Divine Law or Sexism? Women play key roles in religious communities, but some faiths aren't comfortable letting them lead. Three religious leaders talk about the evolving role of women in their respective faith traditions.
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Divine Law or Sexism?

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Divine Law or Sexism?

Divine Law or Sexism?

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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Today, we continue our monthlong religion series with a look at women and faith. Women play key roles in religious communities around the world, but some faiths don't let them take the pulpit or key leadership positions. Is this divine law or the legacy of sexism?

For more, we've got members of different faiths. Rabbi Capers Funnye is chief rabbi of Beth Shalom Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago. Also, we've got Bonnie Hunter. She's pastor of the Friendship Church Outreach Ministries in Capitol Heights, Maryland, and Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, an author, publisher and lecturer on Islam in America. Thank you, guys.

Ms. PRECIOUS RASHEEDA MUHAMMAD (Author; Publisher; Lecturer, Islam in America): Thank you for having us.

Rabbi CAPERS FUNNYE (Chief Rabbi, Beth Shalom Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation): Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: So, I'm actually going to start with you, Rabbi. I want to know your congregation allows women to actively participate in the Torah services. But can they be ordained as rabbis?

Rabbi FUNNYE: Prior to this year, no, women were not ordained in the Black Jewish movement as rabbis. But this year, the academy was opened up to women. And I'm happy to report that here in Chicago, we have our first female candidate who's a freshman in our rabbinic institution, the Israelite Board of Rabbis Institute.

CHIDEYA: Now, you're associated with a group that actually tries to bring black people into the Jewish experience. Tell us a little bit more about that.

Rabbi FUNNYE: Well, I work with the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco. And we work together to make Judaism more welcoming for, not only African Americans, but all people that are interested in spiritual journeys. And we want them to know that Judaism is open to that journey for them to come in and to examine and to experience life in a synagogue. And so our work is really just not aimed at African-Americans but at all people who are on spiritual journeys looking for alternatives in their faith communities.

CHIDEYA: Precious, I'll turn to you. There's a stereotype of Islam that women are treated as second-class citizens. What do you say to that?

Ms. MUHAMMAD: I say to that, that's not true. Islam does not oppress women. However, there's a difference between Islam, the religion, and what Muslims may practice, that may be a misapplication of Islam or a misunderstanding of Islam due to ignorance of their religion or other reasons. And the Prophet Mohammed -may prayers and peace be upon him - in his last sermon, he told Muslims to treat women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and are committed helpers.

He is also known to have said that the rights of women are sacred and that we should see that they are maintained. So, Islam demands that women and men be spiritual and moral equals and that their relationship is mutually complementary and that they be equally responsible for developing public good and that women are the full sisters of men but we have to acknowledge that yes, there are Muslims who oppress other Muslims and who oppress women.

But if they understand their religion and they study their religion, then they should know that this is not something that is not acceptable in Islam. And we have many examples of women as leaders throughout the history of Islam to stand as a testament to that.

CHIDEYA: So Pastor Hunter, you are, obviously, as pastor, someone with the leadership position. Friendship Church Outreach Ministries in Maryland, your church is small and growing. How did it evolved and how did the idea of a female pastor come to be acceptable or integral to your community?

Dr. BONNIE HUNTER (Pastor, Friendship Church Outreach Ministries, Maryland): Well, when I started out, I came from a organization that did not believe in women preachers. So it was very difficult for me to step into this role. I was told it was okay to teach or to sing and to do the lay work, but when it came to getting any position of authority, it was not accepted.

So, when I got the call from God, at that very time, my pastor was being dealt with by God with regard to women preaching. And so he began to allow me to do certain things in the ministry and begin to get a different perspective. But at that time, God was calling me to preach the gospel as well as pastor church. It was a very personal call that I could not fight.

And as I accepted the call, I stepped out against all odds, and I became independent because my organization did not embrace it. So I stepped out with 10 members. And now, we have well over 600 members and still growing. But it's been very difficult. Now, I'm in the same organization that would not accept women pastors. I am the first licensed woman pastor. And last year, I was appointed as a district elder, meaning overseeing of the churches. So we thank God for progress.

CHIDEYA: Especially in your role as a district elder, have you ever found some people just don't want to listen to you because you are a woman?

Dr. HUNTER: No. It's unbelievable, which I thought that I was going to have that difficulty. It seems as if, as we stay humble before the Lord, he fights our battles. So when I do have a voice, people are listening. I don't have a lot of bashing. I haven't had been and I thank God that he just didn't allow me to go through that. But I do sense some uncomfortability from some male counterparts.

