OUR humanness, given to us by God, intersects at so many different points in people’s lives across the globe. In particular, a longing for truth, justice, protection for the vulnerable, and freedom from oppression is evident in any culture, irrespective of its beliefs or social practices.
There are, of course, appalling examples of injustice in societies, too — atrocities that deny our humanity, and run counter to freedom. Religion can fuel rather than prevent these, most especially when it distorts, by abusive power structures, the humanness that God has given us. Before we label other cultures or religions as intrinsically inhuman or oppressive, however, we need to see the bigger picture.
I found this when researching a book, Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and overcoming violence against women (SPCK, 2015). Of all the forms of violence I had identified, I was disturbed to find how many seemed somehow linked to Islam. “Honour” killings, acid attacks, early or enforced marriage, and female genital mutilation (FGM) were among the horrendous examples of violence towards women occurring predominantly in Islamic-majority countries.
I learnt that women could be stoned to death on only a suspicion of misconduct; that girls could be forced to marry their rapists, who then escaped punishment; and that violated wives were likely to be ignored or beaten if they sought police help, and be returned to their abusers.
It seemed that women in general were often blamed for the sins of men. One sheik insisted that babies should wear full hijab so as not to excite male sexual urges. Other Islamic leaders advocated the cutting away of girls’ genital tissue (FGM) to ensure her purity.
And yet, counter to this depressing picture was the discovery that many campaigners for justice in these areas are also Muslim. Muslim gynaecologists are at the forefront of the battle against FGM, insisting that it has nothing to do with Islam. Women Muslim lawyers in Pakistan work tirelessly for women’s protection and changes in legislation; women and men campaigners in North Africa and the Middle East fight hard to implement the laws that already exist there.
Muslim doctors and health workers decry forced marriage for its risks to girls’ health and future lives, and Islamic feminist scholars pore over Qur’anic texts to offer interpretations that shun all forms of violence against women. Alongside educated professionals are grassroots organisations that actively campaign for reform where it is needed; there are groups such as the Muslim Women’s League, and Sisters of Islam, and especially Musawah: the global movement for justice in the Muslim family.
In our own culture, we are beginning to see Christian and Muslim women reaching out to each other to share a common fight for gender justice. When Hibo Wardere published Cut — her personal account of the terrifying ordeal of undergoing FGM, and living with its consequences — one of the first groups to welcome it was the Christian campaign 28 Too Many. Its work emphasises the repudiation of the practice by all religions. The Christian organisation Restored highlights domestic abuse wherever it occurs, sharing platforms with justice-seeking Muslims.
The biblical narrative of creation, sin, and redemption is a powerful story for all humankind. And yet, as we hold out the truth of its message to our Muslim friends and neighbours, we need also to allow it to penetrate more deeply into our Christian communities.
When sermons address domestic abuse and intimate-partner violence in our churches, we will know that we are committed to sharing the broken humanity of others. When churches offer safety to those who have been abused, and hold violators to account — encouraging confession, prayer, and change — we will know that we are beginning to live authentically in the good news of the gospel.
Dr Elaine Storkey is a Member of Newnham College, Cambridge.