Opinion

The Other Threat That Both Muslim and Jewish Women Face

Jews and Muslims face a common struggle against white supremacists. Now Jewish and Muslim women are building another form of solidarity: jointly facing the discrimination within our own communities that denies us religious and ritual equality

A Muslim woman and a Jewish woman embrace during a women's rally against President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., January 21, 2017.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

It's never been clearer just how much Muslims and Jews have in common.

We face the same threat from xenophobes, the far right, populist politicians, and sadly, from terrorists – from Pittsburgh to Christchurch and San Diego – who don't recognize our right to live, let alone thrive, in the communities we call home.

And as a new survey of U.S. Muslims demonstrates, we recognize what draws us together, despite well-publicized points of difference and disagreement.

As a group, Jews showed the lowest level of Islamophobia amongst all the groups measured with 53% of Jews holding favorable views of Muslims, compared to for example, 20% of Evangelical Christians. Jews were also almost the faith group most likely to know a Muslim personally in real life.

The same solidarity is mirrored by the U.S. Muslim community, where 45% of U.S. Muslims hold a favourable view of Jews.

However, for Muslim and Jewish women in particular, there are other levels of shared struggle - and with that, greater potential for solidarity. Clearly both groups of women face the challenges of economic, social, political and cultural discrimination faced by women worldwide.

Yet for Muslim and Jewish women engaged with their faith, there is another form of discrimination that is particularly damaging: spiritual inequality. Yes, women of faith continue to be denied the right to live and practice their faith in their own way, in the way that they see fit.

This prejudice permeates the lives of women and girls and can be found through the barriers placed on women to enjoin in spiritual practices crucial to their lives and their interpretation of their faith. It is however not a phenomenon that belongs to one particular faith but instead one particular gender.

So how does this play out in both the Jewish and Muslim communities?

One clear example in the Jewish community, which ironically occurred on International Women’s Day this year, was when Women of the Wall held a special 30th anniversary service marking the group’s mission: social and legal recognition for Jewish women to pray and read from the Torah collectively, loudly and proudly at the holiest accessible site in Judaism - the Western Wall.

As a Muslim woman and vocal feminist, I was shocked to discover that my Jewish sisters received verbal and even physical abuse as they were scratched, spat on, shoved and verbally abused by ultra-Orthodox youth.

>> ‘A Desecration of God’s Name’ Women of the Wall Demands Government Inquiry Into Violent Attacks at Western Wall

Whilst many Orthodox Jewish women do not feel themselves excluded from traditional services, we must respect the right to religious freedom of all our sisters. This includes our Orthodox sisters’ right to free autonomous belief and in the same way, the rights of our Jewish sisters from Women of the Wall who are sadly facing such literal barriers to live by their own religious interpretations and fulfil their own spiritual needs.

Given my background, I know all too well the reality of these women: I too share their struggle.

Despite God being our egalitarian Creator, in my own Muslim community we are fighting an ongoing battle against gender-exclusive forms of Islam, and the import of culturally-engrained misogyny and non-egalitarian interpretations of Islam which seek to control, moderate and exclude Muslim women. So, whilst I may be Muslim, the struggle of the Women of the Wall translates into my world too.

Meanwhile, here in the UK, the misogyny that continues to entrench itself into our religious community translates to often inadequate, overly obscured or even absent female prayer spaces and the glaringly obvious gender imbalance on mosque boards. 

As a Muslim woman, I tire of being renegaded to significantly smaller (in some cases even cramped) prayer spaces on another floor, of being left sat behind a screen to hear the words of another male and of hearing the cries of children sat with their mothers as mosques continue to lack adequate childcare faciltiies.

At one local Islamic centre, I was in fact left shocked to discover that the ritual ablution facilities provided for women were so poor that I was unable to wash before one Friday congregational prayer.

Whilst this last example is certainly not the norm, it nonetheless left me feeling shocked, disappointed and that as a woman, I was somewhat of an inconvenient "afterthought." Whilst here in the UK, there are new spaces being built (including some specifically for women), and whilst more men typically frequent mosques on Fridays due to religious obligations, "men-only" mosques sadly do still exist and, among women such as myself, so too does a sense of emotional and spiritual fatigue.  

Muslim women sit ahead of the first Friday prayers during the month of Ramadan at Diyanet Center of America in Lanham, Maryland, U.S., May 10, 2019
\ AMR ALFIKY/ REUTERS

However, the struggles don’t end in the UK either. Similarly, our Palestinian sisters, only 28km away from Jerusalem, in Hebron, are fighting against conservative religious "norms" and calling for more liberal possibilities within Islamic societies. Starting with the call for mixed participation in sports, these Palestinian women are risking their reputations and putting their lives on the line in the process.