CHIDEYA: Now that we know a little bit more about the traditions that all of you come from, where do you think each of your traditions is going? Is it becoming more acceptable for women to take leadership positions that are front and center, not just behind the scenes because in many churches, mosques, synagogues, there are women who work behind the scenes but they don't get a chance to really come up and be part of the worship service? I'm going to start with you, Precious.

Ms. MUHAMMAD: Yes. I think that's true. Muslim women, speaking specifically on America, are becoming much more, you know, in the public scene, although there's been a lot of participation. There is actually a real movement of women. I know that Woman in Islam, this organization called Woman in Islam, who helped to put out a book and a pamphlet. It's called "Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers." And they're working and - the whole purpose is working together to reclaim our heritage.

So then, I think we are creating something new. They're saying this is our heritage as Muslim women to be fully involved in the mosque and all of the full participation of the community. Like in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, women were in the mosques, women were full participants. They were in the main prayer hall with the men. The only time they were separated was during the prayer. They were able to debate with the - all of the community members were able to influence the different decisions that were made in the community.

So this pamphlet, which has been, you know, endorsed by several leading Muslim communities - organizations in United States is saying, look, we are reclaiming our heritage. This is - and it explicitly explains, you know, what is our heritage as Muslims and what is our stance on women and gender and our relationships in terms of women and gender, and the women with the children, the girls and the boys. Everyone should be involved in the community life, and this was the way that it was in time of the prophet. So instead of saying, we're creating something new, we're saying, we're going back and reclaiming, you know, our heritage.

And then, I should also say, though, that there have - especially in African-American community - there have been women who are very involved in community life. We have the International League of Muslim Women, which is one of the, I think, one of the largest organization in the world that was of Muslim women, who was started by African-American Muslim women in Detroit. The Sisters United for Human Services in Atlanta are very involved in community life. Yafith Elamin(ph), African-American woman, at 31 or 32, I think became the first black female state senator in the United States.

My first-grade teacher in Boston when I used to attend Sister Clara Muhammad School, actually, helped to found that school. So you have a lot of participation of women, Zakia Mahasa, one of the first Muslim women in the court system in the United States…

CHIDEYA: Let me…


CHIDEYA: Let me get Rabbi Funnye in here. Are you, in your faith, feeling like Precious does that there is a return to women being part of worship, or is this really something new?

Rabbi FUNNYE: Well, this is really for the black Jewish experience, it have - women have always been involved, but they are moving very rapidly to the forefront. And our congregation in Chicago, we have had women that have served as president of the congregation, our current vice president is a woman.

Several years ago, we began doing bat mitzvah. The word bat is daughter, and mitzvah is commandment. This is a ceremony when young girls come to read from the Sefer Torah, which is the five scrolls of the first five books of the Bible. And they read and they also give their own sermon so that our congregation, our community has been moving to open up these venues and avenues of prayer for women in our congregation. And this is also happening throughout the black Jewish movement as a whole.

CHIDEYA: I want to take the chance to reintroduce ourselves and our topic.

You're listening to NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

We're talking about women and faith. We were just listening to Rabbi Capers Funnye, chief rabbi of Beth Shalom Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago. We've also got Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, author, publisher and lecturer on Islam in America and Bonnie Hunter, pastor of the Friendship Church Outreach Ministries in Capitol Heights, Maryland.

Pastor Hunter, again the question, are you moving back to an original state where women were part of a Christian worship in the front or are you breaking new ground?

Dr. HUNTER: I believe that we're breaking new ground because I was listening to the others. And yes, I was in that same arena where we could do a sermon and that was okay. But the struggle or the challenge is taking the lead role over men and women. And that's a move that's going to be - is breaking barriers and traditions of men. I'm over men and women, and I just thank God that he's just moving women forward in leadership and authority, and is still remaining a woman and not changing the way we are but using us as vessels to get his job done in a hurry.

CHIDEYA: This is a different line of questioning but, obviously, in our time and in much of history, different faiths have not always allied themselves with each other. Do women in particular have a stake in trying to create interfaith communities or do you think this is something that happens in general? I'll go back to you, Pastor Hunter. How do you relate to other faiths? Does your church do any outreach or any conversations with other faiths in your area?

