Women, Faith and Peace-Building

From invisibility to inspiration: the power of story

Rev. Heather Griffin, a Seeking Common Ground Panel Member, shares her presentation from the 2018 Parliament of World Religions on Women, Faith and Peacebuilding.

Thank you to the Parliament for giving me the opportunity to speak.

Thank you too for your attendance here. I am passionate about making our stories visible and an inspiration to others, and I’m sure you are too. And what wonderful opportunities to hear and share stories, we’ve had over the last few days….

Our main focus over the next 40 minutes or so, is not the story of power but the POWER OF STORY

So let me begin with a story.

This story is repeated in countless, and usually unheralded ways, in many times and places. This particular version happened in Melbourne, Australia. I want to clarify that Australia is a country where hold ups are more likely to be carried out using knives, not guns. That’s an important distinction to make for the story that follows.

Two women, Maria and Bella, both Russian Jews as it turned out, but not well known to one another, were standing in a queue waiting for coffee. Their chat turned to an experience one of them had had recently.

Bella and a group of her relatives and friends, including several young kids (her grandchildren) went to a Chinese restaurant to mark some kind of occasion. Not long into the evening, with the kids playing on one side of the restaurant and the adults easing their way into a meal on the other, men in balaclavas came in wielding knives and ordered all the patrons to get under the tables.

Most people in the restaurant obliged. Bella’s table, on the other hand, did not. Their children were on the opposite side of the restaurant, playing by the door, cut off from the adults. So it was all primal instincts from there. The entire table went into the counterassault mode. They ran across the restaurant tables and threw themselves on the men in the balaclavas. Some people from one of the other tables joined in. The burglars were overwhelmed and had to flee.

[Maria] asked who it was that had run towards the intruders. Bella said everyone at her table had. Did someone at the table lead the charge? No. Did you exchange glances, did you communicate. Did you agree tacitly on the course of action? No, there was no time.

There was no need. We all just went for it, completely spontaneously…

Bella.. had this to say “I have worked all week, I am exhausted, there is no way I am getting under the table. It’s my day off”. And, most enjoyably “What haven’t I seen under the table? What great attraction is there for me?”

Maria explains:I thanked Bella, you should have seen me… She was already walking away when she turned around and said “Promise me you’ll never get under the table.”[1]

Promise me you’ll never get under the table

Maria wasn’t talking about false bravado or plain stupidity. What she was talking about was our reaction when there are vulnerable people in danger.

Similar stories can be found in cultures around the globe!

Sometimes we tell and retell the stories, and sometimes we don’t.


Why do certain stories become so prominent in the public imagination, while others are almost invisible? Why do stories of war capture our attention whilst the incredible bravery of people working through difficult and dangerous situations to build a just peace, mostly do not?

Why do women peace-builders inspired by their religious faith, so rarely become household names? Perhaps it relates to certain thinking within Western feminism that blames religions for the entrenched patriarchal dominance in many of our societies, and therefore to put the two issues of women peace-builders and religion in one package is seen as somewhat of an anathema.

However, there are many women peace-builders whose great insight and strength are undergirded by the solid foundations of their various faith traditions. These women continue to work for peace and justice from within their religious and geopolitical circumstances. Many of them have experienced first-hand the results of sectarian and sexist discrimination and violence, and have chosen to use their understandings and the practices of their own faith traditions in and beyond their own native lands to work for a better world.

I became fascinated with the stories of such women and several years ago began to collect material (as far as possible autobiographical material) to look for common themes which permeate their work.

Their work is remarkable.

For a number, it has led to their receiving various peace awards including, for several, the Nobel Peace Prize.

And I kept asking myself , why haven’t I heard these stories before?

These stories present women in powerful ways. And they present the very best of what religious adherence has to offer the world.

Why aren’t we shouting them from the rooftops?

