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Inspired By Our Foremothers in Seneca Falls, Women’s Interfaith Institute Breaks New Ground

In Seneca Falls, a “mecca for women’s rights advocates,” the Women’s Interfaith Institute is breaking new ground.

By Allison Stokes
Ambassador, Parliament of the World’s Religions

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Dr. Melinda Grube) and Attorney Nadia Shahram meet in Seneca Falls to talk on International Women’s Day 2014 —across religious traditions, countries of origin, and centuries! Photo by Dave Duprey

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The church in Seneca Falls had a For Sale sign in front with a “Price Reduced” banner across it. The structure, built in 1871, stood next door to the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, which was established to commemorate the first women’s rights convention in 1848 and to preserve the Wesleyan Chapel where the gathering was held.

This church would be an ideal location for calling public attention to the pioneering leadership of women in the Interfaith Movement. So it was that leaders of the Women’s Interfaith Institute incorporated as a non-profit, educational organization in New York State in 2002 in order to raise funds for a deposit to purchase the late 19th Century Wesleyan Church.

An appeal letter went out to potential donors, and their response was heartening. Many agreed that the site would be perfect for an organization whose mission is “Women supporting women of diverse faiths in generating spiritual leadership, scholarship and service.”

Contributions large and small came in, and in 2003 we purchased the church. As far as we are aware, the Women’s Interfaith Institute’s home in Seneca Falls is the only structure in the U.S. dedicated to promoting women’s interfaith (or multi-faith) efforts.

Seneca Falls draws visitors from all over the country and the world; because it is a destination for persons passionate about women’s rights and human rights, it provides an ideal context for the Institute’s work of bridging boundaries– whether religious, racial, ethnic, cultural– that have traditionally divided people. We seek a more inclusive human identity.

The Women’s Interfaith Institute in Seneca Falls, New York was a dream conjured by Parliament Ambassador Allison Stokes and made come true by a town famous for women’s movement. Today it is the hub of programs trailblazing model relations across diverse religious women groups in the U.S., specifically building upon significant history of female leadership within the Interfaith movement chronicled by the Institute.
Photo: Madeline Hansen

During our ten plus years of programming, we have offered a variety of lectures, seminars, films, workshops, retreats, and celebrations as we endeavor to “bring peace to life.” Most recently we have been focused on learning about Islam and bringing Muslims and persons from other religious traditions together.

Programs breaking ground then and now

A grant from the New York Council for the Humanities made it possible for the Institute to break ground last spring (2013) in offering a “Muslim Journeys” reading and discussion group. We chose five books with stories about and by young Muslims: How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? (Moustafa Bayoumi), Acts of Faith (Eboo Patel), Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi), Minaret (Leila Aboulela), and Broken Verses (Kamila Shamsie).

Ten women gathered in six monthly sessions to share comments, questions, insights, reflections, personal stories, and (at the close of every meeting) refreshments. Because we came from different faith traditions, including Quaker, Baha’i, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, and Roman Catholic, our sharing was rich, and our learning from one another profound. We especially valued the perspectives of Busaina and Musawar, a Muslim mother and daughter in our group, who are from Pakistan.

This year in March, Women’s History month, the Institute joined with another non-profit in Seneca Falls,  the Women’s Institute for Leadership and Learningto offer a unique dialogue. The event, featured Buffalo attorney Nadia Shahram, an author, activist, and Muslim women’s rights advocate, in dialogue with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a convenor of the first women’s rights movement. Stanton was portrayed by Dr. Melinda Grube, an historian and adjunct professor who has studied Stanton’s works and life extensively, and uses her knowledge to bring Stanton seemingly to life. This remarkable discussion, entitled “Declaring Equality: Renewing a Legacy,” crossed religious traditions (Muslim and Christian), cultures (Iranian and American), and even centuries (19th – 21st).

Institute board member and former mayor of Seneca Falls, Diana Smith, observed that the remarkable conversation was between two legal minds though generations apart. Diana noted,

Both shared surprisingly similar stories of childhood experiences which served as inspiration to effect change, including the motivation to learn the law. Stanton was especially angered by the unjust treatment of women who came to her father for legal counsel, only to find that the law provided little protection or regard for women.

