In Jerusalem, in November 2008, Nofrat Frankel, an Israeli woman at the Kotel, Wailing Wall, was detained by police for wearing a “talit,” a prayer shawl, and for carrying a Torah, an offense punishable, if prosecuted, by six months in jail and a fine of about $3,000. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews believe women should not wear yarmulkes and prayer shawls — or even that they should carry the Torah.
In Washington, D.C., at All Souls Unitarian Church, in November 2010, Pamela Taylor, a female imam, led a congregation of 50 men, women and children, all side-by-side, in prayer, and delivered the khutbah, sermon, in observance of Eid Al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice that marks the end of the annual Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca. It was an act of devotion and faith in clear defiance of the prevailing Islamic tradition that believes only men can lead prayer, although that contention is not fully supported by scripture.
In the United States, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization that represents most U.S. nuns, has been attacked by the Vatican for making statements that “disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals” and for having advocated “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
In response, Rev. Doug Koesel, pastor of Blessed Trinity Church in Cleveland wrote in his church bulletin, “The problem with the Vatican approach is that it places the nuns squarely on the side of Jesus and the Vatican on the side of tired old men.”
A Sister of Mercy, Margaret Farley, who was professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University Divinity School, who published, “Just Love/A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics” in 2006, has been told her book posed “grave harm” to the faithful by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
” … on the side of tired old men.”
God’s embrace provides warmth in a place of comfort and security, a feeling of belonging in a place that beckons us. Shelter in the crook of an arm.
Grace is gender neutral.
Love is gender neutral.
“VERILY, for all men and women who have surrendered themselves unto God, and all believing men and believing women, and all truly devout men and truly devout women, and all men and women who are true to their word, and all men and women who are patient in adversity, and all men and women who humble themselves [before God], and all men and women who give in charity, and all self-denying men and self-denying women,  and all men and women who are mindful of their chastity,  and all men and women who remember God unceasingly: for [all of] them has God readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward.” — Quran 33:35 (Asad)
Globally, the problem is that reality for women does not match the ideals we espouse as fair and socially just. Values embraced both in Scripture and in the Enlightenment are denied women on a daily basis.
Values espoused in constitutions and declarations of independence ring hollow in communities where oppression and exploitation are daily occurrences.
Why should women have to fight for equal pay for equal work, for access to reproductive rights and affordable childcare? Why should Muslim women have to fight for education, for autonomy, for the right to drive? Why should women in the Israeli Defense Forces have to fight for the right to sing in military ceremonies and celebrations?
Why should my daughter even have to know that a glass ceiling exists?
Love is a form of worship. Prayer is an expression of love embracing beauty and social justice.
To the tired old men in mosques, synagogues and churches, observance is about power more than about prayer, law more than justice, fikh (law) more than Sharia.
It’s about patriarchy.
It is about fear. Fear about the possibility of women “arousing instincts” during prayer. Fear of lust being aroused by hearing a woman sing.
Fear of the scent of a woman.
Imam Pamela Taylor says, “By segregating [men and women during prayer], you sexualize the area in ways that it wouldn’t be sexualized if the area was mixed.”
The basis of the fears, the basis of the misogyny, is unseen by the tired old men. They cannot acknowledge that because only men have been engaged, over centuries, in the exegetical process then it makes sense that the exegetical results of their doctrinal studies would result in the disenfranchisement of women.
Power, to these patriarchs, is a zero sum game: If women get authority, then men lose authority. They are unable to realize that men and women, together, as a family, as a community, interact and create synergistically. They are unable to realize that our world, our lives, would be fuller and more just by embracing a gender-neutral approach to God.
The patriarchal failure to acknowledge the cultural, political and historical influences that may have distorted their understanding of their Scripture and the examples of their prophets is disheartening.
What Rev. Doug Koesel wrote in defense of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious can equally apply to all struggles with authorities that appear distant and increasingly irrelevant in their lives:
“It is the last gasp for control by a dying breed, wrapped in its own self-importance. It is a struggle for the very nature of the church; who we are, how we pray, where we live, who belongs, why we believe.”
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.