Learning Lessons for Harmony: Reflections on a
Women’s Interfaith Journey
“The starting point for women is not theory, dogmas, theology, or sacred scriptures. It is their own lives.”1
The present paper studies women’s stories of their lives as sisters, mothers, daughters and friends… Their connectedness transcends beyond boundaries and forms bridges of understanding across the diversity of faiths, identities and ideologies.
Interfaithdialogue isan important topic in today’s context.,Onethe purpose of interfaith dialogue is to increase our understanding and respect for other religious systems and institutions, thereby increasing our appreciation of their values. Dialogue should enhance our sensitivity to the feelings and beliefs of people of diverse religious faiths. of all professing religious people in their relationship with God. Good dialogue can also should, in addition, result in the deepening of the one’s own faith of every religionwhile understanding others’ faith.
Dialogue among faith communities – Dialogues between different groups of people are attempted all over the country. This has helped people understand and exegete their faith better while attempting to understand the faiths and ideologies of the others in dialogue.
Women in Interfaith Dialogue – Manyinterfaith interactions are generallye usually men-dominated, with little or noactive and there is very less participation of women, either as speakers or as participants. This greatly limits the worth of such efforts, while excluding women from something that deeply touches their own lives. Therefore, there is a need for women to participate in the interfaith dialogues. In this regard, a majorBut the challenge is to overcome prejudices and enter into have personal interactions and friendships across religious boundaries. For this, iSo presenter feel it is important for them to live together, spend more time together and narrate stories of their livesas a human being not as Christian, Hindu and Muslim but as sisters, as mothers as aunts.Women do not talk about interfaith; they connect with each other in a holistic way. Their connectedness is across interfaith boundaries canand forms bridges of understanding. across diversity of faiths
This paper discusses the issue of journey/pilgrimage and inter-religious experiences of women by focusing on a women’s interfaith journey for peace that is organized by the New Delhi-based Interfaith Coalition for Peace (ICP). It And also looks aton how this novel journey has helped participants (including the authorme) grow in their spirituality, including in becoming more inclusive and appreciative of different religious traditions. and Also reference material like books, unpublished materials of ICP and internet source. It looks at how the personal experiences the women encountered during the interfaith pilgrimages can have a wider social impact and help promote healthy and harmonious inter-religious living, building bonds and bridges between people of diverse religious backgrounds.
Origins of Interfaith Women’s Journey
Among those behind the formation of the ICP are Syed Zafar Mahmood, a former civil servant and former ‘Officer on Special Duty for the former Indian Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh, and Packiam T. Samuel, an ordained minister of the Church of South India. The ICP started in 2006 and sought to network with faith communities and their institutions. Just like any other early interfaith meetings, to begin with in the ICP’s interfaith meetings had many morehad moremen participants than womenand very few women participants. So, ICP feltthat there is aneed for involving women in the processInterfaith Dialogue. ICP’s idea of the Interfaith Women’s Journey (IWJ) emerged originally from the a Hyderabad-based Henry Martyn Institute’s (HMI) Women’s Interfaith Journey, which started in 1998.When ICP began but HMI organized only 4 international journeys.ICP went into asearchingfor suitableof women participants, it then they realised that there were very fewless womenwhohad permission to even go out of their homes.
Finally, however, ICP could pick upa handful of womenin 2007 and chalked outtooka novel women’s interfaith journeyan initiative to organizea journey in more informal way.The objective wais to create an opportunity for women from diverse religious backgrounds to have an exposure to outside the world other than their home domain whereby they women could come together to connect, relate and share with each other and together have fun.2
Living together and sharing food and spaceitself is fun and real discussion can take place that way, whereasaconference room is restricted—very to academic.c nature? Human beings by nature becomefree to interact while socializing. Women spending time together makes it possible, as it could be a place to mingle—it isn’t possible to do much of that in a , smile together and speaktruth in such places more than a seminar hall. If it is an organized event it will be restricted to very academic nature. I don’t thinkinterfaith shouldcanhave an academic orientation. It is exchange of hearts.3
Faith is at the centre of the coalition and networking its strength.From the initial focus in New Delhi, the National Capital, the coalition’centre’ found itself dispersed in different locales in the regions, with many different peoples and their movements and institutions owning up to what ICP stands for. ICP facilitates people of different faiths and ideologies to work together for peace in of the country, beginning with their neighborhoods.Reflective praxis has been the strength of ICP’s dialogue of faiths in action.4
The ICP idea blossomed with partnership from the Norwegian Church Aid chiefly. Its The presence spread to all over India. Its , and the first women’s journey started in North East India, and then on to strategic partnerships with persons and groups in Andhra, Tamilnadu, Jharkhand and elsewhere in India the rest of the country.5
The goals of the ICP’s Interfaith Women’s Journeys were to gain a greater understanding of the issues affecting women in and across cultures; to explore ways to help build solidarity between people of diverse backgrounds and religions; and to reflect on the process of how a group of women from different religious traditionscan make explorations to study together through shared spaces and interactions, through living/loving and acting together, through discussion, and sharing experiences, and building relationships.