After all, as Georgetown University researchers, Susan Hayward and Katherine Marshall, have pointed out:

“All religions contain moral imperatives to support peace…


Religious understandings of peace often encompass social justice and reconciliation which can inspire and help shape individual and community commitments to peace by promoting hospitality, respect for other faith communities, justice and human rights, healing, forgiveness and individual growth. When such values are framed within religious teachings that hold meaning to local communities, they are more likely to resonate and spur transformations in attitude and behaviour.”

Hayward and Marshall conclude that:

Contemporary narratives of war and peace feature women who work for peace inspired by their faith only rarely; they are largely invisible. The deeply ingrained marginalization of women in many societies and religious traditions colours the way history is recorded and contemporary affairs understood.

… Mainstream [academic] research on peace that focuses on women’s roles … has largely ignored or downplayed the spiritual and faith dimensions of their peace building work.

… The common failure to focus on or even see the dimensions of peace-building work that engages women inspired by religious beliefs is somewhat surprising. Gender inclusivity and religious sensitivity are increasingly seen as essential elements to building just, resilient, pluralistic and positive societies for all women and men and the two concepts are related in intricate ways.

The more I read stories of such women, the more certain aspects of their lives became apparent. Anecdotal evidence is that many of these women shared the following characteristics. They:

  1. were, in general, brought up in homes where boys and girls were treated equally – they grew up with confidence
  2. had access to education – they were very articulate
  3. had deep a personal faith/conviction. Their own experience of religion within their families was positive.
  4. had experienced sectarian violence either personally or within their immediate family
  5. had seen, within their own societies, the ways in which religion can be commandeered by those seeking power and control.

For we women who have had at least some of these experiences, we have, I believe, an added responsibility to speak with and for our sisters who are struggling to find their voices.

Today I am using just a few of the stories I’ve collected of remarkable women peace-builders from a variety of faith traditions.

And with these, I can only use small sections of those stories, sections that will illustrate my points.

Each of the women… continues to hold a strong faith in God…

God for each one of them is a God of justice and equality, for women and for men, for people of faith and people of no faith, a God for whom justice cuts across cultural norms and traditions.

Karen Armstrong would name their starting point as a belief in their religion’s version of the Golden Rule — in Christian terms this is phrased as “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). There are no qualifiers to this rule. It applies equally to all.

Today I am using three women as examples, two of whom are quite high profile women, and yet, for the most part, their stories are completely unknown to Australian women.

From their writings and talks I have extracted quotes that illustrate my points. And I have chosen, where possible, to use their own words.

These women are:

  • Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi (Muslim)
  • Former Irish President Mary MacAleese (Christian)
  • Australian peace-builder Heather Abramson (Jewish)

Time does not permit me to do any sort of justice to their stories and their use does not mean I agree with every word they have spoken, nor should it. I strongly recommend that you read the rest of their stories at another time, to see the full scope of the lives of these remarkable women.

The choice of these stories has been influenced in part by availability. I have some stories of women of other faiths but I would like to collect many more. And if at all possible, I would like to collect autobiographical material.

Do you have other stories to share?

There will be a little time at the end of this presentation. Also please feel free to email me with your stories, your insights.

Shirin Ebadi is an Iranian Muslim lawyer noted for her human rights work in Iran.

In 2004, she was listed by Forbes magazine as one of the “100 most powerful women in the world”.

And yet, as I have said, if I mention her name in Australia, most people will say “Who’s that?”

Shirin Ebadi studied law in Tehran and came top of her cohort. She became a judge in Iran in 1969 at the age of 23. However, after the 1979 revolution she and other women were demoted to clerical positions.

She has worked tirelessly for rights of the disadvantage in Iranian society, especially of women and children, and after 1992 when women were again allowed to practice law, though not hold positions as judges, she became known for taking pro bono cases for dissident figures who had had charges brought against them.

