House of Lords: Syeda Fatima Interfaith Conference
Brief: Gender-based nepotism in history means that the achievements of females are conveniently forgotten. It is imperative in our struggle for gender parity that such personalities are given their rightful place theologically and socially as they are an authentic source of law and ethics.
This multi-faith event is based on recognizing women as key players in our society today. The audience and speakers will be from major religions in the U.K and in academic and leadership positions.
Organisers: Rabbi Mark Winer(President of FAITH),Julian Bond, Rubab Mehdi Rizvi, trustees, International Imam Hussain Council
In attendance: Lord Ahmed, Jamie Martin (deputy cultural attache at the US embassy), Tehmina Kazi (BMSD), Zara Afzal (filmmaker), Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin (Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons and Chaplain to Her Majesty the Queen), Bharti Tailor (president of the Hindu Forum of Europe), Santosh Dass MBE (former civil servant, the Vice Chair of the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance (ACDA), the President of the Federation of the Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations UK), Mehri Niknam MBE (Executive Director, The Joseph Interfaith Foundation), Rev’d Canon Dr Shannon Ledbetter, Lynne Townley (barrister currently working for the Crown Prosecution Service), Shaykh Muhammad Amin (Scholar) and many more.
I am honoured to join you here today to celebrate the significant and yet often downplayed role played by women within our various religious traditions. Interfaith is so hugely important in order for us to learn from one another and grow together focused on our shared humanity. I try and live that interfaith in my own life as I have 2 Catholic Muslim kids and one orthodox Jewish Muslim baby. For those I’ve managed to confuse, I mean that my two oldest children attend a catholic school and my baby attends an orthodox Jewish nursery. I am blessed to learn so much through them and my interaction with their schools, I wouldn’t want it any other way!
Going back to our topic for today, speaking from within my own religious tradition, that is Islam, women played critical roles in the development of the faith, it’s teaching and its elaboration in the form of jurisprudential theorising. Despite having inspiring role models to hand from among the earliest generation of Islam, their contribution has been systematically downplayed and within a very short period of time, relative to history, women were once again marginalised, excluded from key institutions of power and learning and relegated to the domestic sphere through theological justifications. In order to reverse a trend according to which religion often feels like a male sphere in which women are a mere afterthought, we must resurrect these empowering female figures, highlight the multiplicity of roles they have placed in various spheres of life and challenge the male monopoly on sacred knowledge, starting by acknowledging the debt owed to women in our understanding of religion. Some of the most influential thinkers within Islamic theology were taught by female scholars and yet we find that while their names are common knowledge, their female teachers are forgotten from our manuals and heritage. The first university in the world was constructed by a Muslim woman, Fatima al Firhi, the Qarawiyin in Fes(9thC) and yet today in many parts of the world, women still struggle to receive the most basic of educations. The Oxford based theologian Shaykh akram Nadwi’s has himself compiled the names and biographies of over 8000 female scholars, many of whom traveled far and wide in pursuit of knowledge and teaching! We could list many Muslim women who are fantastic role models, but to list just one, Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Mohamed (pbuh) was a model described by those around her as the “personification of high virtues” who cared fastidiously for the poor and the hungry and offered a model of balance and humility, a woman who managed her spiritual life through regular attendance at the mosque, worldly commitments in the form of care for the injured on the battlefield and family responsibilities where her devotion to those around her was widely commented on. To many Muslims, male or female, she is an important reminder of the responsibilities we owe to those around us, both in terms of our family and wider society.
My own work within my community is about reminding ourselves of our heritage, of the powerful female women in our history and our present, and highlighting our collective debt to them. In doing so, I hope the next generation of Muslim women will feel they have figures of faith to aspire to, that they will look at the sacred sphere as one in which women are not only welcome, but an essential asset to. Thanks for your time.