The Female Face of Faith

When extremists bomb houses of worship, who are in those churches and schools? Women and girls.

Social science tells us that women are more religious than men, by almost any benchmark and study. Whether you measure belief in God, belief in a supreme being, attendance at religious services, personal prayer and religious practices, teaching religious values to children, raising a family within a faith tradition—by any of these benchmarks, women consistently, across time and cultures, rank as more religious than men. These results are so consistent and accepted that academic debates now tend to focus no longer on whether they are more religious but on why this is the case.


Because women are more religious than men, religious repression, persecution and violence affect women most. When churches are bombed, who are hurt and killed? Women. When people are forced to flee religious persecution as refugees and internally displaced persons, who are those refugees and I.D.P.’s? Predominantly women and their children.

When religious organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Internationalis find their work curtailed or banned because of their religious affiliation, who are hurt most? The women who make up most of the bottom billion of the world’s impoverished, who rely on the activities of those religious organizations. Seventy percent of these billion are women and girls. Seventy percent of the youth not in school are women and girls. Girls are three times more likely to be malnourished. When faith-based organizations are curtailed in their service work, women and girls are harmed. Women are the primary victims of violations of religious freedom.

Women are also on the front lines of those responding to violations of religious freedom. Women lead nongovernmental organizations, women like Carolyn Woo, the president of Catholic Relief Services and a former refugee herself. Women refugees advocate for other refugees; women teachers and health care workers report violations and work with victims; women lawyers take up the cases in international venues.

But the female face of faith is often not seen. When victims of religious persecution or violence are counted, they are counted as Christians or Muslims, civilians versus security forces. Women are not counted because, in too many parts of the world, women simply do not count as fully human.

Oct. 27 is International Religious Freedom Day. A recent conference sponsored by the Institute of Policy Research at Catholic University, and recent reports, document a rising trend of religious repression. Seventy-five percent of the world’s population live in countries with high restrictions on religion. Yet none of the otherwise excellent annual reports on religious freedom mention the female face of faith.

This is problematic. We cannot effectively protect religious freedom unless we understand who are the most vulnerable groups. Groups concerned with religious liberty and groups focused on women’s issues typically do not work together. Domestically, their common cause is lost in the debates over how to implement the Affordable Care Act.

But the larger context is lost. Internationally, the war on religious freedom and the war on women are the same war. When religious freedom is violated, women suffer, because women are more religious.

To protect religious freedom internationally, we must see the female face of faith and work accordingly to build unlikely alliances across religious, political, gender and bureaucratic divides.

The Catholic moral and religious imagination help us. Jesus is our model, reaching out to build bridges among unlikely allies, prostitutes, tax collectors, gentiles and foreigners. In our sacraments of Communion and reconciliation, our beliefs in a relational, triune, resurrected God and our institutional structures that seek to make real these relationships of local and global church, the body of Christ, in Catholic social teaching about protection of human life and dignity and preference for the poor, we regularly exercise moral muscles for the common good, a moral imagination the world needs to protect religious freedom and save lives and human dignity.

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6 years ago
This conversation is at best a begiinning of a long-overdue dialogue; at worst, it is a denial of "the elephant in the livingroom"...  Until religious leadership across the globe recognize the dignity of women and admit that we are equal to men before God, there will be no change in how we are regarded in any society.

The current Catholic teachings on the role of women in church and society uphold centuries of oppressing women.  Indeed, the "narrow" religious imagination of Catholic teaching needs to be blown out of the water and seen for what it is:  denying the truth that women are made in the image and likeness of God and can image Jesus.  There is no "male or female" in the religious imagination of a true Christian.  If Catholics can't get their heads around this truth, much of what they try to accomplish collectively will be difficult to consider seriously.
6 years ago

Clearly more women than men live the life of Faith, obvious in our churches not just these days but all the way back to Calvary’s “church” where women beneath the Cross outnumbered men  three days later, at the Tomb too. Although teaching that God is Father and saying “I and  the Father are One,” Jesus  didn’t flinch at identifying himself to women, to maternity, even to animal maternity, saying sadly, how often he tries to reach out to people – “like a Mother Hen” gathering her chicks under her wings,” not always successfully. There is something about the fidelity of a mother hen protectively caring for her chicks,  that appeals  to Jesus even now. The face of female   fidelity to Faith  delights him!

Saying a little more, Shekina, the  Holy Spirit of God femininely expressed in Hebrew, seems to have a special  love for woman – reciprocally  see what woman did for him in the person of the Son, without whose help Jesus’ salvific and redemptive mission could not happen, Shekina’s  spoken Word, Jesus, activated the umbilical connection of blood and nutrients between God and Man and “the Word became flesh.”  Nutrients and blood as in bread and wine, begin their transubstantiated  flow, the substance of the woman becoming the substance of the Man Jesus, a beautiful although inaccurate Eucharistic association.

 There, is the female face of Faith, a fidelity that allowed the Woman to say that her soul makes God look good – big, “My soul magnifies the Lord!”  That’s what feminine fidelity to Faith does for  God, it magnifies him, the womanhood of Mary is the “magnifier”  in which all woman somehow share. And  through Mary men too, in Jesus.  The female face of Faith is delightful, and through it the Church is well graced! When speaking of mystery, I fear one babbles like an infant uttering first words!

Lisa Weber
6 years ago
How is it then, that religions are so often repressive toward women?  And that religion is used as a justification for repression?  Something about it doesn't add up.


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