While Shahram’s legal expertise helps women improve their lives through the judicial process, Stanton suggested that in the mid-nineteenth century, that would not be possible. She said her father likely pushed her to learn the law not to practice it, but rather to help her identify how to change it.

The Institute’s upcoming program, to be held during Seneca Falls Convention Days on July 18th and 19th celebrates the first 1848 convention. Highlighting Muslim women’s experiences, the Saturday events have been conceived and planned by attorney Shahram and some her law students in Buffalo. The focus will be unveiling of “A Declaration of Equalities for Muslim Women” written on the model of the Stanton’s original “Declaration of Sentiments.” Nadia writes,

This document is a list of demands and sentiments that aspire to identify and amend laws which are discriminatory, oppressive, and prejudicial towards women in many Islamic countries. We are insisting on reformed legislation that is consistent with equitable human rights for women. Through these actions, we hope to contribute to the efforts of numerous individuals and organizations dedicated to the ongoing battle for progress and fair treatment of women throughout the world.

A detailed listing of the many and varied Convention Days 2014 events is in development – watch for a complete schedule soon to be posted on the official Convention Days website.

From the Ashes of a Fire, Interfaith Family in Seneca Hills Stands Tall

A number of the Institute’s programs are being held at the National Park next door, whose hospitality we gratefully appreciate. This is because five years ago, in March 2009, there was a fire above the ceiling in our Great Hall (former church sanctuary), immediately after renovations were completed. Caused by old, live, electrical wiring, the damage to the roof and building wasn’t so much fire damage, as water damage, necessarily caused by the fire fighters.

The challenge of recovering from this devastating event has sometimes been overwhelming. The donations of volunteer help, especially from Hobart and William Smith Colleges students, and of contributions to replace a roof that was only 5 years old, have been heartening. We are particularly grateful for a generous donation from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States. With this we were able to complete the roof repair in August, just as President Obama stopped by to visit the National Park. (Secret Service agents ordered roofers OFF the roof during the duration of the President’s visit!)

When the challenges we face seem particularly tough, we recall Elizabeth Cady Stanton, her sister suffragists, and the obstacles they faced. Few lived to see the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the vote. As Stanton wrote, they were “sowing winter wheat,” not necessarily expecting to see the fruits of their labors.

Allison Stokes

We in the Women’s Interfaith Institute are inspired and encouraged by these pioneering foremothers, even as we feel that in similar, though different ways, we are breaking new ground ourselves.

Allison Stokes is Founding Director of the Women’s Interfaith Institute. The organization was incorporated in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts in 1993, and continues there. This article profiles the programs and founding ten years later of an affiliate, Women’s Interfaith Institute, a sister group in the Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York.

Global Trends Improving On Religious Freedom (DATA)

Religious freedom initiatives are booming in recent global surveys.

Leveling the playing field for social cohesion, these advances propel Interfaith to a global tidal wave now crossing the borders of more than half of the world’s nations. If the following data is promising, it may reach almost three quarters of the world’s nations if trends in religious freedom continue. Unexpected improvements are stacking up fast toward more liberating political movements, and the station of women is appraising with higher worth in more areas as well. 

While the European Union cements its democratic view of religious life and liberty,

  • For even more information, the United States Department of State recently released a comprehensive, year-long 2012 report on International Religious FreedomThe online data can be customized toward research results filtered into specific nations, regions, and categories. Violations aren’t the only tracked data, and there is good news to be discovered in 15  nations improving their effort to advance religious freedom. Political, social, and anecdotal evidence is provided concerning attitudes and unprecedented legal amendments. 

Sports Hijabs Help Muslim Women to Olympic Success

Photography credit to Ali Jarekji/Reuters.  The Guardian.

The Iranian women’s national football team wearing sport hijabs.

by Homa Khaleeli
from The Guardian

Amid the furore over the state of undress of one of the UK’s most successful female cyclists, the increasing aceptance of sportswear that allows Muslim women to compete has garnered little attention.

