‘Saving Muslim women’ has been one of the justifications behind military, economic and social interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan and many other countries where women live under Islam.
In May 2014, while I was on an extended retreat, God spoke to me from Exodus 3 about women who live in Islamic contexts: “Cathy, I have heard their cry, I know the burden they are under. I want to bring them out from under that burden, and I am sending you.” It was reiterated recently when, during worship, God gave me a picture. I saw the joy of His people worshipping together, dancing and celebrating, and among them I saw some women wearing hijabs and burkas. But then He pointed me to a well, and huddled beside it was a woman who looked poverty-stricken, broken and afraid, and who was being completely ignored by the worshipping community. As Jesus invited me to see this overlooked woman with His eyes my heart was broken with compassion.
Women worldwide experience many injustices, and for women living under Islam there is further injustice when religion is used to justify these abuses. The facts on maternal mortality, poverty, discrimination in education, violence, killings in the name of honour, female genital mutilation, to name just a few, are terrible. Despite the Millennium Development Goals, CEDAW,1 wars, and NGO projects focussed on women, the situation for women who live under Islam is improving only superficially.
Some recent trends in mission strategies have also seen Muslim women marginalised from the good news. For example, the emphasis on ‘reach the male head of the household and you will reach the community’ has made cultural assumptions that have isolated women, as research indicates that the gospel in Muslim communities rarely crosses the gender divide. As one believer from a Muslim background said, when asked if he had shared the good news with his wife, “Why would I? She is just an illiterate village woman.”
But, within Islam, women are both the greatest keepers of tradition and the most radical voices for change – this makes them important for transformation in the world of Islam. Even extremists have recognised that empowered women are the foundation of stable and resilient communities,2 and have brutally attacked women and their rights. The Church and mission workers must also recognise the importance of the role of women in the spread of the good news.
There are Muslim women who are calling for change. They are creating a space for conversation and action, challenging accepted norms and casting a vision for changed societies. As a Christian I want to join hands with them; I want to add into that conversation the values, example and good news of the kingdom of God so that, like the woman at the well in her encounter with Jesus, these women too might be invited into friendship with Jesus and become agents of transformation in their communities.
I dream of seeing Christian women from Asia and the Arab world becoming part of that call for change, advocates for justice, developing their own contextual theology and challenging the conditions for all women who live under Islam. It is the Gospel, and its embrace of weakness and self-sacrifice, and the power of the Holy Spirit to comfort, transform and heal, that will bring transformation and reconciliation.
This requires a new missiology for inviting women who live under Islam to friendship with Jesus. It needs to be one that connects with their reality, challenges injustice and offers transformation through encounter with Jesus Christ.
Dr Cathy Hine is one of the organisers of the When Women Speak initiative, a pioneering venture that seeks to create a space for women to share and debate their work on Mission, Women and Islam.
Article title is taken from the title of a book by anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod; 1 Convention to Eliminate All forms of Discrimination Against Women; 2 Women are the best weapon in the war against terrorism, http://foreignpolicy.com, 10 February 2015
This article was first published in Interserve NZ’s GO News March 2015.