by Sophie Katz
Sometimes it can seem unclear what role feminism plays in religion, especially since the media often portrays organized religion as staunchly patriarchal and oppressive. Here at the University of Iowa Feminist Union, we decided to learn more about the nature of the connection between feminism and major US religions by holding an event we called the Faith & Feminism Panel.
We had four panelists speak to our room of attendees: Dorothy Whiston, a Baptist pastor; Sonja Spear, the principal of the local Jewish religious school; April Barnhart, a Quaker seminarian; and Mariam el-Hattab, a Muslim UI student. Each panelist gave a short presentation about their experiences as women in their respective religions and the official or in-practice stance that their faiths take regarding the role of women. Then we opened the floor for anyone to ask questions of the panelists or the room at large, which consisted of a mixture of genders and faiths.
The discussion we had that night was incredible. The panelists’ stories were very moving and the attendees asked insightful, thought-provoking questions. Most importantly, everyone learned a lot. (A fact that stands out in my memory is that Muslim women, despite what the media would have you think, aren’t forced to wear the hijab; it’s a personal choice! I’m glad to know better now.) By the end of the night, we’d discovered one uniting truth between everyone there, regardless of gender or religion: we all believed that women’s voices play an important role in the world.
If you want to hold your own Faith & Feminism panel – which I highly recommend – here are a few tips to get you started:
- Reach out to members of your community. Ask feminists you know about the religious organizations they attend; they’ll be able to put you in contact with potential panelists. You could also call or email local churches, synagogues, mosques, etc. and see if they’re interested. Chances are, they will be!
- Try to get panelists from a variety of religions if possible. More opinions will make for a richer, more educational discussion! Let each panelist have an equal chance to present their religion’s stance on feminism and to answer questions from the attendees.
- Location! We had our Faith & Feminism panel at the Hillel House on campus. An on-campus location will be convenient for students to attend, but if you want an audience from the greater community, choose a different public place. Ask your panelists if their religious organization wouldn’t mind hosting the event.
- Keep an open mind! This event is all about learning new things, discussing the differences between ways of life, and finding the commonalities that we all share. A friendly environment fosters good discussion; make sure that everyone feels like they’re in a safe space to talk. I know this might seem like it goes without saying, but religion is a touchy subject, and doubtless there will be people attending your event who have felt the harsh end of the oppressive-religion stick.