Regarding her upbringing, she has this to say:

Throughout most of my childhood years… I never observed that our household was special. It didnt strike me as exceptional that my parents did not treat my brother differently from their daughters. It seemed perfectly natural, and I assumed everyone elses families were the same. They most certainly were not. In most Iranian households, male children enjoy an exalted status. They often felt themselves at the centre of the familys orbit. In Iranian culture, it was considered natural for fathers to love their sons more; the sons were the repository for the family’s future ambitions; affection for a son was an investment. It was not until I was much older that I realised how gender equality was impressed on me first and foremost at home, by example. It was only when I surveyed my own sense of place in the world from an adult perspective that I saw how my upbringing spared me from the low self-esteem and learned dependence that I observed in women reared in more traditional homes. My fathers championing of my independence, from the play yard to my later decision to become a judge, instilled a confidence in me that I never felt consciously, but later came to regard as my most valued inheritance. (pp11-12)

Shirin’s personal faith journey began with an experience in her early teenage years, and I quote:

My mothers poor health was the backdrop of our lives, and I constantly feared her death

Each night I entreated God to keep her alive until my little brother and sister grew up.

One day I crept up to the attic to make a quiet appeal to God.

Please, please keep my mother alive, I prayed, so I can stay in school. Suddenly an indescribable feeling overtook me, starting in my stomach and spreading to my fingertips. In that stirring, I felt as though God was answering me. My sadness evaporated, and a strange euphoria shot through my heart. Since that moment, my faith in God has been unshakable. Before that day I only said my prayers by rote, because I had been taught to say them. But after that moment in the attic, I began to recite them with true belief. It is hard to describe the awakening of spirituality, just as it is difficult to explain to someone who has never fallen in love the emotional contours of that experience. My attic revelation reminds me of a line from a Persian poem. Oh you, the stricken one/Love comes to you, it is not learned.

Shirin was part of a household for whom education of both sons and daughters was paramount:

My father, a long time supporter of the ousted prime minister,[Mohammad Mosaddegh] was forced out of his job. Before the coup [in 1953] he had advanced to become deputy minister of agriculture. For years after it, he languished in lower posts, and he was never appointed at senior level again..[2]

Convinced that one destroyed career was enough for any family, he insisted we should attend excellent universities and serve the country as technocrats. (pp13 and 14)

Three separate quotes from her book “Iran Awakening” display Shirin’s insights into the use and misuse of religion in her beloved Iran.

Quote 1

We lived with daily examples of even prominent grand ayatollahs who had been defrocked (unheard of in Shia Islam) or placed under house arrest for speaking out against executions and harsh forms of criminal punishment, such as chopping off hands. If the system was willing to disgrace and effectively imprison distinguished senior theologians who had participated actively in the revolution why should it hesitate for a moment in punishing me, a non-revolutionary, a non cleric, and, as a woman, a nonperson?

Quote 2 comes from her time as a defence lawyer when she was taking on cases pro-bono for disadvantaged people:

.. the judge repeatedly accused me of speaking against Islam and its sacred laws. In the politico-religious world-view of such traditionalists, a person who challenges Islam is easily seen as an apostate. And the power of interpretation the power to differentiate between a respectful criticism of a worldly law and an attack on a holy tenet was in their hands. I was fighting on their battlefield.[3]

Quote 3 sums up well her overall position on the relationship

between religion and the law of the land

I believe.. in the secular separation of religion and government because, fundamentally, Islam, like any religion, is subject to interpretation. It can be interpreted to oppress women or interpreted to liberate them. In an ideal world I would choose not to be vulnerable to the caprice of interpretation, because the ambiguity of theological debates spirals back to the seventh century; there will never be a definitive resolution, as that is the nature of Islamic interpretation, a debate that will grow and evolve with the ages but never be resolved. p122

We have simply touched on certain aspects here of the personal story of a remarkable woman. Should you choose to read her autobiography, I’m sure you’ll find, like I do, that you simply can’t put it down. What a story! What a life!

We turn now to a very different story, a very different life.

Mary McAleese is a Catholic Christian lawyer and former Irish President who, during her presidency, worked tirelessly for peace between Catholic and Protestant factions in Ireland.

