The Burke Connection, a local Northern Virginian newspaper featured on its front page Rumi Forum’s Abrahamic discussion titled, Women of Faith’s Contribution to Society: Role Models from History. In this event, the Rumi Forum presented three religions’ takes on women in faith and society. 

By Tim Peterson 

May 15, 2017

Across faiths and spanning generations, women have contributed to societies in different ways. But on May 3 at a panel discussion held at Temple B’nai Shalom synagogue in Fairfax Station, one of the goals was finding common threads.

Senior Rabbi Amy Perlin offered an introductory thought to the evening encouraging participants to “seek out in our hearts that which unites us.”

The forum brought together Rev. Meg Peery McLaughlin, co-pastor of Burke Presbyterian Church; Riham Osman, communications coordinator for the Muslim Public Affairs Council; and Temple B’nai Shalom’s Rabbi Laura Rappaport.

RUMI FORUM for Interfaith Dialogue and Intercultural Understanding put on the event. Rumi’s president Emre Çelik said they wanted to “bring everyone together and discover our concern.”

Before a full room of mostly women, representatives of a variety of religions, Peery McLaughlin spoke first.

The pastor used the anecdote of Jo Ann Robinson, the much lesser-known social activist who she said sat behind Rosa Parks at that fateful time when Parks demanded to sit in the front of the bus.

Robinson’s work to draft and distribute a letter of protest and set up a women’s bus boycott was an example of “God quietly working.” But working nonetheless.

Referencing examples from Islam, Peery McLaughlin said, “we can all tell stories of how women were relegated to silent work.

“God is not tied up into specific ways of working,” she said. Christian women, she said, have shaped history, playing within the rules of silence.

Riham Osman explained a little about her work, how she was not a religious leader like the other two panelists, but someone who spent most of her day on social media tracking and countering negative stereotypes about Muslims, as well as highlighting positive ones.

But Osman said she, like most Muslims, grew up with stories of strong women in the faith including Asiya the Pharoah’s wife during the time of Moses, who hid her monotheistic beliefs from her husband, and Khadijah, first wife of the prophet Muhammad, who Osman said was an impressive businesswoman hiring men to work along trade routes.

“Today we can see more Muslim women going into corporate America,” Osman said, which can still be linked back to the example set by Khadijah.

Learning from original Quran text, though, is an ongoing challenge and controversy, Osman said, due to translations that are both numerous and vary in content.

Rabbi Rappaport’s anecdotes largely followed the previous pair’s in terms of women in the faith leading in different ways than men.

Esther, the Jewish queen of the King of Persia Ahasuerus, also hid her religion from her husband, Rappaport said. The rabbi explained how Esther had a plan to save the Jewish Persians, but not like a “big, splashy military hero.”

FOLLOWING THE PRESENTATIONS was a question-and-answer session with the audience. Burke resident and B’nai Shalom member Jim Sturim brought up some of the gender pronoun updates being made as part of reform Judaism, and asked what similar changes might be ongoing in Christianity and Islam.

Peery McLaughlin said she had previously used the “she” pronoun when preaching for Pentacost and many people loved it, but added (somewhat jokingly) that the real controversy comes out when it comes to modifying the song hymnals.

Osman said there haven’t been sex-based changes to prayer services, but that in the Muslim community there is a movement of believers out of the mosques because they’re not finding the relevance in practice and teaching that they’re looking for. Osman called the movement “un-mosquing.”

But rather than abandon practicing the faith, Osman said these people are finding “third spaces,” gathering places where people feel they can be themselves and feel connections.

The conversation moved beyond gender to questions about the three faiths themselves. One participant asked how the different communities are counseling people around elections, and another about the violence and threats of violence currently being experienced in faith communities.

“It’s hard to get it right,” Peery McLaughlin said. “But it’s a vulnerable and rich time to being doing this work. If we stick to traditions, there’s truth in them. We have something to say.”

Rabbi Rappaport added, “When the ground beneath us is shaking, faith communities are a great place to go. Judaism’s core values… we’ll continue to teach, the dignity of every human being.”

“Those we’ll get people through whatever may come”, she said.

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