Oddbjørn Leirvik:

Gender, inter-religious dialogue and personal change

Contribution to a seminar with Ursula King (Universtity of Bristol, from 1998 Guest Professor at the Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo)

on Gender in Inter-Religious Dialogue, Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo, 16.01.99


Ursula King has made the general observation that in interfaith dialogue, women are often invisible, and gender issues are seldom focused upon.

I have tried to look into this from a Norwegian perspective, not a as a defensive measure, but as a fact-finding effort.We don't have an awful lot of experience in interreligious dialogue in this country. Most of the organised efforts that can be cited, are from the nineties. But with regard to women's representation and involvement, I think we can say that we have had a promising start. The first interreligious project ever to be sponsored by the goverment in this country had the title "Communal ethics in a multicultural Norway", and was carried out in 1992-1993. In this project, 56% of the representatives were women, including both of the Muslim representatives. In the second project of the same semi-official character, about "Religion, life stances and human rights in Norway", the percentage of women representatives was lower, but not worse than 38%. As for Christians and Muslims, we have had a national Contact Group since 1993. Between 40 and 50% of the church representatives have been women. It was this Contact Group that initiated a dialogue project "with and without veil" between Christian and Muslim women, aimed at setting an example of how Christian-Muslim dialogue can take shape in multireligious Norway (the result of the project is to be published in 2000).

I am not implying that everything is well in the kingdom of Norway with respect to gender balance and gender sensitivity in inter-religious dialogue, but we could obviously have had a worse beginning. The decisive question is, of course, not that of percentage representation, but whether gender issues are taken seriously in dialogue. As Ursula King has pointed out: the question is first of all whether the contribution of religious communities to the oppression of women is addressed or suppressed in interfaith dialogue.

In the following, I will share some reflections from my own experience of inter-religious dialogue. I will focus upon two questions: the personal dimension of interreligious dialogue, and the possibility of controversial change. I believe that both question are important also to a feminist sensitivity.

As I see it, there at least two different ways into interfaith dialogue. Some dialogues are initiated out of social and political necessity, in order to address pressing issues of interfaith concern like religion in schools, value questions in society, and freedom of religion. Other dialogues have their roots in a deep, spiritual commitment, aiming not only at respectful conversation and a decent politics of religion, but some kind of personal change.

For my own part, I have had the privilege of taking part in both kinds of dialogue. But I would be careful to distinguish too sharply between the official and political level one the one hand, and the personal and spiritual on the other. If you involve yourself in obligating dialogue on social and political issues, personal bonds will often develop. If the process is allowed to have time, you may eventually become as deeply committed to the interests of other believers as to those of your own faith community. I have been changed by this. I realise that when religious or life stance minorities are discriminated against in this society, I sometimes feel personally hurt, although I am myself a part of the majority population. The religiously others have - at least to some extent - become myself as another (cf. Paul Ricoeur: Oneself as Another, 1992). Increasingly, I have come to question the interests and priorities of the cultural and religious majority in this country. I have got different loyalties now.

If we involve ourselves at a personal level, there is always the risk, or the fortunate opportunity, that some change will take place. Anne Hege Grung and Lena Larsen from the "with and without veil"-project have pointed to the change that may take place between women in dialogue. Sometimes I have felt slightly envious of their project, because of the personal, and potentially all-comprehensive nature of a dialogue of this kind. But I think other types of dialogue may also acquire some of the same qualities. Nearly all my experiences from dialogue stems from fora in which men and women have been working side by side, often with a strong personal element in the dialogue. One of the most formative - both joyful and painful - experiences for my part has been a dialogue group initiated by the Emmaus Centre for Dialogue and Spirituality on "Religion, peace and pacifism", in which the personal element rapidly became very strong. Along with a commitment to non-violence, personal witnesses and shared silence was our common ground.

This was in a gender mixed group. The only example I can cite of a men's dialogue is a current dialgoue group between Christians and Buddhists in Oslo, which was also initiated by the Emmaus centre. The personal element is strong here too. But as yet, we haven't really come to terms with the implications of being men in dialogue, in search of men's spirituality. I hope we will be able to pursue that point. What about my primary field of work Christian-Muslim dialogue, in this respect? I think my option will be continued work in gender-mixed contexts. Maybe Christian-Muslim men's groups would be a good idea too. But I must admit that I am reluctant to enter into a dialogue that reflects the segregated character of most Muslim community life. That is also the other side of the coin in a Christian-Muslim women's dialogue. I think the necessary premise for my part, if I should give priority to a Christian-Muslim men's group, would be openness to some kind of change ...

My final remark regards the question of the minority within the majority. Gender issues, or at least women issues, cut right across other notions of majority and minority. But that is also the case with some other issues, like some of those I have cited. The pacifist stance, or more generally, the will to front politically and religiously motivated violence, cut right across the boundaries of the religious communities. It creates a new kind of bond. The same can happen when concrete issues of social justice are addressed. But most often, it takes a strong element of personal motivation to transcend the boundaries of your cultural or religious affiliation. In many cases, you will have to be converted - not to another religion, but to your neighbour. And your conversion is bound to be a controversial case. A much cited example from the global scene is the experience of Christians and Muslims confronting apartheid in South Africa, as reflected for the Muslims' part in Farid Esack's book The Qur'an, liberation and pluralism. An Islamic perspective on inter-religious solidarity against oppression (1997). Farid Esack reflects critically on the experience that during the struggle against apartheid, both Christians and Muslims were divided within their own camps. Although the Christian dimension of this experience is better known, this was true also of the Muslim community. Those who stood up against apartheid were critised by those who lived relatively comfortably with apartheid, as "Asian" Muslims. It might not be coincidential that among the same Muslims that stood up against apartheid, side by side with black Christians, also other kinds of change has taken place. In Farid Esack's mosque in Cape Town, which I visited last September, a women delivered the first Friday sermon ever to a gender-mixed group in 1995. On that occasion, the women stepped down from the gallery, and they have never returned upstairs. Since then, women and men have prayed side by side. It was controversial. Other, more conservative Muslims were bussed in to confront their subversive practice.

But change is always controversial. It need not be to be in the way I have indicated from the South African context. The ways will be very different, according to context. No one can foresee what kind of change that will eventually come out of - say - Muslim-Christian dialogues in Norway. But I do think that the outcome of any long-lasting, and possibly deep-going dialogue, will always be some kind of change, possibly some kind of "mutual transformation" (cf. John Cobb: Beyond Dialogue. Toward a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism, 1982). To be ready for that, I think you will need conversion, in the sense of readiness for change when faced with the other. In such processes, two things can happen at the same time: you become even more yourself, as a Christian or a Muslim, but at the same time: you may become yourself as another. That would be wonderful, wouldn't it? But you run the risk of finding yourself in no man's land - I mean, in no man's land.