Cover Story

The Future of Faith is Female – Religion and Peace in the Name of Women

Guest contribution by Danja Bergmann, Independent Consultant and Policy Advisor on Sustainable Development Cooperation

Religion barely appears as feature of women’s empowerment. Rather it seems that religions are traditional bastions of men, limiting the role of women across cultures and histories. Yet no single religious institution would survive without women serving and sustaining its service. In January 2020, for the first time in history, Pope Francis appointed a female lawyer, Francesca di Giovanni, as undersecretary for multilateral affairs and thus tapped the first woman to hold a management position in the Vatican’s most powerful office, the Secretariat of State. Only very few women hold important ranks in Vatican offices. According to di Giovanni, her appointment shows Pope Francis’ attention to women and matches with his repeated assertion, that women have particular aptitudes as peace-makers, mediators and healers. The Pope’s gender-sensitive decision was rewarded with applause from many commentators. However, the enthusiasm for such a nomination also shows how deeply inequalities are rooted in the leadership structures of the Roman Catholic Church, while more than half of the members of the Catholic Church are women.

In spring last year, a group of women in the city of Münster, a bastion of German Catholicism, initiated Maria 2.0, as grassroots women movement calling for ordination of women and for shedding full light on the cases of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, which were being discovered in Germany since 2010[1]. In October 2019, activists from the Women’s Ordination Worldwide (WoW) group protested in Rome, calling for lifting the ban on female priesthood in order to save the church where it is failing to ordain enough men. In the foreseeable future, the chance of priesthood being opened to women is unlikely. But various activities and movements around the globe reflect the deeply rooted discontent by growing numbers of Catholics.

Over the last decades, not only policy makers but also religious leaders recognized the need to address the role of women and gender inequalities. Faith leaders who can shape values have a crucial role to play in ending gender inequality. In August 2019, the world’s largest interreligious NGO, Religions for Peace International elected a female Muslim professional as new Secretary-General. Azza Karam, senior advisor on social and cultural development at the United Nations Populations Fund and Professor at the University of Amsterdam, is now the first woman Secretary-General at the World Conference of Religions for Peace since its founding in 1970. A female leadership for the oldest and most representative multi-faith organization is a significant step towards a more female future in the world of faith.

In an interview, Azza Karam describes her new role as one of serving faith leaders in their role as faith healers and aims to convene faith leaders in the service of the common good. Through spiritual qualities such as mercy, compassion and love she wants to bring faith leaders together across all differences to celebrate the diversity of faiths. In 2000, Karam founded the first Global Women of Faith Network (GWFN) at Religions for Peace, which gathers since then at local, national, regional and global levels to strengthen female faith traditions through interreligious engagement. Not all the participants of the GWFN are ordained, but they are dedicated to serve their religious communities through voluntary work. The Network acknowledges women’s traditional role in serving the spiritual and practical needs of their communities. It is yet time to put the spotlight on this essential contribution of women within their religious communities all over the world. While women are at the forefront of providing services since centuries, there is still scope for adjustment regarding the distribution of leadership roles in most religions. A Muslim woman leading an organization dedicated to spinning networks of peace between all religions clearly challenges the pattern of patriarchal structures in the world of religions. This is an important step towards mobilizing faith leaders to engage against all forms of discrimination.

In a world where violence is increasingly normalized, evidence on gender-based violence mirrors the widespread notion of harmful form of masculinities. Ultimately, this harms both, women and men. This phenomenon can be addressed by re-reading and re-learning social norms of faith traditions. Women of faith traditions serve as architects and innovators of entire religious narratives. This is space of influence which women providing services in their faith communities can occupy.

Gender inequality will not be ended by signing conventions. Social norms that devalue women need to be changed. Particularly in 2020, when the 64th session on the Commission of the Status of Women will take place in New York - 25 years after the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform or Action - it is of major importance to create spaces to build alliances within and across faiths and secular entities and to transform gender equality deficits into potentials.

[1] “From the Catholic faith’s European heartland, a cry of female protest: Devout Women in the Teutonic world have had enough”; Germany, Gender and Faith, The Economist 13/05/2019.