She used her time as President (1997-2011) to address issues concerning justice, social equality, social inclusion, antisectarianism and reconciliation. She described the theme of her Presidency as “Building Bridges”. Examples of this bridge-building are her attempts to reach out to the unionist community in Northern Ireland and in her invitation to the British Queen Elizabeth to visit Ireland.

She is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders and was ranked the 64th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes, 2010.

Home Life and “The Troubles”

The childhood of Mary Leneghan as she was then, was lived out in an area of Belfast, Ireland, which was at the heart of “The Troubles”. As Catholics living in a Protestant area, the family grew up with the children of the neighbourhood as friends. However, that didn’t prevent their house being riddled with bullets one night, Mary’s brother being severely beaten by a group of youths, and Mary’s father’s pub being blasted and burnt down. One young woman injured by the blast died in Mary’s father’s arms, an event that had a major impact on his own well-being, Mary says:

Growing up in circumstances where religion and perceived political affiliation were such significant markers had an effect on the Leneghan children that continues to this day. We had been stretched by the experience of living in mixed, even predominantly Protestant communities but were aways aware that we were outsiders.

Influences on Education

In using the following story, I wish in no way to cast aspersions on my Catholic brothers and sisters. Rather, I ask you to take this rather humorous story as an example of what many of us have seen in one form or another, in our various religions. Believe me I’ve seen things like this in my own church.

Mary shares this regarding her educational ambitions:

On the day that I for the very first time spoke out loud my ambition to become a lawyer, the first to say you cannot because you are a woman and because no one belonging to you is in the law, was the Dublin born parish priest who weekly shared a whiskey or three with my father. It was said with the kind of dismissive authority which is intended to silence protest or debate. The owner of superior knowledge, of real certitude had spoken and that was that. Now my mother had inculcated in her nine children a respect for the priesthood bordering on awe. I watched therefore in amazement as the chair was pulled out from under the cleric and he was propelled to the front door by my mother before the bottle of baby Powers had even been uncorked. You, she said to him, out, andYou, she said to me, Ignore the ouleejit.

I have taken that advice ever since.

That was the only advice on careers I ever received from either of my parents.[4]

Of her faith, Mary says:

.. prayer has been a significant component of my life since childhood. In seeking to mature in prayer, I had stumbled my way into meditation and was surprised to find [in John Main] not only a fellow lawyer but one who had taught in the same law school and trodden the same cobblestonesThe overlapping of lives was intriguing, though not particularly unusual or remarkable. What was reassuring was to know that another career lawyer, a teacher like me, had lived a parallel inner life of the spirit which had ultimately become the focus of his entire being, relegating everything else to the margins. Here was a man whose own life was replete with dips and valleys, highs and lows, as well as changes of direction he ultimately found it, not in a place or institution, but in his own inner being. And when he found it there was the joy of recognition and the surge of energy as his talents fused in the service of the mission he embarked on. It is the same journey to God we are all stumbling through, one way or anotherthe agenda of being reconciled to God[5].

On sectarian violence

Mary, in her search for meaning, was also inspired by the story of Brian Keenan, who had been held captive and chained to another human being for 12 months in Lebanon.

When talking of religious violence, and using examples of certain 20th century conflicts, Mary McAleese quotes Brian Keenan’s understanding of the religious perspectives of those involved.

Somehowthe task of reconciling unionist and nationalist seems an almost manageable task by comparison with the task of reconciling the Catholic God with the Protestant God, the Allah of Islam with the God of Israel, [***the Hutu God with the Tutsi God], the Serbian God with the Croat God, the God of White racism with the God of Black Oppression. Politics might eventually lead to pragmatics and pragmatics to compromise, at least that is the hope. But Gods who compromise are in short supply globally. These Gods make powerful enemies as well as fiercely loyal friends. They know their own and their own know themMake no mistake about it these Gods hate, with an intensity so fierce it can combust into a [genocide].[6]6

Mary continues:

One of the reasons why I draw on Brian Keenans story is that having carried on his back the chaos of a fragmented sectarian homeland in Belfast and the baggage of a fractured sectarian adopted homeland in Lebanon he ultimately reconciles their respective competing Gods in his belief in the triumph of love.

