ROME (CNS) — Throughout history and around the globe, Christian, Muslim and Jewish women have been inspired by their faith to boldly and creatively engage in conflict resolution, peacemaking and reconciliation, said speakers at a conference in Rome.
While their faith traditions have been used by some people to subject women and downplay their role, claiming leadership roles in society “does not involve severing their religious legacy,” said Irene Kajon, who is Jewish and teaches philosophy at Rome’s Sapienza University.
Women can and have found “the models that would emancipate them from passivity, fear or dependence in the traditional sources of their religion, be it Jewish, Islamic or Christian,” said Kajon, who along with a Muslim and a Catholic woman, spoke April 14 at a conference organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.
During the question-and-answer session of the conference on “Women’s Leadership in Conflict Resolution: Faith Perspectives,” many comments focused on perceptions of discrimination against women in Islam and in the Catholic Church.
IlhamAllah Chiara Ferrero, secretary general of the Italian Islamic Religious Community, insisted that many current cultural practices in predominantly Islamic countries are the result of “using and manipulating the Islamic sources,” particularly the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad, to relegate women to a domestic role.
“The greatest betrayal of Islamic sources,” she said, “has been that of covering up the importance of education, when, in fact, already at the time of the Prophet, education was obligatory, even for girls and boys.”
Returning to the sources and history of Islam, Ferrero said, Muslims find examples of strong, bold and prayerful women who served their communities and worked for peace.
Although there is more to do, she said, the increased access Muslim women have to university education is already having an impact on distinguishing between Islamic teaching about women and their cultural subjection.
Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, responded to charges of discrimination against women in the Catholic Church. As long as the question of women’s roles in the church is “de-coupled” from the question of priestly ordination — something the church believes it has no power to change — he said, much has been done and more can still be done to recognize women’s leadership potential and guarantee them a voice in decision-making processes.
Under the leadership of Pope Francis, “we are seeing a springtime for new leadership in the church,” he said, citing a private conversation in which the pope told him he saw no reason why the new secretary of justice and peace and the next heads of the pontifical councils for the laity and for the family should not be women or a married couple.
Donna Orsuto, a professor at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, told the conference “Christian women have taken leadership roles in conflict resolution.”
However, she told participants — including dozens of religious women — “oftentimes, though, their activities are hidden, especially in the case of women religious, because they simply do not draw attention to themselves.”
“This reticence among religious women — and also among some laywomen — is coupled with the reality that both the church and society often overlook or underestimate the leadership role of women in conflict situations,” Orsuto said. “This is part of a wider problem that has to do with how women are treated in general.”
Of course, Orsuto said, stereotyping — positively and negatively — is a problem. “Women, just like men, are capable of being protagonists of conflict and war or weavers of peace.”
Like Cardinal Turkson and the three women speakers, Ken Hackett, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, gave examples of women who were motivated by faith, even at the risk of their lives, to mediate crisis situations and to bring peace in various parts of the world.
“Women and girls are among the most vulnerable victims of war and conflict,” he said, but experience also has shown that their participation in conflict resolution “can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the causes of and alternative solutions to conflict.”
In addition, he said, where women have been excluded from peace processes often “crimes against women go unaddressed and peace agreements do not ultimately reflect popular needs, making them more difficult to sustain.”