A Muslim Feminist’s Reflections on Pope Francis’ Visit

I am a former Catholic and current Muslim feminist whose earliest religious memory is turning to her mother in church and asking why we said “Amen” instead of “Awomen.” Is it possible for a person like me to find meaning in the visit of a pope who advocates “complementarity” as a theory of gender relations?

Maybe, with some context.

I was raised Catholic and cut my teeth on faith-based feminism during Pope John Paul II’s tenure. During this time, I struggled to balance the peace I felt while praying in a Catholic church—memories which, if I’m honest, can still evoke pangs of homesickness—with the ways Church doctrine made me feel excluded. I watched my divorced mother feel unwelcome in certain parishes. I watched male classmates serve as altar boys, and worshipped under the auspices of an all-male clergy. I knew someone abused by a priest.

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During this time, I spoke with feisty nuns who refused to attend church until the Vatican chose a new pope. I debated affable priests about the ordination of women, discussing whether Jesus’ and the apostles’ gender was a sufficiently defining characteristic. Despite my feminist struggles with my faith, as a young adult navigating the challenges of college and law school, I often found myself seeking refuge in the nave of a Catholic Church.

And so maybe it is not surprising that my reasons for leaving Catholicism had little to do with feminism. I met and married a Muslim man. We wanted to raise our kids in one faith. I had struggled as much with the concept of the Trinity as with women’s place in the Church, and found in Islam enough common ground to convert. The fact that Islam suffers from patriarchal interpretations was hardly daunting to me. Fighting for female sacred space was simply something I accepted as part of being a believing woman.

This is not to say I have not struggled as a feminist in my new faith. My wedding gifts included books on Islamic “morals and manners” glorifying very traditional gender roles. Though the Qur’an is silent on the matter, most Muslim scholars insist that women cannot lead mixed congregation prayers. Gender separating is pervasive in conservative Muslim communities, where men are routinely oversexualized and women are correspondingly desexualized.

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Like I had done with Catholic scripture, I sought out and found woman-affirming Qur’anic scholarship and interpretations. My heart soared when Amina Wadud became the first woman in the United States to publicly lead a mixed-congregation prayer, and I was filled with overwhelming affection for the men who prayed behind her. Muslim feminists, like their Catholic counterparts, are doing the hard work of rescuing their traditions from sexist exegeses and praxes.

In the midst of this gender-based religious struggle that has informed much of my adult life, I have learned to be more gentle with myself about how and on whose terms I find God. I’ve come to believe there is value in questioning religious dogma and even whispering to God in the quietest, most private space, this doesn’t feel right. It no longer troubles me that I am often choosing and unchoosing religious belief. I quite like the idea of faith as an evolving decision where we grapple with the hardest parts, bringing our best, most purposeful selves to the process.

It is through this somewhat unique lens that I view Pope Francis’ visit to the United States. I watch on the outside, as a Muslim, and with a metaphorical foot on the inside, as a former Catholic. My heart soars at the Pope’s commitment to social justice, his support for equal pay for women, his efforts to end sex trafficking. I admire his compassion for the poor and concern for the environment. There is no doubt that, in significant ways, this is a very different pope than John Paul II.

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And yet my heart still breaks at some of Pope Francis’ positions on women. Though he has called for a new theology on women, it’s unclear how revolutionary it will be. He still insists marriage should only be between a man and a woman. In opposing the ordination of women, he discounts the privilege of an all-male priesthood, as well as the harm such a policy does to women by failing to affirm their equal ability to serve God. When he says the “door is closed” on this issue, essentially putting his hands over his ears while women talk, it reeks of old, paternalistic structures of power.

Recently, I was talking with a Catholic friend about Pope Francis’ declaration that during this “Year of Mercy,” priests can forgive women who have had abortions, if the woman is “contrite.” I wondered if a victim of sexual assault would have to be contrite. Or the eleven-year-old in Paraguay, allegedly raped by her step-father, if she’d been allowed have an abortion. I said it was so patronizing, the idea that a random man, just because he was a priest, had the power to judge such a thing.

“Yes, but given the history of the Church on this issue, it’s a start,” my friend said.

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I admit to being more invested in the Vatican’s position on women than maybe someone who has left the faith should be. But in addition to the affinity for and solidarity with Catholic women I still feel, there is this: Sexism is a sin that stains the Abrahamic religions similarly. What the Pope does affects Catholics, but it can also be part of a larger, necessary conversation among leaders in other faiths.

Women’s full humanity in patriarchal religions has not always been recognized. Pope Francis seems to at least acknowledge this. It is a start, as my more level-headed Catholic friend said to me, and one that I watch with my head as well as my heart.


{Image credit: Pixabay}


About the Author

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Jennifer Zobair is an attorney and the author of the debut novel, Painted Hands (St. Martin’s Press, 2013) and the co-editor of Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay (White Cloud Press, 2015). Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire and elsewhere. She is a graduate of Smith College and Georgetown Law School, and currently resides in the D.C. area where she is at work on her second novel. Follow Jennifer on twitter at @jazobair or connect through her website at www.jenniferzobair.com.

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