March 8 is International Women’s Day, part of the celebration of March as Women’s History Month. This week’s clergy discuss the contributions women have made in their faith traditions, in contemporary times and in their own congregations.
The Rev. Paul Downing
Pastor, St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church, Port Jefferson Station
If I were to answer that my wife is among the most important women in my faith tradition, you might think I was pandering. Yet, the important women in our tradition are indeed those in church on Sunday making worship, ministry and community happen.
An adage says, “This is our grandmother’s faith.” The majority of active participants are women and thankfully, in our Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, women now have access to any and all leadership roles. This year we commemorate 50 years since the first women’s ordination, and 40 years for women of color, though more progress in equality of opportunity is needed. Our current national bishop is a woman.
The importance of women of faith goes all the way back through Hebrew biblical witness, including the likes of Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Esther, Naomi, Ruth and Rahab, to New Testament figures like Mary Magdalene (the Apostle to the Apostles), Mary and Martha of Bethany, Elisabeth, Mary the mother of Jesus, Tabitha, Lydia, Priscilla and Phoebe.
Although Scripture is written in the language of patriarchy, women are there, in between the lines, going unnamed yet providing examples of faith and leadership, or providing for ministry. Brave widows and maidens refusing to marry in a time when women were considered incapable of managing wealth, supported the early church out of their own means, even the ministry of Jesus himself.
Anu Jain of Jericho
Executive board member, Jain Center of America in Elmhurst, Queens
In Jain tradition, there are many women who played an important role in the history of Jainism. Among them are the 16 Satis, the 16 Great Virtuous Women. These women had a very strong history of braveness, tolerance and fighting in their own way without harming anyone. Jains define these Satis in ways that invoke the ideology of a woman’s fidelity and moral strength. Trishla, the mother of our religion’s reviver and reorganizer, Lord Mahavira, visualized 14 such dreams that allowed her to give birth to the Lord Mahavira.
Another example is the nun Mahasati Chandanbala, who played an important role in Lord Mahavira’s path of spiritual enlightenment and moksha, the transcendent state attained as a result of the release from the cycle of rebirth. The Satis set an example for the thousands of Jain women who follow their path toward spiritual enlightenment.
Modern families are teaching moral lessons to their children by reciting the exemplary life stories of the Great Virtuous Women. Jains believe that by thinking about these women during meditation and including their principles in day-to-day life, they can achieve a successful day and a prominent place in society. The Satis are truly a strong pillar of Jainism.
Isma H. Chaudhry
Board of trustees chair, Islamic Center of Long Island, Westbury
In Islamic teachings, women and men are created with the same spiritual nature and are equally responsible for their actions, and thus they can expect the same reward for their righteous behavior.
From an Islamic perspective, the roles of men and women are complementary and cooperative rather than competitive. Some of the inspiring women in Islam are academics, scholars, entrepreneurs and businesswomen, dating as far back as the inception of Islam in the seventh century. The Quran declares that men and women are equal in the eyes of God; “men and women were created to be equal parts of a pair.” (51:49)
There are 24 females mentioned in the Quran that serve as role models of moral and social strength, including Elizabeth, wife of Zakariya. There is a chapter in the Quran that talks about the righteousness and challenges faced by Mary, the essence of virtue, mother of Prophet Jesus. Hawaa’ (Eve) is a symbol of equality, Umm-Musa (the Mother of Moses), exemplifies the nurturing spirit. Bilqis (Queen of Sheba), is a wise leader.
Islam also recognizes women’s roles in business and the sciences. Khadija, Prophet Muhammad’s wife, was the CEO of her own company; Umm Hani Maryam, was a theologian and a scholar. In 859 AD, Fatima al-Fihri founded a university in Morocco. The 19th and 20th centuries have seen numerous noteworthy and famous female Muslim scientists, leaders and heads of state.
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