These small mean petty Gods are small mean petty men dressed up in what they imagine is Gods clothing, but even in their meanness and smallness the God of all envelops them in meaning and envelops them in love.[7]

Foundational verse – God reconciling

All this has been the work of God. He has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and enlisted us to this ministry of reconciliation. (1 Cor 5:18)

As my third example, I am using the story of someone who is not a famous lawyer or politician, someone who has not published her own autobiography, but rather, someone who has become a personal friend through our work together in various interfaith organisations in my home town of Brisbane, Australia.

For those of us, most of us, who are not going to win Nobel Peace Prizes or become presidents of our various countries, Heather Abramson’s story is one we can take to heart, one that is within the reach of many women like us.

Heather is an Australian Jew who currently resides in Brisbane.

She was born in Melbourne to a Jewish father of German heritage and a Jewish mother of English heritage.

Father’s German heritage

Heather’s father was born in Germany, and was still living there in 1938 when the terrible events of Krystallnacht took place.

Heather’s father and uncle were severely beaten, that night, and taken to Buchenwald Concentration Camp. The Nazi’s however, made a deal with them. They would be given them visas to England in exchange for them teaching the Nazis how to operate the family owned printing press. And the Nazis kept their word.

The brothers were able to get to England. However, after the outbreak of WW2 and the events of Dunkirk, the British became very nervous. They rounded up all people of German origin and shipped them, under rather horrific conditions, to Canada and Australia. Heather’s father was sent to a POW camp [near Hay] in Australia. Her grandparents and aunt remained in Germany and eventually lost their lives to the Nazis.

Mother’s English heritage

Heather’s mother was born in London. Her grandfather was a tailor.

Her grandmother had been raised in a family where the most talented of the children were sent to university regardless of gender.

So grandmother was one of the first women to receive a degree from the University of Edinburgh which, since she was a woman, the university called a “Lady of Letters”. She went on to become a teacher in the Jews Free School in London. Later in her life, having migrated with her husband and young family to Australia, she wanted to go back to teaching but was denied on two grounds

  • she was married and
  • she was overqualified.

Heather’s mother was unable to access such education because she grew up during the Great Depression, but she always told Heather “Don’t feel you can’t do things because you are a girl. Girls can do anything.”

Pop Leach

Heather grew up in Black Rock, a Melbourne bayside suburb. She was the only Jew in her class. Religious instruction (RI) is a part of state education in Australia. It is provided by local volunteers, both clergy and lay people. In those days of the so called “White Australia” policy, nearly all children were at least nominally Christian and so that was the religious instruction provided. When Heather’s older brothers started school, their mother told them to ask the RI teacher to be excused from religious education. As a consequence, the family received a visit from the religious education teacher who was the local congregationalist minister, to inquire as to why the children weren’t to do RI. In the discussion that ensued, a friendship was forged that became so solid that Pastor Leach was invited, and for 30 years attended, the family’s Friday evening Shabbat dinner. The children all called him “Pop” and he became a surrogate grandfather to them. This was Heather’s first encounter with interfaith work.

Interfaith work in Brisbane

Heathers family also attended a synagogue which had a strong emphasis on interfaith work. As a result, and in spite of the horrific abuse suffered by her father’s family, Heather has always had a deep heart for, and very active participation in Interfaith work. Today, in Brisbane, she is secretary of Believing Women for a Culture of Peace, a member of the Queensland Forum for Jews, Christians and Muslims and actively involved in developing a sense of community between people of different faith perspectives in Brisbane.

In these three examples we have only scratched the surface of amazing, and for the most part hidden stories.

What are we missing out on? What is the world missing out on?

Women and Faith – yes, our various faith traditions tell these stories.

There are many remarkable women in each one of our faith traditions.

