Sisterhood in the Pursuit of Peace

I belong to a grassroots organization that brings Muslim & Jewish women together in private spaces and allows us to build long-term relationships through dialogue and shared experiences. The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom is open to any self-identifying Muslim or Jewish woman who wants to engage in ongoing conversation around faith, family, and practical peace. The Sisterhood, which just held its third national conference, has grown exponentially since it was founded in 2010. There are now dozens of chapters across the U.S. Clearly, there is a demand for this kind of engagement.

Shortly after the conference I saw a post on Facebook where a man was questioning the need for a women’s organization to make peace. He said we couldn’t really be interested in peace if we are excluding the male half of the human race in our efforts. While I can’t speak for the founders of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, I think there’s a pretty good reason why Muslim & Jewish women need an organization for peacemaking among themselves.

For centuries men have led in the public, while women have devoted ourselves to the work of nurturing our families, cultures and tribes from within. Patriarchal religions like Islam and Judaism prescribe roles for women which have historically relegated us to the private sphere.  Women have clung together with little control over the affairs of the societies in which we’ve lived, praying that what happened ‘out there’ in the big, bad world would spare us in our homes, schools, and sacred spaces.

During the 20th & 21st centuries, women’s roles have expanded. We’ve become increasingly empowered to ‘face outward.’ Through the hard work and perseverance of feminists, women have gained more control in politics, academia, religious institutions and business. We are no longer willing to live passively, praying that our leaders — our predominantly male leaders — will keep us, our children and our grandchildren safe from harm. If history and experience has taught us anything it’s that those in power are often all too willing to sacrifice our innocents for their own gain.

Despite the advances feminism has ushered in, the reality is that for Jewish & Muslim women, patriarchal culture still largely governs our faith communities. While there are some ‘progressive’ spaces in Islam and Judaism, many mainstream and orthodox communities maintain strict gender roles where men lead, women follow, and any disruption to the status quo results in women being ostracized.

A couple years ago I had the opportunity to contribute to an anthology titled Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian & Muslim Women on Why We Stay. It was an honor to share my own story, but I found real joy and comfort in reading the stories of so many other women who find themselves struggling in male-dominated religious spaces. Those who would quickly dismiss the impact of male-dominated control in Abrahamic spaces would do well to familiarize themselves with the real, lived experiences of women from across the spectrum of these communities.

In an ideal world, there would be no need for separate spaces where women could lead a movement of peace. But in reality, we are still fighting against internal cultures that tell us we are born to breed for the benefit of powerful men who will send our children off to kill and die when it suits them. We operate within traditions that tell us we are inherently incapable of holding full positions of religious leadership. We operate within communities where women are still blamed for the inappropriate sexual thoughts of men. Where our access to sacred spaces and holy sites are limited simply because of our gender. Where women are considered unclean on the basis of our biology. Where girls are given second best. Where the sound of our voice is considered a distraction from what is holy.

And so, while we patiently work to dismantle the patriarchal constraints that have been used to keep us from being full partners in our communities, we gather together as women.

In our sisterhood, we resist dogma that tells us we are defined by the desires and aspirations of men. We resist hate. We build peace based on a shared vision, and mutual respect. We dare to dream. We tell stories, practice listening, and fortify one another against religious rules that would demand obedience to those who don’t have our best interests at heart.

Why a sisterhood?

Because we’ve done it their way long enough.

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