Women create a particular sort of space for discussion, and this is also reflected when they journey together. Pope Francis, in his address at the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue on 9th June, 2017, on The Importance of Women in Interfaith Dialogue, said:
Many women are well prepared to contribute to the religious and theological discussions at the highest levels, alongside their male counterparts. It is more necessary than ever that they do so, so that their skills of listening, welcoming, and openness to others can be of services in weaving the delicate fabric of dialogue between all men and women of good will.6
For ICP in the beginning, there were no special criteria to select members as there were very few women who could come out of their homes and spend a couple of days on a journey. ICP’s sustained Interfaith Women’s Journey started from 2007. Out of the total 11 journeys till now, 9 were in India and 2 international. Participants were from different backgrounds, including university professors, school teachers, social activists, home makers, theologians, religious leaders, medical doctors, journalists, and government employees. They belonging to Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh, Dalit and tribal backgrounds and were from different parts of India.
Milestones of the journeys:
Dehradun (Uttarakhand) – Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh) – Muzaffarpur (Bihar), November 2007
Theme: “Creating Spaces, Connecting People, Changing Lives”
One unique aspectof this journey lay in part in providing participants an opportunity to come out of their routine family life and understand the importance of empowerment through being exposed to various women’s organizations.
Theme: ‘Journey of Healing in Manipur
It was a challenging journey in the troubled area of Manipur in North-East India. For this ‘Journey of Healing in Manipur’, eight women from different faith groups and representing different NGOs were selected. The emphasis was on listening more to the women victims in the region as there were a large number of women who had been raped and had been victims of violence.
The local women were touched by the interaction with the ICP women’s group. One uniqueness of this journey was that a group of Muslim women from North East joined the journey and worked together throughout the journey inspite of challenges like taking part in the interfaith devotions and sharing their meals with other religious women due to some specific requirements for Muslim food (halal).
Srinagar, 16-19 November 2009,Theme of the Journey “Peace, Surviving Conflict: Building Peace”
This journey was organized with the help of the Department of Women’s Studies, University of Kashmir. The group met with some local women, who shared their experiences of victimization, violence and grief. A challenging part of this journey was to get a large number of local women together. The women victims of various kinds of violence, bereavement, social injustices and government apathy, suffering deprivation and neglect for the past few decades, were in no mood to come out and talk about themselves as they felt that nothing was being done for to help them. Even if the women wished to come out to share their grief and problems they did not have sufficient means or resources even to come to the meeting. In addition, language was a great barrier for free discussions as they spoke only Kashmiri and needed someone to translate what they wanted to discuss.
Warangal, organized in collaboration with Tharuni NGO, 14-16 December 2009.
Theme: “Sharing and Understanding the Life of Rural Women”
Warangal is a troubled area with lot of issues, including Naxalism. An NGO called Tharuni hosted the group. The ICP women’s group visited self-help groups and self-welfare centres. They visited Warangal Fort, an ancient temple built by the Kakatiya kings and attended the regional festival ‘Bathukamma’. Hindu and Muslim women volunteered to prepare local traditional meals in their homes for the group. Eating together in these homes was an exceptional experience.This journey gave an opportunity for the group to interact with women from conflict areas and listen to their social and economic success stories.
Kochi, Kerala, 11-14 June 2010
Theme: “Building Partnership to Explore Role of Women in Peace Building”
This journey provided participants a unique opportunity to get together at leisure to know and understand each other in order to build a strong interfaith women’s team.Apart from different women’s groups, the group visited places of worship and historical places.
