There is Beruriah, who lived in the 2nd century AD, “whom the Talmud cites as an example of wisdom”, says Rabbi Allyson Zacharoff. Sung Ruoxing, of the Tang dynasty, was also a sage, remembered by Chau-Wan Leung, secretary of the Confucian Academy in Hong Kong. There is Puru Chista too, the daughter of Zoroaster, whom scholar Awat Taieb remembers after projecting the photo of her fellow citizen, Masha Ali, “a symbol of the sacrifice for women's freedom”. To these are added Deguchi Nao, the founder of Ōmoto (Shintoism), mentioned by Mineko Morishita, co-author of The Girls of the Atomic Bomb; and then Magdalene of Canossa, recounted by Sister Theresa Seow from Singapore. These are the names of some of the wise, the saints, the women who have written the history of spirituality and faiths, and who, in every tradition, occupy a secondary place compared to men. They have been remembered by their sisters today, who have come together in Rome at the International Conference Women Building a Culture of Interfaith Encounter.
This event was organised by the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue, in collaboration with the World Union of Catholic Women's Organisations and the Pontifical Urbaniana University, which involved women from twelve spiritual traditions, from twenty-three countries, and comes after the 2017 plenary assembly on the Role of Women for Universal Brotherhood and the meeting between Buddhist and Catholic nuns in 2018. The event comes in the spirit of the Praedicate evangelium, which asked the Curia’s dicasteries to collaborate (the scientific committee was also made up of women from the second section of the Secretariat of State, the Lay Life and Family Dicastery, the Synod of Bishops and Social Communication) and to involve the local Churches (the nunciatures were consulted to make the invitations).
Monsignor Indunil Kodithuwakku, the secretary of the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue, states, “Women see the world based on experience, they have a different narrative and have told us how, in everyday life, in areas where conflict is presented as the dominant note, they build experiences of development and collaboration”. For this reason, he adds, the long-term goal is, “starting from the existing, is to create networks of women, of different religions and cultures, who at the grassroots level, in the various local realities, work to build relationships of peace”. In doing so, those who came to Rome are destined to be protagonists.
Sarah, the Muslim headmistress
When she was appointed headmistress at a primary school in Lima, in a mountainous area in the hinterland of Zamboanga City, Philippines, Sarah L. Handang (pictured in this Page while teaching and with the Pope) faced quite a challenge. “At first they did not like me because I am Muslim. The inhabitants are all chavacanos, native Christians, poor people, who consider education to be a luxury, and prefer their children to work the land and help on the farm”. Involving families and community leaders, and organizing a medical mission at the school and designing a water system with the help of the military created a climate of trust.
However, the spark was ignited when Sarah realised that the children had to walk eight kilometres to reach the chapel and attend mass. “I coordinated with the catechist and the parish priest to celebrate a mass at the school every first Thursday of the month”. The school thus became the children's second home. “The deep respect for love and the importance of genuine service to humanity knows no barriers, regardless of differences in creed and culture”.
When she set up a baseball team, the headmistress discovered to her dismay that the boys could not participate in official competitions. This was because they are not registered at the civil registry office, because “their parents were not married, in either the church nor by civil rite, so they were unable to have their children's birth certificates issued”. The head of the civil registry office advised her to organize a mass wedding, which was celebrated October 23, 2014. “There were 54 couples, the very young and the very old, who all got married for free. The liturgy took place in the Sitio Lima chapel and the reception was held at the school. Community leaders and school administrators attended, and this became an event that changed the perception of many about the relationship between Muslims and Christians, especially in Mindanao”. Sarah, who in the island is part of the Silsilah Dialogue Movement founded by Father Sebastiano D’Ambra, was the first Filipino scholarship holder of the Nostra Aetate Foundation on Interreligious Dialogue in 2017, and in Rome she attended the Angelicum and the Pontifical School of Arabic Language and Islamic Studies (PISAI).
Ruth and women’s rights
She was born into a Christian family in the town of Blantyre, Malawi. In 2019, Ruth Mkwaira Kamuna (pictured above) decided to embrace the African Traditional Religion (ATR) and is now the secretary and treasurer of the ATR women's group. “Ours is a dynamic religion, and co-exists with others. For us, the culture of encounter implies a spirituality of friendship with the creator”.
Ruth is dressed in her country’s traditional clothes, she is a modern woman and aware of her rights. “Most religions talk about the importance of women's participation, but in fact they are not protagonists. That is why I created a women's group in the ATR”. This meant fighting from within “traditional practices that are harmful to women’s health, such as Kulowa kufa”. When a man dies, according to this belief, the sexually inactive widow must be purified, because she brings a bad omen to the family of the deceased. The woman is therefore forced to sleep with her brother-in-law, locked in the house for two or three days. The audience listens attentively. An African nun asked about female genital mutilation. “We work in cooperation with the human rights commission and the police force to fight against this practice as well,” says Ruth. Applause.
Sister Virginie’s “Mamas Hekima”
“In the Democratic Republic of Congo there are walls raised by cultural beliefs and injustices, of which women are the first victims. Mothers and housewives are the pillar of the family, but they often live in inhuman conditions, they are subjected to violence”. Sister Virginie Bitshanda (photo centre), a Montfortian, of the Daughters of Wisdom, coordinates the Mamas Hekima (wise mothers, in Swahili) project in Kisangani, “to help women take charge of themselves, become aware of their talents, come out of living in fear and prejudice, and achieve financial self-sufficiency”. Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Awakening Churches, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, have been meeting in work groups for ten years. They grow cassava, bake bread and do small trades. “At first they wanted to be divided by religion, which did not surprise us, because the messages coming from television incite division, hostility, and violence. Eventually they managed to work together and overcame their differences; since then they trusted each other. Moreover, they told their religious leaders about it,” says Sister Virginie. The “Mamas” also attend training courses in civic education, women's rights, family planning, budgeting and planning income-generating activities. “By herself, a woman cannot make it, together with the others we always find a solution”, says Sister Virginie. “At the beginning there were twelve of them, today more than a hundred ask to be accompanied”.
Carla and female leadership
“The leadership that women have at the grassroots of society, and that touches on the concrete aspects of life, needs to be taken to higher levels, where decisions are made”: Carla Khijoyan (photo below), who is Lebanese, from the Armenian Orthodox Church, is currently in charge of the programme of the Ecumenical Council of Churches for peace building in the Middle East. In her work, she recounts, she often participates in conferences where words chase each other. However, for example, when “in Iraq we invited women, they proposed concrete things, like working on education, and showed us not only the difficulties, but also the concrete opportunities that come from dialogue”. How difficult is it for a young woman to take on a leadership role in these contexts? “I started when I was young, in the Middle East. In my role as peace building officer at the Ecumenical Council, I have to deal with patriarchs, church leaders, and imams. Well, it has happened to me on more than one occasion that my interlocutors would turn to the person who accompanied me, a man, even if he was the driver. It is the culture; when you’re young, you’re a woman, they don’t take you seriously. But I didn’t give up. I worked up the courage to continue. After the first time I showed up I went a second time and then a third. Now they know me, they trust me, after 15 years, I am respected, but all this took years. If I had been a man it would have been different. Locally, wherever I go, I try to build teams where there are women”.
Her wish? That a great female “web” starts from Rome too; one that will envelop the entire planet.
by VITTORIA PRISCIANDARO
A journalist on San Paolo Magazines “Credere” and “Jesus”