least in part because of their self-understanding as religious Muslim women.

Similarly, but in a different context, I have witnessed a number of religious Muslim women who—precisely because of their religious identity—have become involved in interfaith community groups. This involvement, in addition to providing a place to practice organizational skills and learn the skills and knowledge of governance in voluntary organization, has in turn introduced them to many others in the interreligious community also active in the civic community. These connections make it an easier step from leadership or involvement in the mosque to being active in and a leader in the civic community.

The step from mosque to civic community or interfaith group and then to civic community means that women empowered in their religious communities do not have to choose between secular engagement and religious piety; rather their engagement in the world is connected to their faith in meaningful and holistic ways. This serves their own well-being and also the wider common good.

Heidi Hadsell is president and professor of Social Ethics at Hartford Seminary. Hadsell has served as director of the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches and has taught at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Florianopolis, Brazil and the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, where she was dean. She has published on subjects including ecumenism, environmental ethics, religion in Brazil, and ethics in a religiously plural world. She is co-editor of Changing the Way Seminaries Teach: Pedagogies for Interfaith Dialogue(2009) and Beyond Idealism (2006), which includes her article “Ecumenical Social Ethics Now.” She serves on a variety of boards, including Arigatou International, the Advisory Committee to the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, the Association of Theological Schools in North America and Canada, and Plowshares Institute. She was recently named to the Abrahamic Forum Steering Committee of the International Council of Christians and Jews.

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