WCR and ICP Women’s Exposure Visit to Nairobi, KenyaTheme: Toward Better Indo-Pak Relations, 10th-16th September 2011
An interfaith delegation of 14 women from ICP and World Council of Religions – Pakistan (WCR), from Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities from India and Pakistan, traveled to Kenya and met with local women’s groups involved in conflict-resolution and peace-building. The programme aimed at introducing the women to peace-building and for sharing experiences of faith communities engaged in peace-building in Kenya, with a particular focus on the role of women in resolving conflict and restoring peace. The visit also provided opportunities for participants from India and Pakistan to share information about their experiences of peace-building in their respective countries.
Dharamshala, ICP & Ministry of Religion & Culture, 3rd -6th November, 2012,
Theme: “Promoting Interfaith Work at Dharamshala”
This journey was organized in collaboration with the College for Higher Tibetan Studies. Women from the Buddhist Tibetan Women Association and nuns from Buddhist nunnery joined the ICP group meeting.Visits to various worship places and exposure to Buddhist culture and art provided spiritual gains for the group.
Ahmedabad, Gujarat, 11th-14th April, 2013
Theme: “Interfaith in Practice”
The ICP group participated in a day-long seminar on “Interfaith & Religious Harmony for Peace and Development” organised by the Bishop of the Orthodox Diocese of Ahmadabad, Geevarghese Mar Yulios. The group also visited some spiritual centres and some NGOs.
Bhubaneswar, August 21-24, 2013
Theme: “Women in Communal Harmony”
A group of women from Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist backgounds visited the Women’s Studies Department of Utkal University, Odisha, for a seminar and also visited places of worship and local NGOs working for women’s empowerment and communal harmony.
Colombo, 18-22 March, 2014
Theme: “Working towards establishment of Interfaith Regional Unit in Sri Lanka”
This journey was organized in collaboration with National Christian Council of Sri Lanka (NCCSL). The group met religious leaders and women’s groups affected by the conflict in Sri Lanka.
Kolkata, 27th-30th September, 2015
Theme: “Promoting Interfaith Dialogue Among Women’s Groups”
A group of women from Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian backgrounds participated in this journey, getting the opportunity to visit several places—including Mother Theresa’s Home, St Paul’s Cathedral, Belur Math and Dakshineshwar Kali Temple—and also meeting with women from different religious backgrounds, including Jain sadhvis and members of the All-Bengal Muslim Association.
Varanasi, 20th – 23rd July, 2016
Theme: “Respecting and Celebrating Diversity”
Women from Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu backgrounds participated in this journey. The group visited some women’s groups and religious sites.
For most of the participants on these journeys, it was a first-time experience sharing a room with women of other faiths for 4-5 days continuously. This experience helped most of the members to address their own prejudices and developed more love and care for others. The journeys enabled participants become familiar with the religious beliefs and practices of other faith communities through first-hand observation and through establishing friendships with women from other faith backgrounds.
In almost all the journeys there was a combination of exposure visits to different places of worship, meetings and seminars with women organizations, faith-based organizations and other educational institutions, and visits to historical places. In the course of this, participants and the women they met learnt from each other, including methodologies being used to addressvarious issues. Such interaction also provided a means for the participants to promote interfaith awareness among the women’s groups they interacted with.
Participation in the interfaith devotionswas a very different and transformative experience for many participants. So, too, was sharing meals with women of diverse faith backgrounds. Dialogue with religious ‘leaders’, helped clear misconceptions about other religions. The interfaith sisterhood that emerged could, it might be expected, lead to a growing commitment among some to work for inter-community peace. The journeys afforded many learning experiences for spiritual transformationthrough interaction with people of diverse religious backgrounds. Participants were hopefully able to grow in their respect for religious diversity and in acknowledging the goodness in other faiths and those who claim to follow them.The women found the ‘journey’ an effective way of opening up the space to create common ground; of shaping this space for themselves; of allowing the women an opportunity to transcend the barriers of class, religion and ethnicity amongst other differences, to begin to build deep bonds with each other, discovering and honoring themselves as spiritual beings.
The following are some selected individual and group reflections7 from the women who participated in the Journeys, which illustrate the transformative effect they had on participants:
“We have got wings which inspire us to fly high, higher, highest!”
“Nothing can be greater than the feeling that there are no eyes constantly staring at you and keeping a check. I am breathing in fresh air”.
“…wonderful relationship shared by the participants…inspite of meeting for the first time, the friendship and mutual respect that the participants shared was awesome. The life of the Jainsadhvis as shared by them was beyond belief and wonderful”
“The exemplary life that we witnessed of the Christian sisters at Varanasi was the best we could ever ask for. They were living and walking their faith…”
“Meeting women from different faiths was a great feeling…a sense of belonging to a beautiful human society…learned many good things about different religious…we were very happy to have met such beautiful women in the group and it was pleasure to visit so many holy places and holy people. We really appreciate the organizer’s hard work to make this trip a memorable one.”
