Reflections on “Gender & Religion” – By Irtefa Binte-Farid

There was a good distribution of male-to-female ratio in the Gender and Religion Committee at this year’s Muslim Jewish Conference. As a first-time chair, I thought it was due to careful planning and placement, such matters not being left to the unpredictable nature of interest shown by the participants. In fact, I was worried that people would have been placed in our committee just to fill the “gender quota”and that I’d have to deal with unhappy/uncooperative participants, particularly of the male variety. Most guys I know don’t like to talk about gender issues—it is usually delegated to the world of females. Soon after meeting our participants, however, I began to change my mind.

For the first couple of sessions, we focused on getting to know our committee members through personal stories and boundary breakers. I was surprised at the diversity of religious backgrounds and life experiences in such a small group! Just to provide a snapshot, the group included a Sudanese woman who had grown up in Saudi Arabia, a Russian Jewess who didn’t realize she was Jewish for a while, a white Muslim convert whose grandfather had survived the Mauthausen concentration camp, as well as two people who didn’t define themselves as either Muslim or Jewish; there were some Muslims who had never met any Jews and some Jews who had never met any Muslims. It was the dream team.

Together, we worked to deconstruct stereotypes—even ones we hold about our own community. What most of us came away with was this: even when expected, negative labels still hurt. Following this activity, we asked the participants to reflect on times they enjoyed embodying their religious and gendered identity and times they didn’t—i.e. when they enjoyed being a Muslim man/Jewish woman, etc. What was interesting about this group, particularly the men, is that most of them broke down the categories, insisting that their privileges mostly stem from being male whereas the difficulties came from their religious identities. This brought us into discussion about issues of male privilege, patriarchy, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. Along the way, we got into discussions about the attacks in Gaza when, during one of the exercises, a Muslim woman mentioned the stereotypes she held regarding Israeli soldiers and the sister of an IDF soldier spoke up. The atmosphere was tense but respectful; both women began with “this is what I see on TV, on my Facebook newsfeed, on all forms of media I have access to day in and day out—what do you expect me to believe?”and ended by listening to the other’s stories.

I thought things were going great! We had discussed the “elephant in the room,”the participants had shed some tears and shared some hugs—what more could we want? It was then that the guys in my group who approached me about getting more seriously into topics about gender. One participant from Belgium told me, “I’m tired of talking about Gaza—I care about it deeply on a personal level, but I didn’t come to this conference to talk about ‘the conflict’. I came to learn about gender in Judaism and Islam, so let’s talk about gender!”I was surprised to say the least, but my co-chair and I followed their cues and let them set the agenda. Suddenly, topics abounded! A Belgian law student asked about veiling and modesty, bringing up his experience dealing with the “burka ban”in Belgium; we went on to deconstruct the idea of modesty itself—not just who is responsible for upholding standards of modesty but asking why set those standards anyway: “Why does it have to come to clothing? Why can’t we as men be better than animals? Not everything has to be about sex.”A German/Israeli man brought up the issue of male feminists as allies and asked what his proper role should be when dealing with Islamic feminists: “Should I speak up against the oppressions I see or should I stay on the sidelines and let women speak for themselves?” A Canadian Muslim participant insisted on knowing what religious backing the Saudi government had for preventing women from driving since he could find no precedence in Islamic history that gave support to their view: “They can’t justify this through religion—it’s ridiculous! We need some female scholars to put an end to this nonsense.”Some of the male participants brought up issues of masculinity—a topic that often gets pushed to the side when talking about gender: a participant spoke about his experience being married to a Jewish woman as a non-Jewish man, while another participant from Pakistan spoke about his experience as a Muslim man in post 9/11 America. A Viennese/Palestinian participant spoke about his expectations of fatherhood and how it plays into his understanding of the conflict in Gaza. I was floored by the depth of their analysis and their honesty.

But just as the momentum built up, we ran out of time. I continue to wonder whether we should have spent less time on the introductory sessions and gotten into gender a bit earlier, just so we could cover some more of the topics that were raised. However, when we asked the participants what they would have preferred, most of them said that those introductions allowed them to form bonds and share more personal details during the later sessions: “I would not have shared that story if I hadn’t heard the rest of you speak and gotten to know you a bit better.”

I truly believe that one of the main reasons why the quality of our discussions surpassed all expectations is because we had gotten to know one another as people and had been able to set the standard for listening to each other. As a group, we argued about the social construction of gender, whether God has a gender and how it affects ideas of religious authority, and how to live harmoniously with our gendered differences. I personally don’t feel like we got to “wrap up”the conversation, and I am not sure if I could have had we had the time!

But for me, some of the take-away points of MJC2014 are as follows:

  • Showing people that you respect them—not because they earned it but just because they are human—makes it easier to communicate;
  • Once you create an atmosphere of respect, people automatically become more willing to listen to one another;
  • Sharing personal stories, though it may appear to be a bohemian exercise, is one of the most powerful ways to break down barriers; they allow us to see the complexities and nuances of other lives and complicate the flat portrayals we see on TV;
  • Many young people today WANT to communicate—they do not want to perpetuate the status quo of fear, mistrust, and hatred that we have inherited;
  • People still struggle with the idea of feminism within a religious context, but more people from within the religion(s) are calling for feminist reinterpretations of accepted texts and are waiting for increased female scholarship;
  • My own prejudices regarding men and feminism was shattered by the group of male participants I had the honor of befriending. They, along with other young men, do not consider “gender”to be a female issue; instead, they consider misogyny a societal problem that requires all of our attentions, and as such, they claim their rightful place next to women in the fight against gender inequality because they recognize it affects them as much as it does their female counterparts.

Irtefa Binte-Farid

Muslim Jewish Conference 2014