The valley spirit never dies.
It is the woman, primal mother.
Her gateway is the root of heaven and earth.
It is like a veil rarely seen.
Use it. It will never fail.
- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
If there is one thing we have in common when it comes to faith, it is that we all have a story. Stories of all people are rich in meaning and can be a precious source of understanding other cultures and religions. For many years I have participated in international and interreligious meetings and conferences and discovered the revealing and inspiring power of hearing the stories of people of different faiths. I have a confession: I find it easier to do this at a gathering of women than when men are present. Women are often confronted with and dominated by the rules, ideas, and structures of male-oriented traditions.
I believe there is a fundamental problem in many cultures, including my own, concerning women and boys. Often boys and men are more valued than women and girls. I remember vividly the time when I delivered our second child, another girl. When the nurse put her in my arms, my eyes filled with tears of joy and exhilaration. The nurse, misinterpreting my tears, patted me on the shoulder and said: "Don't worry, dear, next time you'll have a boy!" And this happened in the United States, a supposedly enlightened nation!
This article, "Religion and Women: 'Empower Women - Empower the Future,'" reflects my understanding that these points are interrelated.
In much of the world, girls and women remain second-class citizens. Although many international agreements recognize women's human rights, the facts show that women are much more likely than men to be malnourished, poor, and illiterate and to have less access than men to medical care, property ownership, and economic opportunity. They are also more likely to be victims of violence. Yet, from the very beginning, women all over the world have participated and continue to participate in religion. In all ancient pantheons there are women deities: in Japan, Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess, is the highest Shinto deity. In many cultures women are worshiped as goddesses and priestesses and hailed as great examples of faith. But history shows that women's roles have changed and religions have evolved into a more patriarchal system. Women are continually challenged to fully participate in religious activities that carry the weight of authority.
In many societies and nations in the world, women are denied positive social recognition. Whole societies are organized to keep women as property to be handed down between men and families.
But we must not forget that despite real problems of religious discrimination against women, religions have offered women hope and comfort and some degree of dignity and respect for a few thousand years, often when other avenues to these resources were lacking. Nevertheless, I want to argue that there is a great need for women to organize within religion to act and advocate on behalf of the welfare of women everywhere. Fortunately, many interfaith organizations have responded to this need in the past decades by encouraging full participation of women in decision making.
In addition, many separate religious women's groups have been organized, nationally and internationally. In the global community they are actively engaged in upholding the rights and dignity of women and children; supporting programs that aim to improve women's education, health, and economic opportunity; and combating violence against women and girls, reaching out beyond themselves to bring about universal peace.
I have been privileged to be associated with the oldest international women's organization: the International Association of Liberal Religious Women (IALRW). It celebrated its one hundredth anniversary at a conference in India in September of 2010 with the theme "Women in Action." From the beginning, IALRW women believed that despite different definitions and explanations of faith traditions, there are common threads weaving them together. One of the members, a Muslim woman, calls the IALRW "an organization of the pooling together of hearts," which indeed it is.
It is this pooling of hearts that has guided and continues to guide the women to implement their mission of providing economic and social justice and equality for women. Among the many causes the members of IALRW have supported is a literacy project near Kolkata (Calcutta), and they continue to sustain a literacy project in Ladakh, India (generously supported by members in Japan).
After a visit to Ladakh in 2007, IALRW president Kathy Matsui wrote: "At the centres we visited, the women there reported to us - with excitement - how much they have achieved after studying at the literacy centres. They shared their joyful experience of being able to make phone calls (as they were now able to read numbers) and to do simple arithmetic at the market where they sold their produce. How happy they were to be able to read the Lotus Sutra. Literacy brought them confidence, joy, and understanding."
The IALRW is but one of many women's faith-based organizations in the world. And more and more their voices are being heard, their work of educating and assisting women recognized as essential for the world to live in peace, because to empower women and girls and to improve their well-being is to change the reality and well-being of society.
What is needed now more than ever is to communicate women's experiences and views on religion and faith in international interreligious organizations. What is needed now is to create places where people whose voices are often not heard can participate and know their voices are heard. What is needed is to create more and more places where women and men will work together to respect, protect, and promote women's human rights, and to dream and work together to create a good life for all beings and the earth.
We share a common origin as human beings; we are children of the same creator. We know the world is big enough for all of us. We seek to know each other; we honor and listen to each other's stories.
Johanna Boeke was born and raised in the Netherlands, where she met her husband, Richard Boeke, at a congress of the International Association for Religious Freedom in The Hague in 1964. She is a Unitarian Universalist minister and past president of the International Association of Liberal Religious Women. She and her husband have served churches in the United States and England. They live in the United Kingdom and continue to be active in interfaith organizations.