Under an Ecclesiastical Burqa
by Kirsten Øster-Lundqvist | 13 September 2021 |
Seeing the news coming out of Afghanistan is heart-breaking. Whatever your political leanings, there is no denying that this is a devastating event for everyone in Afghanistan—especially the women. “They will come and kill me,” Afghanistan’s first female mayor told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Zarifa Ghafari, 29, is no stranger to assassination attempts. There have been three, foiled by her security. At the age of 26 she became one of Afghanistan’s first female mayors in the conservative town of Maidan Shar, south-west of Kabul. She was prevented from taking office for nine months because of protests and threats by local politicians about her age and gender. (By Susan Chenery August 17, 2021)
As the women of Afghanistan put on the burqa to survive, their hope is disappearing.
A friend of mine went briefly to Afghanistan in 2005 for humanitarian work. At my request she brought me back a burqa—a strange request, perhaps, but I wanted to see what it was like to wear one. I put the burqa on in my home. It was difficult to move around. My peripheral vision was blocked. My eyes tried to make sense of a world on the other side of the mesh, but I was separated from everyone and everything in my own little blue world. Had I worn it in Afghanistan, I would have been invisible in a sea of blue.
From a western perspective, it was terrifying to know that this is the restraint under which many women live. Hope shrinks as your world gets smaller, and hope diminishes as you are wrapped up within the limitation that a burqa imposes.
War on women
I cannot even begin to imagine fearing for my life because I am a woman doing a job. Yet have we not seen an increasing war on women across society?
This has only increased in the digital world. The hatred and misogyny that is spewed can only be described as ungodly. Too often we see this hatred dressed up as theology, whether Islamic or Christian. Religion gets hijacked into the service of nationalism, and blended with pseudo-theology, resulting in women, and especially women of colour, being treated much less than equal.
As Seventh-day Adventists, we should know better than to fall into the discrimination trap. According to the 14th of our Fundamental Beliefs,
In Christ we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ, who by one Spirit has bonded us into one fellowship with Him and with one another; we are to serve and be served without partiality or reservation.
Though in the main we treat our Fundamental Beliefs as a doctrinal creed, somehow certain parts—those in italics—are not followed in church policy. Women are asked to wait their turn—this despite the fact that throughout our Adventist history women and men worked alongside one another, with women at the forefront of our movement, well before other denominations included women in their pulpit.
But this is not the history that is articulated when there is a call to “get back to our roots.” Back in our roots there was a very important woman, which is conveniently forgotten when the ordination question comes up.
“We have this hope that burns without our hearts,” we sing at our gatherings.
But I’m wondering: where is hope for women in our church? Women in some regions of the world must remain under a metaphorical burqa, must remain invisible so that we don’t offend the men in charge. We tread carefully, after all, around male pride.
This is uncomfortable to even write. As a female clergyperson, I am expected to be soft and quiet. Our mere presence offends some. We women have been told that we shouldn’t fight for women’s rights: in comparison with growing the kingdom of God, it isn’t important.
In the late 1980s, while I was in college, there was a sense of hope that the church would move forward to be fully gender-inclusive in ministry. For those of us from more egalitarian regions (I’m from Scandinavia), it came as a surprise when those women called to ministry were told to wait patiently. The good brethren, who understood our Fundamental Belief 14 to include equality of women in ministry, wanted us to be longsuffering and wait for the world church to accept us. “Equality will come—just not yet,” the brethren told us.
Still, our hearts were hopeful. “You must wait on the rest of the world,” they said, and so we were silenced into believing that our sacrificial serving would speak louder than our words. We were holding on to hope that one day we wouldn’t have to defend our calling, or our qualifications. One day we would be fully recognized bearers of the Good News, just like the women to whom Jesus revealed his Messianic identity.
But it hasn’t changed much since my college days. The anti-women lobby has campaigned harder and spent more money on pseudo-theology, and today our church is still telling women to stand back and wait.
It is when we most believe we are right that we do our most sinning.
Is it too strong to say that we Adventist women are doing ministry under an institutional burqa? The hope our foremothers had, that if called by God to leadership the church would recognise us, is diminished. Under the seduction of orthodoxy within the Adventist church, this stubborn clinging to old traditions, the church can’t find its way back to the days when men and women both worked together—when men and women, created together in the image of God, would together preach the gospel story.
Women’s leadership works
We know communities flourish when women are involved and included in leadership through all the levels of society. In the world of economics, the Womenomics concept centers around the idea that women’s equal participation will improve the economy as a whole.
It is not farfetched to say that communities with women leaders do well: it has often been noted that the countries that handled the pandemic best, that had the lowest mortality per capita, had as their common denominator that they were led by women. Today’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs) recognise that by investing in women globally, they invest in the entire community.
Another thing this pandemic has shown is that our church is stronger on the ground than in the organisational skyscraper. In the pews on a Sabbath morning, the majority is women—the same women tend to keep the church ticking over.
Would our church not also flourish if we invested in women? What would we be today if our church had been on the forefront in modelling the inclusivity of women in leadership, ministry, and all levels of church structure? It not only makes sense economically; it is also biblical.
How can we continue to exclude women if we hope to flourish? Investing in women makes sense. Jesus did it. Jesus constantly uplifted and elevated women in a patriarchal society. Let us not forget that although patriarchy is a backdrop to the Bible, it is not the point of the Bible.
Please don’t be lured by those who gaslight the notion of equality for women in our church by claiming cultural differences. With women as national presidents in many countries around the world—except in North America—it is not culture that is hindering the church, but rather a misrepresentation of God’s desire for us as his created beings. Male and female he created us, and only together we can complete the mission we have been given.
Hope for a flourishing future for our beloved church seems to be stuck in a bleak midwinter. Will we ever be a burqa-free church, where the Spirit of God can flow through women without being muffled by lack of recognition?
If hope is restored in us individually and collectively, if our church is to have relevance in this millennium, then it needs to advocate for justice in an unjust world, standing for and with those whose voices are muffled. Then hope will not be confined beneath the burqa of inherited rituals, but soar freely as God intended. Then we may experience the joy and freedom salvation brings.
In March of last year, Mayor Zarifa Ghafari received the United States State Department’s International Woman of Courage Award. Today, she feels abandoned by those who once praised her. Afghanistan will likely revert back 20 years. There will be a new ramping up of the war on women and girls. The absence of hope is heard in the voices coming from women there.
And from women here. Must we abandon hope to appease manmade religious notions?
I still sing “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” My hope in Jesus has not diminished. I pray that one day I will again sing “We have this hope” with fellow Adventists and feel hope for my beloved church. That we will see again the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel:
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days. Joel 2:28 (emphasis added)
Kirsten Øster-Lundqvist is originally from Scandinavia. She now pastors in Adventists North New Zealand