Women, Religion, and Social Change II

“Women, Religion and Social Change II” is an international, interreligious conference was held at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA from April 30 – May 4, 2003. This meeting reunited a group of women who came together in 1983 for a groundbreaking interreligious conference on “Women, Religion and Social Change.” This group, and their concerns, included the global and the local: participants came from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, North and South America, and Europe. The meeting drew together a diverse group of scholars and grass-roots activists for a week of intensive discussion. The broad working question of the conference was, “What is the relation of religion to the kinds of social change projects and struggles in which women are engaged around the world?” The book Speaking of Faith: Global Perspectives on Women, Religion, and Social Change, edited by Diana Eck and Devaki Jain, was a product of that meeting. Even more, new relationships and networks were formed.

In the past two decades, religion has continued to be a strong social and political force, for better and for worse. The changing demography of the world, through the migration of peoples as immigrants and refugees, has also created new, complex, multireligious societies, including the United States. Today, the dialogue of women across cultures and religious traditions is a local and national issue as well as a global concern. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University has focused on the changing religious landscape of the United States and has convened women’s networks and organizations in the American context.

Those who participated in the 1983 conference on “Women, Religion and Social Change” were pioneers. Two decades later, they returned as seasoned veterans with a world of insight and experience. In reuniting members of this group, and introducing new participants from the Pluralism Project’s “Women’s Networks,” we hope to cultivate lively discussion and exchange across nations, traditions, and generations. As our global linkages become stronger, we all need to be able to see ourselves in the mirror and vision of each other.

Hosted by the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. Financial support for this conference comes from a generous grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, with additional support from the Ford Foundation.

Conference Objectives

The aims of “Women, Religion and Social Change II” include:

  • To explore the relation of religion to the kinds of social change projects and struggles in which women are engaged around the world
  • To gather together some of the participants of the “Women, Religion and Social Change” conference and learn from the experience and wisdom of each other
  • To introduce new participants and perspectives into this conversation by including U.S. representatives from “Women’s Networks” meetings
  • To cultivate lively discussions and exchanges across nations, traditions, and generations
  • To better understand the energies of religious communities in the turbulence of today’s world
  • To foster dialogue and discussion among women of diverse perspectives, including those with religious commitments and those with secular orientations; women working at a grassroots level as well as those in academic circlesIn some Pagan traditions, a “circle” refers to the people who gather for a ritual. When standing in a circle, all the participants are able to see each other, with no one member elevated over any other. This practice is often felt to encourage egalita...
  • To cultivate and advance communication and networks among women who are working on issues of common concern
  • To build bridges across difference and division through mutually respectful discussion
  • To foster dialogue about women’s participation in diverse religious communities
  • To encourage greater understanding of women’s roles in peacebuilding and social change

Participants (Biographical sketches available here)

Conference Schedule:

Thursday, May 1: Barker Center for the Humanities
3:30 P.M. – 6:00 P.M. The U.S. Religious Context Today [Transcript] [Public]
This panel provided an overview of the increasing religious diversity of the U.S. and discussed the current climate of interreligious relations from the perspectives of women, with a special emphasis on the impact of 9/11. The panel presentations included a brief demonstration of the CD-ROM “On Common Ground: World Religions in America.”

  • Diana Eck, The Pluralism Project
  • Sharifa Alkhateeb, North American Council of Muslim Women
  • Shamita Das Dasgupta, Manavi
  • Sheila Decter, Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action
  • Beverly Harrison, Union Theological Seminary Emerita
  • Terry Kay Rockefeller, Peaceful Tomorrows

6:00 P.M. – 8:00 P.M. Student Interfaith Networks Panel [Transcript]
Harvard Faculty Club

Student panelists from Baha’i, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Native AmericanEach of the many Native American nations has its own distinctive life-ways, although there are some widely-shared characteristics. most Native life-ways are primarily transmitted through oral traditions; they are oriented toward living in relation to a sp..., and SikhSikhs call their tradition the “Sikh Panth,” meaning the “community (panth) of the disciples of the Guru.” The tradition reveres a lineage of ten Gurus, beginning with Guru Nanak in the 16th century and coming to a clos. with the death of Guru Gob... faith traditions responded to the following questions: What forms of interfaith networks, formal and informal, exist on the campus level in the U.S.? Are there new challenges and opportunities? What roles do young women play within their own religious communities? What might we learn about the goals, challenges, and visions of the next generation?

