The World Jewish Congress, together with ACT Alliance, Global One, Muslims for Progressive Values, Religions for Peace and the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, hosted a parallel event on the sidelines of the sixty-fifth session of the United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women on The Role of Women in Faith Based Organizations to shine a spotlight on the role of women in faith-based organizations.
Alana Baranov, a member of WJC’s Jewish Diplomatic Corps from South Africa, opened the event focusing on the importance of making a concerted effort to address issues of inequality, adding that the event is an "opportunity to underline our commitment to gender diversity and equality while examining the crucial role of bridge-building across religious and geographical divides in order to address today’s global challenges."
During the opening conversation between rabbi Maya Leibowitz and imam Ani Zonneveld, both women reflected on their respective journeys to becoming religious leaders in a field historically dominated by men. Imam Zonneveld shared that while it wasn’t her initial ambition to become an Imam, she "wanted to create an inclusive community that was welcoming for all Muslims...void of hatred of any sort." Zonneveld added that while she and other female imams are often dismissed, she thanked those male religious leaders who have taken a "very brave stance - putting their lives at risk even - and doing the work with us to advocate for women’s rights and human rights in general."
Rabbi Leibowitz remarked that while she was "raised without any connection to tradition" she had a natural desire to go to shul on Yom Kippur. Leibowitz added that one day she was watching television when a woman Rabbi appeared on the screen, thus sparking the revolutionary idea of women rabbis and spiritual leaders. Leibowitz concluded her opening remarks by lamenting the lack of recognition of the Reform and Conservative denominations, adding it is time for women to "participate in [Judaism], not watch it."
Zonneveld also noted that she spells her title imam with a lowercase "i" to "flatten the hierarchy as much as she can because there is no hierarchical structure in the Koran."
"It's important to take what we learn from the sacred text into practice and advocate for rights." Rabbi Leibowitz advised younger girls to "one: study. two: dare to change.... encourage other girls to become leaders…don't look into the past but look into the future and ...insist on freedom of choice.”
The conversation was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Déborah Lichentin, a member of WJC’s Jewish Diplomatic Corps based in France, which focused on the future of women leadership in faith-based organizations, as well as reflecting on the importance of maintaining a strong connection to ones’ religion.
Global One CEO Dr. Husna Ahmad OBE, opened her remarks, saying, “As a believer I know that I have been placed on this earth for a purpose and my Creator loves and cherishes me.” Ahmad added that while she sometimes feels excluded, her faith makes her continue to go forward, adding, “faith is a powerful global tool that can be used to inspire, mobilize.”
Secretary General of Religions for Peace, Professor Dr. Azza Karam paid special tribute to the WJC, saying, “WJC absolutely shines through with their willingness to partner with other organizations with other faith organizations, in addition to secular organizations.” Karam noted this “shouldn’t be taken for granted” and working with other faith organizations “truly distinguishes how we live our faith - are we only concerned about people from our own faith communities? Or are we actually concerned about the well-being of all, which is what all religions call for?” Karam lamented that more organizations have not worked together, especially in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that if we don’t join forces in the fight against antisemitism and Islamophobia “we are in trouble.” Karam concluded her remarks talking about “the responsibility to serve, and to serve without distinction to faith, ethnicity or gender.”
WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps member Amichai Wise opened his remarks saying that women’s rights “is a human rights issue, it's not only a women’s issue.” Wise, who is from Canada, added that it's “natural that gender diversity is something any organization has to pursue.” Later, he reflected on his two young daughters, saying their optimism inspired him “to get involved and take on the issue.”
Rounding out the discussion, ACT Alliance Gender Programme Manager Reverend Dr. Elaine Neuenfeldt noted that to “find a woman as a role model is sometimes very difficult.” Neuenfeldt added that it is also crucial to have contemporary women role models “who are modeling, reshaping our own way of teaching, learning, understanding the sacred text.” She talked about the importance of justice and solidarity, explaining that “when justice and solidarity work together, we can overcome all obstacles that are coming are way.”