Women in Middle Eastern Societies and Churches

By Mikhael, Mary | The Ecumenical Review, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Women in Middle Eastern Societies and Churches


Mikhael, Mary, The Ecumenical Review


When we talk about a living Christian faith in the Middle East, or anywhere for that matter, this refers to a biblical and theological understanding of our identity as people who belong to the church that considers Jesus Christ its Lord and king. Someone has described the church as a community where God is worshipped and where God also is a participant in the life of that community. Thus, the basic question becomes, does God participate in the life of the church of the Middle East? Regretfully, the church in the Middle East suffers from the same social and political pressures under which the whole society falls.

We are accustomed to marginalize and push women's issues to the corner when the discussion deals with big questions such as the political ones with which we are struggling for over half century, or the situation of the Christians in general. As we all know, women's issues are not separate from all other human issues, be these political, religious, or societal. They are at the heart of all human rights together.

Naturally I am deeply concerned about women in the churches of the Middle East. However, speaking about Christian women's place in the church, while neglecting the situation of women in general and how the religious, political and societal issues affect them, would be presenting an incomplete picture. I cannot claim to comprehend fully the political situation, which is complicated beyond description, causing the outbreak of violence, the spread of oppression, and disrespect for human rights. I can only shout "justice and righteousness!" and hear the echo in the wilderness. Sometimes I personally feel like a voice crying in the wilderness as religions seem to draw the road map for women's lives.

About two years ago the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a conference in Vienna to which some sixty Middle Eastern women were invited (both Christian and Muslim and also some Jewish). The aim was to listen to Middle Eastern women speak of their issues--their participation or lack of participation in dialogue regarding matters of society and religion, so that the ministry could carry their aspirations to a meeting of the Arab League which was to take place later in Cairo. Surely all of us were extremely grateful to the Austrian Ministry. However, we were deeply saddened that the initiative was not taken by the Arab League itself. When the meeting in Cairo took place, as far as I know, none of us were invited.

A Syrian woman once described women of the Middle East as "women in struggle over which they have no control, and victims of violence they have not initiated .... Women's issues [are] the conflagration point in Islam." This is an expression of one Muslim woman, but surely she represents the majority of Middle Eastern women.

The Political and Social Situation

Unfortunately in the Middle East, struggle and violence have become our trademark, affecting not only women but the whole society. It is almost impossible to understand the politics of the Middle East without accounting for its geography, history, society, and religions.

Ironically, our geography contains the so-called "Promised Land" (call it the Holy Land), and has a great pool of oil (call it a land with material blessings). Moreover, it is the cradle of the three monotheistic religions (call it the dwelling place of the divine). All the above could, in fact, have made a beautiful mosaic and an ideal part of the world, where justice and righteousness prevail.

What has happened is that this promised land has been prevented from becoming a land of promise, a holy land. And having a pool of oil made it easy to explode, even with a small match. Being the cradle of the three monotheistic religions, instead of becoming a land of hymns and psalms, it has become a place where more guns have sounded than in any other land in the world.

Surely the place of women in Middle East societies is affected by Islamic principles much more than by Christian principles, because Christians are in the minority. …

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