Earlier this month Fifa finally overturned its ban, brought in in 2007, on women playing football with their heads covered. The decision came too late for the Iranian football team. It had already prevented them from playing in their 2012 Olympic qualifying match last year and disappointed their female fans in the football-mad Islamic Republic, where women are not allowed to watch men’s matches and headscarves are mandatory for women. But the overturning of the ban was cheered by footballers around the world, some of whom, such as Australian Assmaah Helal, wear the hijab through choice.

London 2012 is the first Olympics where women will compete in all 26 sports on offer (although still in 30 fewer events in total), and Fifa is just one of several international bodies to relax clothing rules and so allow more Muslim women to compete in the Games. It’s impossible to know how many women will be competing with their head covered this year, but they include judo player Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim and Saudi Arabian runner Sarah Attar, as well as footballers.

Click here to read full article

July 30th, 2012 at 10:55 am

Averting Your Eyes: The Devastating Consequences of Ignoring Women’s Rights

From State of Formation

I was walking down the crowded, cobblestoned streets of Jerusalem’s Old City when a bearded man with narrow eyes reached out his hand and tried to grab my breast.  I did not know him.  I had not made eye contact.  I was not acting provocatively—in fact, despite a heat wave that added insult to the already injurious desert summer, I was burning up in the long-sleeved shirt and ankle-length skirt that’s customary for the region.  In response, the man with whom I was traveling reached out and struck the stranger’s hand, causing him to trip sideways into the crowd.

Many other women who visit the Holy Land have a story like mine.

Click here to read the entire article.

April 6th, 2011 at 3:28 pm

The Middle East feminist revolution

From Al-Jazeera English

Among the most prevalent Western stereotypes about Muslim countries are those concerning Muslim women: doe-eyed, veiled, and submissive, exotically silent, gauzy inhabitants of imagined harems, closeted behind rigid gender roles. So where were these women in Tunisia and Egypt?

In both countries, women protesters were nothing like the Western stereotype: they were front and centre, in news clips and on Facebook forums, and even in the leadership. In Egypt’s Tahrir Square, women volunteers, some accompanied by children, worked steadily to support the protests – helping with security, communications, and shelter. Many commentators credited the great numbers of women and children with the remarkable overall peacefulness of the protesters in the face of grave provocations.

Click here to read entire article.

Until the Violence Stops: Faith, Sexual Violence, and Peace in the Congo

From The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue

Although many of the world’s religions are thought to debase women, progressive faith traditions and practices empower females as a means of attaining justice and thereby, peace. The brutal violence experienced by the women of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has summoned many religious people to come together in the pursuit of peace and justice. The Religious Institute’s Congo Sabbath Initiative is one such instance of faith traditions allying to advocate for an end to the sexual violence in the DRC. The success of the Congo Sabbath Initiative can be replicated as people of faith continue to forge the path to peace.

For the full article by Kayla Parker and Amanda Winters, in the 5th Issue of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogueplease click here.

Augusta Jane Chapin to Receive Historical Award

Augusta Jane Chapin

Augusta Jane Chapin

Augusta Jane Chapin, an organizer of the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, and the only woman to present a session at the Parliament, will be honored by the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame this year.

Born in New York, Chapin completed her education in Michigan and was the second woman to be ordained as a Universalist minister. She was also the first woman to serve on the Council of the Universalist General Convention, and the first woman ever to receive an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree, presented to her at the Chicago World’s Fair.

Chapin was a champion of women’s rights, forging the way for future generations of women in the United States to seek higher education and advanced degrees.

In addition to organizing the first Parliament in 1893, Chapin also served as Chairwoman of the Woman’s General Committee. She gave comments at the opening and closing presentations of the Parliament, and stated in her opening address, “My memory runs easily back to the time when, in all the modern world, there was not one well equipped college or university open to women students, and when, in all the modern world, no woman had been ordained, or even acknowledged, as a preacher outside the denomination of Friends.”

Chapin will be honored among two other Historical Honorees and 10 Contemporary Honorees on October 19 in East Lansing.


Click here to learn more about the event.