Even the most conservative Muslim, basing themselves on strict theological grounds, cannot deny women’s right to these sacred spaces and for our own voices to be heard. The history of Islam strongly backs our position.

However, as a religious community, many in my faith community have forgotten the authentic, egalitarian principles of Islam and refuse to countenance the need for reform in 21st century society. As a whole, our community is in fact, more often than not failing to even recognize that there is a wide diversity of belief and practice within it - never mind embracing it.

With a severe lack of female scholarship within the contemporary Muslim world, the reality is that we too have an ongoing debate on religious leadership.

Can a Muslim woman really be a fully-fledged imam? Well, one groundbreaking imamah (female imam), Sherin Khankan is leading the way with her work – yet her (former) husband forced her to choose between her title and vocation, and her marriage.

Now the founder of the Mariam Mosque in Copenhagen which leads women-only prayers on Friday, it’s clear to see where Sherin knew where to draw the line and where not to compromise. Yet why should this line even exist?

In the survey of U.S. Muslims, 34% report experiencing gender-based discrimination from within their faith community – a number twice as high as that reported by Jewish women. In fact, as many as 41% of Muslim women say they’ve experienced gender discrimination at the hands of other Muslims to some degree.  

The same survey also shows another point of convergence between Jews and Muslims: Jews, at 55%, are the faith group most likely to view feminists positively. A full 47% of Muslim women also support feminism. These figures therefore highlight another area of crucial commonality between the two faith groups.

However as a feminist and a woman of faith, I still find these figures shockingly low, given that feminism is about supporting women’s right to self-expression, inclusion and equality. With the lack of gender inclusivity in some faith-based settings, we must greater encorporate women’s voices, experiences, needs and views into the conversation.

Nonetheless, given the fact that there is also insufficient dialogue around spiritual diversity, equality and inclusion in feminist circles, these results are perhaps therefore not as surprising as they may first appear.

Every faith community is constituted of a wide variety of interpretations, practices, traditions and beliefs. None of those - from the conservative to the progressive - should be stigmatized. Yet the rights of men and women - of all faiths and none - to express themselves freely should be universally recognized and fulfilled, without fear of exclusion, stigma, verbal abuse and physical violence.

Muslims guarding the doors at New York's Congregation Beit Simchat Torah #ShowUpForShabbat services remembering Pittsburgh shooting attack victims, November 2, 2018.
Gili Getz

When we talk about equal opportunities, about fighting discrimination, we should also include spiritual wellbeing in the equation. Yet, sadly, this is a factor that’s rarely raised and debated.

As women, how often are our spiritual needs recognized in the fight for gender equality? How often do we hear the stories of women battling to reclaim space within their own religious communities? How often do we celebrate women who’ve forged more egalitarian spaces within their communities or simply spoken out?

This is a fight for women of faith, and it is a fight that Muslim and Jewish women can engage in not only for the sake of their own faith community but in offering solidarity and support to the other.

As two different faith groups, our struggles may manifest themselves differently with different pressures and risks both within and outside our own communities, however: the fight is one.

Despite the tensions from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is so often present in Jewish-Muslim encounters, there is other common ground. The battle of the Women of the Wall, of Palestinian women in Hebron or Muslim women in the UK, is a battle for all of us religiously-engaged women.

This is the theme I explore in my own poetry:

I am a woman.

I’m equal in worth – that is true,

Equal in dignity and rights as you.

But when I can simply just be me,

Then – and only then – will I be the woman you don’t see.

Barukh Atah Adonai, Rabb al-‘Alameen poke'akh ivrim: ihdina as-Sirat al-Mustaqeem.

Blessed are you Lord, Lord of The Worlds who opens the eyes of the blind: guide us to The Straight Path.*

It is a different kind of struggle for rights and dialogue, differing from conventional conversations around freedom of speech, assembly and representation with which we’re familiar, and it's necessarily sensitive ground.

Just as Muslim and Jewish women have stood together for the rights of migrants and refugees, against racism and terrorism, and for a just and fair society, we too deserve a space for activism for our own inner, religious lives - and its outward expression.

Elizabeth Arif-Fear is an award-winning writer and activist in the fields of human rights, child marriage, Muslim-Jewish relations, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. She is the founder and editor of Voice of Salam, an international human rights and interfaith platform. Arif-Fear is the author of "What If It Were You?" - a poetry collection calling for spiritual equality and the rights of all women. Twitter: @Voice_Of_Salam 

* Morning Blessings, The Koren Sacks Weekday Siddur; Surah al-Fatihah, Qur'an, 1:2,5