Wednesday March 9th 2016
The United Kingdom Women of Faith Network was launched with high-level support at the House of Lords in London this week. Baroness Uddin hosted a packed auditorium, with Members of Parliament and representatives from diverse international, national and local religious and multi-religious organisations. Written support was welcomed from the Prime Minister’s office; the Secretary of State for Education and Minister for women and equalities, Right Honorable Nicky Morgan; and the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols.
Professor Ursula King, Professor Emerita of Theology and Religious Studies at Bristol University, opened proceedings with a deeply moving account of her childhood in Cologne during World War II, and the impact of losing her father at a young age. She called urgent attention to the plight of migrants in Europe today – a crisis of displacement not seen since the wars and bringing untold suffering to women and children.
“Developing the Women of Faith network is exceptionally urgent and of fundamental importance,” she stressed. “As women of faith we have high ideals but we don’t always live up to them.” All our traditions have generations of women of wisdom and understanding whom we can turn to as role models, and peace campaigning is at the heart of the modern women’s movement. She cited the centuries long history of female Imams in China’s Henan province, and the European women’s peace movement, as examples. Now is the time to apply this experience – to move from dialogue to transformative action. She shared the three Asian “H’s” of dialogue – head, hands and heart. The head develops ideas that change society, but this is just the start. The hands are joint action for the sake of our communities. And the heart is the transformation we experience by working together, drawn to love and respect one another. Women cannot regain lost dignity alone, only in community – men and women working together towards this goal.
Jehangir Sarosh, Secretary General of the European Council of Religious Leaders, spoke of the many ways Religions for Peace works to strengthen women as peace builders and keepers. Society has a shared responsibility for our security – no security for me without security for you, and vice versa. In our Western rights-oriented world, we must not forget the balance of responsibility towards our neighbours. As the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, remarked, we need to move from face-to-face dialogue to side-by-side – working together for the common good.
The Archduchess of Austria and Princess of Tuscany, Camilla Habsburg-Lotheringen, drew attention to the family unit as the primary locus for societal wellbeing. Women hold the keys to every level, from individual family to society at large, and yet today’s values pull them in every direction and threaten the very fabric of our communities. Women of Faith are not only the guardians of the soul, but of society also, and it is imperative to protect them and their roles.
Jenny Kartupelis, Strategy and Development Officer at the World Congress of Faiths, drew on her research of the silent majority of women who are carers, for children, the older generation and all who are vulnerable within our communities. They are the “glue of society”, building and fostering relationships of trust and confidence without which human flourishing is impossible. She called on Women of Faith to campaign for greater recognition of the vital roles women play day to day in promoting spiritual wellbeing and human flourishing.
Ravinder Kaur Kijjar, Chair of the UK Women of Faith Network and International Coordinating committee member on Religions for Peace Global Women of Faith Network, spoke powerfully about the reality for many women whose access to basic human rights and to public office are still curtailed despite UN focus on sustainable development goals. 45% of women in the UK experience some form of physical or sexual abuse. If we don’t value women, and turn a blind eye to ongoing violence towards them, we can never have peace in our world. Societies that ignore the dignity of women are societies that fail to prosper, economically, socially, and in every other way. Whilst the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon talked about women shattering the glass ceilings of our boardrooms, the reality for most is very different. The best way to give women of faith a voice is to build a dynamic network that mainstreams them in to public and leadership roles. Ravinder called on all people, men and women, to play their part in restoring the dignity of women, and honouring them as our respective scriptures instruct.
A lively question and answer session followed, including comments from Religions for Peace Co-President, Bhai Sahib Mohinder Singh, who reminded us that mothers are the first gurus and educationalists. If they are stressed, the unborn child is stressed. Harriet Crabtree, Director of the Interfaith Network; Kiran Bali, CEO of United Religions Initiative UK; Lady Gilda Levy, co-founder of the Women’s Interfaith Network; Alison Judd, Area President of Methodist Women in Britain; Sister Maureen Goodman from the Brahma Kumaris, Ella Matheson, Founding Director of Peace in the City and trustee of the Tutu Foundation UK; Jean Dalgleish of the Westminster Institute for Ethics and Human Values; and many others offered their wholehearted support to the United Kingdom Women of Faith Network. The meeting closed with high aspirations and encouragement for the future of the women of faith in the UK.