“Breaking Through the Stained Glass Ceiling”

From Statesman.com

Women religious leaders may be gaining more visibility in churches, temples and synagogues, but there are still some areas where women clergy are not welcome. Examples of institutional holdouts to allowing women to become ordained are Roman Catholic churches and Orthodox Jews. There is also continued resistance in most of the Islamic world to allowing women to worship in the same area as men during Friday services, let alone to letting them becoming Imams. I haven’t seen much written about this from the perspective of the women who are largely left out, so it was refreshing to see Maureen Fiedler’s anthology of interviews mostly conducted on her public radio show, “Interfaith Voices.” We talked by phone about her thoughts on womens equality in religious leadership and what the future might bring in this area.

How did you choose the title of this work? Not every house of worship has stained glass, for instance, though I like the use of the metaphor.

Fiedler: The phrase “stained glass ceiling” became fairly common among religious feminists when “glass ceiling” became common for other women.

Before you started your work on Interfaith Voices (a religion news magazine on public radio) what was your experience with women religious leaders?

Fiedler:There are many leaders in religious communities of women, like Mary Luke Tobin, SL. She was a leader, not only in Catholicism, but beyond that, and highly influential in carrying out the reforms of the Second Vatican Council nationwide. Nuns have long been presidents of universities and administrators of hospitals when other women could only dream of such positions. In my work with interfaith coalitions around issues like the Equal Rights Amendment, and Central American issues in the 1980’s, I also met many women leaders for justice, peace and equality.

Was there a particular interview that resonated with you more than the others? I was moved by the perspective of Julia Butterfly Hill and her spirituality, for instance. I found the women who had been ordained as Roman Catholic priests to be particularly interesting, considering the discussion of women’s ordination in the church recently.

Fiedler: I too liked those 2 interviews. But the two interviews that struck me most deeply were those with the two African women: Leymah Gbowee and Immaculee Illibagiza. I actually met Gbowee about three months after the interview when she came to the US and the DC area to receive a “Living Legends” award. She is every bit as powerful as her story! Organizing an interfaith coalition of women in Liberia to overthrow a dictator is no small feat! And Immaculee’s story still strikes me as one of the deepest examples of spirituality I’ve encountered… her willingness to forgive is something like one would read in the annals of saints, I think. I also felt that way about Hill, who claims no religious affiliation per se.

Click here to read the entire article.

August 31st, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Faith-Based Fashion Company Rescues Women

From CNN

Editor’s Note: CNN’s Nicole Cukingnan files this report from Washington, DC about a religiously minded fashion company.

Former model Giselle Meza’s career allowed her to visit exotic locations and world-renowned sights, but it was witnessing the worst violations of human rights that stuck with her throughout the years.

“The more I would go on great assignments around the world and if we’re in Africa for a shoot…we were using that beautiful backdrop for pictures and for making so much money,” she said. “But behind me were these beautiful little children and women that were really just experiencing a lot of need and injustice.”

Out of her desire to help victims of human trafficking, Meza created Puresa Organics, a faith-based company whose goal is to empower women through spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional rehabilitation. The company then gives rescued women new skills and provides employment so that they are able to sustain themselves and start a new life.

Partnering with Project Rescue Nepal, the company started in 2007 with twelve rescued women and has grown to 265 in three years.

Project Rescue is another faith-based organization that aims to provide a safe haven for victims of sex trafficking.

Women and children are brought to the Puresa Organics center in Katmandu, Nepal where they are given medical attention, food, shelter, counseling, and eventually job training. They are taught how to sow and become part of the creative process in the design and production of the eco-friendly organic bags that the company sells to fund their mission.

Meza stresses the importance of spiritual counseling in the rehabilitation process.

“Most of the women in other programs commit suicide because there comes a point where there’s nothing above and beyond you that can continue to give hope. We try to holistically give them a complete restoration program and as well as employment,” she said.

The ministry aspect of Puresa Organics is evident through daily prayers, devotion time, bible studies, and regular church attendance.

“If you can imagine the tremendous healing that has to happen to each individual, that those memories may never go away,” she said. “Providing the spiritual aspect of it to us is so important because those girls and those women will always flashback to that but in providing the hope in God, they know that they have something else to grab onto.”

Click here to read the entire article.

