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Unite with Muslims on gender equality

16 May 2014

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.

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