Religious Literacy Academy


Around 1400 years ago, in the year 610 A.D., the Arabic merchant Mohammed ibn Abdallah climbed a mountain near his hometown Mecca to meditate in the solitude of the desert. There "halfway up" the rock, the archangel Gabriel appeared to him and commanded him to proclaim the faith in the one and only God. At least that is what Mohammed's most important biographer Ibn Ishaqs later tells us, who wrote the Sirat Rasul Allah, the oldest surviving biography of Mohammed less than 150 years after Mohammed's death.

As a missionary, diplomat and conqueror, Mohammed spread Islam on the Arabic Peninsula. Within a few decades after Mohammed's death, his successors carried the new faith through the deserts of North Africa to Spain and in the east to the Indus. In the following centuries, the world religion expanded even further, so that today Muslims live in Near and Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, East Africa, Europe, and the Balkans. Today, there are approximately 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, about 24% of the world’s population.

Photo license: GNU Free Documentation License: GNU_Free_Documentation_License

Islam (literally “submission to God”) is a monotheistic religion. Despite fractions among different Muslim communities, for example the conflict between Sunnis and Shias, the followers are united by the faith one God and in Mohammed as the messenger of this one God. Muslims understand God to be the Creator and Ruler of the entire universe, the ultimate Judge of all human beings, and to be characterized above all by the qualities of compassion and mercy. Islam gives hope to the faithful, because it promises them - similar to Christian teaching - a life in the hereafter. The one who has spent his existence on earth in God-pleasing ways will go to heaven after the judgment at the end of all days.

The Quran (“recitation”) is the Holy Book of Islam, which is arranged in 114 surahs. Muslims understand the Quran to be the word of God revealed to Mohammed. Quranic teachings are considered to be the core of the Islamic tradition and hence the text has been the subject of many voluminous commentaries by religious scholars, ranging from conservative to reformist and liberal interpretations. The Islamic doctrine of faith has a second source of religious norms: the Sunnah ("customary action, established custom"). The Sunnah is the prophetic tradition, which is based on eyewitness records of Prophet Mohammed’s words, actions, and approbations, and is described in Hadiths. Many Muslims base their lives on it, because besides the Quran it is the most important source of knowledge about their religion. It describes what their prophet Mohammed said or did, how he acted in certain situations and what he considered wrong and right.

The Quran, the Sunna and the Hadith are the major sources of the Islamic law (sharia), which touches on virtually every aspect of life and society, from banking and welfare to the environment. Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and ijtihad (independent juristic reasoning) help to interpret Sharia. The multitude of sources and different understandings of how to apply ijitihad lead to the fact that Sharia is not a unitary legal system; but rather it is open to various interpretations, again ranging from conservative to reformist interpretations.

Original Title: Hajj 2008. Hundreds throng around the Kaaba at the start of Hajj

The whole community of Muslims is called Umma. Every member of the Umma should practice the five pillars of Islam: the profession of faith in the one God and in Mohammed as his messenger (Shahada), the prayer (Salat) five times a day facing Mecca, giving alms (zakat), i.e. donating a fixed portion of one’s income to community members in need, fasting during Ramadan (sawm) in order to renew one’s awareness of and gratitude for everything God has provided, and last but not least, the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj). The end point of the hajj is the Kaaba, a black cuboid building, in the center of the Great Mosque of Mecca – which is the center of Islam because Mohammed was born in Mecca.

Islam does not have strictly organized hierarchy. Instead, numerous scholars play an important role in interpreting the Quran and the obligations and commandments that a Muslim should adhere to. Muslim children learn about them when they go to a Quranic school, a madrasa. Alternatively, Muslims can study the Quran together with an Imam, the leader of the Muslim house of worship, the mosque. Mosques are easily recognizable by the minaret tower, from where the muezzin calls the believers to prayer five times a day.

Featured Actor

Brahma Kumaris

Brahma Kumaris is a worldwide spiritual movement dedicated to personal transformation and world renewal. Founded in India in 1937 by Prajapita Brahma Baba, Brahma Kumaris has spread to over 110 countries on all continents and has been working in many sectors as an international NGO. The spiritual headquarters, which is called Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, is located in Mount Abu, Rajasthan in India. Activities of international interest are coordinated regionally from offices in London, Moscow, Nairobi, New York and Sydney.

