When I blogged on Women Only Communities I mentioned a paper I was intending to read on the place of women in Muslim societies. The author uses both her experiences of living in the Middle East for 20 years and scholarship to ask how understanding this might help in the evangelism and discipleship of women of Muslim background. As I read it, I wondered whether western women have a great deal to learn here as well.
Rites of passage
While it’s true that a Muslim man’s role is more public and women are primarily responsible for the home, this gives women more power than we may realise. These include important life transitions such as birth, circumcision, marriage and marriage negotiations, sickness and death. For example, the women of the community can attend a birth and often congratulate the mother and see the baby before the father even gets a look in. Similarly, while women are also involved in negotiating marriages, it is also the mother of the bride who visits the couple the morning after the consummation of their marriage.
Admittedly, some of this is women’s work because it would make the men unclean and thus unable to pray or attend the mosque. In that sense, it sounds like marginalisation, getting women to do the ‘dirty work’. However, the author of this paper argues that these roles actually give women power. Muslim women are less ‘on the margins’ and more ‘at the boundaries’, guarding life stages and transitions from one to the next.
These roles aren’t at all glamorous: from anointing a corpse to breast feeding to examining a girl’s virginity, it’s pretty messy. They’re also not overtly religious. However, the author suggests that in such messiness we encounter God. She says, “the positioning of women in the bodily experiences of life, of rites of passage, means that sometimes women have been in the place where they are able to hear the new thing that God is doing.” She cites examples like the first recognition of the incarnate Lord in the meeting of two pregnant women or the women who came to anoint Jesus’ body and were the first evangelists of his resurrection.
Muslim women do have overtly religious gatherings as well. They gather together to prepare meals, for example, reading or reciting from the Qu’ran as they do so. There’s a strong link between the religious and the ordinary here: for example, having the Qu’ran read at your house brings blessing, compensation for your hospitality. These gatherings have a number of functions: community (since family relations can sometimes be weak); a chance to get out of the house; opportunities to develop gifts of leadership; accessing God’s blessing in daily life (since their involvement in official religious space is more marginal). These gatherings don’t just maintain cultural norms: they are dynamic, contributing to and challenging them as well.
Considering these observations, the author makes several suggestions about how to reach women of Muslim background. If this is how they ‘tick’, how can we interact with them on this level? However, I wondered whether there is something more universal to these experiences and whether the same principles might help in the evangelism of western women.
The author notes that for many Muslim women, these women communities are their main source of community and love, since their marriages can be distant or difficult. I’d think that western marriages are stereotypically different, since we have such a strong romantic emphasis. However, I also hear lots of lonely women who feel ‘stuck at home’ while their husbands work long hours and are emotionally unavailable to them. Our church runs several play groups throughout the week. I’ve never been but from what I hear the mums saying, it sounds like a great space for women to get out of their houses and to be with one another. They also provides the opportunity for leadership. One question, then, is how to integrate faith into this doing of life together. The author asks, “How can we incorporate stories of faith and life into such gatherings, so that the women can see how their own stories can be linked to the great narrative of God’s redeeming work in Christ?”
This is an issue, not just of evangelism but also of discipleship. Western women may not bake bread or sort broad beans as some Middle Eastern women do but many nevertheless feel both the messiness and the monotony of cooking, breast feeding, washing clothes, toilet training, healing, etc. The author asks how we think about ritual. Do we need to appropriate biblical symbols of oil, water, bread and wine? Can we sanctify such ordinary things to help women draw on God’s protection and power? What liturgy might give meaning to mundane?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.