“…we were able to experience how our lives are transformed and how the lives of several of the women we met were touched.”
“In the journey women shared their experience of being raped; they cried as they narrated the horrible experience …, which made me cry with them. Another experience was that a woman was mentally unbalanced due to divorce and conflicts between her community and her husband’s community. They were uprooted from her village to another new place as their village was burned down by the other rival groups, which made her stop talking. I was very disturbed emotionally when I talked with the women…Even today I see in my eyes those women. It’s terrible to think and imagine indeed.”
“Based on ICP women’s journey experiences I do these two things: challenge women of my community to come into inter-faith work and discourses and…addressing children in primary school (all Muslims) on being good human persons.”
“Interfaith journey is really a journey of healing.”
“Being from an orthodox family, this journey helped me to be open to people from different faiths. I can’t imagine myself that interfaith and gender become such interesting topics for me and I got motivated to grow in both academic and praxis areas.”
“Morning prayer before breakfast was something that touched me…It was so meaningful to pray without addressing God by any particular name since it was an interfaith gathering.”
“During our visit to the Jain Sadhvis, a group of Jain women were present with a variety of eatables made by each family. They intended to feed everyone who came for the lectures that the Sadhviswere delivering. I was deeply impressed to see the concern of the Jain believers for the people’s physical needs while they were being catered for their spiritual needs. I, as a Christian priest, came out with a sense of responsibility to take the physical needs of the people as seriously as that of the spiritual.”
“…I love to be with the friends of other faiths. In my personal journey of life with friends of other faiths, I learn to respect and accept all religious group without any prejudices. We may be from different faith communities but we are all human with same likes and dislikes. As such, I always enjoy being in the midst of all religious groups because deep down in the heart, all are good and pure, with lots of love. I will always respect and love all religious friends. If we are to hate and kill each other in the name of religion, then I would rather remain a good human being without taking the name-tag of any religion.”
“I am glad to have met brothers and sisters of other states and religions and to know different realities we live. The uniting factors among the participants were that of all of us womengathered for a purpose and had the urge to do something good as a group. We were conscious of our difference in faith – yet it was not a big issue – in spite of the difference, there were efforts made to be friendly with one another.”
“…it helped us to open our minds to other religions and faiths by witnessing other adherents during the journey. This helped us personally to transform ourselves into a more religious person.”
“This journey tells me how I may accept the “Other” – not out of compulsion or force, but because as humans and as women we share in common the belief that we are not all so similar and not all so different.”
“I learnt and acknowledge that common celebration of each other’s religious festivals should not stop with the festivities but also become a learning experience about the festival…I am also becoming aware of the lack of knowledge of primal religions, Adivasi religions, Dravidian religions, etc.; in short, religious traditions beyond traditional religious traditions.”
In every journey, the team felt difficulty in approaching women victims of violence and discrimination and building a rapport with them in helping directly. But as a group from various socio, economic, and religious backgrounds, they could come together stand as role models and could give moral support to the groups they met.Inspite of many challenges during the journey, they realized that some of the challenges are common in every society. They worked together for the common social good, as well as deepened their understanding of their own religions while understanding other religions and developing a more appreciative understanding of other religions and those who claim to follow them. They were sensitised to needs of the suffering. Following their participants in the journeys, some participants are actively engaged in interfaith-related activities—including practical action as well as academic, which is something of immense importance in today’s world.
1D’Souza Diane, “Gendered Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue.” Journal of Henry Martyn Institute,vol. 22, no. 2: (HMI, Hyderabad) 3-25pp
2Interview conducted on 28th August, 2017with Rev. Dr. Packiam T. Samuel, Secretary ICP. Dr. Packiam is an ordained minister of the Church of South India, Tirunelveli Diocese. Presently he is working as a Director of Henry Martyn Institute, Hyderabad.
3 Interview conducted with Rev. Dr. Packiam T. Samuel, Secretary ICP, on 28th August 2017.
4Unpublished report on the achievements of theInterfaith Coalition for Peace, A Journey of Ten Years and a Thousand Miles….Narratives of Engendering Peace in Faith2005-2015.
7 Data collected from the participants by sending questioner.