  • Claudia Highbaugh, Harvard Divinity School, Panel Chair
  • Heather Gregg, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Bahiyyih Khelghati, Wellesley College
  • Deshmeet KaurAll Sikh women who have joined the Khalsa assume the name Kaur, “Princess.” Malik, Wellesley College
  • Marilyn Notah Verney, University of California Santa Barbara
  • Gabriella Rosen, Harvard University
  • Neelima Shukla-Bhatt, Harvard University
  • Jessica Zaman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Friday, May 2: Harvard Divinity School, Sperry Room
9:00 A.M. – 10:30 A.M. Perspectives on the Global and the Local [Transcript] [Public]
Panelists addressed how the energies of globalization, the technologies of communications, and the realities of interdependence have altered our religious communities, our lives, our issues, our understandings, and our strategies for social change.

  • Mary Hunt, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics & Ritual, Panel Chair
  • Brigalia Bam, South Africa Independent Electoral Commission
  • Devaki Jain, United Nations Intellectual History Project
  • Azza Karam, World Conference on Religion and Peace

10:45 A.M. – 12:15 P.M. Religious Networks and Women’s Leadership [Transcript] [Public]
This panel assessed new forms of women’s leadership in a range of religious traditions. What have been the gains? The backlash? The prospects for the future? In what ways should women take leadership in relation to the future of religious traditions?

  • Dorothy Austin, The Memorial ChurchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ..., Harvard University, Panel Chair
  • Elizabeth Amoah, University of Ghana
  • Dhammananda bhikkhuni (C. Kabilsingh), Buddhasavika Foundation
  • Daphne Hampson, School of Divinity, University of St. Andrews
  • Judith Plaskow, Manhattan College
  • Ines Talamantez, University of California, Santa Barbara

12:15 Lunch (on own)

2:00 P.M. – 3:45 P.M. Dialogue in the Midst of Conflict [Transcript] [Public]
In this panel, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim participants addressed whether interfaith dialogue is possible — or even relevant — given the current polarization around issues of peace and justice in IsraelLiterally “Wrestler with God”, Israel is the name given to the Jewish patriarch Jacob and came to refer to the entire nation, bound in an eternal covenant to God. Historically, Jews have continued to regard themselves as the continuation of the ancien... and Palestine.

  • Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah, Institute for Conflict Analysis, Panel Chair
  • Laila Al-Marayati, Muslim Women’s League
  • Blu Greenberg, Jewish OrthodoxIn general, orthodox means having a “correct opinion or outlook” and is a term used by people in many religions who claim authority for traditional views and forms of their religion. Feminist Alliance
  • Jean Zaru, Religious Society of Friends, Ramallah

4:00 P.M. – 5:45 P.M. Religious Violence, Extremism, and FundamentalismsFundamentalism is an early 20th century American Christian movement often seen as a conservative response to the influence of the Enlightenment, new Biblical scholarship, and the claims of modern science. It stressed five points of faith it called the “... [Transcript] [Public]
Panelists addressed the increase in the power and visibility of exclusivist, extremist, and chauvinist religious movements. Panelists aimed to describe and analyze these movements, and began to assess how they impact women in diverse locales, including India, Egypt, Thailand, and the United States.

  • Leila Ahmed, Harvard Divinity School, Panel Chair
  • Veena Das, Johns Hopkins University
  • Nawal El Saadawi, Arab Women’s Solidarity Association & Sherif Hetata
  • Melanie May, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School
  • Yifa, Hsi Lai University

Saturday, May 3, Barker Center for the Humanities
10:45 AM – 12:30 P.M. Common Values, Human Rights, Civil Rights [Transcript] [Public]
Panelists offered a range of responses to the following questions: What are the alliances of religious and secular women? What movements are there to envision common ethics and values across traditions and cultures? What are the issues and energies of human rights, civil rights, and indigenous rights movements?

  • Ann Braude, Harvard Divinity School, Panel Chair
  • Sissela Bok, Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies
  • Dorothy Eck, Montana State Senate
  • Grove Harris, The Pluralism Project
  • Shulamith Koenig, People’s Movement for Human Rights Education
  • Sylvia Marcos, Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Morelos

4:00 P.M. – 6:30 P.M. Small group discussions
Participants selected one of three small group discussions in which to participate: Women’s Organizations and Networks; Religion and Feminism; and Third Party Roles in Conflict Resolution.

May 4, 2003 – Barker Center for the Humanities
9:30 A.M. – 12:30 P.M. Closing Session
Roundtable discussion included closing comments from participants, including ideas for ongoing networking.