Brahma Kumaris is not a classical faith-based organization. According Tamasin Ramsay on Oxford Bibliographies, scholars categorize the organization in three ways: as a millenarian New Religious Movement, as a new religion, and as a Hindu sect. By contrast, the Brahma Kumaris members identify their community as a family (with spiritual kin), a school (for spiritual learning), and a hospital (to heal spiritual illness). They do not see themselves as belonging to a religion, but to a teaching institution or a spiritual path that has been established to restore human souls to their original purity, thereby restoring the world[1].

Brahma Kumaris understands the importance of helping individuals to shift their view on the world from a materialistic to a spiritual perspective and to develop a deep collective consciousness in environmental issues. As such, the organization focuses on different areas of activities for example spiritual education, the environment and renewable energy, engaging the youth and empowering women and men.

The Brahma Kumaris Environment Initiative is one of their greatest commitments to environmental policies and is based on five main principles: Living with simplicity, Buying Compassionately, Using economically, Learning continuously and Sharing generously. This initiative encourages greater understanding of the role of consciousness and lifestyle in environmental issues, through dialogues, partnerships, participation in UN conferences and local initiatives.

Brahma Kumaris delegates attend the COPs of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as well as conferences by the UN Environment Program, where their message is “Conscious and Climate Change” trying to raise the level of awareness and change attitudes. In the Indian-based “Awareness and Training Centre”, the Environment Initiative offers workshops and trainings that are aimed at empowering individuals and communities by focusing on important values needed for changing their lifestyles.

Since the mid 90's, Brahma Kumaris has become one of the key developers and promoters of renewable energies in India. With Indian and German government support the organization has carried out various research and development projects. They work on the development and distribution of solar steam cooking systems, photovoltaic systems and other technologies for renewable energy. They have distributed more than 20,000 solar lanterns, 500 home light systems and 400 solar cooking boxes along the years.

Brahma Kumaris means ‘daughters of Brahma'. Brahma Kumaris is the largest spiritual organization in the world led by women. It was the founder, Prajapita Brahma Baba, who chose to put women in front from the very beginning, and it has set Brahma Kumaris apart on the stage of the world's religions and spiritual organizations.

The Brahma Kumaris runs on voluntary contributions, both financial and in kind. Students of the organization contribute regularly in support of the work. Funds from philanthropists, national or international agencies are sometimes received for humanitarian and environmental initiatives, in such fields as solar energy projects, health and education. The organization now has approximately one million adherents worldwide.

For more information, visit their website or follow them on Twitter.

[1]Oxford Bibliographies, 2017.


Faith and Development in the next 60 days

13 February 2020
Webinar on Secular and Religious Dynamics in Humanitarian Response
In the webinar, Dr. Olivia J. Wilkinson discusses her book: “Secular and Religious Dynamics in Humanitarian Response.” The book teases out the reasons why humanitarians are reluctant to engage with “messy” cultural dynamics within the communities they work with and explores how this phenomenon can lead to strained or broken relationships with disaster-affected populations and inappropriate disaster assistance.

14 - 16 February 2020
EcoSikh Forest Making Workshop, Mandi Gobindgarh, India
EcoSikh hosts a free 3-day intensive hands-on training on forest planting in the walls of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur Engineering College in India.

27 February 2020
Webinar on Faith in Beijing+25 and the UN Commission on the Status of Women: Advocacy at the UN in New York”
On the occasion of the 64th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities hosts a webinar that will focus on different ways to influence country delegations during the Session.

9 - 20 March 2020
64th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, New York, United States
Held under the theme “Beijing +25: Realizing gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”, the session will focus on the review of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the outcomes of the 23rd special session of the General Assembly. The review will include the empowerment of women and its contribution towards the full realization of the 2030 Agenda.

