Women’s Voices Rising in Religious Leadership

Community stalwart and deputy chair of the South African Zionist Federation Reeva Forman, with Bet David's Rabbi Julia Margolis (right).

Community stalwart and deputy chair of the South African Zionist Federation Reeva Forman, with Bet David’s Rabbi Julia Margolis (right).

Should there be such a thing as a woman rabbi? Is it an archaic misinterpretation to force Muslim women to enter a mosque through a separate entrance to men? How does the Baha’i faith interrogate women’s rights? And where does the Christian trinity stand in relation to women in society?  These were some of the issues raised recently in a fascinating foray around women in religious leadership, at the Women’s Jail in Hillbrow, hosted by the South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity (SACRED).

Emcee Reeva Forman, deputy chair of the South African Zionist Federation and stalwart of the Bet Israel community in Hillbrow welcomed rabbis, spiritual leaders and members of the broader community and communal leadership. Notably absent in the audience were vocal or critical members of the Muslim, Lutheran and Baha’i communities. Significantly, this event was held on the cusp of the annual Sixteen Days of Elimination of Violence Against Women and Children, themed this year as From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World.

Forman spoke of both Hungarian activist Hannah Senesh (1921-1944) executed in Europe and Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai (born in 1997), a fierce pro-female education activist and the youngest Nobel Peace Laureate ever, women who have had the courage to raise their voices against discrimination.

“The Taliban may have taken away our pens and our books but they cannot stop our minds from thinking. I raise up my voice not so I can shout back at those without voices, but we must, on behalf of those, shout: we cannot succeed when half of the human race is silenced,” she quoted Malala.. “When the whole world is silent, even one voice is powerful.”

The event took the form of a panel discussion, featuring lawyer Zaakirah Akram of the Open Mosque in Cape Town, Reverend Lutz Ackermann of the Lutheran Church of Peace in Hillbrow, Rabbi Julia Margolis from Bet David in Sandton and Baha’i representative Khwezi Fudu Cenenda

Focusing on the pragmatic righteousness of women in Talmudic tradition, Rabbi Margolis, the first qualified woman rabbi in South Africa, daughter of the first Russian-speaking woman rabbi in Israel and a great voice for equality and freedom in South Africa said: “The spirit of those women – who didn’t despair in the face of harsh treatment, who helped their husbands, who protected babies doomed for slaughter – in the generation of the book of Exodus from Egypt, has been the spirit of Jewish women throughout their generations: women who never give up hope for their children.”

She touched on the challenges she faces as both a rabbi and a mother, but also that of being a woman rabbi in South Africa. “Why do we need women rabbis? What does it mean for a female to occupy such office? Indeed, what does this say about the community or country in which a female is encouraged to hold such an office?

“If we ask such a question, we need to ask the question as to why we need women doctors, and we need to remember that only a hundred years ago in England, Parliament considered it absolutely a breach of professionalism.

Showing her cognisance of difficulties she faces for being the only women rabbi in South Africa, she added: “We must seek truth and not be afraid to speak up when those truths are questioned.”

Khwezi Fudu Cenende representing the Baha'i community.

Khwezi Fudu Cenenda representing the Baha’i community.

Cenenda, the diplomatic liaison for the Baha’i community then spoke of how women have been killed in society in the name of religion underpinned by misogynist values. She spoke of the spiritual principles with social implications informing Baha’i faith. “God has created all of mankind and in the estimation of God, there is no distinction between male and female. God judges human actions, not actions as they are performed by a man or by a woman. This equality is always there, but it is addressed differently by our society.

“When women are suppressed there is injustice. Until the world realises this, there will not be peace,” she spoke of the greater burden and work that women have in terms of making the world turn. “The woman has greater moral courage than the man. She has also special gifts,” she added, citing the South African idiom, You Strike A Woman, You Strike A Rock (Wa’thint abafazi, wa’thint umbokodo). “I pray for the time where it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman when you achieve things. I pray for the time when it doesn’t matter when you are ‘the first black’, ‘the first woman’ to achieve something. I pray for the time when humanity is able to identify itself as humanity and just live, because that is ultimately what we want to do.”