Dr. HUNTER: Yes, we do embrace other faiths. I just believe God is tearing down the, quote/unquote, "religion." And we are all the people of God. We may have some differences but we do have common ground to agree on. And so I don't come with a debate but we come with the communality and we embrace one another and lift one another up for the common call to lift up God's love in the earth.

CHIDEYA: Rabbi, do you ever get a little bit of static, like, what are you doing creating a black Jewish experience where there are conversions as well as some sort of people who are born into the faith? Why are you moving away from the black Christian experience or even the black Muslim experience? What are you doing?

Rabbi FUNNYE: Well, we've considered that Judaism was also one of the faiths of the indigenous African folks that we a part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. So Ethiopia nurtured Judaism, Islam and Christianity simultaneously when Islam was first being formulated in the 7th century. Many of Muhammad's followers, the prophet's followers escaped to Ethiopia for refuge. And there, along with Judaism and Christianity, Islam flourished and there were no wars between the faiths there.

And here in Chicago, we have mosques all around our synagogue wherein the demographics has changed dramatically over the years. As a matter of fact, two years ago during the month of Ramadan, I opened up our synagogue and invited several of our Muslim - my Muslim colleagues to come in. They offered the Iftar prayer. And after the Iftar prayer - this is the prayer that the Muslims pray right before they break the fast of Ramadan - and then we had a sheik from Egypt who was one of our speakers. We had orthodox black Muslims that were here with us - two imams - and they also spoke, and I spoke as well.

So we are working to create an environment where we are able to grow beyond religious labels. I think that to face the problems that we're facing in our culture and society today, we must be able to work in interfaith groups - with Muslims, with Christians and with Hindus. And it doesn't matter to me, as long as people are serious and they're principled and they're interested in making the conditions better in the various communities that we live, I'm willing to work.

CHIDEYA: Precious, have you found, at least in your community of Islam, people willing to make the same kind of outreach?

Ms. MUHAMMAD: Yes, definitely, especially being African-American Muslim, I was born a Muslim but a lot of - actually most African-American Muslims in the United States have a good majority of their family are Christian, so we already start out working with our community.

And in Chicago - I was born in Chicago actually - the Inner-city Muslim Action Network is very involved there. And that's an organization that is - was co-founded by Muslims of different ethnic backgrounds, but they work in the inner city doing a lot of things for the community in terms of prison terms, in terms of housing, free medical clinics and things like that.

Rabbi FUNNYE: I worked with IMAN very close, Precious. Imam and Rami Nashashibi…

Ms. MUHAMMAD: Rami Nashashibi. Yes.

Rabbi FUNNYE: …is a very good friend of mine. So we work hand in hand…

Ms. MUHAMMAD: Definitely.

Rabbi FUNNYE: …in working in our community. We're located not even a mile away from IMAN's main headquarters now and their free clinic.

Ms. MUHAMMAD: Right. And they just had, a couple of weeks ago, a huge Taking It Back to the Streets…

Rabbi FUNNYE: Taking It to the Streets, I was one of the speakers along with Imam (unintelligible) Muhammed. We shared the stage together.

Ms. MUHAMMAD: project. Yes. I was there, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MUHAMMAD: And that - it takes place in the same park where Martin Luther King marched, you know, in the '60s and was hit in the head by white - white protesters who didn't want to see the community integrated. So - and then you have also in the African - well, Women in Islam organization founded by Aisha al-Adawiya out of New York. That's an organization that deals with human rights and social justice and not just for Muslim women.

Again - and again International League of Muslim Women, one of the large organizations in the world of Muslim women, was founded by African-Americans out of Detroit, and that again is an organization that deals with community. You know, they help with housing, domestic abuse. The Sisters United in Human Services out in Atlanta.

CHIDEYA: Precious…

Ms. MUHAMMAD: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

CHIDEYA: Oh, no. Unfortunately, we're out of time but I just want to thank all three of you for joining us.

Ms. MUHAMMAD: Thank you very much.

Dr. HUNTER: Thank you for having us.

Rabbi FUNNYE: Thank you very much for having me.

Ms. MUHAMMAD: Peace be unto you.

CHIDEYA: Thank you.

Rabbi FUNNYE: And (unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: Rabbi Capers Funnye, chief rabbi of Beth Shalom Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, from our NPR headquarters in Washington; Bonnie Hunter, pastor of Friendship Church Outreach Ministries in Capitol Heights, Maryland; and Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, author, publisher and lecturer on Islam in America. She's based in Newport News, Virginia.

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