2 April - 27 May 2020
Wilmette Online Learning Course: Preparing for Interfaith Dialogue
The Online Baha’i Learning Centre “Wilmette Institute”, is organizing a preparation course for the participation in interfaith dialogue. Participants will study documents about the interfaith movement and explore opportunities for coming together with like-minded people of faith (and of no faith) to find ways to understand each other better and to serve humanity together. 


Insights and Perspectives

Study: Faith Actor Partnerships in Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health”, By Joint Learning Initiative on Faith & Local Communities and the PaRD work-stream on SDG 3, 2019.

This study examines faith actor roles in Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health (ASHR) and partnerships between faith-based, governmental, and intergovernmental actors that promote access to ASRH services and information. The study includes an analysis of the opportunities, challenges, and lessons that enhance partnership effectiveness.

Toolkit: #Faith4Rights toolkit, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2020.

Based on the Beirut Declaration and its commitments on “Faith for Rights”, this toolkit aims to implement the “Faith for Rights” framework into practical peer-to-peer learning and enriching capacity building programs. It suggests prototypes of peer-to-peer learning modules, exploring the relationship between religions, beliefs and human rights, and provides approaches that are adapted to faith actors, civil society representatives and educational institutions.

Study: How the Church Contributes to Well-Being in Conflict Affected Fragile States: Voices from the Local Church, Marjorie Gourlay, Muthuraj Swamy, Madleina Daehnhardt, Tearfund, 2019.

This study analyses the multidimensional roles local churches play in responding to protracted crises in conflict-affected fragile states. It also provides an important and little-documented church perspective on faith-based organizations’ distinctive contribution to holistic well-being. The research focuses on four themes, including the impacts of conflict on the local church, the roles the church takes on in responding to conflicts, the churches’ motivations for responding, and the church’s own perspectives on barriers, constraints and opportunities for engagement.

Video: The Power of Words: The Role of Religion, Media and Policy in Countering Hate Speech, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, 2019.

In October 2019, KAICIID convened more than 190 faith leaders, policymakers, state actors, civil society and human rights representatives, journalists, educators, and dialogue practitioners in Vienna to discuss ways of recognizing and fighting the growing global phenomenon of hate speech. The international conference entitled, “The Power of Words: The Role of Religion, Media and Policy in Countering Hate Speech” comes at a time when the phenomenon is disrupting social cohesion, undermining pluralism, and destroying lives around the world.

Explanatory Position Paper: Reducing Suffering During Armed Conflict: The Interface Between Buddhism and International Humanitarian Law, as Background for an International Conference of the International Committee of the Red Cross, 2019.

From 4 - 6 September 2019, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) organized a conference on “Reducing Suffering During Armed Conflict: The Interface Between Buddhism and International Humanitarian Law (IHL)”. During the event connections between Buddhism and IHL were explored and a constructive dialogue and exchange between the two domains was encouraged. The conference aimed to act as a springboard to understanding how Buddhism can contribute to regulating armed conflict, and what it offers in terms of guidance on the conduct of, and behavior during, war for Buddhist monks and lay persons – the latter including government and military personnel, non-State armed groups and civilians.

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Religionen und Glaube erfahren zu wenig Beachtung und Respekt in der globalen Entwicklungszusammenarbeit. Und das, obwohl menschliche Entwicklung untrennbar mit Weltanschauungen verwoben ist. Entwicklung findet statt, in allen Gesellschaften und Kulturen, und sie ist zutiefst von Glaubenseinflüssen und -einstellungen geprägt. Gleichzeitig zählen religiöse Organisationen zu den ältesten und wirkungsmächtigsten Akteuren der globalen wie lokalen Entwicklungszusammenarbeit. Der Faith In Development Monitor leistet einen Beitrag dazu, (1) die Relevanz von Religion für die internationale Entwicklungszusammenarbeit zu verdeutlichen, (2) Religionskompetenz unter Praktikern und politischen Entscheidungsträgern zu erhöhen und (3) aktuelle Entwicklungen im Themenfeld „Religion und Entwicklung“ nachvollziehbar zu erklären. Damit wollen wir ermutigen, sich dem Dialog mit glaubensbasierten Organisationen zu stellen.
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