Women and Religion

An interfaith discussion

BH: What does it mean to be a religious woman in America in this day and age?

Jerri Livingston:  I love reading Torah. I love studying. I love going to services.  It means celebrating my faith, feeling comfortable talking about my faith, and feeling very comfortable having my Jewish star pendant on, and not worrying about having to tuck it under my clothes.  It’s who I am.  

Nancy Remmert:  Sometimes it means you’re not on the popular side, or that sometimes, you’re maybe even prophetic or called upon to be more than one thing:  more than a homemaker and wife, a corporate leader, an employee.  Above all those things, you are called to be in a relationship with God.  All the things you do, the way you treat people, how you live your own life, all of that is involved in being a religious woman in today’s world. 

"when dealing with religiosity, we need to be both intelligent and deeply compassionate, and that comes from prayer. We owe that to our sisters."

Sr. Carla Mae Streeter:  I picture myself as a tightrope walker—as a woman, a Dominican [nun] and a theologian.  I think it’s very important for anyone educated today, to walk a fine line with a balance pole, where on one end, there’s the sacred scripture, the counsel of the church, all the rich tradition and revelation that we have as a Catholic community, and on the other end, publications such as The New York Times, The Economist and The New Internationalist, with all their reports on human trafficking, the violation of women and girls, the bride-burning in India, the female circumcision in Africa, the murder of female babies in China—all the uglies we don’t want to see.

Those have to be on the other end.  Women today need to be aware that if you tip in one direction, you’ll be a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist who doesn’t really care about all those other issues, but who safeguards dogma and Catholic identity.  That’s one extreme: the religious dimension.  It’s just as fatal to tip in the other direction, to decide to be so liberal, so non-traditional.  In either direction, that’s death.  The challenge today is that it is so simple to ride on the road and to fall into the left ditch or the right ditch.  To keep your balance on the bike, on the high road, where the road humps, is what I call a centrist position, and many of us are there.  We are trying to incorporate the very best from the concerns of today to the rich tradition of 2000 years, which is not a drop in the bucket.  Maintaining that delicate centrist religion is what keeps me going everyday:  crafting a new path, trying to hold a balance of all the truth that I’m aware of. 

BH: What is your advice for young women who are still searching?

Dr. Billie Mayo:  Be that seeker; be open and willing to explore the path that will mirror back to them who they really are, who they can be, and the kind of accomplishment and capacity that they have.  I certainly would encourage them to explore the Baha’i faith.  It’s a path that allowed me as an African-American woman to realize completely and fully my capacity and my station in life.  When I read what Baha’ullah said about women and what their uniqueness is, I was overwhelmed because I never had come across mentions of our capacity, our nobility.

Dr. Ghazala Hayat:  For me, Islam is a way of life.  It’s not what I practice on a particular day.  I have to live my life according to Islam.  There are a lot areas I could improve.  But faith, I believe, makes to help you a better human being in every aspect of your life—a better worker, a better sister, daughter, wife, mother.  I always say that should be your foundation, faith.  Being religious is nothing bad, there’s nothing wrong with that.  It actually improves you.  Some people call it a positive attitude; whatever it is, if you follow it, and if you’re sincere with it, and if you’re open-minded, I think it can always be a source of strength. 

Nancy Remmert:  A young person who is seeking definitely needs to belong to a faith community in some way.  You can’t do that alone; it has to be done in a community.  You may have to go to several until you find one that you feel you can express your spirituality and it answers concerns and questions you have.  There’s nothing wrong if where you go first doesn’t meet your needs.  You move on.  We all as human beings have a need for some sort of spiritual involvement.  It’s been my experience with some young people, they’re seeking and they’re filling that void with secular things, with things that don’t satisfy.  They might fill that hole for awhile, but they’re still unsatisfied.  There’s that need in us for some kind of spiritual connection. We’re always looking for that.

Sr. Carla Mae Streeter:  There is no way getting around being both devoted and intelligent.  I think that’s one of the greatest dangers for a young woman today—you either become a pietist or an intellectual.  There needs to be both.  There needs to be a community that worships and prays in sincerity and truth, not an empty pietism that’s filled with ritual and observance and used as an escape from the big bad world.  At the same time, there has never been more of a need for young women today, of any devotion, to really do their homework, to really shut their mouths, until they really find out what they’re saying.  For example, when you talk about Islamic women, have you talked to an Islamic woman, or did you read some lightweight stuff from a fundamentalist paper, that they’re all in bondage, etc?  That’s unintelligent; it’s unfair; it’s not really asking the right questions.  We need to be respectful of each woman’s religiosity and really find out how Jewish women feel about Israel, or how African women deal with female circumcision.  I would really encourage young women today, to make sure they root themselves roots in a community that prays with sincerity and values inquiry and intelligent judgment and tolerance The propensity today is to jump onto some bandwagon, and I think it’s a disservice to feminine intelligence.  Especially when dealing with religiosity, we need to be both intelligent and deeply compassionate, and that comes from prayer.  We owe that to our sisters.