August 24th, 2010 at 6:00 am

Interview with Afeefa Syeed

From the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs,

Background: This discussion between Afeefa Syeed and Katherine Marshall was in preparation for the USIP/Berkley Center/WFDD review of women, religion, and peace. The discussion focuses on Afeefa’s pioneering role within USAID and her rich experience there. She highlights the importance of listening to what communities want and driving programs from that perspective. Across many regions she has seen women as natural peacemakers, from family to community to regional levels, sought out in conflicts because of their skills and approach. She highlights the active roles of youth, many now rediscovering non-violence, and connecting across regions through new technologies both to learn and to build alliances.

Interview Conducted on July 2, 2010

Bio: Afeefa Syeed is Senior Advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development Middle East and AsiaAfeefa Syeed Bureaus, where she designs and implements initiatives and training on emerging programs, including engaging traditional and religious leaders and institutions, radicalization, and madrassah enhancement. She works with Washington based and mission staff to define best practices, highlight success stories, develop tools, and frame country strategies to bring expertise in engaging with the cultural contexts. Afeefa is a cultural anthropologist with a focus on grassroots development, with special interest in youth and women. She has worked for over 15 years with various international and grassroots NGOs and US and international development agencies, public and private. She designed and managed a model school whose core curriculum is peace education and civic engagement. She is a member of various interfaith, social service and political action organizations in the US.

What is your source of inspiration for the work you do? Can you reflect on what motivates you, both in the past along the path and today?

For me, much of what I have been doing through my life, regardless of job or position, comes as part of my identity, and that encompasses faith. My faith is very much embedded in a cross-faith understanding of justice. It is a way of life, the idea that faith itself grounds us in what we must or should do, as humanity. It is not religion itself, but a sense of connectivity that has shaped my experience.

This understanding and faith was shaped by my experience growing up, as a child of immigrant parents, by what my parents taught me and modeled, and what I have learned of my story and ancestral heritage along the way. They all conveyed an idea of spirituality that was an active spirituality. This was very much grounded in the inclusive practice of Sufism, and that in turn was part of the experience of my forefathers had as they migrated across Arabia, Cental Asia and then to Kashmir, where I was born and then imbibed through growing up in the multi fabric-ed American society It was a seamless part of the way I was raised. This spirituality is so multifaceted and grounded in my life experience that it is hard to say what dimension moves or motivates me. But it is integrated in a progression of how I understand, and have understood events and my surroundings at different levels as I have grown older. This spirituality is not just a force in itself but a connection to others, including to people from other faiths, or people of no faiths, as many people have experienced this applicability of spiritual approaches in their lives.

How has this shaped your understanding of what it takes to build peace?

In this context, my understanding of what peace building is about is a completely integral part of spirituality, and it is a spirituality that is a cornerstone of everything, and that moves us to action.

What grounds me in my focus on social justice or peace are above all the stories that I heard from a very young age, many coming from Islamic traditions, and then resonating in my American identity as well. Their message is that when you witness injustice, or something that does not serve humanity, you are called to take action. One story is about the Prophet Muhammad, who said, when you see injustice, you should do something with your hands- take action; if for some reason you can’t do it with your hands, do it with your tongue- speak out against the injustice and share with others. And if you can’t do with your tongue, if you cannot speak, do it within your heart or mind – feel bad about the injustice, do not settle for accepting it even in your heart, and seek guidance in approaching it. Here is where there is some sort of natural connection, a spirituality that is part of consciousness. Connection leads to action, whether it is for justice or peace. That is the least you can do, to be connected in consciousness, and it is an obligation. And this was easily reflected in all the great peacemakers I have studied and met from all corners of the world.

That is the mentality I grew up with, a life consciousness that has helped in shaping where and how I can act and what I should do. It has helped me to understand, as I have matured, that you have to choose your battles and helped determine what makes sense to do in a given situation. When I was much younger, I was much more vocal and out there, present at protests, ready to demonstrate, and prone to frustration. Now I have given much more thought to how to create change, and focus on how to establish the patterns and approaches that will not only bring change but also sustainable change, not just for a single group of people but for the community more broadly. I focus far more on how we change and on what it takes to have a lasting impact. That is also a factor in how I think about peace building: our approach needs to be integrated, very much focused on the long term, and accessible.

Click here to read the full interview