I WAS invited in December 2012 to give a paper about women in
the Church to a Muslim conference on gender. It was at a time when
progress towards women bishops seemed to have slowed to a crawl. I
spoke about my own experience as a woman, a Christian, and a
priest, and about the changes in society I had seen from my
childhood until now.
My audience was made up of a liberal, well-educated, and diverse
group of Muslims, mostly from the UK and of various different
ethnic backgrounds. It was clear that the vast majority of them
were in favour of gender equality. They also told me - I was rather
surprised by this - that they were very much hoping that the Church
of England would soon have women bishops. They thought this might
go some way towards challenging and even changing reactionary
attitudes within their own community.
I found the exchange fascinating because it made me realise that
although Christian and Muslim history has some shocking examples of
brutal attitudes to women, both faiths also have resources that can
encourage a perspective of equality. Christians can call on Jesus's
extraordinarily liberating attitude to women, and point to the
participation of women from early times in monastic life, which
opened up the possibility of study and a degree of autonomy.
Muslims could start from the utter transcendence of God, which
forbids the use of images or metaphors in speaking of the divine.
The problems for Muslim women lie in tradition rather than text. I
tentatively suggested that it might theoretically be easier for
Muslims to embrace the full equality of women because they did not
have to cope with gendered metaphors in the way Christians did. For
both faiths, the problems lie more in culture and tradition than
revelation and text, and the catalyst in both is education.
This is why the abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram
is such a provocation both to Nigerian Christians and to the rest
of the world. It is a grim reminder that there are still those who
find religious reasons to hold girls and women in contempt. We
often tend to assume that Nigerian Christians are religiously
conservative; but when it comes to the education of girls, they are
firmly on the side of liberation.
This is why we should also be deeply concerned at the
allegations that some British schools have adopted discriminatory
policies. The values at stake here are not specifically Western any
more, but human and universal.