Women and Peacebuilding – yes the world acknowledges the importance of women’s involvement here. There is much discussion (although not always action!) on the importance of women’s involvement in peace-making efforts and ongoing peace building.

See UN resolution 1325) 8

The Security Council adopted resolution (S/RES/1325) on women and peace 8 and security on 31October 2000. The resolution reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. Resolution 1325 urges all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts. It also calls on all parties to conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in situations of armed conflict. The resolution provides a number of important operational mandates, with implications for Member States and the entities of the United Nations system.

BUT – Women, faith and peace building? Where are the stories?

Hardly ever are these three topics talked about together.


Telling the positive stories of women of faith presents role models for our daughters and granddaughters, and for the community at large. We in the west are bombarded, it would seem, with negative images of people of faith. In Australia, people of faith make news headlines for such things as pedophilia, acts of extremism…and politicising topics that are dear to Australians’ hearts!! The line “religion is the cause of all wars” although patently not true, is common in everyday discourse. Rarely do the headlines carry inspirational stories of people of faith – women of faith in particular.

How can we counter this? Telling the stories of religion at its best in our own communities, and particularly telling the stories of women of faith who are peacebuilders, are surely ways of enabling the friendship and respect we so desire between different groups.

As I have said, not many of us are going to become Nobel peace laureates. But ultimately it’s the grass roots movements that get the message across. So, start from where you are!!

Chai Community

One final story (of many!) of some women who did, and then I’m going to hand over to you.

On the Gold Coast in Australia several years ago, the local Muslims submitted plans to the Council to build a mosque. There was a terrible backlash from numbers of people in the community. In response, several young Muslim women from the Gold Coast went to Australia’s Anti-Discrimination Commission to talk with staff there about ways of breaking down barriers.

Out of this discussion was born a group called Chai community (Chai/tea – sitting down together over a cuppa). They invited women from a variety of faiths on the Gold Coast to join. What they do is very simple. They meet at a coffee shop in a local mall. They try to dress in ways that make their individual faith perspectives very obvious. And they make sure that they are visible to passersby.

And they share friendship, they have fun together! That’s all it takes!

“Never get under the table”

And this is where I’d like to conclude – by asking you, members of the audience, to share with us your ideas and suggestions of the variety of ways the telling of stories involving women, faith and peace-building, is both happening and also could happen in your particular communities.

We won’t have time for everyone to speak, but I would be delighted if you would take the time to email me the stories that are of most significance to you. As I said previously, the stories I tell are dictated by what material I manage to come across, so please help.

Over to you!

Some Suggestions

  • Build memorials to great women of a variety of faiths, thereby
  • promoting positive gender images and positive religious images.
  • Build peace memorials.
  • Here are some ideas for we ordinary folk:
    • Give away inspiring autobiographies whenever an opportunity arises – to all the readers every time a significant event comes around in you family or circle of friends.
    • Consciously gather as women of a variety of faiths (and wearing obvious signs of that) for coffee in a public place – Chai community
    • Start or join local movements – in Brisbane Believing Women for a Culture of Peace
    • For those of you with gifts in the arts – make documentaries, movies, paint pictures, write stories that can be passed on. Don’t despair with for the slow grinding publishing process – get going on blogs, Facebook pages and so on.
    • Lobby your local government agencies for statues showing women of faith doing great things, for peace memorials, street names…We are only limited by our imagination.

[1] Maria Tumarkin, Courage, Melbourne University Press, 2007, pp1-2.

[2] Ebadi, op.cit., p13

[3] Ebadi, op.cit., p 118

[4] 4 McAleese, Mary, “Coping with a Christ who does not want women priests almost as much as Hewants Ulster to remain British” Article published on the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Researchwebsite Women can be priests. www.womenpriests.org>mcaleese2

[5] McAleese, M., Reconciled being: Love in Chaos, Medio Media, 1997, p 11

[6] McAleese, op.cit., pp15-16

[7] McAleese, op.cit., p 22