Reverend Lutz Ackermann of the Lutheran Church of Peace

Reverend Lutz Ackermann of the Lutheran Church of Peace.

The Lutheran Church of Peace’s Reverend Ackerman, a leader who has been enormously proactive in collaborative projects between his community and the Union of Jewish Women. In South Africa since 2001, Reverend Ackerman was educated and ordained in Bavaria. Teetering between affiliation to the Lutheran and Anglican churches, he said “I speak as an insider to various different church backgrounds and on behalf of Christianity broadly.

Pre-empting his talk with the caveat that nothing is static and that everything changes, he spoke of the maleness of Christ’s disciples; “This is not a very good starting point for gender equality and leadership in a religion,” he referred to a “handicap” in the religion. “Why did Martin Luther not introduce female pastors?” he briefly accounted the history of Lutheranism and the value it brought to the western world. “We need to understand that the Reformation was essential in turning a shift in society. But the changes we have seen in church and theology that favour gender cannot be fully masked.

“This transformation of theological thinking is nowhere near complete. In South Africa there are many places that have contributed to this transformation,” he itemised the steadily growing number of women pastors in Anglican and Lutheran communities as he interrogated Roman Catholic canonical principles.

“What is religious leadership based upon? Education?  A divine calling? Is it based on the concept of being set aside to serve the faith of a community? But further, what is the role of the laity and what are its boundaries? Sometimes it is not only a question of legality but also of citizens taking decisions. It’s not only the legislative framework that can set limits to how the church is run,” he expressed his hope “that inclusivity will become central to religious leadership in the world.”

Zaakirah Akram of the Open Mosque

Zaakirah Akram of the Open Mosque.

Akram, the youngest of the four, began cheekily. “When you think of a Muslim woman,” she said, “What do you expect? Someone like me?” dressed in a tailored suit and high heeled shoes, she grinned at the audience’s perplexed sensitivity to political correctness in the face of stereotypes.

“Exactly. The current stereotype for Islam is not about non-judging, open understanding and equality. It’s about complete terror. We, at the Open Mosque are officially celebrating our second month,” she alluded to threats the establishment has weathered, before proceeding to examine the Koran’s exegesis with regard to the position of women in Muslim society. “The Open Mosque is a pioneer institution which engages with people’s status in the mosque. No longer are we as women banished to enter and exit through side entrances. No longer do we pray from behind barriers and partitions as is the set up in traditional mosques.

“At the Open Mosque, women are treated as equals to men and access the mosque through the main entrance. We pray in the same area as our fathers, sons and brothers. We encourage women to empower and educate themselves through teachings in the Koran and by extension, teaching their male and female offspring that they are valued as equals. In this way we will eventually succeed in turning around the entrenched values of Muslim tradition, to practice tolerance and oppose injustice.” She spoke of the spiritual authority of women and how they should be encouraged to embrace their own power and progress leadership roles.

“Women are actively involved in the Open Mosque, where they are encouraged to participate in a formerly male-dominated society. As young women we should challenge forces that exert influence over us. For us to succeed, both men and women must become proactive. Gender equality cannot be achieved without active participation.”

“We need to keep looking forward to moderate values. We need to focus on not drawing physical attention to ourselves,” she explained dress codes and commented on the rigid understanding of Koranic interpretation that has forged one particularly damaging stereotype to the culture. Women remain marginalised in Muslim society, she explained how sexist values were embodied in Islamic legal constructs like inheritance.

“It’s a default position, and has been for 1 400 years. Somehow it has been misinterpreted to mean this is all you can get. But this is only an interpretation. Women should have equal rights in households, education, the workplace and our mosques. We should have sole rights over our bodies and should make their own marital decisions.”

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